If you don't enjoy Merlot, then we cannot be friends. Our intern at Wine Republic will tell you why!
Varietal Overview: Merlot
History and Cultivation
Merlot’s recorded history begins back in the 18th century, with its first written record being from the found notes of a French official in Bordeaux in 1784. In this notation, the official spoke extremely highly of the varietal, labelling it as one of the best of the winemaking grapes of the time. It has been said that the name Merlot comes from a local black bird that took a particular liking to the grapes on some of the first vines that were planted in the Left Bank region of the Gironde estuary in France. From France, the grapes were introduced to the Italians and the Swiss sometime during the 19th century. As is the case with many other popular varietals, Merlot vines started popping up in most of the world’s major wine-producing regions, including California, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, Spain, and Australia. Oddly enough, Merlot is even grown in China, which is not typically thought of as a region of the world that grows fine wines.
Today, Merlot is the most widely planted grape by total area in France, with over 288,000 hectares of vines cultivated, and is described as producing wines that are the true zenith of Bordeaux vintages, particularly coming from the Right Bank. The grapes’ popularity is so extensive that it even has its own holiday, Merlot Day, celebrated November 7 every year! Winemakers have even taken to crossing Merlot with many other varietals to produce new hybrids such as Ederena, Carmine, and Rebo. In addition, Merlot is often used to make many of the famous “Bordeaux Blends” coming out of France.
Merlot vines can be identified by large, plump fruit growing in loose bunches which ripen fairly early. This quick-ripening can be tricky for winemakers, who must be careful not to allow the grapes to overripen past due. Although this aspect of the growing process is up for debate; some prefer an early harvest to retain acidity, while others believe that the best Merlot wines come from a later harvest. The grapes themselves have a thinner skin, which translates over to a finished product with noticeably less of a tannic nature than a bold red such as Cabernet Sauvignon. These grapes also tend to have a higher sugar content in comparison to other reds, and a wide spectrum of flavor potential. Vines grow best in cool, iron-laden clay earth that is well-draining, as these grapes are grown under water stress. Therefore, vines that are grown on gentle slopes will likely do better than those grown at the base of a hill/in a valley.
Tasting Profile and Pairings
Merlot is one of those wines that has the potential to vary greatly in taste depending on where and how it is grown and produced. This versatility is partially what makes this wine so popular throughout the world; there is something for everyone!
In general, Merlot wine has a smooth, velvety feel. These wines are typically dry with a slight sweetness, moderate acidity, and a smoother overall feel than that which is found in other reds such as that in Cabernet Sauvignon, although the two wines do tend to be considered fairly similar. A good quality Merlot has a noticeable fruitiness and a medium body. Although there are general differences between Old World, cool-climate Merlot and New World, warmer climate Merlot, this is one of those varietals that can have even more variation within these categories due to minute differences in the growing and production process.
Classic Old World Merlot from France will have a slightly higher tannic presence than that grown in New World vineyards such as in California, and is significantly more structured. These French Merlots will have an earthier flavor, and can be among some of the richest of the Merlots produced in the world. Notes of boysenberry, blackberry, and plum are prominent in these wines, which also can have a powerful finish with charcoal, tobacco, and rich espresso. Due to the cooler climate in the Old World region of France, Merlot grown here tends to pick up on more of the earth and less of the sun. Oak-aging is typically mild in French Merlot production, and significantly less extreme as compared to California Merlot. This being said, these wines pair well with lightly spiced dark meats, roasted chicken, turkey, or game hen. In general, proteins in the “middle weight” category are often best. Oven-roasted vegetables are also an easy pairing here, such as turnips, carrots, and sweet potatoes.
American and other New World Merlots tend to be much more fruit-forward due to the high exposure to sun during the grape-growing process. To complement this, many producers are using extensive oak-aging to help round out the body of their wines, often times using American oak. These wines, therefore, will have a much fruitier flavor with cherry, raspberry, and other juicy red fruit. Hints of cocoa and a slight spice are common, and plenty of vanilla is detected due to the American oak-aging process. These wines can pair well with Italian-style fennel sausage, baked pasta and veggie bakes, and savory rabbit.
Try this Recipe with a Fruity California Merlot
Honey Garlic Roasted Pork Tenderloin
1 pound Pork Tenderloin
FOR THE RUB:
1 tablespoon garlic salt
1 tablespoon garlic pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 tablespoon fresh minced thyme
1 tablespoon fresh minced rosemary
2 tablespoon butter
FOR THE HONEY GARLIC SAUCE:
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon garlic (minced)
1/2 cup light soy sauce
1/3 cup orange juice
1 tbsp cornstarch + 2 tbsp water for slurry
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove any fat from pork. Using a fork, puncture the pork in several places.
Add all the rub ingredients together in a small bowl and spread on all sides of the pork, pressing firm to really get the rub on the pork. Using a heavy skillet, heat over medium high heat and add butter. Allow to melt then place pork in skillet and sear just until brown, flipping to sear all sides, about 2 minutes.
Place skillet in the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Meanwhile in a small sauce pan add all ingredients for honey garlic sauce, except the cornstarch and water. Whisk to combine and bring to a slight boil.
Combine the cornstarch and water to create a slurry and add to sauce. Whisk until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and set aside.
Remove pork from the oven and baste with honey garlic sauce. Place your oven to "HI" broil and broil pork for 3 minutes to allow sauce to caramelize. Let rest 5 minutes covered, slice and garnish with fresh chopped thyme and rosemary.