A beginners guide to Merlot

February 21, 2019

When it comes to red wines there are few safer bets than Merlot. Balanced, smooth, and easy to pair, Merlot is a wine that’s easy to recommend to everyone. Sadly, Merlot has developed a bit of a bad reputation as a result of cheap, substandard bottles flooding the market. But, provided you’re willing to stray off the beaten path, it’s likely that you’ll find any number of astoundingly tasty examples of this wine.

Merlot is one of the most planted grapes in the world. In fact, it’s the second most common varietal behind Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also the most commonly planted grape in France with the majority found in the Bordeaux region. The grape is also widely grown in Italy, the United States, Australia, Chile, and Argentina.

Flavor profile

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Merlot is known for its wonderfully balanced taste. Few flavors dominate the wine and as a result, it’s a perfect option for those embarking on their journey of wine appreciation. Red fruits like cherries, plums, and raspberries are present in most bottles, as are hints of cedar, vanilla, and chocolate. Predictably, for such a balanced wine, both the acidity and tannin levels of Merlot are smack dab in the middle of the spectrum.

Geography, and even more so climate, can have a profound effect on the overall taste of Merlot.

Cold Climate

Merlots sourced in France, Italy, and Chile tend to be full-bodied and have a more complex structure than wines from warmer regions. Tannin levels are higher in these wines and the fruit notes are less present. These wines tend to have strong notes of anise and vanilla.

Hot Climate

Wines produced in the warmer regions of California, Australia, and Argentina tend to have stronger fruit notes. They also have noticeably lower tannin levels than wines produced in colder climates. If you’re looking for a classic, easy-drinking Merlot, focus on the wines from warmer climates.

Food pairing

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One of Merlot's greatest strengths is its versatility as a pairing wine. Merlot pairs beautifully with a wide variety of meals and foods, and can easily be enjoyed alongside light fare as well as richer dishes. Turkey is an obvious choice as it’s darker than most other poultry. Another classic meat pairing is pork. A glass of Merlot will work well with pork tenderloin, and cider-braised pulled pork. Other meats to try include duck breast, strip streak, and certain chicken dishes.

Merlot also goes well with any number of seasonal veggies and fruits such as tomatoes, butternut, squash, and pumpkin.

While it’s extremely versatile, there are certain food pairings one shouldn’t attempt. Merlot does not pair well with fish or leafy green vegetables. Furthermore, spicy meals tend to overwhelm the flavors of Merlot and should be avoided.

Wines to try

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There are thousands of Merlots available to purchase, a number of which are passable at best. When looking for Merlot, avoid going for the cheapest bottles available and be sure to read reviews before selecting a wine. The sheer number of Merlots available on the market makes recommending specific bottles difficult. Nonetheless here are three options to try:

Pride Mountain Merlot ($60)

Wonderfully fruity with a subtle and spicy finish.

Barone Ricasoli Casalferro Merlot ($65)

Full-bodied with strong dark fruit notes.

Stags' Leap Winery Merlot ($31)

Complex and elegant with wonderful earthy notes.

James Aitchison