Our friend Merlot has taken a beating recently, because of the movie Sideways, but you might be surprised to know that it’s the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux. When we think of Bordeaux, most of us think of Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s a major player, but Merlot trumps it in volume for a couple of reasons. One is its velvety deliciousness, and the other is more practical. It ripens early, relative to Cabernet, so it’s less likely to be damaged by rain, plus it tends to produce greater yields.
Merlot is a bit of an orphan. We’re reasonably certain that one of its parents is Cabernet Franc, which might begin to explain why Cabernet Sauvignon (parents are Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc), Cabernet Franc and Merlot are so compatible, but the other parent is an unknown. Merlot has a thin skin compared to Cabernet Sauvignon which is probably why it’s often a little lighter in color and easier to drink when it’s young. The greatest source of the astringent tannins in wine is the grape skins.
Along with black fruit, Merlot often shows a touch more red fruit and herb-like character than Cabernet. The vegetative character is accentuated when it grows in a cold climate and less noticeable in a warm region. As a partner to highly-structured Cabernet Sauvignon it’s a natural, with softer tannins and plump, accessible fruit.
Frost and poor fruit set can be a concern, especially in cold climates, because it buds and flowers earlier in the spring than Cabernet Sauvignon. It has to be watched at harvest time in warm climates because it tends to lose acidity if it hangs too long. Consequently, unlike its half-brother, it does well in cool, moisture holding soils.
Aside from making the most expensive wine in the Bordeaux region, Chateau Petrus, you can find well-made examples of Merlot from virtually anywhere in the world. It’s an adaptable variety that’s equally versatile at the table because of the gentle tannins. Merlot with lamb is a classic combination, especially when the lamb is roasted with the traditional garlic and rosemary, which bring out the hint of herbs in the wine. The rich Merlot fruit is also a wonderful partner for the sweetness of roast duck or pork. It’s delicious with slow-cooked dishes like Coq au Vin and a great partner for dry, aged cheeses like aged Asiago or aged Cheddar. You can find delicious recipes to pair with Merlot or any other variety if you go to Colleen’s Kitchen.