Grape of the Week: Merlot


Since we started out with the King of Grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, it seems only proper to follow up with Cab’s good buddy, Merlot.

The Biggest Question
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, too, 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 can be lighter in color and body (the grape skins are the source of all the color and most of the flavor, texture and tannin in red wine.) And, it’s less tannic, which translates to early drinking enjoyment, right? Merlot often shows red fruit intermingled with black, where Cab is firmly in black territory. And, it’s a bit more herbaceous and leaves a fleshy impression where Cabernet comes off as more structured (tannic) and austere. I love Jancis Robinson’s characterization of Merlot as “Cabernet without the pain.”

The Impact of Sideways: Many blame this comedy (if you have ever toured wine country this movie is a must – my summary is “Two men behaving badly.”) for transforming Merlot from being the “it” red to a fifth wheel. But, what the lead character, Miles, forgot is that Merlot has been making great wine for centuries! In fact, Chateau Pétrus, a great Bordeaux that is consistently one of the world’s most expensive wines, is – you guessed it – Merlot. It runs around $1000.00/bottle these days.

TRIVIA! The most expensive wine ever sold is a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite – a first growth from the Medoc). It went for $160,000 at a Christie’s auction in 1985. Thomas Jefferson’s initials, etched on the glass, added immeasurably to its value.  

Miles also forgot that even though Cabernet gets all the attention, 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, look to the right bank for Merlot. The most famous regions are Pomerol and St. Émilion. I should add that the label won’t say Merlot when it comes from Bordeaux, but if you ask your retailer for a “right-bank Bordeaux” Merlot is the star of the show.

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 blended with non-Bordeaux types, 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 and food: Merlots that are true to type – not too heavy or tannic – are nearly as versatile as Pinot Noir. And, like Pinot, it 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 dishes, including 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, smoked dishes or including nuts in the dish plays off the oak nicely.

Remember – it’s not so much the protein or entree item – the piece of beef, fish or eggplant – it’s what you’ve done to it that drives the pairing. Poached or grilled = subtle vs. strong flavors and you’ll find yourself pairing accordingly. If there’s a sauce or marinade, what’s in it? Are the flavors low key or assertive?

Cheeses: The best match for Merlot is dry, aged cheeses like Grana Padano, Gouda, Pecorino and Dry Jack. Cheddar is always a crowd pleaser.

So – get thee to a wine bar and indulge in a glass of Merlot! Cheers!

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