Merlot is native to Bordeaux in France which is still the site of its most extensive and important platings. It’s the most widely planted grape in France with some estimates suggesting that France is home to about 2/3 of the world’s Merlot plantings.
Merlot is a star on its own as one of the most famous wines in the world. Its classic home is Bordeaux. Wines from this region have softer, red fruit character. Merlot is a pretty medium oriented grape with acidity and tannin staying right in that ballpark and alcohol does as well. However, depending on how ripe the grapes got before harvest the level of alcohol can creep up too high in some examples.
In the last years, this grape variety became very popular in Italy, in Chile and also in the United States. Many US plantings are in California, Napa, and Sonoma that ranked among the world’s best Merlots. In Washington State and in California the high-quality Merlot is usually full-bodied and made in Bordeaux style. This grape did a lot to help put Washington on the world wine map.
In Spain, the most important Merlot plantings are located in the relatively temperate area of Catalonia. Besides Italy is the other important wine producer in the world where this red grape varietal is widely planted.
Merlot is smooth, easy-drinking in style. It makes this grape almost perfect for blending. Usually, it is combined with Cabernet Sauvignon. Both grapes can benefit from each other. The best Cabernet-Merlot blends come from Bordeaux and Hawke’s Bay area, New Zealand.
Merlot and its half-sibling Cabernet Sauvignon are closely related and have a lot in common terms of their flavor and aroma profiles. They make great compliments for each other. And blending wines made from the two grapes produce an extraordinarily rich and complex wine. An important role that Merlot plays and blends like these is to soften the intensity of Cab Sav and give it a smoother, more accessible presentation while retaining its power and depth of flavor.
Old World vs. New World style
Stylistically there are two broad approaches to making Merlot: an ‘old world’ style, most closely associated with Bordeaux and a ‘new world’ style. In Bordeaux, the tendency has been to pick Merlot early to foreground its bright red fruit flavors and aromas like raspberry and cherry. However, this approach also left green and herbaceous notes in the wine like bell pepper, grass, and bay leaf. The new-world approach emphasizes letting the grapes get very ripe and brought out a deep plum and dark fruit notes along with sweet herbal flavors and aromas like fennel and sarsaparilla as well as chocolate.
A piece of advice at the end? If you’re looking for a bargain don’t pass up Chilean Merlot wines.