Renowned for its smoothness, the dark fruits that are so pronounced in merlot - such as raspberry, plum and black cherry - are served up minus the bite. So often underrated, merlot is finally gaining recognition for the unique experience it offers the palate.
If one was to compile a list of underrated wine varietals, merlot has every right to sit at the very top. So often the bridesmaid, merlot garners deserved attention for its contribution to a range of blends, but receives far less praise as a 100% varietal.
Why? Some have argued that the smoothness of the grape has allowed inferior vintages – the standard of which simply wouldn’t be bottled for other grapes – to be palatable, leading to inferior merlots flooding the market. In truth, a quality merlot can match a quality shiraz or cabernet sauvignon any day of the week.
Born of Cabernet Franc and the little-known variety Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, the first recorded use of the term ‘Merlot’ was in 1784. The name is thought to be the diminutive of merle – French for blackbird. The birds, it was said, chose to feast on merlot over any other grape variety.
France devotes more acreage to merlot than all other countries combined, but Italy, the US, Australia, Chile and Argentina all produce healthy amounts of the grape.
The home of merlot is Bordeaux, the famed wine growing region in the southwest of France, where it is used in some of the world’s most recognised – and expensive – blends. Such is the region’s influence over merlot that “Bordeaux style” is the name given to merlots produced in traditional climates and in a traditional way, which are markedly different to the “international style” merlots largely produced by new world vintners.
Hot or cold
Perhaps more than almost any other grape, the qualities and characteristics of merlot are influenced by the environment in which it is planted. This has played a large part in the characterisation of the two distinct styles mentioned above – ‘Bordeaux’ and ‘international’.
Bordeaux-style merlots feature grapes cultivated in cooler climates like Bordeaux, but also in Italy, New Zealand and Chile. These grapes are generally harvested earlier, producing a medium-bodied wine that is less alcoholic but that features more acidity.
International-style merlots on the other hand are left on the vine to gain ripeness which results in deep purple, full-bodied wine with higher alcohol content. This style is more common in new-world markets and lends itself to the warmer climates of Australia, the US and Argentina.