Merlot was enjoying a nice run until a single line in a little movie called SIDEWAYS quickly changed people’s opinion of this great varietal. But if you’re willing to pass up one of the wine world’s biggest and most important grapes because Miles prefers Pinot Noir then you might want to skip this section.
Merlot is often the dominant grape in some of the most prized wines in the world. The right bank of Bordeaux is loaded with Merlot and produces world class Merlot heavy wines.
The Pomerol and Saint-Emilion areas of Bordeaux offer excellent wines consisting mostly of Merlot. In fact, Chateau Petrus, which is one of the most expensive wines in the world, is almost all Merlot based.
I think the Merlot grown in France tastes great, a little more rustic and old world than the fruit forward Merlot we enjoy in the US. In all its incarnations across the wine growing world, Merlot brings a softness to wines starting with its floral nose. In the mouth, Merlot is not quite as heavy as Cabernet Sauvignon, being more medium in body to Cabernet’s full body. Flavors to expect are blueberry, blackberry and plum. These characteristics are why it’s such a perfect blending grape although good Merlot can stand just fine on its own.
In addition to France, you can find great Merlot blends from Italy, such as the Super Tuscans we covered on the Cabernet Sauvignon page. Again, these start at $10 for decent, highly drinkable bottles.
In the U.S., Merlot is a really good bargain right now, perhaps a slight result of the “Sideways effect.” You just don’t hear about people getting excited about Merlot as much as you used to. And the wine selection at restaurants for Merlot tends to number significantly smaller than for Cabernet Sauvignon. But the US produces some excellent Merlot that’s as good on its own as it is with a blend.
The two primary areas to note are California and Washington State and both have some sub-regions that you will want to explore. In Napa, be sure to try Merlots from Rutherford and Oakville. Spend a little time browsing your Merlot aisle and you will quickly realize that big Cab names like Freemark Abbey, Duckhorn and Stags Leap Winery offer bottles of Merlot priced less than half of their Cabernet Sauvignon.
And while these places may be best known for their Cabs, their Merlots aren’t bad at all for the money, and their Merlot is used in their higher end blends of “Meritage” wines (rhymes with Heritage). On the Sonoma side, you will want to try Merlot from Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley (Longboard Vineyards is a good one/good price) and Dry Creek. In the central coast area of California, you can find quite a few good value producers of Merlot.
In Washington State, Merlot grows plentiful in the Columbia Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain areas. Chateau Ste. Michelle is a recognized name and it should be easy to find their Horse Heaven Hills Merlot which is typically under $20. From Columbia Valley, check out Columbia Winery and Seven Hills. I know Hedges (great producer) makes some awesome red blends from Red Mountain that are worth checking out.
Your Merlot Check List:
– Bordeaux from Saint-Emilion (and if you like it, move up to a Grand Cru which start around $30-$40)
– Bordeaux from Pomerol
– Italian Super Tuscan (blend from Tuscany that includes Merlot)
– Napa Merlot from Rutherford and/or Oakville
– Sonoma Merlot from Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and/or Dry Creek
– Washington State Merlot from Columbia Valley and/or Horse Heaven Hills
Fast Fact: Merlot is the most widely planted grape from the Bordeaux region of France.