Guide to Merlot

Merlot is a highly sought after red wine varietal that is grown extensively throughout many of the premier wine-producing regions of the world, including those found in France, Australia, the United States, and South America.

The varietal is sometimes overlooked in favour of the typically more boldly flavoured cabernet sauvignon or syrah/shiraz varietals although many seek the varietal out for its light to medium body, soft tannin profile, and overall easy-drinking dry style.

For a quick snapshot of the typical flavour profiles of these wines, see our handy graphic below.

Merlot Quick Guide

Why is it Called Merlot?

Like other famous wine varietals, the origins of merlot lies in the French wine-growing region of Bordeaux, located in the south west corner of that country.

The first mentions of the grape began around the later half of the 18th Century in France, with its name being derived from “merle” or “merlau”, which is translated from the local dialect word for the blackbirds common to the region.

In the beginning, merlot wines were almost exclusively used only as part of blends with other varietals, partly because the grape is notoriously more susceptible to environmental factors including heat, light, and rain, more than other grape types.

Over time, however, merlot's popularity began to grow, with the grape eventually being planted in other wine-producing regions elsewhere in France and across the globe and it also began to be bottled as a standalone varietal as well as used in blends.

Fast forward to today and merlot exists as one of the most widely grown grape varietals in the world, sitting just behind cabernet sauvignon in the ranks of global cultivation.

If you want to learn more about the history and growth of merlot, review the information found on this site.

How do Merlot Wines Taste?

Merlot Flavour Wheel

Merlot wines follow other varietals closely in that their taste is heavily influenced by whether it is produced in a cool or warm climate region.

Those from warmer climates tend to be less tannic and more fruit-forward in their nature, which often makes them smoother, easier-drinking, and described as sweeter in taste.

In cooler climates, on the other hand, they can sometimes be mistaken as bottles of cabernet sauvignon due to their increased presence of tannins and breadth of flavours that often include drier and earthier notes, such as herbs or ash.

What sets merlot wines apart, besides the climate it originates from, is whether the winemaker chooses to age the wine in oak prior to bottling, which is often the case in merlot production.

Ageing the wine in oak for extended periods results in a wine with a far more developed flavour profile that makes aged examples of merlot often very complex in their taste.

When looking for a general guide, it is safe to say that merlot wines typically sit somewhere in the light to medium bodied wine category, with characteristically low amounts of tannins, and soft berry and gentle spice flavours being at the forefront of what is an often light to moderately acidic wine.

The typically soft and smooth character of merlots often means they come highly recommended for those looking to begin their red wine tasting journey, particularly in the case of those examples from warmer climate regions.

Merlot in France

As discussed previously, merlot grapes first began being cultivated in the famous wine-producing region of Bordeaux in the south west of France.

It’s popularity amongst the winemakers of this region grew to the point where it is now the most widely planted grape varietal in that region, although it is also extensively grown within many of the other wine-producing regions of France.

Bordeaux Merlot

Those familiar with Bordeaux will know that when examining any bottle of wine from this region, it is important to discern whether it has come from a winery located on the left or right bank of the Gironde River that cuts through the region.

This will tell you a lot about not only how the resulting wine will taste but also the grape prominently used in the final blend.

Bordeaux Wine Region Map

When looking at merlot from Bordeaux, the right bank is the area most featured in its cultivation, with the varietal utilised as the primary grape of choice amongst the winemakers from this area.

The examples from here are described as cool climate merlots, meaning that they are considered more tannic styles of merlot that feature earthier notes of tobacco and ash alongside the more traditional flavours of soft dark berry and oak.

To discover more about the merlot wines originating from the right bank in Bordeaux, consider this site here, which explores some of the top-rated bottles available.

Merlot in Australia

Unlike France, Australia has a relatively short history in producing merlot wines, with the grape only being introduced into the country in the 1960s.

The grape can be found amongst many of the famous cool and warm climate wine-producing regions of Australia, although the grape often has a tendency to not ripen properly or at all in especially colder climates.

Due to the Australian consumers typical preference for the more fuller-flavoured cabernet sauvignon and shiraz wine varietals, merlot wines in Australia have seen only limited success, with the grape often ending up being blended with cabernet sauvignon grapes to produce more textured and flavoursome wines.

When looking into the bottles of merlot produced in Australia, it is often those found in the two seperate wine-growing regions of the Margaret River and the McLaren Vale that number amongst the best Australia has to offer.

Margaret River Merlot

Though much more famous for producing exceptional examples of cabernet sauvignon, the winemakers in the Margaret River region of Western Australia also produce merlot wines much in the same style as those produced by the winemakers of the right bank in Bordeaux.

This means that they are often stronger in their tannins and more complex in their overall flavour profile, making them some of the best bottles of premium merlot available.

Margaret River Wine Region Map

Flavourwise, Margaret River merlots are known for their flavours of soft dark fruits and berries alongside savoury notes of mocha, vanilla, and sometimes ash, all within a medium-bodied wine with higher levels of acidity.

For more on Margaret River merlot, check out this site for some of the most important facts about merlot from this region and beyond.

McLaren Vale Merlot

McLaren Vale winemakers are famous for producing many of the best examples of warm climate merlot available in Australia due to the largely Mediterranean style climate that exists in the area.

The region, located in South Australia, is known for producing some of the best quality grapes in the country courtesy of the many unique microclimates that exist, resulting in wines with strong amounts of fruit flavour and complexity.

For more on the microclimates present in the region be sure to consider this thoroughly in-depth guide to the region.

McLaren Vale Wine Region Map

Overall, however, merlot forms but a small part of grape production in the region, with the area being far more well known for its shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, similar to many of the other prominent wine-producing regions of Australia.

That being said, the merlot wines originating in this region are exceptionally flavoursome and complex wines, exuding high amounts of soft berry and dark fruit flavours along with fine, smooth tannins, subtle oak influencing, and gentle acidity.

Pairing Food with Merlot

As merlot wines can often be mistaken for cabernet sauvignon when coming from cool climate regions or appear closer to a soft shiraz or pinot noir when coming from warmer climates, the exact optimal food pairing varies bottle by bottle, a point elaborated further on this site.

Those bottles coming from cooler climate regions, including the right bank of the Bordeaux or the Margaret River region, are matched wonderfully with roast vegetable dishes, medium to heavy cuts of red meat, including grilled or charred steaks, and even juicy beef burgers.

Pairing Food with Merlot

Warmer climate merlot, on the other hand, should be matched with light to medium weight cuts of red or white meat, in particular turkey or duck, heavy seafood dishes, such as salmon steaks, or finally, mushroom or vegetable-based dishes.

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