Types of Wine: Merlot

Master Vintner® Varietal Spotlight: Merlot

This is the third in our series of blog posts taking a look at the type of grapes we use in Master Vintner® wine kits. Grape types are known as 'varietals' and each one has its own unique character and response to the sunlight and soil of the region they're grown in. I'll be talking about all of the grapes we use in our Master Vintner kits in turn, to help you understand the flavors, aromas and history of each.

Merlot is the second most popular red grape in America, after Cabernet Sauvignon. It's ripe fruit and soft finish make it easy-drinking enough to have on its own, and bold enough to pair easily with food. Most wine educators and sommeliers suggest Merlot as a first red for people who 'don't drink red wine': it's so easy to like that it makes friends and converts right away.
One thing that really drove Merlot's popularity was a news report by the program 60 Minutes, The French Paradox. Reporter Morley Safer pointed out that French people ate more fat, smoked more, and exercised less than Americans, but suffered vastly lower rates of heart disease. Safer suggested a correlation between red wine consumption and lower levels of cholesterol. Red wine sales in America spiked overnight, with people calling wine stores, demanding 'that wine on TV that keeps you from dying'. Wine shops suggested Merlot and the rest was history.

That popularity took a real hit in 2004 when the movie Sideways was released. The hapless Pinot Noir enthusiast Miles won't drink Merlot because it was his ex-wife's favorite, but covers this reason with a blustering curse about how he'd leave if anyone ordered Merlot. 'The Sideways Effect' saw Pinot Noir sales shoot up nearly 200% in the USA in 2005 (at a time when grape production only went up 7%) and Merlot sales tank in the same period.

(The best part of the joke? At the end of the movie Miles drinks a special bottle of wine, a Chateau Cheval Blanc from a Styrofoam cup, in a fast-food joint, and moans with pleasure at how amazing it is.
Cheval blanc is mostly Merlot.)
Merlot in History

For all its fame and popularity, Merlot is a relatively recent grape--it was first identified by name in 1784 in Bordeaux. Its name comes from a local black bird (mérle, from the Occitan language) that enjoyed eating the early-ripening grapes. It quickly began to be planted across Bordeaux because it's early ripening/high sugar/low acid profile complimented the traditional but much later-ripening and sterner Cabernet Sauvignon. In a blend it added softness and fruit to Bordeaux blends, making them much more drinkable.
Research done at the University of California at Davis showed that Merlot is partly the offspring of Cabernet Franc, but it wasn't until recently that they found the other parent, a nearly abandoned variety (it was being used as decorative vines for landscaping!) known as Madeleina. That variety gives Merlot its penchant for early ripening.
Merlot tolerates damp, cool, dense, clay soils but can also thrive in well-drained gravel. It can be highly prolific and buds early, leaving it vulnerable to both spring frost and coulure (failure of the flowers to develop into berries). Grape bunches are loose, with large, blue-violet berries high in colour and sugar, and low tannins. Merlot is relatively thin-skinned, which can lead to rot in humid conditions.
Bordeaux, the USA, and the New World
In Bordeaux, Merlot has traditionally been blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, playing the role of rounding Cabernet's tannic austerity. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the blends of the Médoc and Graves, where the soils are warm and gravelly, while Merlot prevails in Pomerol and St.-Emilion, where clay and limestone are the dominant soil types.
When Merlot came to the US in the mid-19th century American winemakers used it unblended, and their customers found the soft, approachable fruitiness irresistible. Merlot was planted in California, New York and Washington. It's an important varietal in each of those states, but especially Washington, where it made the region's reputation for red wines.
Elsewhere Merlot usually is usually a single varietal wine. When over-cropped it can make pale, thin wines with a vegetal finished. Treated with care it can yield wines ranging from plump and succulent to be drunk young to opulent, dense blockbusters wine to be aged.
With soft, velvety tannins and rich fruit notes including blackberry, black and red cherry, blueberry, cassis, plum and currants, notes of spice, earth, tobacco, caramel and chocolate, its velvety tannins make even wines designed for aging approachable when young. Merlot takes well to oaking, transforming aggressive woody notes into smoke, vanilla and toast. Heavy oaking will require extended ageing, but even just a touch really fills the corners of a Merlot's flavor profile.

Merlot is a great food wine, with lighter ones pairing with salmon, shellfish or vegetarian dishes--like a Pinot Noir would--and heavier versions going well with rich protein-based foods like steak, lamb, or ragu. Merlot is tougher than other reds to pair with cheese: the soft tannins mean it gets easily overwhelmed by a fatty or very flavorful cheese.
Master Vintner® Merlot
Master Vintner® Sommelier Select™ Old Vine Merlot: Old vines produce intense, concentrated grapes. This Merlot goes past plum, raspberry, and strawberry fruit, to dense blackcurrant, pepper and spice.The full body and lush, integrated tannins enfold deep oak notes of smoke and toast. The full, elegant finish goes on long after the last sip is gone.
Master Vintner® Winemakers Reserve Merlot: Deep, juicy aromas present bright, fresh fruit. Flavorful notes of strawberries and raspberries intermingle with hints of ripe currants for full-bodied yet easy-drinking red wine. Pairs well with red meat, cheese and game dishes.
Master Vintner® Weekday Wine™ Merlot: Like a well-loved sweater, this merlot is deliciously soft…a fruity, cherry and blackberry-scented hug that’s incredibly drinkable and makes even a burger feel like a feast. Break this one out with steak, dark chocolate and even for your friends who never choose red wine. And watch it work its deep berry magic!
Master Vintner® Tropical Bliss™ Raspberry Merlot: Aromas of fresh raspberries merge with the red fruit, berry and cherry from the Merlot grape. Rich and medium bodied, it explodes with luscious raspberry flavor and is perfectly balanced between ripe raspberry tartness and a luscious, off-dry finish. Robust enough for barbecue or red meat, it's drinkable on it's own--or with friends!