[February 10, 2023 - Mark Silverstone]
Merlot (pronounced mr · low) is one of the world’s most popular red wines, and is known for its soft, sensual texture and approachable style. Merlot is a red-skinned grape that can adapt to a variety of climates to produce food-friendly wines at many price points. Merlot can be velvety and plummy, or rich and oaky. There’s something for everyone, which is why Merlot is adored.
Merlot is known as a chameleon because it adapts to many climates, taking on the character of both its location and winemaking techniques. However, great Merlot is not as easy to grow as people think, leading to over planting and an abundance of poor quality wines. Typically, Merlot is a dry, medium-to full-bodied wine with moderate acidity, moderate to high alcohol, and soft but present tannins. The best Merlot taste has a range of flavors, ranging from graphite, herbs and blackberries, to black cherries, plums, and cocoa, often layered with notes of clove, vanilla, and cedar when aged in oak.
The name Merlot is thought to be a diminutive of “merle”, the French name for the Blackbird, a reference to the color, softness and fleshiness of the grapes and because the pesky birds liked eating the grapes on the vine. The popularity of Merlot also stemmed in part from the relative ease in pronouncing the name as well as its softer, fruity profile, making it more approachable to a wide audience of wine drinkers.
Merlot grapes are identified by their loose bunches of large berries. The color has less of a blue/black hue than Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and with a thinner skin and fewer tannins per unit volume. It normally ripens up to two weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. Also compared to Cabernet, Merlot grapes tend to have a higher sugar content and lower malic acid.
Merlot is one of the world's most widely planted grape varieties, with plantings of the vine outpacing even the more well-known Cabernet Sauvignon in many regions, including the grape's homeland of France, which is home to nearly two thirds of the world’s total plantings of the grape. Merlot is grown across the United States and as of 2015, is the fourth most planted grape, with California and Washington growing the most. The style of Merlot in California can vary with the grape being found all across the state in both warmer and cooler climate regions. While regional examples of California Merlot exist from places like the Sierra Foothills, Napa Valley and Sonoma, many bottles are labeled simply as California Merlot.
Merlot’s easy-drinking reputation helped it gain traction in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004, Merlot’s popularity took a hit though, following the success of the award-winning movie “Sideways”, in which the lead character Miles famously maligns the grape in favor of drinking Pinot Noir. Later called the “sideways effect”, Merlot sales dropped almost 2%, while Pinot Noir sales increased 16 % in the Western United States. Amazing to think how the result of a fictional story could have such huge financial impact on the perception and sale of these two different grape varietals.
In the traditional Bordeaux blend, Merlot's role is to add body and softness. One of the most famous and rare wines in the world, Chateau Petrus, is almost all Merlot. In 2011, a case of 1961 Petrus sold for $144,000 – which is $12,000 a bottle!
In Calaveras County, Calaveras Winegrape Alliance member wineries that produce Merlot include Black Sheep, Boyle MacDonald, Brice Station, Broll Mountain, Hatcher, Indian Rock, Ironstone, Milliaire, Mineral, School Street, Stevenot, Ten x Ten (Newsome Harlow brand), Val du Vino and Vina Moda. Get out to these awesome tasting rooms to explore Merlot this weekend!