So what is Merlot? Is it a piece of fluff cocktail/cafe apertif overly popular with the public and scorned by the critics or is it perhaps the finest red wine in the world as evidenced by the sticker price of Chateau Petrus? Perhaps it is actually both things alternately and by design.
Merlot grapes typically produce a medium body soft dry red wine with flavors of berry, plum, and currant. It is one of the most widely planted grapes in France and France may actually produce close to half of the world's Merlot. To say Merlot is a commercial success is to minimize the proposition.
The finest French Merlot comes from St. Emilion and Pomerol in Bordeaux. Merlot is 60-90% of that Bordeaux blend and fashions a softer, fleshier version of the Medoc Cabernet-based blend. Merlot plantings actually constitute 60% of all Bordeaux vines but they are concentrated in the eastern banks with the Medoc and other west bank communes possessing only 25% of Bordeaux's Merlot. The Merlot component of the blend softens the stronger Cabernet grapes and being an early ripening grape, provides insurance if the later ripening grapes aren't adequate. In Bordeaux where its early harvesting means superior acidity, Merlot finds it's finest expression.
Languedoc is actually where most of France's Merlot is grown and wine from that incredible region of production provides the world amply with good, sturdy reasonably priced cafe wine. The large producers there typically harvest later for riper fruit sometimes bordering on over-ripeness, making the style of Merlot the world craves. With French winemakers anywhere quality is, of course, a priority.
Merlot is by nature a blending grape softening others blended with it. It has become kindred to Malbec and Cabernet Franc along with Cabernet Sauvignon in blends around the world. In Italy it remains a stand alone grape, however, producing a light and dry, herbal varietal dinner wine.
So what about California Merlot? It should surprise no one that Napa and Sonoma provide the best with Napa Merlot being slightly more blackberry/raspberry-ish and Sonoma featuring more plum. As we have said before, Lodi is the Languedoc of California with 25% of the varietal production in the state and accounting for an even larger percentage of the 50,000 acres of Merlot in the state. Like in France, California Merlot styles range from tannic and structured to rich and fruity.
Washington State Merlot is exceptional in that the wine features new world fruit along with old world structure. Moreover Washington Merlot does not rely on blending for complexity; it possesses a deeper color and balanced acidity on its own. Washington State Merlot is not only that state's finest effort, it is world class red wine.
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