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What is Merlot?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 16, 2024
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Merlot is undoubtedly one of the greatest of the red grapes. Merlot is widely responsible for the predominant tastes in most wines from the Bordeaux region in France. It produces what are arguably the most drinkable red wines, and has enjoyed a considerable amount of popularity — as well as some criticism — because of this fact.

Because the drinkability of its wines, the Merlot grape is planted throughout the world. Outside of Bordeaux in France, it holds its own in most regions, particularly as a staple of much cheaper wines in the Languedoc region. In California, it is grown as one of the major five red wine varieties, and is used to create some truly spectacular wines. Washington State in the United States also boasts some exceptional products of the Merlot grape, in spite of some problems with the weather. Northern Italy and Chile also have made good use of the grape, turning out some of the fullest examples of Merlot to be found anywhere.

Merlot is probably best compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, with which it shares a number of characteristics. While both are high in tannin, however, Merlot also tends to create substantially sweeter wines. This sweetness helps to counteract the tannins in younger examples, making Merlot much softer than the sometimes harsh young Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

Merlot is best described as having a rather velvety texture, with a fair amount of spice, and fruits that range widely depending on the specific growing location and weather, though tending towards plum. For many people, Merlot is the best choice for a simple, no-thought drinking wine, which has drawn a number of comparisons between it and Chardonnay. It tends to be somewhat interesting without being overly complex, is smoother than comparable Cabernet Sauvignons, and can in general be drunk favorably at a younger age, while still aging well and leading to some impressive longer-lived wines.

Merlot saw a recent decline in sales after a somewhat undeserved attack by a character in the popular cult film Sideways. In the film, a character exclaims that he’ll leave the event they are attending if anyone orders Merlot. This is most likely due to the perception among some connoisseurs that Merlot is a “simple” wine in a pejorative sense, best left to those who don’t know how to recognize more complex flavors.

There is also a blush wine made from the Merlot grape, usually known as White Merlot. This wine is similar to White Zinfandel, and made in the same manner – allowing only the briefest of contact with the skin of the grapes. It is also treated much the same among most wine lovers, as being more or less a waste of otherwise good grapes by reducing them to a blander, less interesting wine.

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