Merlot is the second most widely grown wine grape in the world. In France, it’s number one. The height of its expression is found in the legendary Bordeaux. It is also grown successfully in Tuscany and in smaller numbers in Australia, Switzerland, Argentina, and other countries, including the United States. 62 percent of all the vineyards in Bordeaux grow Merlot grapes. The fruit is round and fleshy and very pleasing to the eye.
Even today, the popularity of the Merlot grape is on the rise. In 1990, for example, Merlot ranked seventh in most popular wine grapes. By 2010, it had become the runner-up to the number one ranked Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot grapes have gained so much popularity, that November 7th is set aside as International Merlot Day.
Characteristics of Merlot Grapes
The Merlot grape is a relative of Cabernet Franc and Carménère. Certain studies looking at its DNA suggest that its parentage could also include Magdeleine Noire des Charentes genetics. It started earning the reputation as a quality wine grape in 1784, owing to the growing popularity of wines being produced in Bordeaux’s Right Bank.
Merlot grapes earned their name for their distinct dark blue colour. Merle is the French word for blackbird, and the name is said to either be a reference to the resemblance in the grape’s colour to a blackbird or the fondness of the birds for the sweet, delicious fruit.
Merlot wines are a popular choice for either lunch or dinner. Their naturally rich flavours and soft textures pair well with a variety of foods. Merlot pairs well with red meat, pork, fish, poultry, and a variety of vegetables. It is also an ideal pairing for a variety of cheeses, particularly ones with a dense, earthy quality. Some people even laud the pairing of Merlot with chocolate but admit that it is an acquired taste.
Merlot thrives in the limestone and clay soils of Pomerol, Lalande de Pomerol, and St. Émilion. These soils yield a singularly unique expression of the grapes. They can, however, be successfully grown in other places, as mentioned above, but the flavour varies based on where they are grown, their terroir. As with any grape, the type and quality of the soil are major determining factors in that regard.
Merlot grapes most often have a high sugar content and produce high levels of alcohol. Most Merlots also have low acidity when compared to other varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon. This generally makes the wine sweeter and sometimes a bit lighter and smoother on the palate than a Cabernet. Merlot grapes ripen an average of two weeks ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon when grown in certain climates, including St. Émilion and Pomerol. The grapes perform better than those grown in the Left Bank, where rainy weather is more prevalent.
A good Merlot grape can evoke a number of flavours on the palate. Plums, black cherries, black raspberries, blueberries, and even black licorice and chocolate have all been identified in various Merlot wines. Many of these flavours are determined by the length of time the grapes are allowed to ripen on the vine. The fruit must be picked while the grapes are firm, otherwise the quality of the wine will decrease drastically.
Bordeaux and Merlots
Most Bordeaux wines are blends, but there are certain estates in Pomerol that produce wines that are 100 percent Merlot. Many wine connoisseurs laud the simplicity of a wine made with just Merlot grapes but also note the variety of advantages to blending them with other varietals. Many varieties, when blended, bring out an extra dimension in the flavour and the bouquet of Merlot grapes.