Merlot has developed enormously over the last few decades to become the third most harvested grape. Defined by its soft plum, cherry flavours it makes a velvety delicious wine. It is grown now all around the world and there have emerged two distinct styles, those of the New and Old Worlds.
Originally from the Languedoc Roussillon and Bordeaux areas of France, Merlot was an essential blending grape. With its softer tannins and crisp acidity alongside a fleshy fruitier style, its purpose was simply to ease the harder tannins of the other grapes and to deliver a rounder wine. Such was its value that it began to be used in others areas such as Cahors, Bergerac, and South West France as a classic blending wine –and it is brilliant at it. France accounts for over 60% of Merlot grown, so crucial is it to blending.
In Bordeaux it is one of the primary grape varieties used, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Merlot is used much more prominently in the Saint Emillion and Pomerol regions on the right bank of the river Gironde. Chateau Petrus, a Pomerol and one of the most famous and rare wines in the world, is almost all Merlot with a small amount of Cabernet Franc, while Chateau Le Pin, also Pomerol, is 100% Merlot.
In the New World it found fame as it was discovered that later picking produced a wine that has incredible deep purple colours, riper fruits with a fuller depth and character. The softer tannins allowed for earlier drinking, and the rich flavours of plum, blackberry, olives, along with herbal hints of rosemary and thyme soon created a demand that has grown and grown. In the New World Merlot's popularity grew in its own right and as such has added much to our enjoyment.
Timing of harvest makes all the difference, as this grape is so versatile. Early picking produces acidity with mild fruit and lighter tannins, while later picking gives more developed, richer fruit, softer tannins and a fuller style. To drink on its own later picking wins and is the secret behind the success of the Merlots of New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Italy, California, Romania, Israel and many others. More controlled fermentation also extracts maximum flavours. Merlot ages beautifully in oak and this adds an extra dimension with a cedary vanilla flavour.
Merlot's versatility makes it great to drink on its own, particularly some of the lighter ones, but also suits a whole range of foods, from pizzas and pastas, white meats and charcuterie to hearty casseroles and steaks, and a range of cheeses, especially the blue veined styles.
Merlot will continue to be a great favourite, a varietal that will develop and one that is well worth experimenting with – try a Merlot from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand against one from Chile, then France, California or Italy - it’s a world of experience and difference - and fun!