It’s the world’s second most planted grape for good reason. Merlot is most famous for adding the flesh, softness and approachability to Cabernet Sauvignon’s famous bone structure in the great reds of France’s top ranked wines from the left and right banks of Bordeaux but it’s equally at home in humble soft reds for early drinking made from almost everywhere in the world that wine is made these days.
Fun fact: Merlot translates to little blackbird in an old French dialect. And it’s a good analogy for the disarming popularity of the ruby hued, medium bodied, fruity rich reds made from the Merlot grape.
Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes it a useful ingredient in full bodied reds and increasingly as the star attraction in 100% varietal Merlots, which are increasing in number from the vast Mediterranean region of the Languedoc in the south of France. It’s also incredibly important in countries such as Switzerland, Italy and Romania and even cooler regions such as Marlborough can succeed in making good quality wines from Merlot when well suited vineyard sites are planted with it.
Speaking of which, Merlot is the fifth most planted grape in New Zealand with 1,133 hectares producing grapes nationwide. The vast majority is in the North Island, mostly in Hawke’s Bay. Winemakers in the Bay use Merlot both for stand alone wines and as a blending partner for deeper coloured, more structured wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. It’s super important for them to have Merlot in their arsenal, not only to make smooth wines to drink now but also to soften the edgy appeal of long lived wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be astringent in its youth and is a late ripening grape, which is why it has shrunk to a mere 221 hectares in New Zealand today – a big drop from 519 hectares a decade ago.
If any red grape can be said to make the whole wine more than the sum of its parts, meet Merlot.
Joelle Thomson is a wine writer, journalist and author. She’s an avid lover of wine and currently writes for Capital magazine, Good magazine, NZ Winegrower, Drinksbiz, and her own site,www.joellethomson.com.
She also teaches, works in radio, and more, so we've enlisted her help to sniff out our amazing value wines!