In this country, the role that Chardonnay plays for white wine, Merlot plays for red. That is, it’s what’s asked for first.
And it isn’t merely because Merlot is easier to pronounce than Cabernet Sauvignon—the wine not so long ago unseated by Merlot as America’s most commonly requested red.
It’s because Merlot is just so appealing—plush, round, low in tannin, loaded with juicy tastes of black cherry, chocolate, ripe plums and licorice (or, if from Bordeaux, even an acceptable turn on the flavors of fruitcake). Merlot is the “wine without tears,” while, contrariwise, it often may seem that Cabernet Sauvignon is truly a wine to cry over.
Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon
Nonetheless, Merlot is never far from Cabernet. The world over, it is the constant handmaiden to Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with the more austere, tannic, high-toned Cabernet precisely for its softer, smoother, fleshier character. (For its part, Cabernet Sauvignon gives Merlot structure and grip.) These two are Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. In many respects, they need each other.
Also, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon team well because Merlot both buds and ripens about two weeks before Cabernet. While it’s true that the two grapes give good wine, the real reason that they are planted side-by-side is agricultural. One is a hedge against the other for poor weather at either end of a growing season. In a bad year, a grape farmer has a good chance to harvest at least one crop of something.
Though we call Cabernet Sauvignon the red grape of Bordeaux, Merlot is more widely planted there (56% overall). The Médoc is home to a quarter of all Bordeaux Merlot; most of the rest is in St-Emilion and Pomerol (and the outlying Côtes), where it shines, sometimes all by itself.
That is because Merlot prefers cool soils (versus warm, well-drained soils such as those of the Médoc), something guaranteed it by the clay-heavy, moisture-retaining soils of the Right Bank. Most of Bordeaux’s new garagistes are located in both St-Emilion and Pomerol and have invested heavily in Merlot in order to make their low yield, ultra-ripe, high extract reds.
Climate and soil that are overly cool, however, render Merlot wine that is green, lean, vegetal, even herbaceous (such was the problem with many a Monterey Merlot in years past). Overcropping—the issue in northern Italy for a long time—makes for similar tasting Merlot.
In the World
In any case, Merlot is planted the globe over—in the Veneto, South Africa, Washington State (where it is finding a real home), California of course, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Italy where, instead of Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s often mixed with Sangiovese. Certo.
France has enormous plantings of Merlot, in Bordeaux of course, but also largely in Languedoc. It is the third most planted grape in France, after Carignan and Grenache.
In Chile, Merlot is widely interplanted with the grape Carmenère, with which it has been confused for decades (and with which it took the pre-phylloxera trip to the Andes from France).
Estimates put the percentage of Carmenère to Merlot in Chile to be as high as 90%, with the lowest estimate at 60%—either way, not a lot of Merlot. The issue with Carmenère as next-door neighbor to Merlot is that they ripen three weeks apart from each other. As a consequence for Chilean “Merlot,” the common field blend is either ripe Merlot and underripe Carmenère, or the reverse. The numbers are not felicitous for tasty wine.
It’s assumed—mostly given its character—that Merlot does not age well. In truth, most does not (low acidity is a huge factor). However, the best examples from Bordeaux, and some California and Italian Merlot can see their 20th birthdays.
Merlot tastes like … Merlot. Sometimes that means silky light as Pinot Noir; sometimes, as oaky and pushy as Cabernet Sauvignon. Its tannins will always be silky and fine, even at their rawest.
It will be juicy and lip smacking, and will taste of—alone or severally—strawberry, raspberry, black cherry, blackcurrant, plums, prunes, fruitcake, clove, cinnamon, truffle, tobacco, toasted nut, licorice, chocolate or coffee. Quite a palate.
From warm climates, the fruit might taste cooked or very ripe. From cooler, green peppery and slightly herbaceous.
Above all, it will be a wine that sometimes seems more texture than taste.
Because of how it feels in the mouth, and its fruitiness, it tastes delicious with subtle curries and other Indian cooking, game meats, duck and grainy terrines (rabbit, pork, fowl, perhaps mushroom).
It goes well, also, with meaty casseroles and stews, braised meats and other foods that are layered in flavors that are dark, deep and brooding.
Its affinity with cheeses is to the family of sheep’s milk cheeses, coated rind sorts such as Camembert and Brie, and to some of the firmer grainier cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano.