Merlot seems like the perfect grape variety. Not only is it responsible for some of the world’s greatest wines, including Pétrus and other great Pomerols, and Masseto in Tuscany too, it also makes pretty good inexpensive, supple, lush, fruity wines.
It doesn’t have the drying tannins of a Cabernet Sauvignon that some consumers dislike. The grapes tend to be lower in acidity, and higher in sugar and, if harvested late, can produce soft, rich opulent wines. To the grower it offers good yields and ripens early. So why isn’t it our favourite grape?
Merlot has had a rough decade or two, going from hero to villain and then seeming obscurity. Many blame its Sideways moment, when in the movie of that name, the character Myles Raymond declared: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing Merlot!” Sales in the US plummeted overnight in favour of Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Zinfandel.
Since then, it seemed to disappear from our shelves and our wine racks. But in truth Merlot never really went away. Vines may have been ripped up in California, but around the viticultural world, it is still very popular; you just don’t see the name very often.
In Bordeaux it is a key part of the traditional blend used in all the great wines of the Médoc, as well as 100 per cent of all Pomerol and other lesser regions on the Right Bank of Bordeaux. So, any inexpensive Bordeaux you drink is likely to be more Merlot than Cabernet. In some parts of the region, it is better suited to the heavier clay soils where Cabernet is unlikely to do well. But as Bordeaux labels rarely divulge the grape varieties, you are unlikely to know. It is not just Bordeaux either; all over the south-west of France, Merlot provides the softness to balance the stern tannins of Cabernet, Malbec and other varieties.
It is widely planted in Chile, although much of what they thought was Merlot turned out to be Carménère (another Bordeaux variety). There are substantial plantings in the north-east of Italy, as well as parts of Tuscany. It is the second most widely planted red variety in New Zealand (after Pinot Noir). As any varietal wine can include 15 per cent of another grape without letting us know, many New World Cabernets have a healthy dollop of Merlot.
Typically, Merlot is mellow and fruity, with plums and dark cherries versus the blackcurrants and cassis of Cabernet. As outlined above, it will be less dry and tannic too. Foodwise it is one of those flexible wines, suited to a wide variety of red and white meats as well as vegetarian dishes too. Lighter styles are good with pizza, tomato-based pasta dishes and white meats. More full-bodied versions are great with burgers, roast red meats and bean dishes.
La Gauphine Merlot 2020 Laurent Miquel IGP d'Oc
14%, €10.95, reduced from €13.95
Soft, plump and rounded, with clean sweet plum and blackberry fruits. Enjoy it with pizzas, and tomato-based pasta dishes.
From O'Briens, obrienswine.ie
Four Sisters Merlot 2018, Central Victoria, Australia
A clean, elegant maturing Merlot with very attractive leafy brambly fruits and a touch of vanilla. Try this with roast pork or a burger.
From Wines Direct, Mullingar, and Arnott's, D1, winesdirect.ie
Casa e Chiesa Tenuta Lenzini Merlot 2019, Colline Lucchesi, Tuscany, Biodynamic
Very moreish rich dark cherry fruits with an appealing rustic earthiness and nice grip. This would go perfectly with a Bistecca or a substantial bean stew.
From Sheridan's Cheesemongers, D2, Kells, Co Meath, Galway, sheridanscheesemongers.com; Mitchell & Son, D1, Sandycove, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue and Dunboyne, mitchellandson.com; siyps.com; Cass & Co, Dungarvan, cassandco.ie; Provender Bread & Wine, D8; Sullivan's Country Grocer, Oughterard, sullivanscountryliving.com
Château Croix-Mouton 2016, Bordeaux Supérieur
Essentially a declassified Canon-Fronsac, this is a blissful, elegant wine laden with harmonious ripe plum fruits enlivened by a refreshing acidity. A seriously good Bordeaux at a keen price. Try it with roast lamb or beef or baked, stuffed portobello mushrooms.
From Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, jusdevine.ie; Pinto Wines, D9, pintowines.ie; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; Clontarf Wines, D3, clontarfwines.ie; Martin's Off Licence, D3, martinsofflicence.ie; 64wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie; Liston's Food Store, D2, listonsfoodstore.ie; Lilith Wines, D07; Lilliput Stores, D7, lilliputstores.com