Merlot grapes on the vine
|Colour of berry skin||Black|
|Also called||Picard, Langon|
|Notable regions||Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Chilean Central Valley, Australia|
|Notable wines||Saint-Émilion, Pomerol|
|Cool climate||Strawberry, red berry, plum, cedar, tobacco|
|Medium climate||Blackberry, black plum, black cherry|
|Hot climate||Fruitcake, chocolate|
Merlot is a dark blue-coloured wine grape variety, that is used as both a blending grape and for varietal wines. The name Merlot is thought to be a diminutive of merle, the French name for the blackbird, probably a reference to the color of the grape. Its softness and "fleshiness", combined with its earlier ripening, makes Merlot a popular grape for blending with the sterner, later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, which tends to be higher in tannin.
Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, Merlot is one of the primary grapes used in Bordeaux wine, and it is the most widely planted grape in the Bordeaux wine regions. Merlot is also one of the most popular red wine varietals in many markets. This flexibility has helped to make it one of the world's most planted grape varieties. As of 2004, Merlot was estimated to be the third most grown variety at 260,000 hectares (640,000 acres) globally, with an increasing trend. This puts Merlot just behind Cabernet Sauvignon's 262,000 hectares (650,000 acres).
While Merlot is made across the globe, there tends to be two main styles. The "International style" favored by many New World wine regions tends to emphasis late harvesting to gain physiological ripeness and produce inky, purple colored wines that are full in body with high alcohol and lush, velvety tannins with intense, plum and blackberry fruit. While this international style is practiced by many Bordeaux wine producers, the traditional "Bordeaux style" of Merlot involves harvesting Merlot earlier to maintain acidity and producing more medium-bodied wines with moderate alcohol levels that have fresh, red fruit flavors (raspberries, strawberries) and potentially leafy, vegetal notes.
Researchers at University of California, Davis believe that Merlot is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and is a sibling of Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon. The earliest recorded mention of Merlot was in the notes of a local Bordeaux official who in 1784 labeled wine made from the grape in the Libournais region as one of the area's best. The name comes from the Occitan word "merlot", which means "young blackbird" ("merle" is the French word for several kinds of thrushes, including blackbirds); the name was thought to have been given either because of the grape's beautiful dark-blue color, or the blackbirds' fondness for grapes. By the 19th century it was being regularly planted in the Médoc on the "Left Bank" of the Gironde. After a series of setbacks that includes a severe frost in 1956 and several vintages in the 1960s lost to rot, French authorities in Bordeaux banned new plantings of Merlot vines between 1970 and 1975.
It was first recorded in Italy around Venice under the synonym Bordò in 1855. The grape was introduced to the Swiss, from Bordeaux, sometime in the 19th century and was recorded in the Swiss canton of Ticino between 1905 and 1910. In the 1990s, Merlot saw an upswing of popularity in the United States. Red wine consumption, in general, increased in the US following the airing of the 60 Minutes report on the French Paradox and the potential health benefits of wine and, possibly, the chemical resveratrol. The popularity of Merlot stemmed in part from the relative ease in pronouncing the name of the wine as well as its softer, fruity profile that made it more approachable to some wine drinkers.
Merlot grapes are identified by their loose bunches of large berries. The color has less of a blue/black hue than Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and with a thinner skin and fewer tannins per unit volume. Also compared to Cabernet, Merlot grapes tend to have a higher sugar content and lower malic acid. Merlot thrives in cold soil, particularly ferrous clay. The vine tends to bud early which gives it some risk to cold frost and its thinner skin increases its susceptibility to Botrytis bunch rot. If bad weather occurs during flowering, the Merlot vine is prone to develop coulure. It normally ripens up to two weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. Water stress is important to the vine with it thriving in well drained soil more so than at base of a slope. Pruning is a major component to the quality of the wine that is produced. Wine consultant Michel Rolland is a major proponent of reducing the yields of Merlot grapes to improve quality. The age of the vine is also important, with older vines contributing character to the resulting wine.
A characteristic of the Merlot grape is the propensity to quickly overripen once it hits its initial ripeness level, sometimes in a matter of a few days. There are two schools of thought on the right time to harvest Merlot. The wine makers of Château Pétrus favor early picking to best maintain the wine's acidity and finesse as well as its potential for aging. Others, such as Rolland, favor late picking and the added fruit body that comes with a little bit of over-ripeness.
France is home to nearly two thirds of the world's total plantings of Merlot. Beyond France it is also grown in Italy (where it is the country's 5th most planted grape), California, Romania, Australia, Argentina, Bulgaria, Turkey, Canada, Chile, Greece, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, Slovenia, Mexico and other parts of the United States such as Washington, Virginia and Long Island. It grows in many regions that also grow Cabernet Sauvignon but tends to be cultivated in the cooler portions of those areas. In areas that are too warm, Merlot will ripen too early.
Merlot is the most commonly grown grape variety in France. In 2004, total French plantations stood at 115,000 hectares (280,000 acres). It is most prominent in Southwest France in regions like Bordeaux, Bergerac and Cahors where it is often blended with Malbec. The largest recent increase in Merlot plantations has occurred in the south of France, such as Languedoc-Roussillon, where it is often made under the designation of Vin de Pays wine. Merlot can also be found in significant quantities in Provence, Loire Valley, Savoie, Ardèche, Charente, Corrèze, Drôme, Isère and Vienne.
In the traditional Bordeaux blend, Merlot's role is to add body and softness. Despite accounting for 50-60% of overall plantings in Bordeaux, the grape tends to account for an average of 25% of the blends — especially in the Bordeaux wine regions of Graves and Médoc. Of these Left Bank regions, the commune of St-Estephe uses the highest percentage of Merlot in the blends. However, Merlot is much more prominent on the Right Bank of the Gironde in the regions of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, where it will commonly comprise the majority of the blend. One of the most famous and rare wines in the world, Château Pétrus, is almost all Merlot. In Pomerol, where Merlot usually accounts for around 80% of the blend, the iron-clay soils of the region give Merlot more of a tannic backbone than what is found in other Bordeaux regions. It was in Pomerol that the garagistes movement began with small-scale production of highly sought after Merlot-based wines. In the sandy, clay-limestone-based soils of Saint-Émilion, Merlot accounts for around 60% of the blend and is usually blended with Cabernet Franc. In limestone, Merlot tends to develop more perfume notes while in sandy soils the wines are generally softer than Merlot grown in clay dominant soils.
Rest of Europe
In Italy, a large portion of Merlot is planted in the Friuli wine region where it is made as a varietal or sometimes blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. In other parts of Italy, such as Tuscany, it is often blended with Sangiovese to give the wine a similar softening effect as the Bordeaux blends. Merlot's low acidity serves as a balance for the higher acidity in many Italian wine grapes with the grape often being used in blends in the Veneto, Alto Adige and Umbria. The Strada del Merlot is a popular tourist route through Merlot wine countries along the Isonzo river. Italian Merlots are often characterized by their light bodies and herbal notes.
In Hungary, Merlot complements Kékfrankos, Kékoportó and Kadarka as a component in Bull's Blood. It is also made into varietal wine known as Egri Médoc Noir which is noted for its balanced acid levels and sweet taste. In the Eastern European countries of Bulgaria, Macedonia, Moldova, Croatia and Romania, Merlot is often produced as a full bodied wine that can be very similar to Cabernet Sauvignon. In Switzerland, Merlot accounts for nearly 85% of the wine production in Ticino where it is often made in a pale "white Merlot" style. In Spain, winemakers are petitioning authorities to allow Merlot to be a permitted grape in the red wines of the Rioja region. Plantings of Merlot has increased in recent years in the Austrian wine region of Burgenland where vineyards previously growing Welschriesling are being uprooted to make room for more plantings.
In the early history of California wine, the Merlot was used primarily as a 100% varietal wine until wine maker Warren Winiarski encouraged taking the grape back to its blending roots with Bordeaux style blends. In California, Merlot can range from very fruity simple wines (sometimes referred to by critics as a "red Chardonnay") to more serious, barrel aged examples. It can also be used as a primary component in Meritage blends. While Merlot is grown throughout the state, it is particularly prominent in Napa, Monterey and Sonoma County. In Napa, examples from Los Carneros, Mount Veeder, Oakville and Rutherford tend to show ripe blackberry and black raspberry notes. Sonoma Merlots from Alexander Valley, Carneros and Dry Creek Valley tend to show plum, tea leaf and black cherry notes.
In the 1980s, Merlot helped put the Washington wine industry on the world's wine map. Prior to this period there was a general perception that the climate of Washington State was too cold to produce red wine varietals. Merlots from Leonetti Cellar, Andrew Will, Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle demonstrated that areas of the Eastern Washington were warm enough for red wine production. Today it is the most widely grown red wine grape in the state and accounts for nearly one fifth of the state's entire production. It is widely planted throughout the Columbia Valley AVA but has earned particular notice from plantings grown in Walla Walla, Red Mountain and the Horse Heaven Hills. Washington Merlots are noted for their deep color and balanced acidity. The state's climate lends itself towards long days and hours of sunshine with cool nights that contributes to a significant diurnal temperature variation and produces wines with New World fruitiness and Old World structure. Other US regions producing significant quantities of Merlot include New York State's Long Island AVA, Virginia's Monticello AVA and Shenandoah Valley AVA and Oregon's Rogue Valley AVA.
Other New World regions
In Argentina, Merlot plantings have been increasing in the Mendoza region with the grape showing an affinity to the Tupungato region of the Uco Valley. Argentine Merlots grown in the higher elevations of Tunpungato have shown a balance of ripe fruit, tannic structure and acidty. In Chile, Merlot thrives in the Apalta region of Colchagua Province. It is also grown in significant quantities in Curicó, Casablanca and the Maipo Valley. Until the early 1990s, the Chilean wine industry mistakenly sold a large quantity of wine made from the Carménère grape as Merlot. Following the discovery that many Chilean vineyards thought to be planted with Sauvignon blanc was actually Sauvignonasse, the owners of the Chilean winery Domaine Paul Bruno (who previously worked with Château Margaux and Château Cos d'Estournel) invited ampelographers to comb through their vineyards to make sure that their wines were properly identified. Genetic studies discovered that much of what had been grown as Merlot was actually Carménère, an old French variety that had gone largely extinct in France due to its poor resistance to phylloxera. While the vines, leaves and grapes look very similar, both grapes produce wines with distinct characteristics — Carménère being more strongly flavored with green pepper notes and Merlot having softer fruit with chocolate notes. In Mexico, Merlot is cultivated primarily in the Valle de Guadalupe of Baja California, the country's main wine-producing area. Plantings have increased substantially since the 1980s, and cultivation has spread into the nearby areas of Ojos Negros and Santo Tomás.
In New Zealand, plantings of Merlot have increased in the Hawke's Bay region, particularly in Gimblett Gravels where the grape has shown the ability to produce Bordeaux-style wine. The grape has been growing in favor among New Zealand producers due to its ability to ripen better, with less green flavors, than Cabernet Sauvignon. Other regions with significant plantings include Auckland, Marlborough and Martinborough. In Australia, some vineyards labeled as "Merlot" were discovered to actually be Cabernet Franc. Merlot vines can also be found growing in the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Wrattonbully South Australia. In South Africa, plantings of Merlot have focused on cooler sites within the Paarl and Stellenbosch regions.
As a varietal wine, Merlot can make soft, velvety wines with plum flavors. While Merlot wines tend to mature faster than Cabernet Sauvignon, some examples can continue to develop in the bottle for decades. There are three main styles of Merlot — a soft, fruity, smooth wine with very little tannins, a fruity wine with more tannic structure and, finally, a brawny, highly tannic style made in the profile of Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the fruit notes commonly associated with Merlot include cassis, black and red cherries, blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, mulberry, ollalieberry and plum. Vegetable and earthy notes include black and green olives, cola nut, bell pepper, fennel, humus, leather, mushrooms, rhubarb and tobacco. Floral and herbal notes commonly associated with Merlot include green and black tea, eucalyptus, laurel, mint, oregano, pine, rosemary, sage, sarsaparilla and thyme. When Merlot has spent significant time in oak, the wine may show notes of caramel, chocolate, coconut, coffee bean, dill weed, mocha, molasses, smoke, vanilla and walnut.
White Merlot is made the same way as White Zinfandel. The grapes are crushed, and after very brief skin contact, the resulting pink juice is run off the must and is then fermented. It normally has a hint of raspberry. White Merlot was reputedly first marketed in the late 1990s, and should not be confused with wines made from the white mutant of the grape. In Switzerland, a type of White Merlot is made in the Ticino region but has been considered more a rosé.
In food and wine pairings, the diversity of Merlot can lend itself to a wide array of matching options. Cabernet-like Merlots pair well with many of the same things that Cabernet Sauvignon would pair well with, such as grilled and charred meats. Softer, fruitier Merlots (particularly those with higher acidity from cooler climate regions like Washington State and Northeastern Italy) share many of the same food-pairing affinities with Pinot noir and go well with dishes like salmon, mushroom-based dishes and greens like chard and radicchio. Light-bodied Merlots can go well with shellfish like prawns or scallops, especially if wrapped in a protein-rich food such as bacon or prosciutto. Merlot tends not to go well with strong and blue-veined cheeses that can overwhelm the fruit flavors of the wine. The capsaicins of spicy foods can accentuate the perception of alcohol in Merlot and make it taste more tannic and bitter.
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