Wine 101: Merlot

Wine 101: Merlot

Author: Canadian Living


Wine 101: Merlot

Merlot has been misunderstood and much maligned in recent years. But this most sensual of red grapes offers many characteristics that make it the perfect for today's "can't wait" world.

Merlot is lower in acidity and tannins. Its soft texture and sweet flavour make it ready to drink sooner than Cabernet Sauvignon. When grown under the right conditions and controlled with a firm hand, Merlot grapes can make wonderfully rich, supple reds with plummy notes. In fact, Merlot makes up 99 per cent of the blend in Château Pétrus – the red wine that many consider the world's greatest. (A case from a good vintage can cost as much as a luxury car.)

So why the bad rap?

Merlot's reputation suffered when it moved from its homeland in Bordeaux, France. Winemakers around the globe embraced Merlot with great enthusiasm, but this grape is a lackadaisical traveller. It may grow well in a new location, but it needs discipline – low yields, harvesting when it is fully ripe, and crop selection (it rots easily) – or it will produce dull, poor-quality red wines.

These days, talented winemakers around the world keep this in mind when using Merlot. It is a great grape for blending with other varietals, and there are some excellent examples of stand-alone Merlot wines that harness its best characteristics.

7 things to know about merlot
1. Merlot reaches its pinnacle in the famous French Bordeaux appellations of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. It is the most widely grown grape in the Bordeaux region, where it's used both for blending and as the main grape in many inexpensive reds. Merlot brings softness to the more tannic Cabernet Sauvignon in wines from many well-known châteaux.

2. Merlot is sometimes known as "Cabernet without the pain" because of its blueberry or blackberry-plum fruit character, its smooth texture, and the fact that it takes well to new oak, which makes it creamy and buttery.

Page 1 of 2 – Discover 5 more things about Merlot, plus tasting notes on page 2.

3. The Merlot grape matures before Cabernet Sauvignon does – a distinct advantage in cooler climates. It also does better in heavier soils.

4. This grape grows all over the world and produces wines in a wide variety of styles. Look for examples from Bordeaux (its native area), Southern France, California, Washington State, Chile, Canada, South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, northern Italy, Spain and even Switzerland.

5. California is seen as Merlot's home base in the New World. The grapes grown there produce softer, fleshier, plumper reds than those from cooler regions. The herbaceous element often found in Old World Merlot can be a drawback for some wine lovers, but it does give this grape more definition/character and makes it more food-friendly than its New World counterparts.

Chile has had great success with the Merlot grape. For many years, it was inter-planted with another grape called Carménère and treated as indistinguishable. Eventually, the difference was discovered and now they are planted separately.

Merlot is second only to Cabernet Sauvignon as the most widely planted red grape in the world.

Merlot profile
Medium to dark
Alcohol: Quite high
Tannin: Usually moderate; can be tough
Aroma profile: Moderate; does well with new oak
Cool climate/less-ripe fruit: red berry, green pepper, vegetal, leafy or minty flavours
Warm climate/ripe fruit: Ripe plum, blueberry, blackberry, floral, cooked jam and fruitcake flavours
Wine styles:
• Light-bodied, fresh, fruity
• Medium-bodied, juicy, easy-drinking
• Full-bodied, rich and smooth

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Wine 101: Merlot