Red Wine Basics: Merlot

California Merlot from Provence
California Merlot from Provence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Merlot is one of the most widely planted red wine grape varieties in the world, second only to Cabernet Sauvignon. It is strongly associated with the Bordeaux wine region in France, and is one of the six grape varieties used in red Bordeaux blends. Merlot makes an excellent varietal, but also makes for superb blends. Its versatility has helped it to become one of the most planted and popular varieties on Earth. The grape is planted all over the world, becoming increasing popular in the U.S. since the 1980’s. Plantings in California have grown from 4,000 acres in 1988 to over 50,000 today. Merlot is softer and less tannic, making it a great choice for beginning red wine drinkers and for those who enjoy a more velvety, less harsh profile.

Merlot is an early ripening grape. Its thin skin, though giving it its softer, less tannic taste also makes it more susceptible to some grape diseases. Merlot produces fleshy wines that blend perfectly with the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab is more tannic, and the blend of the two varieties makes for a wine that is well rounded with a great flavor structure. The higher tannin content of Cabernet Sauvignon also lends the Merlot blend greater ageability.

Merlot varietals tend to be medium-bodied with flavors of plum, currents, blackberry, blueberry and mulberry. Its earthier flavors include olive, eucalyptus, mint, oregano, thyme and rosemary. A Merlot that has been aged in oak exhibits the delicious flavors of caramel, chocolate, coconut, coffee bean, vanilla and walnut.

There are several styles of Merlot. Softer, less tannic Merlot is fruity and soft, pairing well with salmon, mushroom-based dishes, shellfish and leafy greens. More tannic, medium-fruit Merlot pairs nicely with lamb and pork dishes. The harshest style is made to resemble Cabernet Sauvignon with maximum exposure to skins to get the most tannic structure of any form of Merlot. Pair these Merlots with charred or grilled meats.

A white Merlot is also produced, first hitting the market in the 1990’s. When making white Merlot, the juice is made to contact the skin of the grape very sparingly, releasing a pink juice that is then fermented. Hints of raspberry can be detected in this form of Merlot.

This completes my exploration of Merlot. Join me next time to get the facts on Mourvedre, a red grape variety known to produce flavorfully complex, interesting wines.

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Louise Bryant

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