Renowned for its smoothness, the dark fruits that are so pronounced in merlot - such as raspberry, plum and black cherry - are served up minus the bite. So often underrated, merlot is finally gaining recognition for the unique experience it offers the palate.

If one was to compile a list of underrated wine varietals, merlot has every right to sit at the very top. So often the bridesmaid, merlot garners deserved attention for its contribution to a range of blends, but receives far less praise as a 100% varietal. Why? Some have argued that the smoothness of the grape has allowed inferior vintages – the standard of which simply wouldn’t be bottled for other grapes – to be palatable, leading to inferior merlots flooding the market. In truth, a quality merlot can match a quality shiraz or cabernet sauvignon any day of the week.

A memoir of Merlot

Born of Cabernet Franc and the little-known variety Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, the first recorded use of the term ‘Merlot’ was in 1784. The name is thought to be the diminutive of merle – French for blackbird. The birds, it was said, chose to feast on merlot over any other grape variety. France devotes more acreage to merlot than all other countries combined, but Italy, the US, Australia, Chile and Argentina all produce healthy amounts of the grape. The home of merlot is Bordeaux, the famed wine growing region in the southwest of France, where it is used in some of the world’s most recognised – and expensive – blends. Such is the region’s influence over merlot that “Bordeaux style” is the name given to merlots produced in traditional climates and in a traditional way, which are markedly different to the “international style” merlots largely produced by new world vintners.

Hot or cold

Perhaps more than almost any other grape, the qualities and characteristics of merlot are influenced by the environment in which it is planted. This has played a large part in the characterisation of the two distinct styles mentioned above – ‘Bordeaux’ and ‘international’. Bordeaux-style merlots feature grapes cultivated in cooler climates like Bordeaux, but also in Italy, New Zealand and Chile. These grapes are generally harvested earlier, producing a medium-bodied wine that is less alcoholic but that features more acidity. International-style merlots on the other hand are left on the vine to gain ripeness which results in deep purple, full-bodied wine with higher alcohol content. This style is more common in new-world markets and lends itself to the warmer climates of Australia, the US and Argentina.

''Perhaps more than almost any other grape, the qualities and characteristics of merlot are influenced by the environment in which it is planted.'' 

More than just smoothness 

Merlot is known for its smoothness, with easy tannins and a soft finish making it the ideal red for beginners. But that’s not to say that red wine connoisseurs can’t enjoy the variety – in fact, the breadth of tasting experience that quality merlot can offer an oenophile is almost unmatched in the wine world. The dark fruits that are so pronounced in merlot - such as raspberry, plum and black cherry – are served up minus the bite, finishing with tobacco or graphite undertones rather than the acidic tang that your tastebuds might expect. There’ll be hints of coffee on offer, particularly mocha, and some clove and vanilla spice will presents itself at the top of the mouth. When comparing Bordeaux and International-style merlots you’ll notice the presence of earthier tones and more pronounced tannins in the Bordeaux, while the International will be more fruit and spice-forward and feature softer tannins. Pairing merlot with food is a carnivore’s dream, as the variety goes excellently with beef, poultry, and everything in between. If you’re looking to snack it’s wise to try a strong cheese – cheddar, camembert and stilton work wonders. Avoid seafood, leafy greens and heavily spiced curries. 

Merlots from the masters 

In order to fully appreciate the potential of merlot it’s best to avoid the low end bottles and invest in quality. Some quality international merlots include Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, La Mondotte, or the Californian offerings of Amuse Bouche and Duckhorn Vineyards. Australian wineries offer up terrific examples of International style merlots, with the likes of Glenlofty Estate, Bird in Hand and Moss Wood producing wonderful drops.

Merlot titbits

  • What’s the most planted grape in France? Syrah? Cabernet sauvignon? Think again – thanks largely to its presence in blends, there are more merlot vines in France than any other.

  • For those with more than a little spare change, the world’s most famous merlot producer, Chateau Petrus, offers bottles that can sell for upwards of $2000.

  • The rise in popularity that merlot enjoyed in the US in the late 80s was in part put down to the French Paradox, and the fact that it was the easiest of all the French grape varieties to pronounce.

  • The US is the major drinker of Australian merlot, accounting for 44% of our export volume.

  • The area devoted to merlot in Australia has steadily fallen since 2009, with acreage currently at its lowest levels since 2001.

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