We have already learned that Pinot Noir has a monopoly in Burgundy, France. What grape has the exclusive in Bordeaux? It would certainly make it easy if there were one but, unfortunately, no grape does. Merlot has to share the sandbox with a handful of other varieties that include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Merlot is the most planted grape in Bordeaux and is most commonly blended with its first mate, Cabernet Sauvignon. While this may seem a little strange if your experience to date has only involved New World wines, know that many of the wines you drink are blends, even if the bottle is marked with a singular varietal name. In the United States, at least 75% of the grapes must come from that varietal if the name is to be used on the label. In Chile and South Africa it is 85%. In Bordeaux, surprisingly, there are very few rules as to percentage makeup.
I think of Merlot as the middle sister to Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. She does not require as much attention in the vineyard as Pinot Noir, but she does not garner the same notoriety that Cabernet has in the marketplace. However, if not given the right amount of attention, this thinned-skinned grape can get testy. It buds early and ripens early, as compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, and these traits factor in as to why the two are good partners. Early bad weather in either the spring or fall, and vice versa, may damage one crop but not the other. This will still give the overall yield that is needed to meet demand that year.
Merlot also lies right in the middle on tannin level and on acid level. While you may occasionally see a fuller one, she makes a wine with medium body as well.
The Bordeaux region of France is divided into two major areas, referred to as the Left Bank and the Right Bank, depending on which side of the Gironde River you fall. While Merlot grows on both sides, the wines of the Right Bank are predominantly Merlot. Two principle names to look for in a Bordeaux of the Right Bank are Saint Emilion and Pomerol. Saint Emilion has a class system of its own that, unlike the Bordeaux Classification of 1855, is evaluated every ten years. The finest of the region will be labeled “Grand Cru Classe” and “Premier Grand Cru Classe.”
Outside Bordeaux, many countries are making Merlot - Napa and Sonoma in California, Washington State, Mendoza in Argentina and Chile to name a few. You will find both straight Merlot and blends in these areas. Italy is also using Merlot as a blending partner for local varieties.
For this exercise, if you are looking to get a true feel for this grape as an individual, compare a wine from a moderate climate to one from a hot climate. The standard Old World versus New World pair up is going to result in at least one blend. Pay attention to any differences in the fruit that you are smelling or tasting, as well as differences in acidity or tannin levels. If you already know that you like Merlot, but have never ventured much outside California, Old World versus New World will be a good experiment for you. You can also save this experiment for a later chapter on “Bordeaux Blends.”
Merlot is often said to pair well with chocolate. This may be because chocolate can be an aroma or flavor often detected in these wines. I have tried both milk and dark chocolate with minimal success. If you have some extra cash when picking up your wines, pick up a couple chocolate bars yourself and see what you think - fact or fiction.
On The Label
Merlot, Pomerol, St. Emilion
In The Bottle
Dark fruit, dried fruit, graphite, spice, tobacco, cocoa
At The Table
Pork, game birds, roast beef, mushroom, herbs