The educator in me can’t resist following up on the last post, about buying Merlot, by telling you more about the grape, itself.
He also forgot that even though Cabernet gets all the attention these days, Merlot is the most widely planted grape of Bordeaux. It’s kind of like an insurance policy for the growers. If late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon gets rained out, Merlot ripens earlier and may save the vintage.
Merlot’s roots: France, probably Bordeaux – there’s not a lot of information as to its origins, but records show that it has been cultivated in Bordeaux since at least the late 1700s. While Cabernet-based blends dominate the left bank of the great Gironde river, look to the right bank for Merlot. The most famous right-bank regions are Pomerol and St. Émilion.
One of the most common questions I hear at seminars and classes is “What’s the difference between Cabernet and Merlot?” It’s a good question because even winemakers often mix up the two in blind tastings. Perhaps that’s the reason they blend so well – they’re similar.
The most important difference is that Merlot is thin skinned, compared to Cabernet, and slightly plumper, so it’s often lighter in color and body. And, it’s less tannic, which translates to early drinking enjoyment, right? Merlot often shows red fruit intermingled with black. And, it’s a bit more herbaceous and leaves a fleshy impression where Cabernet comes off as more structured and austere. I love Jancis Robinson’s characterization of Merlot as “Cabernet without the pain.”
Climate matters. Cool-climate Merlot (Bordeaux for instance) will likely show more earthy, mineral and herbaceous character. Warm climate Merlot (most of California) puts the fruit front and center with the herbs and earth taking a back seat.
Blending Merlot: Just as Cabernet is often blended, it’s quite common to see other Bordeaux varieties blended in with the Merlot, depending upon the wine maker’s stylistic goals. And, you’ll see other Merlot blends, too, such as the popular Merlot/Shiraz blends of Australia.
As a blending partner, wine makers look to Merlot when they want greater softness and elegance – they might think of Cabernet as the bones and Merlot, the flesh, in the final blend. Merlot can bring the fruit forward, add an attractive herbaceous note and soften the tannins of an overly structured red.
Merlot is a jet-setter! From its homeland in Bordeaux, this variety has traveled and succeeded in countless wine-growing regions all over the world. Now, that’s what I call adaptable!
Because it’s available at every price point there’s tremendous variation which really doesn’t help sales. It’s somewhat unpredictable. When corners have been cut in production, it can be insipid or offensively vege so it’s smart to taste it before purchasing an unfamiliar brand or a brand with no real track record.
Merlot and food It’s also a tad bit more versatile than Cabernet Sauvignon at the table, thanks to the softer tannins. Merlots that are true to type – not too heavy or tannic – are nearly as versatile as soft, elegant Pinot Noir. And, like Pinot, Merlot takes well to earthy flavors so if you’re a mushroom lover it’s smart to keep some Merlot on hand. Cool-climate Merlot usually has the acid to stand up to tomato sauce, so just think – mushroom pizza and a glass of Merlot can be a match made in heaven!
The herbal component from the cooler climates makes a great match for marinades with rosemary, tarragon, oregano and mint. Most any kind of bird is a good candidate, especially game birds. Traditional lamb with garlic and rosemary is a classic partner for Merlot.
Grilled fish, especially salmon and steaky fish work very well, especially if they’re herbed up.
For the big, Cabernet-like styles think Cabernet foods: grilled steak, slow-cooked beef dishes, very flavorful sauces and marinades. If the Merlot is tannic, remember cream and butter sauces will smooth the wine out. If it’s a new-world style with lots of oak, grilled and smoked dishes or including nuts or smoked paprika in the dish plays off the oak nicely.
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