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Introduction to Merlot
Merlot is a popular red wine that is enjoyed worldwide for its rich flavors and smooth texture. This versatile grape variety has a long history and can be found in a variety of styles, from fruity and easy-drinking to bold and age-worthy.
In this ultimate guide to Merlot, we’ll explore the history, unique characteristics, top producing regions, and ideal food pairings for this beloved wine.
History of Merlot
Merlot traces its origins back to the Bordeaux region of France, where it has been grown since the early 18th century.
It is believed that Merlot got its name from the French word “merle,” meaning blackbird, possibly referring to the grape’s dark blue color or the birds’ fondness for the fruit.
Merlot’s Rise to Popularity
Merlot gained popularity in the 20th century as winemakers began to recognize its potential as a blending grape in Bordeaux’s famous red wine blends.
As Merlot began to be exported to other countries, it garnered a reputation as a reliable and approachable wine, helping it become one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world.
Merlot’s Unique Characteristics
Merlot is known for its juicy, fruity flavors, which can include plum, black cherry, and blackberry. The wine’s fruity nature makes it appealing to a wide range of palates.
Depending on the region and winemaking style, Merlot can also exhibit flavors of chocolate, coffee, tobacco, and earthy notes. These secondary flavors can add depth and complexity to the wine.
Texture and Tannins
Merlot is often described as having a velvety or silky texture, with medium tannins and moderate acidity.
This smooth, well-rounded mouthfeel makes Merlot a popular choice for wine lovers who enjoy a less tannic red wine.
Major Merlot Producing Regions
Bordeaux is the birthplace of Merlot and remains one of its top-producing regions. The wines from this area tend to be more structured and age-worthy, with a strong emphasis on the blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Napa Valley, California
Napa Valley Merlots are known for their ripe, fruit-forward flavors and plush texture. These wines often showcase rich chocolate and mocha notes, which are appealing to many wine drinkers.
Chile has emerged as a major Merlot producing region, with a focus on producing fruit-driven, easy-drinking wines. The warm climate and diverse terroirs of Chile allow Merlot to express a range of flavors, from juicy red fruits to deeper, more savory notes.
Food Pairings with Merlot
Merlot’s versatility, fruity flavors, and moderate tannins make it an ideal wine for a variety of food pairings.
Its smooth texture and approachable nature allow it to complement a wide range of dishes, from simple comfort foods to more complex culinary creations. Read our beginners guide on wine and food pairings.
Below are some suggestions for pairing Merlot with different types of dishes.
- Beef: Merlot’s bold fruit flavors and silky tannins make it a great match for beef dishes, such as steaks, braised short ribs, and beef bourguignon. The wine’s acidity helps to cut through the richness of the meat, while its fruitiness complements the savory flavors.
- Lamb: The earthy, herbal notes in Merlot can complement the distinct flavors of lamb, especially when it’s roasted or grilled. Merlot’s smooth texture also works well with dishes like lamb shanks or shepherd’s pie.
- Pork: Merlot pairs beautifully with pork dishes like tenderloin, chops, or pulled pork. The wine’s fruitiness and acidity balance the fattiness and sweetness of the meat, creating a harmonious taste experience.
- Chicken: Merlot can be an excellent choice for roast chicken, especially when accompanied by a flavorful sauce or gravy. The wine’s moderate tannins and fruitiness work well with the mild flavors of the poultry.
- Turkey: Merlot’s medium body and fruity flavors make it a popular choice for Thanksgiving dinners, where it can complement the richness of roast turkey and its accompaniments.
- Duck: The gamey flavors of duck pair well with Merlot’s earthy, fruity notes. Consider dishes like duck confit or duck breast with a cherry or plum sauce to bring out the best in both the wine and the dish.
- Salmon: The richness of salmon can stand up to the medium body and fruity flavors of Merlot. Grilled or roasted salmon with a herb crust or mushroom sauce can create a delightful pairing.
- Tuna: Seared or grilled tuna steaks can also work well with Merlot, as the wine’s fruitiness and acidity help to balance the meaty texture and strong flavors of the fish.
- Mushroom-based dishes: The earthy notes in Merlot can be a great match for mushroom dishes like risotto, stroganoff, or a hearty mushroom and vegetable ragout.
- Roasted vegetables: Merlot pairs well with a variety of roasted vegetables, such as eggplant, bell peppers, and squash. The caramelization from roasting brings out the natural sweetness in the vegetables, which complements Merlot’s fruitiness.
- Bean or lentil dishes: Hearty bean or lentil dishes, such as cassoulet or a lentil stew, can work well with Merlot’s smooth texture and earthy flavors.
Merlot pairs well with a variety of cheeses, including:
- Aged cheddar: The sharp, nutty flavors of aged cheddar can stand up to Merlot’s fruitiness and tannins.
- Gouda: The creamy, buttery flavors of Gouda complement Merlot’s smooth texture and fruity notes.
- Blue cheese: The strong, pungent flavors of blue cheese like Roquefort or Gorgonzola can create a delicious contrast with Merlot’s fruity, earthy flavors.
While Merlot is typically a dry wine, its fruity flavors can complement certain desserts, such as:
- Dark chocolate: The rich, slightly bitter flavors of dark chocolate can create a decadent pairing with Merlot’s fruity notes and moderate tannins. Consider a dark chocolate tart, truffles, or a flourless chocolate cake to enjoy with your Merlot.
- Fruit-based desserts: Fruit-based desserts like poached pears, berry tarts, or cherry clafoutis can work well with Merlot, as the wine’s fruitiness enhances the flavors of the dish without overpowering it.
- Chocolate and nut combinations: Merlot’s earthy notes can pair well with desserts that combine chocolate and nuts, such as chocolate hazelnut torte or almond-studded brownies.
By considering the flavors, textures, and ingredients of the dishes you plan to serve, you can create memorable pairings that enhance both your Merlot and your culinary creations.
Whether you’re hosting a dinner party or enjoying a cozy meal at home, Merlot’s versatility and approachable nature make it a fantastic choice to accompany a wide range of dishes.
Storing and Serving Merlot
Proper Storage Conditions
To maintain the quality of your Merlot, it is essential to store it in the right conditions. Ideal storage conditions for Merlot include:
- A cool, constant temperature: Aim for a temperature between 50-60°F (10-16°C). Sudden temperature fluctuations can negatively impact the wine’s quality.
- Darkness: Exposure to sunlight or artificial light can cause wine to age prematurely or develop off-flavors. Store Merlot in a dark place, such as a wine cellar or cabinet.
- Humidity: A relative humidity of 60-70% is ideal for wine storage. Too much humidity can cause mold, while too little can dry out the cork, leading to oxidation.
- Horizontal positioning: Store Merlot bottles horizontally, which keeps the cork moist and prevents it from drying out and allowing air into the bottle.
Merlot is best served at a slightly cooler temperature than room temperature, around 60-65°F (16-18°C). This allows the wine’s flavors to fully express themselves without being overpowered by alcohol or tannins.
To achieve this temperature, you can either chill the wine in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before serving or use a wine cooler.
Decanting and Aerating
Decanting Merlot can help to soften the tannins and enhance the wine’s flavors. To decant, slowly pour the wine into a decanter, which will allow it to come into contact with air. This process helps to release any trapped gases and allows the wine to breathe, which can improve the overall taste and aroma.
Younger, more tannic Merlots will benefit from decanting for at least 30 minutes before serving. More mature, aged Merlots may only need a few minutes to breathe and open up. If you don’t have a decanter, you can also use a clean glass pitcher or simply swirl the wine in your glass to encourage aeration.
When serving Merlot, choose large, bowl-shaped wine glasses that allow the wine to breathe and help to concentrate its aromas. Fill the glass only to the widest part of the bowl, which enables you to swirl the wine without spilling and allows you to fully appreciate its bouquet.
It’s also important to serve Merlot at a moderate pace, as this allows the wine to evolve in the glass and reveal its various flavor and aroma profiles. Be sure to take the time to savor the wine’s changing characteristics and enjoy the sensory experience it offers.
Merlot is a versatile, crowd-pleasing red wine with a rich history and wide range of flavors. From the structured, age-worthy blends of Bordeaux to the fruit-forward, plush wines of Napa Valley and Chile, there is a Merlot for every palate.
Pair it with your favorite dishes or enjoy it on its own and discover why Merlot remains a beloved choice among wine enthusiasts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Merlot is typically a dry wine, although its fruity flavors can sometimes give the impression of sweetness.
Merlot is generally softer and more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon, with less tannin and a smoother texture. Cabernet Sauvignon tends to have more structure and can be more age worthy.
While many Merlots are made to be enjoyed young, some high-quality Merlots can age for 10-20 years, developing additional complexity and depth over time.
An opened bottle of Merlot should be re-corked and stored in a cool, dark place. It is best consumed within 3-5 days of opening to maintain its quality and flavor.
Merlot is available at various price points, from affordable, everyday wines to high-end, collectible bottles. Expect to pay anywhere from $10 to $100+ for a bottle of Merlot, depending on the region, producer, and vintage.