Written by: Tim Edison

Updated on: January 21, 2023

Ultimate Merlot Food Pairing Guide [Food Pairing Perfection]

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Merlot, second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in its popularity, is a versatile and approachable wine.

It can wear many hats, acting as an ideal blending partner or standing on its own as a fruity, plush, and complicated wine. 

All of these characteristics of Merlot make it a perfect food pairing wine, capable of dazzling the palate and accentuating anything it’s served alongside. 

This guide covers everything you need to know about making the perfect Merlot food pairing. With tasting notes, regional differences, pairing tips, and tons of recommendations, we’ve got you covered!

What Does Merlot Taste Like?

Before discussing which foods to pair with Merlot, it’s helpful to go over what Merlot tastes like and how regional differences affect its flavor.

Merlot is a dry red wine with medium to full body, medium acidity, and medium to high tannins. It’s a highly fruit-driven wine, with notes of plum, black cherry, blueberry, and often mineral or graphite notes. 

Merlot is always barrel-aged, producing wines with velvety soft tannins and mouth-coating oak flavor. Due to Merlot’s popularity, it grows worldwide, usually alongside Cabernet Sauvignon. 

In cool climates like northern Italy and Bordeaux, Merlot can have sharper acidity and lower alcohol. In warmer climates, such as the United States and South Africa, Merlot tends to be lower in acidity, with higher alcohol and flavors of cooked fruit.


Bordeaux Merlot

Merlot originates in Bordeaux and is - without a doubt - its premiere growing region. Over 90% of French wines are made from this grape (usually blended with Cabernet) and make up some of the most expensive wines in the world.

Bordeaux wines are usually a blend of Merlot and Cabernet, with Merlot adding brightness and reducing aging requirements and Cabernet adding complexity.

Expect Merlot (and Merlot-dominant blends) to have bright acidity with flavors of plum, fig, black cherry, and blueberry. 


Tuscan Merlot

Second to Bordeaux, there is Tuscany. Here, it is the second most produced wine in all of central Italy, behind Sangiovese.

With a cooler climate, Merlot is brighter in acidity and has notes of cherry, blueberry, plum, and chocolate. Merlot is often blended with Sangiovese to add complexity.


Chilean Merlot

Chile has created a reputation within the new world for producing approachable Merlot, especially within the Apalta region in the Colchagua province.

Here, the moderate climate makes for Merlot with bright acidity, young red fruit flavors, and a touch of graphite and smoke once aged. 


South African Merlot

Emerging, but a great bang-for-your-buck region that is putting out some delicious Merlot and Bordeaux blends.

Within the Stellenbosch coastal region, Merlot accounts for roughly 20-30% of South African blends. This region produces warm climate Merlot with pronounced jammy and dark fruit and delicate acidity.


United States Merlot

California and Washington state produce exceptional Merlots and Bordeaux blends, with California producing the most by volume. 

In California, Napa and Sonoma are known for producing fruit-forward and moderate tannin Merlots easily suitable for blending. Washington state’s Columbia Valley is warmer, making wines rich with dark fruit flavors and plush tannins. 

Related: Get some great wine recommendations in our guide to Merlot for all budgets.


How to Pair Merlot

Merlot is versatile, playing the supporting role in a blend or standing out independently. Either way, it is an exciting wine that is easily pairable with a variety of dishes. 


Factors to Consider When Pairing Foods with Merlot

Merlot, similarly to Malbec, is a red wine with moderate acidity and tannins. These characteristics make it a suitable wine for richly flavored dishes such as prime rib or bolognese. That said, both cool and warm climate Merlot will have ideal pairings. 

Cool climate Merlot, such as in Bordeaux or Italy, is best suited for leaner proteins and high-acid tomato-based dishes.

Warm climate Merlot, such as in Washington state or South Africa, are better suited for hearty proteins and richly flavored dishes such as stews and meat roasts.

One rule of thumb for what to avoid when pairing food with Merlot is to avoid delicately flavored or cream-based sauces, as Merlot will be overpowering.


The Best Merlot Food Pairings 

Now that we’ve sorted through the details, it’s time for the fun part! Whether as a single varietal or a blend, Merlot is a versatile and exciting wine that pairs with all sorts of dishes.

Here are some of our absolute favorite food pairings when Merlot is at hand.


Merlot Meat Dish Pairings

Filet mignon

Filet mignon

  • Filet mignon - Filet mignon is a perfect lean cut of meat that’s well suited for Merlot’s moderate acidity. Pair this tender cut of beef with a Bordeaux or Tuscan Merlot.
  • Spaghetti and meatballs - The combination of herb-rich meatballs with pasta and acidic tomato sauce is best suited for a Bordeaux blend or Tuscan Merlot.
  • Roasted duck - Another lean but deeply flavorful protein such as duck belongs with a fruit-forward and complex Merlot from Washington or Chile. 
  • Turkey - Thanksgiving dinner is no match for a fruit-driven and velvety smooth wine such as a Bordeaux or California Merlot. Whether herb-roasted, grilled, or even deep-fried, a glass of Merlot is fit for the task.
  • Beef Wellington - Tender beef wrapped in a buttery pastry dough is incredibly rich, making it tough to find a wine capable of standing out. Opt for a left-bank (Cabernet dominant) Bordeaux blend or a juicy Washington Merlot. 


Merlot Vegetarian Dish Pairings

Vegetable Ratatouille in a pan

Ratatouille

  • Roasted vegetables - Merlot’s moderate acidity and tannins make it a perfect wine pairing for vegetarian dishes. Roasted vegetables, in particular, are perfectly balanced with a fruity Merlot from Chile or California.
  • Vegetarian pizza- Pizza needs a high-acid wine to cut through the multiple components while not being overpowering. Pair your next veggie lover’s pizza with a Merlot from Bordeaux or Italy.  
  • Ratatouille - Similarly to roasted vegetables, ratatouille is a flavorful dish rich with caramelized vegetables, and it requires a complex wine to pair. Opt for a Merlot from California or Washington.
  • Chickpea tikka masala - Few red wines play nicely with spicy dishes as well as Merlot does. Its bright acidity and fruit-forwardness will alleviate the palate. A warm climate Merlot from South Africa or Washington is ideal.
  • Massaman curry with tofu - With tamarind as a starring ingredient, this dish requires a cool climate Merlot with vibrant fruit flavor to accentuate the complexity of this dish. Opt for a Tuscan Merlot. 


Merlot Appetizer Pairings

Stuffed mushrooms

Stuffed mushrooms

  • Stuffed mushrooms - Merlot is perfectly matched against mushrooms, as it accentuates without being overpowering. The combination of salt, cheese, herbs, and buttery breadcrumbs pairs perfectly with a tall glass of Bordeaux or Chilean Merlot.
  • Blue cheese stuffed olives - Blue cheese and salty olives will surely make a glass of Merlot taste fruitier and sweeter by comparison. Merlot from any region is a guaranteed winner with this course. 
  • Fried chicken sliders - The combination of crispy fried chicken and buttery slider buns can easily lull one to sleep before the main course. A light and bright Merlot from Italy or Chile are perfect for exciting a sleepy palate. 
  • Creamy mushroom dip - A richly-flavored cream sauce laced with savory mushrooms is best suited for an equally flavorful and brightly acidic red wine such as Merlot. Either a Bordeaux blend or Tuscan Merlot would pair best. 
  • Tuscan white bean dip - If you’re ever stuck on a pairing, it’s best to always stick to what’s local. For example, a delicate Tuscan white bean dip sounds like it would be overpowered by red wine, but its herb-rich flavor is ideal for pairing with a Tuscan Merlot.


Merlot and Cheese Pairings

Gouda Cheese

Gouda cheese

  • Blue cheese - Blue cheese fits seamlessly with a fruity, high-acid Merlot, balancing one another perfectly. 
  • Aged gouda - Mild, nutty, with subtle sweetness, pairing an aged gouda with Merlot will make the wine taste sweeter by comparison. Opt for a Bordeaux or Chilean Merlot.
  • Sharp cheddar - Salty and rich, this cheese is guaranteed to make a dark fruit-forward Merlot taste far sweeter and fruitier. Pair this cheese with a jammy Washington Merlot.
  • Parmesan - Savory, mild, and nutty, the flavors from parmesan are best suited for a warm climate Merlot with high tannins and dark-fruit forwardness. Pair this cheese with a Chilean or California blend. 
  • Brie - A fatty and mature cheese such as Brie needs a boldly acidic and red fruit Merlot to equally compete with such bold flavors. A Bordeaux or Tuscan Merlot would pair perfectly. 


Merlot and Snack Pairings

Quesadillas

Quesadillas

  • Cheddar cheese popcorn - Cheesy, buttery, and finger-lickin’ good. Pair your next popcorn and movie night with a refreshing glass of Merlot for a perfect combination. 
  • Brie and jam grilled cheese - As if brie and jam aren’t perfect already, serve this ridiculously satisfying grilled cheese with a berry-licious Merlot from California or Washington. 
  • Meat, cheese, and crackers - Whether you’re talking simple cheddar and saltines or a full-on charcuterie display, Merlot is a go-to pairing.
  • Chocolate-covered pretzels - If you love chocolate and red wine, adding salty pretzels is sure to make for the perfect pairing, as your Merlot will taste far sweeter and more fruity by comparison. 
  • Quesadillas - A high acid and red fruit-driven Merlot from Chile or Bordeaux are perfectly suited to cutting through the richness of a quesadilla. 


About the Author Tim Edison


Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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