Merlot: a fine grape varietal
Recently while attending a wine-experience tasting, I became aware that varietal names of wines remain a mystery for many.
To solve this, and to begin to understand the nature of wine, one has to master the name of the grape that gives birth to wine … which gets into the bottle and into your glass for your enjoyment.
For whatever reason, some people can’t relate to a varietal name of a grape. It’s like trying to remember the name of a new neighbor, with a name too difficult to pronounce; it must be repeated over and over again until it becomes very familiar. So think of the name, merlot as the name of a new vine in the neighborhood – called Mr. Merlot, and you’ll soon come to know the varietal name of the wine in your glass.
Varietal wine, like humans, has its compatible companions that it likes to blend with, and at other times would prefer you would enjoy it’s full bodied goodness – for what it is … such is the character of merlot.
To begin this educational series on varietal wines, I’ve selected merlot, for the simple reason I had to start somewhere – and end with its marriage with food at the dinning table, which is of great interest to almost everyone.
Merlot wine began to hit its stride in the United States in the early 1980s, and by the early 1990s had become wildly popular and was the trendy red wine of California.Today it is the most planted red variety in Washington state.
The grape is one of the mainstays of the French region of Bordeaux, and especially St. Emilion, brought there presumably by the Romans on their treks through the conquered lands of Europe. French merlot traditionally was blended with cabernet sauvignon and lesser amounts of cabernet franc, verdot and melbec in order to make a better wine. The addition of cabernet adds backbone to the softer merlot. Judiciously blending of other varieties adds flavor complexity.
Cabernet sauvignon is considered to be one of the “noble” European grape varieties that make the world’s finest wines. Likewise, merlot is just as great – because of St. Emilion’s wines of Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone, wines of tremendous power and depth with more fragrance than usual.
Recently in Washington state, I enjoyed a great merlot from Chateau St. Michelle. Cabernet tends to be tougher to tame in its youth and therefore longer-lived. Merlot, on the other hand, is juicer and more forward, fruity in youth, a bit rounder, softer, more approachable.
It is said that merlot is the grape that the blackbird guzzles first. Yet the wine is capable of cellaring very well, and most merlot drinks well in its youth – facts that please most palates very much and explain merlot’s resounding popularity.
Merlot is more sensitive to cold winters than hardier varieties such as chardonnay, riesling, sryrah and cabernet sauvignon. Successful growers choose sites particular well on south-facing slopes, especially close to water. This combination helps the vines avoid the worst of chilling northern winds while benefiting from sunny days, even in winter.
Many wineries make 100 percent merlot wines. But it’s widely accepted that merlot benefits from blending with cabernet sauvignon. A bit of cabernet franc is sometimes introduced into the blend. Merlot may contain some cabernet sauvignon and/or cabernet franc or melbec without that fact being mentioned.
In young merlots, look for cherry, berry and ripe plum flavors often tempered with vanillin and a smoky character. In older wines, the aromas and flavors mellow into supple, subdued fruit with nuances of mint, dried tobacco leaf and smoke.
A food-friendly wine, merlot, with its juicy fruit and bright acidity, can be paired successfully with almost anything. A fruity young merlot is a delicious sipper indeed. At our house, we enjoy it with grilled steak or standing-rib roast, pork tenderloin with cranberry chutney, roast turkey, robust cheeses, duck, mushroom dishes … or a good hamburger grilled medium rare.
Norman E. Gates is a Lake of the Pines wine connoisseur. He can be reached at
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