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Getting To Know Merlot

Fine Cooking Issue 63
Photos: Scott Phillips
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With its supple fruit and easy-drinking style, Merlot is probably the closest thing to a “comfort wine” I can think of. It’s also the most popular red wine in America. But oddly enough, for such a popular wine, Merlot doesn’t have a textbook style: while some are light, quaffable, and straightforward, others are rich, age-worthy, and complex. No worries. Here’s a guide to help you figure out which Merlots suit you best.

Merlot with food

Lighter Merlots
• grilled salmon
• roast chicken
• pasta with simple red sauce
• grilled vegetables

Medium-weight to richer Merlots
• all red meats, lamb
• duck (avoid sweet sauces)
• roast pork
• Cheddar, Parmigiano, and other aged cheeses

Merlot across the globe

The Merlot grape grows best in cool climates. It doesn’t do as well in hot places because it ripens early and tends to show undesirable, cooked-fruit flavors if left on the vine too long.

Merlot plantings worldwide have risen dramatically over the last ten years. As a result, there’s a lot of mediocre Merlot out there. But plenty of good ones can be found. Here’s a tour the world over.  

In France, Merlot’s best examples are from Bordeaux. Merlot from Pomerol and Saint-Emilion are capable of true greatness, especially when blended with the Cabernet Franc grape. Châteaux such as Pétrus, Le Pin, Cheval Blanc, and Ausone are some of the greatest Merlot made anywhere—and some of the greatest red wines in the world, for that matter.

For everyday drinking, look for good value from Bordeaux’s satellite communes such as Fronsac and Lalandede-Pomerol. And outside of Bordeaux, Merlot is produced in enormous quantities in the Languedoc region, in southwest France. Though not as great (or expensive) as their Bordeaux cousins, the best of these country Merlots offers a glass of succulent, ripe fruit and great value. Who could ask for more?  

In the U.S., Merlot from prestigious appellations such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County can be found in every style, from light and easy to rich, tannic reds that require a decade or more of aging. There’s a California Merlot for every taste, but you need to be familiar with the producer’s specific style to avoid the mediocre stuff (see our recommendations at right). With California Merlot, going a little higher on the price spectrum will often get you better quality.  

Washington State produces many outstanding Merlots that boast ripe, intense black fruit flavors and bright acidity. Look for Washington Merlots bottled both as a single variety and in Cabernet blends. Both can be first rate.  

In Australia, Merlot is the second most widely planted grape after Shiraz. Here the country’s talented winemakers make juicy, fruit-forward wines in every price range that are long on flavor and good values. Also look for Merlot-Shiraz and Merlot-Cabernet blends.

Argentina and Chile have long been two of the better sources for value-priced Merlot. Bright, youthful fruits and supple textures characterize these wines, as does a touch of earthiness.

The Cabernet-Merlot connection

Wine drinkers commonly associate Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon because the two grapes are often blended, with fleshy Merlot being used to soften the leaner, more tannic Cabernet, especially in Bordeaux. When bottled as a single varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be a bigger, more concentrated wine with firmer tannins. Textbook Merlot, if there is such a thing, has lusher fruit, softer tannins, and lower acidity than Cabernet, which is why it’s so appealing to a wide audience.

Merlot styles

Lighter Merlots
• strawberry
• red raspberry
• herbs
• light oak
• soft tannins

Medium-weight Merlots
• red and black fruits
• herbal elements
• smoky notes
• firmer tannins

Richer Merlots
• dark fruits
• herbs
• baking spices
• pronounced new oak
• medium to robust tannins

Merlot to savor

Less expensive
• Fortant de France Vin de Pays d’Oc; medium weight
• Carmenet Cellar Selection Merlot, California; medium weight
• Blackstone Merlot, California; light, fruity
• Columbia Valley Merlot, Washington; light, fruity
• Trumpeter Merlot, Argentina; medium weight
• Jacob’s Creek Merlot, Australia; light, fruity
• Casa Lapostolle Merlot, Chile; medium weight with some tannins

More expensive
• Murphy-Goode Merlot, Alexander Valley; fruity but rich, with some tannins
• Swanson Merlot, Napa Valley; rich and robust
• L’Ecole No 41 Merlot, Washington; rich and robust
• Beringer Merlot Bancroft Ranch, Howell Mountain; one for the cellar
• Chateau L’Angélus, Saint-Emilion; another one for the cellar


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