Merlot is one of the most popular wine grapes across the world, coming in second in terms of plantings right behind Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot makes a far different wine from Cabernet, due to its total lack of tannic bitterness, and can create a light, almost juicy wine that still has great capacity to age. The Merlot grape is much less finicky than Pinot Noir, and is considered relatively easy to grow, which explains its explosive popularity. It can be grown in cool climates, medium climates, and warm climates, and arguably does best in Bordeaux, where it is the most widely planted grape.
Cabernet’s bold nature is preferred by many wine drinkers, while Syrah’s flavors are earthy and Pinot’s are fruity and elegant. Merlot makes more of a smooth wine by nature, with little if any tannins and a way of gliding easily across the palate that few other wines have.
Some grapes, such as Cabernet Franc, are primarily good in blending, and are rarely used as 100% varietal wines. Not so Merlot. Merlot is a grape that, despite primarily being blended in most of Bordeaux, can make a great varietal wine. California has many unblended Merlot wines, which are certainly increasing in popularity. Merlot comes close to varietal in great wines such as Château Pétrus and all the other major growths of Pomerol. Pomerols are among the most expensive red wines in the world, with great Pétrus vintages often selling for $10,000 a bottle and more.
Pomerol is located on the Right Bank of Bordeaux; its neighbor there, St-Émilion, also uses at least half Merlot in its wines, sometimes as much as 90%. The top châteaux here, Premiers Crus Ausone and Cheval Blanc, use about half Merlot. On the Left Bank, most Médoc styles rarely use more than 25% Merlot, but Pessac-Léognan wines usually use about half. Haut-Brion’s vineyards are planted with about 46% Merlot. These styles are considered more powerful than their Right Bank equivalents.
Most wines made under Bordeaux AOC or Bordeaux Supérieur AOC, which can often be reasonably priced, are made up primarily of Merlot. But Merlot does not have to be in Bordeaux to make a good grape, with good examples coming from all over France.
Despite its lack of tannins, Merlot ages excellently. Still, Merlot cannot be said to develop during the aging process as much as Cabernet Sauvignon. Blended Merlot, when aged, usually softens the tannic boldness of grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, mellowing out the wine a bit.
France is home to nearly two-thirds the world’s plantings of Merlot, ranging from $10 table wines to Pétrus, which costs thousands. And, as with Cab, the best examples come from Bordeaux. However, Merlot has now spread as an international grape and the rest of the world’s examples also deserve consideration. In Italy, Merlot blends interestingly with Sangiovese, with the most popular examples of this being Super-Tuscans. Le Macchiole’s rare varietal Merlot “Messorio” is considered one of the world’s best Merlots.
There are plenty of New World Merlots, coming from California as well as other places in the USA. Cheaper Merlots have been criticized for lack of sophistication, but the better ones can undoubtedly be world class. Of course, in California’s Bordeaux-style blends, Merlot is often used for the same softening effects as it is elsewhere. Argentina and Chile are actually doing a very good job of producing Merlot, rebounding after the Carménère incident of the early 1990s, where large quantities of Carménère were sold as Merlot. Australia and New Zealand are also creating worthy examples.
The great thing about Merlot is that whatever the climate, and even whatever the grape crop is like, there are different flavors that the grape can create. Though it is the polar opposite of Cabernet Sauvignon, the two complement each other well, and Merlot offers a wine style to those who don’t like their wine big, tough, and needing age to be drinkable.