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The Grape Variety Series: Merlot

In the world of wine, merlot is generally a safe bet. Smooth and easy-going, it makes juicy, crowd-pleasing reds along with the occasional blockbuster. From some key regions however, it can also produce the occasional blockbuster! From the banks of Bordeaux to Napa Valley, here’s what you need to know about much-loved merlot.

Softness and style

Vine tomato, red plum and cedar are notes often associated with merlot. It is this softness and ripe, red fruitiness that makes it the perfect partner to the more austere cabernet sauvignon in those famous Bordeaux blends. Merlot is often seen as the soft centre to cabernet’s harder exterior and together, they make the perfect team. Chéval Blanc anyone?

Food pairing

Fuller-bodied, New World-style merlots are brilliant for burgers and barbeques. The mild grilled taste goes well with stronger merlots as they develop leathery, meaty notes with age. Merlot-based Bordeaux wines, if young and inexpensive, love charcuterie and posh burgers too. The finer versions can handle richer, steak dishes and flavoursome duck. If particularly well aged, where fruity notes have been replaced with cigar box and truffle notes, then try game, mushrooms or nutty, hard cheeses.

Tasting tour

Here‘s a tasting tour of the best places to try world-class merlot:

Bordeaux: The clay soils on the right bank of the Garonne river (running through Bordeaux) are the perfect place to grow merlot grapes. It is here where the blends of Bordeaux are merlot dominant, bringing with them intriguing tobacco and cedar notes as they age mixed with that of vine tomato, all smoothed out by a cool, mineral elegance. Right bank Bordeaux wines, especially those from the appellations of St-Emilion and Pomerol, set the benchmark for fine merlot and merlot blends.

Try: Chateau Cheval Blanc This iconic Saint-Émilion blend is usually just over 50% merlot with added cabernet franc and a touch of cabernet sauvignon. Cheval Blanc sets the standard for right bank Bordeaux blends all over the world - not just in Bordeaux.

South America: For super fruity, blackcurrant-scented, inexpensive merlot, Chile should be at the top of your list. Argentina is also making some brilliant merlot, though of a different nature due to its growing conditions; from cooler, higher altitudes where it will be more textured and concentrated.

California: Unsurprisingly, given the incredible cabernets coming out of California, Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are making some gorgeous, velvety good quality merlots. You do need to spend a bit more to get the good stuff though and avoid those super-sweet, cloying flavours.

Australia: This is a continent that has listened to the market and responded by making their merlots much more serious than they were twenty years ago. Margaret River on the west coast is the region making waves for Bordeaux blends. The merlot here is mineral and elegant, with a glorious abundance of ripe fruit.