One of the most widely planted grapes in the world, Merlot is a flexible variety that originates from the Bordeaux region of France but is now succesfully planted in wine growing regions the world over. It is thought that the grape’s genetics stem from the Cabernet Franc variety, and that it is also closely related to Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon (indeed, Merlot is often blended with the latter grape, which tends to be higher in tannin).
The grape first came to wine enthusiasts’ attention back in 1784, when a Bordeaux expert noted that wine made from the grape in Libournais was one of the region’s best. A deep black colour, the name of the grape is thought to stem from the Occitan (Medievel dialect similar to Catalan) word Merlot, meaning blackbird. The grape quickly became a popular variety for wine making, and by the 19th Century it was commonly planted in the Gironde. But the fortunes of the grape took a turn for the worse when it was hit by frost in the 1950s and rot in the 1960s. It’s hard to believe given the grape’s popularity today, but between 1970 and 1975 new plantings of the grape were actually banned in Bordeaux. That’s far from the case today, with Merlot the most commonly grown grape variety in France. It is most commonly found in the South West of the country, where it is often blended with Malbec. It’s also a major wine in the regions of Provence, the Loire Valley, Savoie and Charente, and Vienne. Whilst almost two thirds of Merlot grapes are found in France, it is also the 5th most commonly planted grape in Italy, and increasingly popular in locations as diverse as California, Canada. Romania, Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa.
A soft, fleshy red wine grape, Merlot is used both for blending and for varietal wines. Less tannin-heavy than other varieties, it is an early ripening grape that is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon – a grape which ripens later and is heavier in tannin.
Harvesting Merlot Grapes
Merlot grapes are easily distinguishable by their large berries clustered in large bunches. The skin is lighter in colour and thinner than Cabernet Sauvignon and significantly lower in tannins. Thriving in cold soil, the Merlot vine produces grapes that have a relatively high sugar content and are lower than average in malic acid. As it buds and ripens early in the year, (as a rule lof thumb generally around a fortnight earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon grapes) the Merlot grape runs a risk of falling victim to rot due to its thin skin. This can happen when cold frosts occur, whilst the Merlot vine is susceptible to coulure if the weather is bad during flowering. Coulure is a French term referring to the failure of the grape to develop from the flower, or the loss of newly formed fruits from the vine. The risk is particularly high during early spring and if not prevented Coulure can result in a very small or even nonexistent crop. Because of the Merlot grape’s susceptibility to problems such as this, some wine experts are calling for yields to be reduced in order to protect the quality of the resulting wines. The vine performs better in drier soil so planting at the base of a slope is not wise and efficient pruning is also key to good performance from the Merlot vine. The character of wine produced by the Merlot grape is also effected by the age of the vine, with wines produced from the grapes of older vines generally more robust and characterful.
Another characteristic of the Merlot grape is that it has a tendency to over ripen very quickly, sometimes within a few days of reaching ripeness. However, although some experts recommend early harvest of the Merlot grape to maintain acid levels and improve potential for ageing, others believe that a slight over ripening adds body and ultimately creates a better wine.
Pairing Merlot Wines With Food
Merlot is a diverse wine that lends itself well to a wide variety of food pairings. Those from cooler climates such as Canada or North Eastern Italy tend to be amongst the most versatile and easy to match sharing much in common with Pinot wines. Light fish dishes, mushroom based dishes and greens go particularly well with these fruitier Merlots. Cabernet-like Merlots can be matched with many of the same foods as Cabernet wines themselves, such as grilled meats. Merlot is not a good match for strong cheeses which can overwhelm the flavour of the wine whilst spicy foods can bring out a tannic, bitter taste in the wine.