Complete Guide to Merlot Wine | Wine 101
Merlot is America’s second favorite red wine after Cabernet Sauvignon, capturing hearts since its introduction to the country in the mid-19th century.
What makes Merlot such a treat? Its soft, sensual texture and approachable profile make it an excellent sipping wine. Yet it also packs enough depth to pair bold foods, complementing stinky cheeses and rich stews.
Beginners to red wine will adore Merlot’s moderate acidity and soft tannins, and connoisseurs appreciate its ability to blend with other wines in the Bordeaux style, which produces sensational fruity hits.
This article covers everything you need to know about Merlot, including its origin, tasting notes, how to serve it, and some interesting facts that might surprise you!
Characteristics of Merlot
Merlot is a unique red wine because it dabbles in the middle of wine characteristics with moderate acidity, tannins, and alcohol. This makes it highly approachable – perfect for sipping and pairing with various foods.
The big surprise of Merlot is the soft tannins, with their lingering finish providing a velvety mouthfeel with only a hint of sharpness on the tongue.
You can expect a Merlot to pour purplish red with aromas of blue and red fruits, fennel, and notes of chocolate and cedar after aging in oak caskets.
Merlot is also akin to Malbec. It has medium acidity like Malbec, but Malbec is distinct with more cocoa notes and tannins. Merlot has moderate tannins, but the fruitiness takes the edge off, making it taste sweeter.
Merlot Tasting Notes
You’re in for a treat if you adore fruity wines. With a plummy undertone, Merlot is big on blueberry, blackberry, cherries, and red fruits. Aging adds cedar and cocoa notes, giving the wine a festive richness.
Merlot is also widely blended in the Bordeaux style, which pairs it with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, or Malbec. Blends have bolder tannins and a higher acidity but preserve much of Merlot’s fruitiness.
On the nose, Merlot explodes with red fruit, plum jam, and minerally tones of graphite. Letting it decant reveals complex layers of cocoa, herbs, and cedar when aged in oak. Some wines have hints of orange peel and prune.
Most Merlot wines are aged 15-24 months before release in oak casks or stainless-steel tanks. The woody undertone in some varieties is from oaked aging, which brings out flavors of oak, smoke, and in cool climates, vanilla.
How is Merlot Served?
Merlot wine benefits from a 30-minute decant time, best served at room temperature (60–68°F / 15-20°C) in a standard or large wine glass.
We recommend a serving temperature of 60°F, with the cooler temperature helping retain the soft tannins and mask the alcohol.
Large wine glasses improve aeration, helping the wine breathe – they also offer a substitute for decanting when you want to drink right away.
The Merlot Grape
The Merlot grape originates from the Bordeaux region of France, dating back to the first century AD. Still, recognition as a Bordeaux varietal is only dated to 1784, when an official mentioned the wine as “Merlau” and “one of the finest wines.”
It was first recorded in Italy in 1855 as ‘Bordò,’ and the USA saw its first Merlot imports in the mid-19th century. Its introduction to other countries follows a similar path to the competing grape Cabernet Sauvignon, albeit slightly slower.
Like many other French red grapes, Merlot can grow in cool and warm climates, with both distinct producing flavors. Cool-climate Merlots usually have a full body and more minerals, while warm-climate Merlots are lighter and fruitier.
Merlot’s popularity grew in the 1990s following the success of global vineyards, becoming one of the best-selling varietals in supermarkets.
Its success can also be attributed to its approachability, with its soft tannins, velvety texture, and fruity flavors making it perfect for beginners.
Today, Merlot is one of the world’s favorite wines and the second-most popular red wine in the USA after Cabernet Sauvignon. While primarily grown in France, Italy, South Australia, South Africa, Chile, and the US also produce it.
Notable Regions for Merlot
Being so popular, Merlot is produced worldwide. But, which regions really stand out?
Merlot wine originates from Bordeaux, so it makes no wonder it is the biggest producer of Merlot. The star regions of Bordeaux are Bourg and Blaye (the oldest wine region in France) and Côtes-de-Bourg in the northwest region.
Merlot is the most common grape variety in Bordeaux, with over 90% of French red wines made from this variety and Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is also the most widely used grape for red blends due to its smoothness.
Tuscany produces many of the finest Merlot wines, and Merlot is the second most popular red grape in the region after the local Sangiovese. Italian Merlot is slightly more acidic than French, especially from the less sunny region of Chianti.
Wine connoisseurs rate Tuscan Merlot second only to wines from France’s right bank, where many of the world’s best red wines are made. However, this is a matter of contention, as many Italian Merlots beat French varieties at award shows.
Chile is a leading producer of Merlot wine. The best Merlot comes from the Apalta region in the Colchagua province, where the subtle, semi-Mediterranean climate preserves the grape’s moderate acidity and enhances its fruity flavors.
The unique microclimate of Apalta also has almost no frost, and the soils are made up of sand and clay loam. The granitic soils give Chilean Merlot a unique flavor profile – fruity with a hit of graphite and a smoky undertone when aged.
South Africa is an emerging region for Merlot, with a warm climate producing grapes with low-moderate acidity. Merlot makes up 20-30% of most South African red wine blends, primarily produced in the Stellenbosch coastal region.
You find most South African Merlot wines on the lower shelves of supermarkets and liquor stores, but it can yield a few surprises. Some varieties have deep plum and blackberry notes, giving them a thick, jam-like profile.
USA, Washington & California
The USA produces some of the best Bordeaux-style blends. The grape is grown in cool and warm regions of Washington State and California, with Napa Valley and Sonoma County of California producing the most Merlot by volume.
Californian Merlots are fruit-forward with low-moderate tannins, while Washington Merlots have a mineral edge with moderate tannins. You can expect a smooth, rounded wine with a juicy character shining through in late-season harvests.
Merlot Food Pairings
Merlot’s soft tannins, moderate acidity, and fruit-forward profile match perfectly with tomato-based dishes and sauces. Red meat is the obvious pairing, with prime rib pairing very well (the soft tannins complement the fat).
Braised dishes, such as braised lamb, pair well with Merlot. Ideal seasonings include garlic, rosemary, thyme, and balsamic. Spicy Asian cuisine is a personal favorite pairing, with the moderate tannins preserving the flavors of cumin and other spices.
If you do pair Merlot with spicy food, go for an unoaked Merlot so that there are no woody flavors to clash with the spices.
Cheese Boards (especially blue cheese) and savory snacks like salted pretzels and popcorn also pair well with Merlot – perfect for get-togethers.
Don't miss our dedicated Merlot food pairing guide for more awesome ideas!
3 Amazing Merlot Wines to Try
If you're on the lookout for some great Merlot, these are well worth your attention!
1. Under $15 - Santa Ema Reserve 2018, Chile
Santa Ema Reserve 2018 is a delectable sipping wine from the Maipo Valley. It’s smooth with bold fruity flavors and lashings of vanilla and oak – a by-product of being aged in new French oak barrels for 8-10 months.
Aromas of leather, earth, black cherry, and cassis flood the nose, with cherry, plum, and green herbal notes on the palate. Try pairing this wine with blue cheese, savory snacks, and barbeque meats like brisket.
2. Under $30 - Charles Krug 2020, Napa Valley
This oaky Merlot is on the dryer side, with bold blackberry and plum jam notes. It’s the perfect pairing for beef, lamb, veal, and roast pork, with the soft tannins and acidity bringing out the best in red meats.
On the nose, you can expect notes of vanilla, blackberry, blueberry, and fresh green herbs, with raspberry and cherry providing freshness on the palate. The silky texture is dreamy, and the long finish keeps you coming back.
3. Under $100 - Pedestal 2018, Columbia Valley
Long Shadows Pedestal 2018 is a sublime Merlot vintage with mild acidity, moderate tannins, and bold black fruit notes. It has a thicker mouthfeel than other Merlots, coating the palate with plum and black cherry.
Notes of blackberry, cherry, plum, and blueberry dominate the nose and palate, with graphite shining through. It’s made with 92% Merlot and the remainder Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec for a bolder, more tannic experience.
If you're keen to explore some other outstanding Merlot then don't miss our top recommendations!
3 Fun Facts About Merlot
1. It’s the second most popular red grape in the world
Merlot is the world’s second most popular red grape by plantation volume after Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is the primary grape of choice for fruity red blends. It is also America’s second-favorite red wine after Cabernet Sauvignon.
2. DNA tests show Merlot is a cross grape
DNA tests show that Merlot is a cross between the red grapes Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, an ancient grape that was only re-discovered in the last few decades. So, Merlot has ancient roots!
3. The most expensive wine in the world is a Merlot!
The most expensive wine in the world is a bottle of Petrus 2000. While a typical bottle of this 100% Merlot will set you back around $6,000, a bottle that spent more than a year in orbit on the International Space Station is worth $1 million!