Merlot is the most popular and widely planted wine grape varietal in France, reaching its true zenith of expression in Bordeaux wine. Around the world, it’s the fifth most planted wine grape. Merlot has also been used to make stunning wines in Tuscany and to a much lesser degree in Switzerland, Australia, Argentina and numerous other countries, as well as in America.
According to studies conducted by the University of California in Davis, the Merlot grape is related to Cabernet Franc and Carmenere. It is now thought that Merlot is a cross between Cabernet Franc and the obscure grape Magdeleine Noire des Charentes.
Merlot started earning a reputation for producing quality wine in 1784, due to the growing fame of the wines produced in the Right Bank of Bordeaux. While the Right Bank of Bordeaux discovered Merlot in 1784, it took several decades until the grape started to become widely accepted in the Medoc, even though it is only used as a blending variety in that region.
The grape earned its moniker from its eye catching, dark, blue color. Merle in French is translated into a blackbird, which could be taken to reference either the color or the birds fondness for the sweet flavored, thin skinned grape.
Merlot thrives best in the clay and limestone soils of Pomerol, St. Emilion and Lalande de Pomerol. While most Bordeaux wines are blends, there are a few estates in Pomerol that produce a 100% Merlot wine, most notably Petrus. Some estates in St. Emilion are make wines using only Merlot, for example, Peby Faugeres and La Gomerie . However, most Bordeaux remain a blend of two or more varietals. While Cabernet Sauvignon produces stunning and structured, classic Bordeaux wine, Merlot is capable of making the world’s most hedonistic, opulent and decadent tasting experiences. Those are all found in the best wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion. Bordeaux produces a lot of wine in a myriad of price ranges. But the most expensive wines of Bordeaux are the Merlot based wines of Pomerol. Petrus, Le Pin and Lafleur all sell for over $1,000 per bottle. In St. Emilion, Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone are not far behind. All those wines routinely fetch higher prices than even the First Growths!
Merlot is the dominant grape in the Right Bank. Its unique ability to tame the strong tannins and structure found in the Cabernet Sauvignon that’s grown in the Left Bank of Bordeaux, as well as in Pessac Leognan, make it the ideal blending grape. In the Medoc, Chateau Pichon Lalande and Chateau Palmer have large percentages of Merlot planted in their vineyards. However, the two vineyards in the Medoc with the highest concentration of Merlot planted in their vines remains Chateau Pibran in Pauillac with close to 55% and Chateau Coufran with a whopping 85% Merlot in their Haut-Medoc vineyards!
Merlot, due to its higher sugar levels and perforce, increased percentage of alcohol is sweeter than Cabernet Sauvignon. It also ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. Due to the fact that the Merlot harvest can take place two weeks before Cabernet Sauvignon is picked, wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion can be more successful than their counterparts in the Left Bank in rain plagued vintages. Merlot, due to its success on ripening in the cooler Bordeaux terroirs, it is also the key grape variety in the less famous, but still high quality vineyards such as those located in the Cotes de Bordeaux appellations or various Satellite communes. In fact, most of the inexpensive, generic Bordeaux wines are usually dominated by Merlot as well.
When ripe, Merlot reaches higher alcohol levels as well as lower levels of acidity than Cabernet Sauvignon. Because most Bordeaux wines are blends, this is usually not a problem. With global warming and a continuing succession of warm vintages, some Merlot grown in the Right Bank of Bordeaux are being replaced with Cabernet Franc as well as Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is more successful in California as a blending grape. While there are a few great Merlot wines from California, for example, Pahlmeyer, it’s a difficult grape for California soils and seems to work better for blends in the Golden State. Further north, Merlot is also quite successful in the cooler climates of Washington state.
In character, Merlot offers flavors of chocolate, plums, licorice, black cherries, blueberries, black raspberries and blackberries as well as jam, which depends on the levels of ripeness the fruit was allowed to achieve. It is round, fleshy and can be opulent in texture.