What is Merlot Wine?
Merlot is a grape varietal with dark blue skin produced in many regions around the world. It is most famous for being part of the controlled red blends that make up wines from Bordeaux. The Merlot grape is also grown in Spain, Italy and in various regions of the United States as well as South Africa and is seeing a growth in popularity in New Zealand.
Merlot is popular for its soft, juicy fruit characters when made into wine and is widely planted in Australia. Merlot has an odd relation with Australia, or perhaps the other way around. It is the third most planted red grape varietal in the country. Yet, unlike Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, it is less well known. Merlot is, like those French equivalents in Bordeaux, mostly used for blends.
Owing to its early fruitiness, Merlot is often used as a single varietal wine at the lower cost end of the market. There are exceptions to this, of course, and many winemakers in Australia are making the case for Merlot with excellent wines.
Common Merlot Wine characteristics
Ideally, Merlot is medium bodied and should have softer tannins. For taste and aroma, there is no ideal. Region, as well as the hand of the winemaker, plays a big role in how a Merlot red wine is received.
Merlot is generally known for aromas of plum, chocolate, mulberries, mint and hints of herbs and a palate that echoes similar characters. Merlot is also very suited to blending with other grape varieties.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the classic Bordeaux combination, and Australia has done very well in emulating this style. Merlot’s plushness fills the mid-palate hole of Cabernet, or so the saying goes.
Pairing food with Merlot Wine
Like other Bordeaux-style reds, Merlot stands up to richer, meaty dishes. Barbecued or grilled meats are perfect for a traditional Merlot or Merlot-based blends. Region has an impact on food pairing decisions also. Softer Merlots from cool-climate regions, like the Limestone Coast, pair well with prawns or other light shellfish. Spicy foods tend to pair poorly with Merlot as it can make the wine taste a little bitter.
Cheese wise, Blue cheese should be avoided. Unlike its blockbuster red-blend Shiraz-based cousins from the Barossa Valley, Merlot wine is lighter and less tannic. A soft cheese like a Camembert or even a hard cheese like cheddar will pair well with subduing the fruit in Merlot.
Notable Merlot Wine regions
Bordeaux is the premier region for Merlot wine. In fact it is the most planted grape in France. Many French wines from Bordeaux use Merlot in their blends to lesser or greater degree. The most famous ‘big-name’ wine is Château Pétrus. This cult French wine stands out amongst the other great châteaux from Bordeaux as it uses mostly Merlot in its production.
Australian wineries produce many Merlots and Merlot blends that are very accessible and suitable to drink early. However, like Australian wine, region and winemakers can influence wines dramatically. Many Australian winemakers love Merlot. Wine brands in Australia produce some excellent examples though they may not share the limelight in the domestic market.
Neil Doddridge of Black Wattle produces excellent Merlot in the cooler climates of the Limestone Coast in South Australia. Wynn’s in Coonawarra and Vasse Felix in Margaret River produce some of the finest examples of Merlot in Australia while the Merlot benchmark is set by Irvine in Eden Valley. Other brands that are shining a light on the potential of Merlot include Krondorf, Rohrlach, Angove, Dorrien Estate and Grant Burge.
The future of Merlot Wine
Winemakers in Australia are raising the profile of this grape with serious dedication to the cultivation of this grape and production of the wine. Inspired by world-class brands like Château Pétrus, Australian winemakers have the talent and ambition to match the growing interest in Merlot.