This red grape variety has strong historic ties to Bordeaux and the southwest of France. It is the predominant variety in most wines from Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, this area is often refered to as the home of Merlot. Merlot is now widely planted in wine regions across the world, and in terms of the volumes of wine produced internationally, it is only bested by Cabernet Sauvignon. Although it is obviously much, much older, Merlot was not named as a distinct variety until the 1800s.
Until recently, because it is not well suited for long ageing, the wine made from merlot grapes was used solely as a blending wine. Not as harsh as other reds, merlot has less tannin than say a Cabernet and can therefore be drunk earlier. It is mellow yet still complex. Merlot is known for the flavors of black cherry, plums, violets, and orange. This grape variety is now well known as a delicious varietal in its own right.
Merlot is a thin-skinned grape variety, it ripens earlier in the season then cabernet sauvignon and is less hardy, prone to rot and mildew. It is more adaptable to cool climates than cabernet sauvignon, but similarly prefers a relatively warm growing environment.
Researchers at University of California believe that Merlot is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and is a sibling of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere. The earliest recorded mention of Merlot was in the notes of a local Bordeaux official who in 1784 labeled wine made from the grape in the Libournais region as one of the best grown in the area. The name comes from the Occitan word “merlot”, which means “young blackbird” the name is thought to have come either from the blackbirds' fondness for this grape variety, or because of the grape's beautiful dark-blue color. By the 19th century there were substantial plantings of the grape in the Medoc on the “Left Bank” of the Gironde. Following a series of setbacks that includes a severe frost in 1956 and several vintages in the 1960s being lost to rot, French authorities in Bordeaux banned new plantings of Merlot vines between 1970 and 1975.
Merlot was first recorded in Italy around Venice where it was known as “Bordo” in 1855. The grape was introduced to the Swiss, from Bordeaux, sometime in the 19th century and was recorded in the Swiss canton of Ticino between 1905 and 1910. In the 1990s, Merlot saw an upswing of popularity in the United States. Red wine consumption, in general, increased in the US following the airing of the 60 Minutes report on the French Paradox and the potential health benefits of wine. The rise in popularity of varietal Merlot wine can probably be attributed to its softer, fruity profile that makes it more approachable for many wine drinkers.
France is, by far, the biggest producer of Merlot, with nearly two thirds of the world's total plantings of the grape. Merlot is the most commonly grown grape in the country, and as of 2004 there was 280,000 acres (115,000 hectares) planted. This grape is most prominent in Southwest France in regions like Bergerac, Bordeaux and cahors where it is often blended with Malbec. Recent times have seen a huge increase in Merlot plantations in the South of France, in areas such as Languedoc-Roussillon, where it is often made as a varietal “Vin de Pays” wine. Merlot is also grown in significant quantities in Provence, Ardeche, Savoie, Loire Valley, Correze, Charente, Drome, Vienne and Isere. Merlot is used in the traditional Bordeaux blend to add body and softness to the wine. Merlot varietal wines are increasing in France, but it's major role in the country is still as a blending wine.
In California, the cultivation of Merlot is widespread. The grape has had the longest history of success in Sonoma, the Napa Valley, and Monterey County. Although Merlot here can stand alone as a varietal, many producers follow the French example blending the grape with other varietals. Without the constraints of French winemaking laws, winemakers in California have had the creative license to experiment with different variations. In Washington State, Merlot helped put the wine industry on the map. To the east of the Cascade Mountains, the enormous Columbia Valley sits at approximately the same latitude as Bordeaux. The 17 hours of summer sunshine enjoyed there has seen Merlot become the most widely planted red grape in the state. Wine producers are now crafting distinct and expressive examples from Washington. Elsewhere in the US, Merlot is thriving in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Oregon's Rouge Valley, and the North Fork of Long Island, New York.
Other major producers of Merlot include Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Italy, South Africa, and Spain, with smaller amounts being grown in Switzerland, Georgia, Russia, Israel, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, Mexico, Bulgaria, Argentina, and Slovenia.
A quality Merlot is soft and velvety with an array of fruit aromas. Blackberry, blueberry, plum, and cherry scents are often present. The wines can also produce vegetable aromas such as mushrooms or olives as well as floral and herbal aromatics of oregano, thyme, or eucalyptus. Depending on the producer and the region Merlot can produce big and bold wines with firm tannins, or soft, fruity wines with delicate tannins. The lighter style Merlot's pair well with pizza, pasta with tomato based sauces and grilled chicken. The bigger bolder Merlot's are best enjoyed with Chargrilled steak, roast lamb and roast beef.