Merlot. The underestimated wine grape. The grape which stands alone. While most of us shun wines of Merlot, many of us fail to recognize that it is often the grape blended with some of our favorite red wines. Found in most Cabernet Sauvignon blends along with Cabernet Franc, it is the wine of this fruit which has the ability to soften such blends, even out tannin structure and add another layer of earthiness, fruit, structure and perfume. A 100% Merlot wine in itself however, should not be pushed aside. People are looking for wines which have been forgotten, wines perhaps they have not given a second look to in the past and Merlot is one of such wines.
The grape is one of the five Bordeaux grapes. For educational purposes, the other four are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. In the region of Bordeaux, Merlot is not only used as a blending grape, but is the predominant grape used in making many well-recognized blends. Here are some labels you might recognize:
- Le Pin
These are producers who happen to make some of the most expensive Merlot wines in the world. They do not shun Merlot, they celebrate it.
Merlot is grown in many parts of the world from the Northern to Southern hemisphere in many winemaking countries of the world: United States, France, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and many others. While it may be one grape, there are at least a couple styles of Merlot within the two main categories.
In the New World, meaning many of the countries who make wine outside of Europe, Merlot wine tends to have a more youthful appeal. The wines are often very intense, close to opaque and jammy hues. The palate of Merlot from parts of the New World can often be consumed when the wine is young and they are known for fruity aromatics and fruity flavors with very soft tannin structure. This style of wine is often because the grapes are harvested much later than in the Old World. With longer hang time, grapes produce more sugar and with the proper cooler evenings, this allows for the fruit to showcase more full and mature fruit nuances as plum, blackberries and strawberries. Most of these wines are full-bodied, however some lighter styles can be found from cooler regions, such as those from New Zealand and some regions in Chile or Patagonia Argentina.
Merlot wine from the Old World, those winemaking countries from Europe-France, Spain, Italy, etc-craft their wine in a different manner. Not only is their climate different, but so are the ways in which they make wine. They often follow very old and traditional means in the way they craft wines and they tend to be more of ‘rustic’ styles. In Europe, especially in France, many of their wines, including Merlot, are focused on their terroir. The concept of terroir not only includes sometimes a unique composition of soil, but also the climate, the manner in which the vineyards are managed and the way in which these elements are translated into the finished product. The fruit in these parts of the world is also harvested in a different manner. Whereas in the New World much of their grapes are left on the vine until the maximum amount of sugar can be matured in the fruit, many winemakers in the Old World take a different approach in how they perceive their fruit as ‘mature’.
In the case of France and other countries of Europe, it is the balance of acidity versus sugar which is most important. As sugar increases, acidity decreases and it is important for them to have a balance of both. This allows the fruit the ability to present nuances from the soil and their environment. It could be said that Old World style Merlot is more savory than their counterparts. Unlike many Merlot wines from the New World, Old World wines often need some aging before they are palatable or able to be consumed in enjoyment and to their utmost potential. Tannins in these wines can be quite harsh, which aging can soften , though sometimes decanting the wine a couple hours before service of a younger wine may help.
Regardless of your tastes, Merlot wine is one worth savoring and a second look. Often all it takes is a little planning, some education of one’s palate via a wine glass and a good meal.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christie Kiley, International Sommelier and Chef, has over a decade of experience in both restaurants and wineries. She began working kitchens under talented chefs. Nights off from the kitchen, she would work at the same restaurant as a server. Her passion for food grew into the wine industry. She has worked wine harvests in Napa, learning the nature of the product from soil to bottling. Working the back- and front-of-the-house in restaurants and wineries in sales, and as a food and wine educator, has given Christie an in-depth knowledge in both food and wine throughout many aspects. She currently lives in Buenos Aires, where she has just received her International Sommelier Certificate from the Escuela de Argentina Sommeliers (EAS) after two years of study. She works as a wine and food writer and Sommelier at a boutique hotel in Palermo where you can catch her most nights of the week entertaining guests with her unique wine tastings.