Merlot can be something of a dirty word in certain wine circles. Unfortunately a lot of the controversy can be attributed to one single line in a movie that is now 12 years old. One line that caused an entire region to rip out it’s Merlot vines and replace them with Pinot Noir. Do you think that sounds ridiculous, do you think that sounds like something I am exaggerating to an extreme? Cause it is ridiculous, but no I am not making that up. Not only were Merlot vines ripped out of the ground in California, Merlot sales nationwide plummeted. And 12 years later there is a still a stigma around the grape in America. Which is a shame, because Merlot is actually the softer, easier drinking cousin to what is still by and large the king of all grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, is from the Bordeaux region of France where Merlot is actually the leading grape in terms of total production. The region of Bordeaux is divided into two main sections by the Gironde River, the left bank and the right bank. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the left bank while on the right bank Merlot is dominant. However, in both regions the majority of wines are blends consisting of the two dominate grapes as well as some smaller, less important varietals such as Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and occasionally Malbec. However there is one notable exception to this blending rule, Chateaux Petrus (from the Pomerol region) is 99% Merlot, and it is also one of the most expensive wines in the world. Merlot is also found through out Northern Italy where it, though lighter and more herbal than its French cousin, pairs beautifully with the local cuisine.
And then of course there is the US where California, with Washington in a close second, has the highest number of acreage planted. Despite the Sideways backlash there is still some excellent Merlot being grown in America where it is often described as the softer, rounder cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon. Here too because of the warmer climate the grape has more lush juicy fruit than compared to the earthier more herbal Merlots of cooler climate, right bank Bordeaux.
In fact it is these lush fruits, like blackberry, cassis, black cherries and plum, and its characteristically smooth tannins that make Merlot much better suited to the table than Cabernet Sauvignon. Those big fruit flavors are often complimented by herbal earthy notes that mean the wine can pair comfortably with meats, in particular anything grilled, as well as vegetables such as eggplant and broccoli. That herbal quality also means that it shins with any dish that incorporates fresh herbs in the recipe. Better yet incorporate some fresh herbs into your heat source when you are grilling for a truly excellent flavor combination.
Twelve years is long enough, Merlot is not a wine we should overlook any more and once a few more people taste it, it won’t be long until it is back to being one of the leading grapes in America.