Merlot is arguably the most fashionable red wine grape currently. Its soft and fruity characteristics make it easy to drink and yet it has enough complexity to satisfy the discerning drinker. If you are not a fan of big, heavyweight red wines then Merlot and other medium-bodied reds could be for you.
With the health advice that the occasional glass of red wine is beneficial for your heart many people are discovering the joys of red wine. For many of these “healthy” drinkers a glass of Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon is too hearty yet they still want to be able to enjoy the wine drinking experience so Merlot and its soft, medium-bodied friends fit the bill. These wines are generally low in tannin and full of ripe red fruits such as raspberries, strawberries, plums and cherries with hints of chocolate, herbs and tobacco.
The relatively low tannin in Merlot means the wines are more approachable when drunk young than high tannin wines such as Cabernet Sauvignons and yet they still age well. Merlot and other medium-bodied red wines are also very food-friendly with very few major clashes of taste. These are some of the reasons why Merlot is popular as an easy drinking and yet serious red wine.
Merlot is grown around the world although perhaps its spiritual home is in the Bordeaux region of France. Classic Bordeaux red wines are usually a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and the proportionate weight of this blend varies between the various Bordeaux appellations. If you prefer the taste of the softer, fruitier Merlot then seek out the great wines of Pomerol and St Emilion. These famous Bordeaux wines showcase Merlot at its most concentrated but even here it has a velvety softness which contrasts with the high tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Bordeaux wines.
Merlot grapes are grown all over the south west of France and crop up in many blends from regions such as Bergerac, Buzet and Duras as well as elsewhere in Bordeaux. Also look out for Merlot-dominated Vin de Pays d’Oc from the south of France for good value quaffable red wines.
Other European wine-growing nations have taken Merlot to heart. The grape is used in many of the so-called Super-Tuscans from Italy where it is used on its own or blended with local Sangiovese grapes or Cabernet. The Navarra wine region of Spain produces well-balanced Merlots with a hint of oak and the grape is also used in wines from other Spanish regions such as Penedes and Somontano.
For New World Merlots head to California where some rich, concentrated red wines are being produced in the Napa Valley. New Zealand producers, particularly in Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island, are making some excellent Merlots as are producers in Malmesbury, Paarl and Stellenbosch in South Africa. Chile is producing some great value, everyday Merlots.
If you enjoy the smooth, soft fruitiness of Merlot there are other red wine grapes you should explore such as Sangiovese or Tempranillo. Sangiovese is one of the main grapes grown in Italy and is the mainstay of Chianti. This famous Tuscan red wine has had its problems in the past but these days the Chianti region is producing some great red wines full of strawberries with hints of tobacco, tea leaves and sour cherries. Whilst Chianti is made from a blend of red wine grapes dominated by Sangiovese, Brunello di Montalcino, another Tuscan red, is a pure Sangiovese varietal.
Tempranillo is the primary grape of the great red wines of Spain’s Rioja region. It may be tempting to class Rioja as a heavyweight red wine but in reality the wine is mellow and low in tannin with lots of strawberry characteristics and hints of vanilla and cream from aging in American oak.
Italy is the master of producing luscious, medium-bodied soft red wines and other grapes which are worth exploring include Barbera and Dolcetto, red wine grapes grown in the Piedmont region. Barbera is a grape which is becoming increasingly popular amongst producers who are now making some excellent quality wines from it. It produces fresh red wines with characteristics of plum which are good, lighter alternatives to the famous Barolo and Barbaresco red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape. Dolcetto produces acidic, cherry-flavoured red wines which taste wonderful with hearty pasta dishes.
Other Italian red wine grapes to look out for are Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola, Negroamaro and Primitivo. Puglia produces enjoyable wines from the Negroamaro grape whilst Primitivo is said to be Italy’s version of the Zinfandel grape.
For budget medium-bodied red wines try wines from Portugal’s central regions made from the Periquita grape. These inexpensive wines are full of juicy red fruit. Bonarda red wines from Argentina should be smooth and tasting of cassis and cherries but they can be unpredictable. Another grape which produces medium-bodied red wines is Cinsault, most commonly used in the south of France and in South Africa.