All You Must Know About Merlot

Merlot is a smooth red wine from France. It is characterized by its graceful finish and soft tannins. This article provides a complete profile of Merlot wine. Read about the history, parentage, and viticulture of Merlot, and, foods that pair well.

Named after the French word for blackbird, Merlot grapes possess a deep blue hue on the vine, similar to the sheen of a blackbirds wings. Merlot is one of the few grapes that is widely used for blending with such others as Cabernet and Bordeaux, while still maintaining its varietal independence on the shelf.

Merlot grapes ripen early, as compared to other grapes used in blends. This gives the wine a distinctly smooth, soft finish, as compared to cabernets strong, dry, tannic finish. For this reason, the two blend well together. Along with Cabernet, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, Merlot is holding ranks with the few grapes which can be blended with Bordeaux grapes. In fact, in the French region of Bordeaux, there is no other grape more widely planted, than that of Merlot.

Merlot Wine

The Dark Hue of Merlot Wine

New Merlot vs. Classic Merlot

Originally, Merlot wine was harvested early in the grapes ripening process. This was done as to maintain the grapes moderate acidity, as, the young grapes are uniquely poised for a medium body, medium alcohol wine. Classic Merlot has notes of raspberry, strawberry, and some earthy tones, like leafy greens. More than anything, this practice was put in place by Bordeaux vintners in order to produce a suitable wine for blending.

The new style of Merlot, which is widely practiced all over the world, calls for the grapes to be harvested much later in the season. This allows the grapes to develop thick skins. These Merlots are full-bodied, tannic, rich, and pinky-purple. New Merlot wines are also blended with some Bordeaux. Ripe Merlot produces wine with high alcohol and notes of plum and blackberry.

Merlot Wine Growing Climate: Warm vs. Cold

The taste of Merlot varies by climate. Merlots durable and drought-resistant nature lends it to thrive in a wide range of temperatures and soils. The grape grows in, both, warm and cool climates, and each gives Merlot distinct, unique qualities. Overall, Merlot exhibits a deep, dark flavor in warm climates and bright, fruity flavors in cool climates.

Cool Climates

Full-bodied Merlots, with deep, rich flavors and dark color, are grown in cooler climates. Cool climate Merlot is high in tannins, which gives the wine its dry finish, and notes of Tobacco and Tar. The Merlot grown in cool climates, like the Bordeaux region in France, can easily be misidentified as a more commonly dry, rich, red wine. French, Italian, and Chilean Merlot tend to resemble Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Malbec.

Warm Climate Merlot

Merlot, grown in regions with a warmer climate, reflect the grapes brighter, fruitier notes. When the grapes are cultivated in the warm climates of California’s Napa Valley, they exhibit a lesser tannins content and are lighter in color than that of their warm climate counterparts. In Australia, Argentina, and California vintners commonly age Merlot in oak barrels for two years or less. The oak aging process provides more body to the wine.

Parentage of Merlot Grapes

Every wine grape variety has two parent grapes: the mother and the father. The parentage of Merlot was mostly unknown until very recently, within the past two decades.

Merlot is a relatively new variety in the world of wine. The earliest mentionings of Merlot are dated back to the late 19th century. Seeing as winemaking is a craft of over 6,000 years, Merlots arrival is considered to be quite recent. So, where does Merlot come from?

A researcher from The University of California, Davis, found conclusive data that proved one of Merlots parent grapes to be Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc is also parent to Malbec and Sauvignon, which explains why Merlot can be grown to a deeply rich, full-bodied wine in cooler climates.

The second parent of Merlot wine remained a mystery, until, by chance, DNA testing of an unnamed grape variety proved to hold the genealogical answer. Merlot wines retain a unique and distinctive quality that differs from the characteristics of Cabernet Franc. These subtle qualities are descended from an ancient vine, grown in the secluded commune of Saint-Suliac in the Northwest French region of Brittany.

The vine was discovered to be grown outside homes as a decorative element. Locals named the vine Madeleine because the grapes become ripe and are harvested a few days around the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene. This parent is responsible for Merlot’s distinctive early ripening attribute.

Merlot Viticulture

Merlot vines are distinct for large, loose groupings of plump grapes. In comparison to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot grapes produce much thinner skin, which leads to less tannin count in the winemaking process. Merlot has, traditionally, been a well-suited blend for Cabernet because the grapes ripen around two weeks earlier in the harvesting season.

Merlot produces more sugars than Cabernets, which leads to a mitigated malic acid content. Since Merlot thrives in cool climates with cold soil, the early buds run a risk of frost damage. The grapes thin skin makes it easily susceptible to rot damage. Also, rot occurs easily if the vine is planted in water-retentive soil.

Once the grapes have become ripe, they must be harvested within one to two days. Merlots quickly become over-ripened if left on the vine for even just a few days. The more over-ripe the Merlot grapes, the less of an aging process the wine can go through. Grapes that are picked early in the ripening season produce Merlots that age long and well.

Merlot Food Pairings

The best food pairings for Merlot depends on what type of Merlot you are drinking. Is it a cold climate Merlot from Chile, Italy, or France? Drink it with charred meats, grilled vegetables, sharp cheese, and other strongly seasoned dishes. These Merlots pair with anything that a Cabernet would pair well with.

Is it a warm climate Merlot from Argentina, Australia, or California? These lighter Merlots pair well with mushrooms, salmon, leafy greens, and shellfish. Fruitier Merlots, from warm growing climates, can easily be overpowered by spicy foods, and strong cheeses, such as goats and blue cheese.

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