Here is a little history of the grape, how it tastes and where it grows. With the help of DNA testing, ampelographers have identified Merlot’s mum & dad as Madeleine Noire des Charentes (yes from Charentes - The Cognac Region) and Cabernet Franc (of Basque origins). Merlot is also the half-brother of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Carmenère.
The first written evidence of Merlot dates back to the late 1700’s when Faurveau mentioned it as a top vine of the Libournais (right bank of the Dordogne River).
Like many grapes, Merlot gives its best on the coolest places where it can ripen fully. It needs warmer spots than Pinot Noir but can ripen on cooler vineyards than Cabernet Sauvignon. From its mother (Madeleine Noire) he has inherited the ability to ripen early. For instance, in Bordeaux, it is picked about two weeks before Cabernet Sauvignon and can do that on the cooler clay soils of Pomerol, for example.
In the larger Bordeaux region, where Cabernet Sauvignon sometimes struggle to ripen fully, Merlot is the blending partner of choice: It adds sweetness, roundness, smoothness and generous ripe fruit flavors to a sometimes austere, severe Cabernet Sauvignon with its high acidity and mouth-gripping tannins. Blending Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon makes the finished wine more balanced and drinkable almost immediately after market release.
Blended with other grapes or not, it is difficult to describe a typical Merlot. It can be made in light style that is close to Pinot Noir with red fruit scents. More extracted, it is packed with black fruit flavors and can be oak-infused, resembling Cabernet Sauvignon.
In cool years, picked early or over-cropped, it is lean and herbaceous. In warm years, picked late and from small yields, it gives scents of figs and stewed fruits. The best example will show silky tannins with red and black fruits flavors, fruit cake and depending on oak treatment and ageing, spices, tobacco, liquorice, toasted nuts, cinnamon, cloves, chocolate…
Today, from its botanic birthplace in Bordeaux, Merlot has conquered the Languedoc, Italy (where it is the 4th mostly grown variety), China, California, Spain, Chile (where it was confused with Carmenère until the mid 90’s), Romania, Bulgaria and Australia.
Some of the best producers are obviously Pétrus and Le Pin in Pomerol; Angélus, Ausone, Canon and Valandraud in Saint Emilion; Merryvale and Shafer in the US; Lapostolle, Errázuriz,, Viña Leyda in Chile, and Ornellaia in Italy... the list is endless.
To learn more about grape varieties, where they grow and how they taste, enroll the next WSET Level 2 Award in Wines.
Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure
Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine.New York: Oxford University Press Inc