Red Wine 101: Merlot

Merlot is often the first red to spark a budding oenophile’s passion. Known as “the little blackbird” in France, Merlot is one of the six noble grapes varieties renowned for the vintages they produce. Merlot has a reputation for being easy to drink and pairs well with many of our favorites foods.

Here’s the backstory on this widely drunk and highly praised red wine.

It Takes Two

Legend holds that an eighteenth-century Bordeaux winemaker made the first Merlot and used in his regionally named blend. French winemakers soon came to know it as the ultimate varietal to blend with cabernet sauvignon to yield a truly exceptional wine: a Bordeaux. Cabernet was a beloved grape by the 1700s, and merlot was the perfect partner. Its signature supple texture and dark fruit notes softens the typically drier finish of the cabernet. The French blend is so good that it’s still highly sought-after three centuries later.

American Standout

Merlot’s popularity spread worldwide, finally making it to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. California winemakers didn’t only use it as a blending wine, however. They started producing bottles of solely merlot, finding that Americans liked the fruity, smooth-textured varietal. Today, it’s produced in the US, France, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain. The cooler climates like Chile, France and Italy produce what many call “bigger” merlots that have more of a zing to them due to a higher presence of tannins. Merlots from warmer climates like California and Australia are naturally fruit-forward and more subtle in taste due to their lower levels of tannins.

Medium Softy

Like pinot noir, merlot is renowned for its drinkability, with “luscious” being one of the most common terms used to describe its impression on the palate. It’s medium-bodied with well-balanced acidity and tannins, another reason it goes down easy. Merlot’s particularly fruity, juicy taste has notes of blackberry, black cherry, currant and plum; more complex vintages will even have flavors of tobacco, chocolate, cedar and vanilla is yet another reason it’s a favorite.

While more delicate proteins like fish will be overwhelmed by merlot, it’s an ideal pairing for roasted or grilled beef, pungent cheeses and earthy vegetables.