Merlot. What a great name for wine. It just flows off the tongue and makes you thirsty for more. A soft, fruity wine with a deep red color, it’s easy to drink by itself while easily pairing with a range of food.
Merlot is the second most planted grape, right behind Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, these two wines are practically tied at the vine together, given they are offspring of Cabernet Franc. These great wines are blended together to form the coveted Bordeaux wine from France.
Merlot is grown around the world and these are the top regions. In France and Italy, Merlot is made a blend. California and Washington make Merlot as a single varietal and as Bordeaux style blends.
- France: Bordeaux (Right Bank) (regions: St. Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac)
- California: Napa Valley, Sonoma, Paso Robles
- Washington: Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley
- Italy: Tuscany
The river that flows through Bordeaux splits the wine growing regions into the Right Bank and Left Bank. Merlot is grown on the right bank where it thrives in clay soil. Cabernet Sauvignon is grown on the left bank, which is composed of mostly gravel soil. As such, Right Bank Bordeaux is a blend of Merlot (70-80%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (30-20%). Vice versa for the Left Bank Bordeaux, which is a blend of Cab (70-80%) and Merlot (30-20%). Of course, the blend usually includes a touch of Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and maybe a few other choice reds as the winemakers see fit.
Merlot is also a big player in Italian Super Tuscan wine. This again is a blended red wine that features Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and/or Syrah in varying percentages. Super Tuscan is actually the product of rebellious winemakers who didn’t want to be bound by the old Italian winemaking laws. Out of the rebellion was born a new Italian wine classification for these head-turning wines called Toscana IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).
To really get a feel for Merlot and its popular blends, taste them side-by-side. To make it a bit easier, I’ve provided recommendations from each region below. If you’d rather pick up the wine at your local wine store, double check that you’ve got a Bordeaux with Merlot as the predominant grape. I’ve found this to be a bit tricky as I don’t have all of the right bank regions memorized — a daunting task. Remember we are trying to keep it simple!
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Just follow these 3 steps to become familiar when tasting Merlot and Merlot blends. Take notes and see if you agree with the following tasting profile.
Take your glass and tilt it over a white napkin or paper at a 45-degree angle. Compare the color across all regions. Take note of the opacity levels. If you place your fingers between the glass and the napkin, how easily can you see them? These are all tells of what kind of wine you are drinking.
TASTING PROFILE: Deep red in color.
Let’s see how aromatic Merlot is. Hold your glass at your chest and see if you can catch any scent. Then move it to your chin and try to smell. Then really put your nose in the glass and take a big sniff. What scents do you catch? Swirl the wine and then sniff again. What scents do you catch now?
TASTING PROFILE: This is not an aromatic grape. You’ll have to stick your nose in the glass to catch scents like black cherry and plum.
Take a taste and swirl it in your mouth. What flavors do you taste? After you swallow, how long does the flavor linger and how would you describe those flavors?
Fruit: Black cherry, raspberry, plum, vanilla, toast
Acidity: Medium acidity (This is tartness in the wine and hits underneath the back of your tongue and throat.)
Tannin: Medium tannin. (This is bitterness that comes from the grape skins.)
Oak: Medium oak.
Body: Medium to full body. (This is how heavy or full the wine is. Think skim milk vs. whole milk.)
Easy Rating System
After you taste each wine, give it a rating using this easy rating system. Add notes to help remember what you liked or didn’t like about the wine.
3pts Good, but not great
1pt Not for me
Food & Cheese Pairings
Merlot is a great food wine and pairs well with a variety of red and white meats, red sauces and earthy flavors like mushrooms.
- Red meats: steak, short ribs, lamb, cured meats
- White meats: chicken, pork
- Red sauces and pasta
- Root vegetables: potatoes, carrots
- Dark chocolate
- Smoked Cheddar
- Blue Cheese