Culinary Arts

Learn About Merlot: What Is Merlot, How to Pair Merlot, and Where Merlot Grows

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 6 min read

Merlot, used primarily as a blending grape in traditional Bordeaux wine, has now become dominant as a wine in its own right. Merlot is a great introductory wine thanks to its smooth finish and ability to pair with many types of food.

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What Is Merlot?

Merlot is a blue-tinged grape that works well both on its own and in blends. A merlot wine made of 100% merlot grapes yields a deep, velvet, full-bodied red. Merlot is great for first-time wine drinkers or white wine enthusiasts who are looking for an introduction to red wines.

Where Does the Merlot Grape Grow?

Merlot is a versatile grape that fares well in a variety of climates and soils; thus it is grown in many winemaking regions around the world. Merlot grows best, however, in cool soils like clay.

Merlot is the third most grown wine grape in the world. France produces most of the world’s merlot, followed by the United States, then Italy. Merlot is also grown in parts of Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, South Africa, Argentina, Switzerland, Bulgaria and China. Each region grows merlot differently, producing a wine with unique qualities and flavors closely associated with that region.

What Are Common Characteristics of Merlot Wine?

Merlot is a smooth wine with low acidity and lower tannin levels than other red wines. Tannins contribute to the dryness, astringency, and bitterness of a wine—in other words, more tannic wines have a drier mouth feel. Merlot’s lower tannin levels result in a soft, velvety finish with notes of black fruits, chocolate, and a touch of spice.

There is a distinction in taste between merlot grown in cooler climates, such as Northern Italy, France, and Chile, versus those grown in warmer climates, such as California, Australia, and Argentina.

Cooler Climate merlot has an earthier, more savory finish. This type of merlot is called a “classic merlot” due to the long history of merlot production in this type of climate.

Frequent descriptors of cooler climate merlots include:

  • Boysenberry
  • Tobacco
  • Fig
  • Licorice
  • Herbs

Warmer Climate merlot is more tannic and full-bodied, with stronger fruit notes. This type of merlot is called a “New World merlot” due to the fact that this merlot is grown and produced in regions outside of Europe. (Wine-growing regions within Europe are called “Old World.”)

Frequent descriptors of cooler climate merlot include:

  • Raspberry
  • Cocoa
  • Nutmeg/Clove
  • Candied berries
  • Cherry

7 Unique Merlot Styles From Around the World

  • Bordeaux, France. Merlot from Bordeaux is typically grown in either limestone or clay. Merlot planted in clay is more robust while merlot grown in limestone has a more earthy and mineral tone. Most Bordeaux-grown merlot grapes are used in Bordeaux blends, rather than as a single varietal. Bordeaux merlot is harvested early when the grapes have more acidity, which produces a medium-bodied wine with moderate alcohol levels.
  • Tuscany, Italy: Merlot grapes grown in Tuscany are larger and more plump with fewer tannins. Tuscan merlot is characterized by its oak-forward and subtle, earthy taste. Tuscan-grown merlot is frequently used in high-quality blends known as “super Tuscans,” a term coined in the 1970s to distinguish these blends from other, cheaper wine produced at the time.
  • Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy: Merlot is the most planted red grape in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, where it’s used in blends and as a single varietal wine. Wine from Friulian merlot has notes of anise, a kick of spice, and a touch of stone fruit.
  • California, United States. Merlot is grown widely throughout California, with merlot production concentrated in Sonoma, Napa, Monterey, and Paso Robles. California merlot is often characterized by its fruit-forward and jammy taste, with hints of oak and vanilla.
  • Washington, United States. Washington has a unique climate among merlot-growing regions of the world, with long sunny days and cool nights. This climate yields merlot grapes with characteristics falling between those of cooler climates and those of warmer climates. Thanks to this unique climate, Washington merlots have higher acidity, with a tannic bite, and a strong cherry and berry presence.
  • Chile. Chilean merlot is grown primarily in the Apalta region of Colchagua Valley. Chile’s climate is much the same as California’s, and Chilean merlot shares a similar flavor profile with California merlot. Chilean merlot has a powerful, tannic flavor with strong fruit notes. Until the mid-1990’s, many Chilean Merlot wines were actually incorrectly labeled as Carménère, which is a different wine grape.
  • Australia. Merlot is relatively new to Australia, which started growing merlot in 1965 using plantings from UC Davis in California. Australian merlot is grown and produced in the regions of McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, and along the Margaret River. Australian merlots are usually used in Bordeaux-style blends rather than as a single varietal wine.

Difference Between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

The key differences between cabernet sauvignon and merlot include:

  • Merlot is fruity, while cabernet sauvignon’s stronger tannin levels give it a bitter edge.
  • Merlot is slightly sweeter and considered easier to drink. Cabernet sauvignon is more full-bodied and rich.
  • When either grape is used in a blend, merlot sweetens a dry wine, while cabernet sauvignon dries a sweet wine.
  • Both cabernet sauvignon and merlot age well in oak, however merlot must be picked immediately to prevent overripening.
  • Learn more about cabernet sauvignon in our complete guide here.

Merlot and cabernet sauvignon are similar dry red wines and are used to make Bordeaux blends. Left Bank Bordeaux blends heavily feature cabernet sauvignon because the grape thrives in the rocky soil of the Left Bank. Right Bank Bordeaux blends have a higher percentage of merlot because the grape grows more successfully in the clay and limestone found on the Right Bank. Learn more about Bordeaux wine here.

Differences Between Merlot and Pinot Noir

Merlot and pinot noir are similar red wines with fruity tasting notes. A few key differences between merlot and pinot noir include:

  • Pinot noir’s flavor comprises red fruits, like cherries and raspberries. Merlot’s tasting profile is of darker fruits, like black cherry and blackberry.
  • Pinot noir is rarely blended with other wines. Merlot is frequently used in blends.
  • Learn more about pinot noir in our complete guide here.

Differences Between Merlot and Malbec

Malbec is a grape that is often compared to merlot. When it comes to taste and food pairings, the two grapes couldn’t be more different.

  • Malbec is more tangy than merlot and tastes thinner. Merlot is more robust and full-bodied.
  • Malbec is commonly paired with spicy foods, like Central and South American cuisine. Merlot is best paired with Europe’s heavy, meaty dishes.
  • Merlot grows all over the world. Malbec grows mostly in France and Argentina.
  • Learn more about malbec in our complete guide here.

How to Pair Merlot

Merlot is known for its easy-drinking appeal, low tannins, and low acidity, which makes it a versatile wine that pairs well with a variety of foods. The same qualities that make merlot so easy to blend with other grapes are the same qualities that pairs it well with many cuisines.

Popular merlot food pairings include:

Love wine? Learn more about wine appreciation with James Suckling here.