Any beginner to wine who dreams of becoming a connoisseur one day usually gets the same suggestion.
Try a Merlot.
And why not? Merlot is the Golden Retriever of wine, a super friendly, easily approachable and truly reliable instant best friend. Also quite soft.
Merlot, which translates to “Little Blackbird” in French, got its first starring role as a blending component in Bordeaux during the mid-1700s. From there its popularity launched into orbit.
In particular Merlot solidified its reputation as a key component in Bordeaux wines by 1784, particularly on the Right Bank. It took several more decades to gain attention outside Bordeaux.
Since those early days however, Merlot has become the second most planted grape in the world as of a survey done in 2010. It is one of the most popular grapes in America after arriving in California in the mid-1900’s. Farmers appreciated that it was easy to grow and consumer loved that it was easy to drink.
Where it grows
The first official planting of Merlot vines in America occurred at the Louis Martini Winery in Napa Valley. Mr. Martini could not have known the explosive demand that would follow. He released a multi-vintage blend in 1972, and the public demanded more. Much more. In 1970, just 268 acres of these vines were planted. By 1980, that number hit 2,667 and in today there’s an estimated 40,000+ acres in California.
While Merlot thrives in California, several other states show off great examples. Washington in particular delivers some showstopping examples of Merlot. These come closer in approximation to Bordeaux thanks to the slightly cooler climate and differences in soil types.
France still claims the most Merlot with approximately 280,000 acres through the Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon regions. Italy boasts 93,000 acres through Toscana and Campania. Argentina, Chile, Australia and the US feature between 13,000 and 55,000 acres. Combined, Merlot makes for one of the most widely planted grapes worldwide!
It’s important to note that even though California is the largest producer of U.S. merlot, there was a decline in quality due to over planting. This led to a lot of watery, uninspiring, and forgettable iterations. Then there was the “Sideways effect”, which put a serious dent in sales after the main character Miles shouted “I’m not drinking any more fucking merlot!”.
In the Glass
Cool Climate, Old World Style
Flavor profiles shift around quite a bit depending on where it’s grown. Cool climate, or “old world” Merlot is frequently more savory and earthy with slightly more pronounced tannins. They’re more apt to show a spectrum of tart red fruits, a touch rustic, and have a bit more acidity with alcohol levels hovering around 13%.
Warm Climate, New World Style
In contrast, the U.S., Australia and Argentina Merlot new world style feature riper fruit-forward flavors, with darker balckberry, plum, and ripe raspberry taking center stage. They also have smoother tannins, lower acidity. These usually have slightly higher alcohol levels, often above 14%.
In the glass, Merlot is known for its overall soft, ripe and elegant profile, low tannins and very smooth finish. It’s popularity comes from the fact that it is incredibly easy to drink, either by itself or paired thoughtfully with foods.
A deep red color in the glass, most Merlot has base flavors of plums and cherries, with the occasional hint of chocolate. Blueberries, raspberries and blackberries as well as a deep jam flavor are typical of wines made from well-ripened grapes. The region the Merlot is grown in as well as the terrain may influence this. For example, bolder Merlot flavors are often present from “old world” vineyards and surprisingly those planted at hillside estates in any location. Hillside locales produce smaller Merlot grapes, which results in more intense flavors.
This flexible wine is usually found at both lunch and dinner tables for it’s ease in pairing with dishes.
The list of dishes that Merlot doesn’t pair well with would probably be shorter than finding something it doesn’t complement! In general you should avoid spicy dishes, or anything with too much leafy green stuff.
Typically Merlots are matched with meat dishes, lamb, veal and hearty stews. Anything featuring mushrooms, chicken and pork or cheeses are also extremely accessible.
Unsure where to begin? If you’re looking for a hearty, comfortable meal, try a Country Chicken and Vegetable Pie. These decadent Veal Chops with a Mustard-Sage Crust are also guaranteed to be divine with a good glass of Merlot.