Merlot Taste Characteristics – What is Merlot Wine?
Last Updated on April 3, 2023.
Merlot is a blue-black grape variety that produces softer, medium to full bodied dry red wine. It is currently the most extensively planted red wine grape variety in the Bordeaux region of France and the second most widely planted and popular red wine grape variety in the United States – just behind Cabernet Sauvignon.
Classically vinified to be a dry red wine, Merlot grapes can have dramatic differences in flavor depending on the type of climate they’re grown in. Many wine regions famous for growing Merlot will produce both red wine blends and single varietal wines with the Merlot grape.
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Merlot tends to have a similar flavor profile to Cabernet Sauvignon and is actually within the same family of grapes (a descendant of Cabernet Franc). The main difference between these grapes is that Merlot has thinner skin and tends to be less astringent due to fewer and softer tannins. It also maintains a fruitier, sometimes less complex body.
While Merlot flavor does vary depending upon where it’s grown climate-wise, you’ll typically get notes of ripe blue, black and red fruit. These tasting notes are often backed by undertones of cocoa, vanilla, and various earth tones.
Classically styled Merlots from France tend to exhibit black currant, raspberry, and ripe plum fruit notes while New World Merlots tend to lean more towards plum, black cherry, and pomegranate. Merlots often have gravel, tea, and forest floor secondary notes, and, depending on the barrel treatment, they can also display cola, cacao, vanilla, or more subtle mushroom and white pepper notes.
Because of Merlot’s lighter tannin structure, there tends not to be an intense sensation of astringency in the mouth. This makes Merlot fun to pair with softer poultry and meats on the sweet or savory side, like roasted duck, lechon, or honey-barbecued chicken. Try pairing any style of Merlot with a side of ricotta risotto or penne alla vodka.
Merlot is a grape variety that can do well in both warm and cool climates. However, it’s important to note that “warm” and “cool” is often a subjective term in the wine world.
For instance, many Bordeaux old world wine producers consider 60 degree summers (Fahrenheit) weather to be warm, while most new world Merlot producers (and most of the rest of the world) consider 60 degrees to be on the cooler side.
For the sake of this article, 60 degrees in the summer is cold. That said, Merlot can thrive in both warm and cool climates when given the proper amount of TLC, with varying degrees of ripeness and yield.
In terms of soil composition, Merlot adapts well to silt and gravel-esque soil types (such as those along the Medoc in Bordeaux), as well as limestone and clay.
The most age-worthy Merlots are often blends because Merlot does not have overly high tannins or acid, both of which contribute to age-worthiness. Merlot-dominant wines from Pomerol and St-Emilion, for example, can usually age beautifully for years but they’re rarely 100% Merlot. Merlot-based Bordeaux is usually blended with either Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which have higher acidity and tannins for aging.
Many New World producers age Merlot in oak barrels, lending toasty notes to the wine, and some can age very well. More inexpensive Merlots are usually meant to be enjoyed upon release.
- Lynsolence, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux, France
- Château Gazin, Pomerol, Bordeaux, France
- Pahlmeyer, Napa Valley, California
- Provenance Vineyards, Napa Valley, Calfornia
- L’Ecole 41, Walla Walla Valley, Columbia Valley, Washington
- Barone Ricasoli Casalferro, Tuscany, Italy
Learn About These Other Wine Grape Varieties
Written By Jamie Metzgar
Jamie Elizabeth Metzgar began her career in wine by pouring in a tasting room on the East End of Long Island, NY. After moving to New York City, she landed a position at Chambers Street Wines where she was encouraged to pursue wine education at the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET). She earned Level III certification there and has since earned California Wine Appellation Specialist and Certified Specialist of Wine certifications as well. After way too many moves, she has recently landed in Northern California where she is compiling an unofficial roster of dog-friendly tasting rooms.
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See this Penne alla vodka recipe at Keeprecipes.com
Crisp Lechon goes well with Merlot. Image credit: Just Food Now.