For the better part of 25 years, merlot was seemingly unstoppable. Why? Because it’s a varietal that doesn’t necessarily need to be cellared and that's grown all over the globe. In its heyday, merlot was everyone’s darling.

Since 2005, however, the popularity of the varietal has been inconsistent. Despite being up there with the most planted grapes in the world, tasting bench reactions to merlot vary dramatically. This is largely due to the fact that the production and styles of merlot found around the world also vary dramatically. For example, merlot crafted in the New World is commonly full-bodied and more fruit-forward than its Old World counterparts; and while Pomerol's Château Petrus is considered one of the most expensive reds in the world, the cheaper, overripe styles of merlot are still prevalent on the wine market.

While it remains a divisive varietal among drinkers and winemakers alike, there is much to be said in praise of merlot wine. When given time and nurturing, from seedling to screwcap, this Bordeaux classic proves itself to be far more than just the underdog and blend partner to cabernet sauvignon.

Go to section: The history of merlot | Old World vs New World | Cool climate vs warm climate | A breakdown by region | Merlot blends | Tasting notes | Food pairings

The history of merlot

Let’s talk merlot family history. Merlot was born in Bordeaux, near Libourne on the Right Bank of the Gironde river, to its father grape cabernet franc and mother grape Magdeleine Noire des Charentes (an incredibly old variety discovered only recently by DNA testing). As far back as 1738, wine connoisseurs were describing merlot as a “black and excellent wine”.

Fast forward to the second half of the 20th century and we see merlot take hold around the world. It reached Australia in the 1980s, found a stronghold in California, crossed borders in Italy (it’s now planted in 106 regions), took up residence in Spain, built a home in Chile and even made it all the way out to Canada’s Okanagan Valley.

Today, it’s the second most planted grape in the world after airen, a Spanish white varietal. The merlot boom is perhaps best exemplified in California, where prior to 1970 no merlot was planted in the state and since 2010 holds 18,924 hectares.

In France and Italy, merlot’s popularity can come down to two things: its ability to provide a base for some of Bordeaux’s most famous St-Emilion and Pomerol blends, and its early-ripening habits (it can ripen up to two weeks earlier than cabernet sauvignon).

Old World vs New World

When it comes to merlot, the differences between Old and New World examples are easily recognisable. Traditionally, Old World winemakers choose to pick their merlot grapes on the earlier side of harvest in an effort to keep alcohol content low (making the wine more medium-bodied) and to protect a little natural acidity.

New World producers, by comparison, tend to prefer picking later in the season, creating a fruity, full-bodied merlot that stands alone as a single-varietal wine. An iconic Aussie example of single-varietal winemaking is Hollick Neilson’s Block Merlot, crafted from 100 per cent Coonawarra fruit.

Cool climate vs warm climate

Merlot is a hearty varietal that straddles both cool and warm climates. Geographically, its cooler climates are found in France, Italy and Chile, and its warmer climates in California, Australia and Argentina.

Cool-climate merlot, like that coming out of the Bordeaux Right Bank, is often mistaken for cabernet sauvignon. It’s structured and tannic with hits of tobacco and tar, making for an earthy glass of red. In contrast, warm-climate merlot is much more fruit-forward. In warmer climates, producers will often settle their merlot in oak for up to 24 months in an effort to develop more structure.

A breakdown by merlot region

France

While it’s the most commonly planted grape in France, merlot has especially flourished in the Haut Medoc, St-Emilion and Pomerol regions. In reference to its growth in the Haut Medoc, James Halliday says, “[Merlot] has long been called 'the insurance grape', providing cover for those vintages in which the cabernet sauvignon doesn’t fully ripen”.

As is the case around the world, merlot is often used for blending, predominantly with malbec, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. This tradition of blending means there is no real consensus on what flavours should be expected of French merlot wine, but it is agreed that merlot’s role is to bring body and softness.

Australia

In Australia, merlot is a wine that defies a set style. Grown in nearly every region of the country, it can be tight and perfumed with liquorice characters, like those coming out of the Eden Valley; full of plum and cassis in true Barossa style; or medium-bodied and spicy from the Hunter Valley.

While planted all over, this varietal favours cooler regions. Coonawarra is recognised as one of the best Australian regions for merlot, with most wines from here resplendent in sweet berry flavours and a silky elegance.

Merlot has had its ups and downs in Australia though. Since its boom in the 1980s it’s since fallen from trend and favour among drinkers and winemakers alike, and is nowadays most commonly consumed as a blend.

Italy

Italian merlots, whether they’re from Veneto, Friuli, the Maremma Coast or Umbria, tend to be characterised by a light body and herbal notes. Often used alongside sangiovese, merlot’s low acidity is a good complement to the more acidic Italian varietals.

United States

When we talk US merlot, we’re referring to the juice coming out of the Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley and Washington State regions in particular. Merlot first came on the scene here in the 1980s, grown for use as both single-varietal wines and blended Meritage wines. Merlot wine in California runs the gamut from simple and very fruity to serious, barrel-aged wines. Meanwhile, in Washington State merlot is responsible for putting this region on the wine map. Prior to merlot, it was widely believed that the climate was too cold to produce quality red wine varietals. Nowadays, it crafts a fragrant and feminine merlot.

Canada

Merlot is British Columbia’s most-planted variety along both sides of the Okanagan Valley. The grape thrives here thanks to its unlimited water and dry summer. It’s grown here to be used as both a single-varietal wine and in Bordeaux-style blends.

Chile

While Merlot was one of the original Bordeaux imports, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it took off. Between 1993 and 1998, the number of labels jumped from 12 to 75 on the Chilean wine market. Different to California’s merlot expressions, Chile’s are soft, supple and often fairly herbal.

New Zealand

The majority of New Zealand’s merlot comes out of Hawke’s Bay, particularly the Gimblett Gravels region where the grape has been able to produce Bordeaux-style expressions. The varietal is favoured here due to its ability to ripen faster and with less green tannins than cabernet sauvignon.

Merlot tasting notes

Rich, velvety, beautifully balanced wine that will live for half a century or more if carefully cellared.” – James Halliday

Merlot is a varietal that sits smack dab in the middle of the red wine spectrum, with medium levels of tannin, acidity and alcohol (12-15%). It’s most famous for its red-fruit flavours (namely cherry, plum and raspberry), easy-drinking tannins and super-soft finish. But depending on how it’s vinified and where it has been grown, merlot can be transformatory.

Merlot scale

The expressions coming out of Bordeaux's Right Bank, in particular the appellations of St-Emilion and Fronsac, are earthier with notes of tobacco, whereas Italy’s Veneto and Australia’s Riverland regions feature plum-flavoured pastilles and an extra hit of residual sugar.

Merlot
Incredibly dark in colour, even blue at times, the trick to telling the visual difference between merlot and cabernet sauvignon all comes down to light. If you hold a glass up to the light, merlot-based wines will tinge orange around the rim.

Occasionally, you might stumble on white merlot at the tasting bench. To make white merlot the grapes have been allowed a very brief period of skin contact resulting in a pale pink wine. This is different to merlot blanc, which is a style of wine that has been blended with another varietal.

Merlot blends

Merlot is incredibly popular in the blending world. In fact, merlot blends are the most common way for wine drinkers to enjoy the varietal. For many, many years now, Bordeaux winemakers have been blending merlot with their cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc parcels. The reason? Merlot’s supple and smooth qualities help to balance cabernet’s structure, bringing about a softness to the wine. You can see this at work in the Château Trottvieille Saint-Émilion 2000, which is widely considered to be one of the best dry red wines in the world. That said, blending merlot is not restricted just to France. As mentioned, in Italy winemakers will often blend merlot with sangiovese and in Spain they do so with tempranillo.

Food pairings

Thanks to its relaxed tannin and medium acidity, merlot is considered a first-class wine pairing for many foods. Old World and lighter-bodied styles can easily match with grilled meats like chicken and pork, while the fuller bodied New World expressions stand up to rich dishes such as charcuterie and charred or darker meats. The best pairings can also be region specific, for example the softer merlot wine coming out of the Limestone Coast pairs excellently with light shellfish.

Foods you might want to avoid include blue cheese (camembert and cheddars are okay) and dishes full of spice. These flavours may overwhelm, rather than enhance, a medium-bodied merlot.