According to Tom Hyland, a contributor to Forbes, Merlot has always gotten the short end when it comes to declaring the best wine.
The bias, he says, is particularly prominent in Napa Valley, which also happens to be home to other California wines, including the always popular Cabernet Sauvignon. In California, the wine must be comprised of at least seventy five percent or more Merlot grapes in order to be considered true Merlot.
His theory as to why Merlot is treated with less respect? The lighter hue, he says, may look less impressive to red wine lovers who do not really know much about how to find the best Merlot.
And Merlot at its best can be quite impressive and versatile.
In Washington, there’s a similar pattern of underplaying Merlot. Merlot plays a large role in the state, if diminished. In 2009, Merlot was the more prominent variety in the region, accounting for a robust harvest of over twenty-seven thousand tons. In fact, many argue that Washington owns its prominence as a wine region to Merlot.
Flash forward a decade later, and the situation has changed. Merlot now is the fourth most commonly grown variety, trailing behind not only Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Chardonnay and Riesling in that order.
But what many are missing is that Merlot is still very prominent, just in less visible ways. Many of the most popular wine blends in both Washington and California rely on Merlot. And according to some, Merlot may be making a comeback.
While it’s unclear Merlot will rise to the popularity it once enjoyed in the United States, as of 2017 it actually still remained the second most grown grape variety in the world, following only Cabernet Sauvignon and beating out other seemingly popular varieties such as Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir.
And even in the United States, rising vineyards and restaurants are now giving some more acclaim back to Merlot.
Of course, one of the key components to enjoying Merlot is being able to find the very best. In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about Merlot, why it’s an excellent choice for red wine, and how to find the best bottle.
Why did Merlot fall in popularity in the United States?
While it’s difficult to ever definitely trace the decline in popularity in a certain type of wine or even grape variety, there are a number of factors that are usually behind it.
Sometimes, it’s due to the rise of another variety, which, as we know, certainly may have contributed. In some instances, changes in climate, other hardships or changes in soil necessitate a transition to a different variety.
With Merlot, one of the reasons is a bit less pragmatic and instead rooted in pop culture. The 2004 comedy-drama Sideways made a splash in American theaters, earning nearly one hundred and ten million at the box office and earning several Academy Award nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay (which it won), Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor.
But it also featured one of the main characters criticizing Merlot and casting it as a poor wine. Strange as it may seem, it was after that film that Merlot’s popularity declined more.
Another reason was a period that saw the proliferation of cheap, mass-produced wines, and unfortunately, a number of them were labeled as Merlot. Thus, many consumers missed out on the best Merlot and instead began to associate Merlot with lesser quality.
While there may be many reasons, including the association with a lighter hue as a lesser wine, it’s clear that a myriad of factors, many of them unfounded, resulted in Merlot becoming less known to Americans.
Is Cabernet Sauvignon better than Merlot?
With claims from some that Cabernet Sauvignon is superior that Merlot, it’s clearly a matter of misunderstanding and subjective taste. Compared, Cabernet Sauvignon is a bit richer and more elegant, but the best versions of Merlot present unique flavors that range from complex to light and is among the most appealing and versatile wines.
Merlot, in fact, is better in some cases depending on the occasion and specific food pairings. In other words, both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot deserve places at the table, and there are ample reasons why you may even prefer Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Where is Merlot grown?
Merlot is most prominent in France, where it takes its name, and is one of the most popular grape varieties, though some believe it was first discovered in Italy back in the mid-1800s under a different name.
It is one of the most versatile grapes in that it can be grown and thrive in a variety of climates. Countries that grow Merlot include:
- United States
- South Africa
- New Zealand
As you can see, Merlot really does thrive in a wide range of climates and soil types and is much more widespread than many may be aware.
If Merlot is so widespread, why don’t I hear much about it?
One reason Merlot isn’t frequently mentioned is that it is often used in blends. Merlot, with its classic and pleasing characteristics, is subtle enough to not overpower other varieties but also contains distinct and pleasing notes.
Bordeaux blends especially rely on Merlot, as do many around the world.
Merlot has also been crossed to create new varieties, including Carmine, Prodest, Nigra, Ederena, and Mamaia, among others.
What’s the best temperature to serve Merlot at?
Before we get into the specific characteristics you should look for in order to find the best Merlot, it’s important to note that both proper storage and serving is essential to enjoying it at its best.
If Merlot is served too warm, much of the flavors are lost; too cold, and the same thing can happen. The ideal temperature for serving Merlot and enjoying its best flavors and aromas is sixty to sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit.
What food does Merlot pair with?
What Merlot pairs best with depends on the style of Merlot (which we will discuss). More fruit-forward Merlot goes best with chicken, turkey or pork, but it’s versatile enough it can even be paired with pizza and tomato-based pasta dishes.
If you’re serving rich red meat, such as beef or bison, you will need to opt for a richer, more full-bodied Merlot.
Some of the best wine pairings for Merlot from Bordeaux include mushrooms, other earthy vegetables, and roasted meats. At its most playful and light, it’s great for white meat, but the fuller, more robust Merlot can work with red meats, which is why it’s hard to go wrong with a Merlot with food pairing.
How do I find the best Merlot?
How to find the best Merlot really comes down to becoming informed on what to look for, and what to avoid. By noting the following characteristics, you’ll be able to enjoy the very best Merlot has to offer.
How do I avoid bulk wine?
We mentioned earlier that one of the greatest detriments to Merlot’s reputation as a fine wine was the mass production of cheap wines. The make sure you avoid like this, you want to check to see if you can:
- Trace the wine back to a specific region, and ideally, vineyard. You also want to purchase it from a vineyard that’s been established for a while
- Opt for pure Merlot or a Bordeaux blend. While there are fine enough quality red wine blends, to experience Merlot at its best, you want something that’s been practiced but also doesn’t mask the signature flavor notes and aromas of Merlot.
- If you’re buying a Californian Merlot, in particular, check the back label. Simply saying California means that it likely is not a specialized, regional wine. Be aware if it is not linked to a specific distillery or vineyard that Lodi and Central Valley are hot spots for bulk wines.
- Be realistic about price point. If you buy a bottle of Merlot for ten dollars or under, chances are it’s not the best wine you could be drinking.
Are there different types of Merlot?
Perhaps one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is between a warm and cool climate Merlot.
- Cool climate Merlot comes from more Northern regions of France, Italy, Chile and is the variety more often mistaken for Cabernet Sauvignon, and it tends to have a ruby hue with warm red undertones.
- Warm climate Merlot comes from regions such as Australia, Argentina and parts of California. Merlot from a warmer region and has a ruby hue with cool blue undertones.
- One isn’t better than the other but there are pros and cons.
How acidic is Merlot?
As a generalization, Merlot averages out to have moderate to moderately high levels of acidity. Moderate levels of acidity help balance out the fruity flavors and add sophistication. Merlot tends to also have a moderate level of tannins and a medium body, all producing a fairly stable and balanced wine that is not overly crisp or heavy–but differences exist depending on a number of factors.
What are the main differences between warm and cool climate Merlot?
The main differences mostly have to do with two things: structure and flavor notes. Whether you’re looking for a cool or warm weather Merlot, these are the characteristics of the best of each:
Warm climate is more fruit-forward, featuring dark red fruits such as blackberry, jam, plum, but also a lighter raspberry to provide lift. In the best, most complex varieties, you’ll also notice floral notes, as well as richer notes, such as cocoa. Foraged Merlot, vanilla and baking spices will be present. Also importantly, there should be bright green flavors, but the wine should not be peppery or smoky.
Look for a full-body to experience warm climate Merlot at its best. The full-body, along with richer notes of cocoa and even coffee truly complements the rich, fruity flavors and make for a smooth and enjoyable wine.
Cool climate Merlot is noticeably different. Where warm climate Merlot should taste rich and smooth, cool-climate needs to have pronounced structure, acidity and earthy, herbaceous flavors. While you’ll want to look for blackberry and plum notes, important to are the more prominent, ripe red fruits such as cherries and raspberries.
Tobacco, mint, anise, and even licorice bring out the best notes in cool climate Merlot. Earthy mushroom and truffle notes add depth to cocoa notes, but a medium body makes more sense for a cool climate Merlot
Aim for moderate acidity–too high acidity may make the ripe flavors overly pronounced, but too low and the flavors can become muddled
The best versions should taste more bright and ripe, with some minerality, as opposed to the richness of a warmer climate merlot
How do I decide between a cool vs warm climate Merlot?
Whether you opt for a cool or warm climate Merlot depends on what you’re looking for. If you like bright and earthy wines, you’ll like cool-climate better. If you’re a fan of traditional Cabernet Sauvignon and other richer, full-body wines, opt for a warm climate Merlot.
What does ‘New World’ and ‘Old World’ mean?
When searching for the best Merlot, you may also come across the terms ‘New’ and ‘Old’ World. Really, these are simply pointing to differences in climate and overall profile, with a New World Merlot indicating a warmer climate and Old World a cooler climate.
What country of origin is the most ideal?
Again this is a matter of preference, as it depends on if you want a lighter, more playful Merlot or a richer version. Italy produces a number of high quality, lighter body wines while France and California tend to produce fuller, more rich versions.
Should I look for vintage Merlot?
Now comes the question about aging. Merlot is known to be a wine that can be enjoyed both young and aged, however many experts suggest Merlot not be aged past ten to fifteen years. At its youngest, Merlot is fruit-forward and approachable and bright, while a vintage Merlot with be softer, smoother, and richer. Plum and green notes are more present in young Merlot, while oak aging will bring forward toasted notes, vanilla, and occasionally richer cocoa and baking spices.
The warm climate is more naturally suited for aging based upon its warmer and richer notes. Aged cool climate Merlot can soften tannins and lower acidity if it is overly ripe, though you may also lose some of the more fresh, bright and ripe flavors in the process.
Merlot, as a whole, is not necessarily better aged. If you want a richer and smooth wine, you may enjoy vintage. The problem is that some of the best flavor notes and already fairly balanced composition can become muted when it’s been too heavily aged. More pronounced tannins and acidity add structure and interest to Merlot.
What about the price?
Merlot can range quite a bit in terms of price and depends on how refined you want to get. The very most expensive Merlot can cost several hundreds of dollars; on the other hand, there are also many cheap Merlots out there.
- For everyday use, Merlot can range from ten to twenty dollars
- For dinner quality, aim to spend around thirty dollars
- For a special occasion, forty to six dollars is reasonable
- For some of the finest Merlot, look around eighty to one hundred or so dollars
Can you recommend specific Merlot I can try?
If you want to find the best Merlot but still are not sure where to begin, consider our examples below, which include both cool and warm climate renditions which offer some of the best and most classic characteristics of a quality Merlot.
- Château Trotanoy Pomerol: Whether you buy it young or vintage, this French wine is considered elegant with rich dark fruits, pleasant acidity, and noticeable tannins. It’s intense but also contains enough brightness to provide lift. And unlike some Merlot, depending on the year, it is either ninety percent or one hundred percent Merlot.
- Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi 2014 Lamaione Merlot (Toscana): This Italian Merlot is rich, immersive and multifaceted. Deep red and black fruit, especially berries, produce an almost jam-like profile, accompanied by vanilla, coconut, and espresso notes.
- 2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot: While we’ve selected the 2016 rendition, Duckhorn Vineyards generally produce some nice warm climate Merlot from California. Smooth tannins, rich and layered berry flavors, and exhibits characteristics unique to the region’s soil and climate.
- Leconfield Merlot: This is a consistent producer of richer, and more memorable Australian Merlot. Red and blackberries are complemented with notes of interest, including mint, oak, and cocoa. If you want a vintage, 1996 is considered a great option.