What is Merlot?

What is Merlot?
Merlot is a black grape used to make a popular red varietal wine and it is also very important as a blending partner with Cabernet.

Merlot was first documented in 1783 growing in the Bordeaux region. Its name comes from the French for blackbirds which feasted on ripening Merlot grapes. Modern science has proved via DNA that Merlot is the result of a cross between Cabernet Franc and an obscure and almost extinct variety named Madeleine Noire des Charentes.

Merlot is also a sibling of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère and Malbec, which all share one of their parents, thus five of the six red Bordeaux varieties are closely related.

Merlot is the most planted variety in its home of Bordeaux where it is usually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and or Cabernet Franc. However as a single varietal it makes one of the world’s most desired and expensive wines at Petrus and in the Pomerol and Saint Emilion appellations is by far the largest component in blends.

Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet, and it makes a softer sweeter and less tannic wine than Cabernet, and thus adds these attributes to Cabernet which can be rather tough when young.

Merlot is planted in most places that make wine in the old world. In the new world importance of Bordeaux encouraged wine makers to make Bordeaux style blends and for that they needed Merlot. New red wine drinkers found Merlot on its own to be approachable and enjoyable.

In the United States in the 1980’s the easy drinking qualities of Merlot led to it becoming the default wine to ask for when a glass of red wine was wanted. Today it is third most planted red variety in California (after Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel) although its popularity took a dive after the protagonist in the 2004 movie Sideways appeared to disparage it.*

Merlot has also made its mark as the very collectible Marilyn Merlot California wine brand with each vintage having a different photograph of Marilyn Monroe on its label. And Marilyn Merlot was included by my publishers in the title of my first book.

The most memorable Merlot varietal I have enjoyed in recent years came from the Lenz winery located on the North Fork of Long Island in New York State. But wherever you are you’ll find Merlot in your wine shop. As always, price is an indication of quality.

If you’ve not ventured into red wines so far, Merlot is a good one to start with. If you’re an experienced red wine drinker you’ll no doubt have found a favourite Merlot. Please tell us about it on our forum.

Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.

* Of course Miles didn’t hate Merlot; his beloved special bottle was Château Cheval Blanc, which is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc – another variety he seemed to criticise in the film. My take is his protest against drinking Merlot was that he was there specifically to drink Pinot Noir and he thought the female dates Jack had arranged would be ignorant about wine and uncaringly just ask for Merlot.

Note: My source for DNA information was the book Wine Grapes which I reviewed
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