An Overlooked Classic
By Liza B. Zimmerman
This grape has long played second fiddle to
Cabernet Sauvignon in many of the noted regions where it is grown, particularly in its tony homeland of Bordeaux. Its low-key reputation is somewhat surprising, and perplexing, given that it plays the leading role in the some of the world’s greatest—and most expensive—wines from the Right-Bank of Bordeaux.
Appellations such at Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, have long been produced from Merlot-heavy blends. The grape is reputed to give a softer, and more “feminine” character to wines, which might lead to some to overlook its subtly smooth and accessible style.
The poor grape also took a terrible beating in the 2004 film Sideways, where the cast obsesses about the beauty and grace of
Pinot Noir and defames Merlot. The irony is that at the movie’s close the lead character doesn’t even know he’s drinking a noted wine, made from primarily guess what: Merlot.
Roots and Regions
As well as being one of the five major red grapes planted in
Bordeaux, Merlot has a long history of being part of blends in vineyards all over the world. It can be found in many Southern regions of France such as the Languedoc, is used varietal wines in Chile and is one of the primarily non-indigenous grapes used to make some of the first Super Tuscans—such as Ornellaia--in Italy. It has played a background role in Northern Italian reds, such as those from the Veneto and Friuli, and is even found in Switzerland, Slovenia and as far afield as Moldova.
While its presence in blends has often been downplayed, it has also produces some quite successful commercial wines, principally in countries and sub-regions such as Chile and Languedoc that focus on varietal labeling for the U.S. market. The grape is easy to pronounce, familiar to many consumers and is generally less tannic and intense than Cabernet Sauvignon.
Pouting and Pairing
As Merlots, and blends made with it, then to be less acidic, tannic and intense on the palate, they can be more approachable when young. Varietal Merlots from many areas of the world are ready to have their corks popped within a year or two as they are also generally made in a softer, more accessible style.
Your friends who shun the bitter green flavors that can show themselves in incredibly young Cabernet Sauvignons will welcome the soft, approachable tones that this grape, when produced correctly, can deliver. It also costs much less by the bottle, as it doesn’t command the same price as Cabernet Sauvignon per acre.
A softer tannin structure and sometimes lower alcohol levels leave Merlot open to a wide range of food pairings. Big, peppery meat may not be ideal but Merlot can be a good bridge wine with a pork stew, octopus with the right marinade and even salmon with a little char (you really don’t have to always drink Pinot Noir with this!). Even white fish dishes that are prepared with a hint of olives, capers or a pinch of tomato sauce may work with some Merlots.
This is a fascinatingly diverse varietal that deserves to be explored. It is popping up in more blends and single varietals all over the world for good reasons.