Merlot Wine Ratings, Reviews and Basics | Wine Enthusiast
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Wine Grape Varietals 101


What is Merlot

Pronunciation: Mehr-low

Merlot is a red wine grape variety long identified with the Bordeaux region of France that has in modern times spread around the world due to the popularity of the soft, flavorful wines that it produces.

Merlot is the most common red-wine grape in Bordeaux, and in France in general. Merlot is widely planted internationally, too, including in California, Washington, Chile, Australia, Italy and elsewhere. The grape is popular among grape growers for its relatively high yields and early harvest dates, and among wine producers for the ability to sell it earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon due to its natural drinkability.

Used overwhelmingly in dry, still table wine, Merlot also lends itself to making rosé, sparkling wine and dessert wines in some regions.

Merlot’s true home is in Bordeaux, where it is not bottled as a single varietal wine but used as component in traditional blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and sometimes Malbec. These blends are named for the various regions and sub-regions—called appellations–in which they are grown.

In the Right Bank regions of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, Merlot is sometimes the major grape in a blend, or the second component after Cabernet Franc. On the Left Bank in the prestigious Medoc region Merlot usually plays a supporting role to Cabernet Sauvignon.

The blending method evolved for at least three reasons. Vineyard owners wanted to hedge their bets to cope with vagaries of the weather. Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon so it may avoid damaging rains that often come later in the fall season. The early harvest also helps distribute the vineyard workloads during the harvest period.

For consumers, however, the major benefit is that the texture and flavor components of Merlot complement those of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Merlot is less tannic than the others, more broad and relaxed in mouthfeel. It adds more plummy, chocolaty and savory attributes as opposed to the two Cabernets’ more astringent, tannic textures and focused black-fruit flavors.

Merlot is a big component of many Californian red blends, serving much the same purpose as in Bordeaux. Winemakers blend in Merlot to soften and add lighter, fruity elements to the Syrah and Zinfandel wines with which it is often blended.

Merlot Tasting Notes

Merlot wines are usually medium to deep ruby or garnet in color, often lighter at the rim than Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot from cooler areas offers herbaceous aromas from bay leaf to tobacco to dried herbs along with red cherries and dark plums. Those from warmer regions and when kept on the vine until fully ripe will exhibit deeper colors, more concentrated and purely fruity flavors.

Merlot wines are quite light in tannin and more subtle in acidity compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, so they have much less of the tooth-drying effect and don’t require long aging to smooth out in texture.

Merlot Food Pairings

Merlot in its varying forms dovetails well with everything from mild poultry and pasta dishes to savory roasts and braises. Its low tannins and high fruitiness also make it easier than most dry wines to pair with peppery, spicy dishes from Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Merlot Synonyms

In France, Merlot Noir, Merlau Rouge, Crabutet Noir, Plant Medoc and several others. In Hungary, Medoc Noir.

Merlot grapes are found in red, rose, sparkling, and dessert wines.

Structural Characteristics

Low Medium High
Alcohol levels
Low Medium High
Low Medium High
Tannin Structure
Low Medium High

Examples of Merlot to Try

Handling Tips

60-68°F / 16-20°C
5-20 years

Fun Facts

  • Merlot was on its way to overtaking Cabernet Sauvignon as America’s most popular red wine in the early 2000s, but about the time that the movie comedy “Sideways” was nominated for an Academy Award, sales of Merlot had begun to decrease. Its main character got credit in the popular culture for the downturn. Wine snob Miles disparaged Merlot in the movie and insisted on drinking Pinot Noir instead.
  • Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are closely related. The University of California, Davis, says that Merlot’s parent grape varieties are Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noir des Charentes. This makes it a half-sister to Cabernet Sauvignon, since both have Cabernet Franc as a parent.
  • Antoine Delmas imported the first known Merlot vines to California in 1850, according to the University of California, Davis. But little acreage was planted until a 10-year boom began in 1987, when Merlot plantings grew faster in the state than any other world-class variety.