Merlot: The Complete Guide

One of the most popular red wines in the world is Merlot. In fact, it is the second most popular wine in the United States after Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The wine is known for its sensual and soft texture that features an approachable style. It is made using red-skinned grapes that are adaptable to a variety of environments. 

Merlot The Complete Guide

The result is a food-friendly wine that is sold at a variety of price points. The drink can be oaky and rich, or plummy and velvety. 

There is something for everyone which makes this wine so beloved. With this in mind, this guide will explore everything you need to know about Merlot. 

Let’s get started. 

What Is Merlot Wine?

The word ‘Merlot’ comes from the French word for ‘blackbird’. It is related to Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, and Malbec. It is also a progeny of Cabernet Franc. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that Merlot sometimes gets mistaken for Cabernet. However, there have distinct differences, including Merlot’s fruit flavors and softer tannins. 

Merlot grapes can either be red-skinned, blue-skinned, or black-skinned. Regardless of the color, this variety of wine grapes is popular for both single-varietal wines and wine blends. 

Despite Merlot originating from France’s Bordeaux region – spanning from the Right Bank areas and many subregions, including Pomerol, Saint-Estèphe, and Saint-Émilion – it is grown all over the world. 

In fact, you can find Merlot wine in Old World regions, including Tuscany, Italy, as well as New World regions, including Washington state’s Columbia Valley, California’s Sonoma County and Napa Valley, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Chile, and many more. 

Merlot can be categorized as a dry wine that features a medium-to-full body, and medium acidity. It has a pronounced yet subtle tannin flavor. 

Depending on the specific winemaking process and the region the grape was grown, the flavors will vary slightly. 

That said, generally, Merlot has dark fruit flavors of blackberry, black cherry, raspberry, and plum with layers of herbal notes and mocha and vanilla undertones. 

You should remember that although Merlot features some prominent fruit that makes it an easy-drinking wine, this doesn’t mean that it will be meat. 

This is determined by the winemaking process. We will explore this in further detail below. 

Taste And Flavor Profile

Merlot can be planted in various environments all around the world – showcasing a range of characteristics in the wine. 

Typically, the wine is medium-bodied and dry with characteristically soft tannins and medium acidity. 

Classic merlot typically features hints of cocoa and cherry with various aromas including spice and herbs. 

Here, dark fruits including cherry, blackberry, and plum can dominate the overall taste. 

Merlot is grown in cool climates in regions such as Northern Italy and Bordeaux and features notes of tobacco, violet, licorice, bay leaf, earthiness, and bitter chocolate. 

On the other hand, merlot grown in warmer climates such as Australia and California is usually more fruit-focused with notes of chocolate, leafy greens, and baking spices such as clove and vanilla as a result of oak aging. 

Where Does Merlot Originate From?

Merlot is famously known for being grown and produced in California and Bordeaux. In Bordeaux, it belongs to the main five permitted varieties, including Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot

Merlot’s peak expressiveness and quality can be found on the Right Bank, as well as in Pomerol, the home of Château Pétrus. 

On retail shelves, restaurant wine lists, and at auctions, it can fetch serious money. 

The drink is also popular in the neighboring region of St.-Emilion. In fact, it is an affordable and delicious wine labeled Bordeaux Supérieur.

You can find great Merlots in Sonoma County and Napa Valley which feature an enhanced silkiness and nuance to Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds.  

Of course, they make great Merlots on their own, too. For instance, all throughout California you can find some delicious Merlot-based wines. 

Tuscany is also a great region for producing some world-class Merlots, too, including Ornellaia, Massetto, Le Macchiole’s Messorio, and Antinori’s Il leading the way. 

You find these as 100% Merlots or as blends. Australia’s Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale are home to some amazing Merlots, too, as well as Washington State, Chile, and Argentina. 

How Is Merlot Made?

Merlot wine shares a similar process to other red wines. Once the grapes have been picked, they are then crushed into a pulp where they are fermented with yeast. 

The skin of the grapes is what gives Merlot its iconic color and some flavor. The ‘bulk’ of the wine-making process happens during fermentation. Here, the sugar is converted to alcohol. 

The wine is pressed to remove any solids and pulp from the juice. This process is important since it dictates the overall texture and the levels of tannin in the wine. 

Once the juices have been extracted, the wine then goes through an aging process. This process differs significantly between the specific wine and manufacturer. 

However, this is where the malic acids break down to form lactic acids. 

Once this has finished, the wine then goes through a final raking and filtration process to make sure any sediment has been removed before it is bottled. 

This process can vary significantly since some winemakers have different aging processes, they may not use yeast, have different filtration processes, and fermentation processes. 

It is important to keep in mind that not all Merlot is made the same. 

Best Food Pairing

Merlot makes for a great wine to play with since it matches various different types of foods – therefore, don’t be afraid to experiment with different flavors and textures. 

When it comes to an easy Tuesday, entry-level, easy-drinking Merlot opts for something like bbq chicken, penne boscaiola, or pizza (anything featuring a creamy, tomatoey, mushroomy, or balcony goodness works). The key here is to keep it simple. 

For any Merlot-dominant blend (including Bordeaux) that features earthy notes and ripeness, this can be paired with beef short ribs, a rustic ratatouille, or roast turkey. 

When it comes to braised meat pairings, you can complement the boisterous fruit notes found in Merlot with chimichurri sauce. 

Finally, if you’re looking for something to complement those delicious new world styles, then consider cooking something such as a roast veal, rack of lamb, or filet mignon with peppercorn red wine sauce. 

Foods you should shy away from when pulling the cork of Merlot include light salads, delicate dish dishes, and anything too spicy. 

Types Of Merlot Wines

You can find various Merlot wines on the market, from easy-drinking and inexpensive wines to luxurious and expensive ones. 

Below, we have outlined some of the most popular Merlot wines on the market. This includes:

  • Château Leoville Las Cases Merlot – This is a luxurious Merlot that features intense and full-bodied flavors. While this is an expensive wine, it is certainly worth the price tag. 
  • Bogle Vineyards Merlot – If you’re looking for an easy-to-drink wine that is great value, then you can’t go wrong with this one. It features soft and fruity flavors. 
  • Two Hands Lily’s Garden Merlot – This easy-to-drink Merlot is light and fruit. It features vibrant and fresh flavors that are good value for money. 
  • Silver Oak Cellars Merlot – This is a classic rich and full-bodied wine from California. It is of great value and has long aging potential. 
  • Concha y Toro Frontera Merlot – This easy-to-drink Merlot is medium-bodied and features a fruit flavor. It is a great value wine!

How Much Alcohol Does Merlot Contain?

The alcohol content in Merlot is largely dependent on where it is grown – since climate can determine its ripeness, thus its alcohol levels, too.

For instance, Merlot found in cooler environments, such as France, has an alcohol by volume (abv) of 13-14%. 

However, when grown in warmer climates, such as Australia, California, and Chile, this number can reach 14.5%. 

How Many Carbs And Calories Does Merlot Contain?

Merlot is generally enjoyed dry. However, just because the wine has little to no sugar doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain any calories. Alcohol can contain calories too. 

A typical 5-ounce serving of Merlot features 125 calories. In a 750ml bottle, you’ll find 625 calories. 

If your wine has some residual sugar then it will contain carbs or carbohydrates, too, but only in small quantities. 

When it comes to dry wines, these generally range between zero to 4 grams of carbohydrates. 

Is Merlot Sweet Or Dry?

Typically, Merlot is made to feature a dry style. That said, you should remember that when it comes to the taste of ripe flavors, such as plums and cherries, this is not the same as the sweetness from sugar. 

Once the grapes have been pressed, the sugars originally found in the grapes are then converted into alcohol by the yeast. 

After all, or nearly all, the sugar has been converted, you’re then provided with a fully dry wine. 

Some manufacturers will leave residual sugar (RS) behind. This can be purposeful to provide the wine with hints of sweetness and richness. 

Alternatively, it could simply be the result of the yeast not finishing fermentation. However, even if your wine contains a few grams per liter of RS it is still referred to as dry wine. 

Why Should You Drink Merlot?

If you have never tasted Merlot or explored its wide range of varieties around the world, then now is the perfect time to do so. 

In the mid-2000s, Merlot experienced something that can only be described as a ‘grape-variety meltdown’. 

It is said to have reached its low point due to the popular movie Sideways. Here, the actor Paul Giamatti exclaimed to his friend “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any Merlot!”

Since the movie was released, producers from all over the world have doubled their efforts to paint Merlot in a desirable way – crafting it in a way that fans will enjoy. 

As such, Merlot has seen something of a comeback, especially in the United States. 

Thanks to its plush texture and soft tannins, Merlot can be enjoyed on its own or with a variety of foods, too. 

Classic pairings with the wine include hamburgers and steak which are enjoyable and easy. The dark berries and generous plums of Merlot work great with fruit-based sauces coating duck and lamb, as well. 

Moreover, it is a solid option to enjoy with cheeses such as gouda and cheddar. Since the subtle sweetness here perfectly complements the ripe fruit found in Merlot. 

However, when it comes to funkier washed rind cheese or bold blue cheeses, you might want to process with caution.

This is because the tannic expressions of the Merlot won’t pair as well when compared to, let’s say, a Port. 

That said, Merlot is a perfect pairing for chocolate. Make sure the percentage of cacao is high enough and doesn’t contain too much sugar since this will make the tannins in the Merlot too assertive and gritty. 

Overall, the range of expressions and styles in Merlot makes it an incredibly versatile drink.

Fun Merlot Wine Facts

  • Merlot is the most popular grape planted in Bordeaux, France. 
  • It can be grown in the same climates as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. 
  • In 2011, the most expensive Merlot was sold in an auction. The 1961 case of Pétrus went for an impressive $144,000 USD – that is $12,000 a bottle. 

Final Thoughts

Merlot is one of the most popular red wines in the world. It is enjoyed in many different countries. In fact, it is the second most popular red wine in the United States. 

The beauty of this wine is that it is easy to drink and goes deliciously with most dishes. It is not too sweet and not too bitter – the perfect middle-ground that can be enjoyed by most adults. 

It generally tends to be an inexpensive wine, too, with varieties to suit all budgets. Hopefully, this guide has informed you of everything you need to know about Merlot.

Sarah Perez
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