We have written about Merlot often here at the blogspot beginning three years ago on July 14th of 2011. Just like last week's Grenache post, this one is a refresher for me before tonight's class on the subject. So here's a thumbnail sketch of Merlot.
Origins: There appears to be nothing definitive here so Bordeaux may be the default birthplace of Merlot just as we learned about Sauvignon Blanc a couple weeks ago. The first written Merlot reference was in Bordeaux in 1784. Ampelographers in modern times using DNA tools have determined the grape to be the offspring of Cabernet Franc and a little known ornamental grapevine from Britton, France. Some Merlot DNA is shared with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Carmenere, which just makes finding origins even more difficult.
History: Merlot has always been a blending grape in Bordeaux and elsewhere although at different times in recorded history it has been more highly regarded than at other times. Within Bordeaux that highly regarded Merlot has always been in the Gironde River right bank vineyards. Merlot is not noteworthy in Spain but has performed well historically in Friuli, Italy and in recent times, Tuscany. Because of its current popularity, Merlot is planted everywhere around the world but notably, France probably has two thirds of the world's plantings!
Popularity: Merlot plantings are increasing everywhere but it hasn't always been a smooth ride. The huge American wine market often dictates production everywhere and in the 1980's when our culture was first embracing these things, Merlot was the soft red wine to which wine newbies gravitated. In the early '90s the 60 Minutes "French Paradox" program, which asserted health benefits related to red wine consumption, further accelerated Merlot sales. Then in 2004 the film, "Sideways", adversely impacted Merlot sales by touting Pinot Noir at Merlot's expense.
Name: Merlot is a large, thin-skinned, dark blue, loosely bunched grape that possibly acquired its name from the similarly colored "Merle" French blackbird which feeds on the grape in vineyards. In the local Occitan dialect the bird is pronounced "merlau". Merlot's popularity everywhere has always been speculated to be related to its easy pronounciation.
Profile/Food Affinity: Merlot does better in cooler venues than warmer ones. In warmer climes the flavor profile is a simple strawberry/raspberry; in cooler venues it becomes more complex with plum and dark fruits. The lighter version would be Pinot Noir-like as a lighter meal complement while the more complex version would be a steak wine.
The Blend: Historically Merlot works with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Merlot is viewed as an "insurance policy" since it ripens earlier than other grapes, staggering winery demands, and being available in case another type disappoints. Merlot always softens other types in a blend and contributes texture (fleshiness) as much as flavor.
Chateau Petrus: This is the most expensive wine in the world at $2,000/btl and is usually 90% Merlot with Cabernet Franc making up most of the rest of the blend. The property is located in Pomerol which is on the right bank of the Gironde River in Bordeaux.
Old World/New World: All Bordeaux red wines feature Merlot grapes that are harvested earlier for a higher acid food-friendliness. The new world Merlots harvest late for ripe fruit flavors. Old world is no more than medium bodied and moderate in alcohol, showing some vegetal notes in the profile along with fresh restrained raspberry/strawberry fruit flavors. New world or "International style" is ripe fruit, inky purple color, full bodied, high alcohol, plum and blackberry accented, with lush velvety tannins.
Please join us Thursday for the class and then come back Friday when Liz Diehl of Georgia Crown offers tastes of the historic wines of Chalone Vineyards of California and fine examples of Argentine Malbec.