History of Merlot
Merlot is a wine that has been shunned from the limelight on an international scale, most notably in Hollywood after the 2004 release of the movie Sideways. That being said, it remains one of the most popular wines in Australia according to research from the Wine Intelligence. Further, Merlot is one of the most popular wines in the UK and the second most popular red wine in the USA, after Cabernet Sauvignon.
The first recorded mention of Merlot comes from 1784 in the Libournais region. The world Merlot is thought to derive from the French Merle, which means blackbird. This is almost certainly a reference to the colour of the grape. By the 1800s, the grape had found a home on the left bank of the Gironde river. Despite some severe setbacks, including a terrible frost in 1956, the Merlot grape is France’s most popular grape, with almost 300,000 reported Hectares in 2004.
Additionally, Merlot is one of the world’s most widely planted grapes, with the Merlot vine even managing to outplant the Cabernet Sauvignon. Aside from France, it is notably grown in Italy, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and California. This wide array of locations for Merlot to grow allows it to be one of the world’s most flexible wines because the climate that Merlot is grown in will ultimately impact the flavour.
What Food Does Merlot Suit?
The nature of Merlot wine allows it to pair very well with most foods. However, Merlot is most known for pairing exceptionally well with lighter meats, such as chicken.
If you are vegetarian, a cooler climate Merlot will perfectly bring out the flavours of roasted vegetables. Merlot even pairs well with tomatoes.
If you opt for a stronger, full-bodied Merlot you will be able to pair it to foods as if it were a Cabernet Sauvignon. Allowing you to drink it with medium-rare steak, lamb shanks, and roast beef.
What Does Merlot Taste Like?
Merlot wine can generally be divided into two different categories, the international style and the Bordeaux style. The international style harvests the grapes at their ripest in order to produce a full-bodied, fruity wine with smooth tannins. The Bordeaux style, however, harvests the grape early to produce a medium-bodied wine with red fruit flavours, such as strawberry and raspberry.
Although, the taste of Merlot wine will ultimately depend upon where it is grown, even though it is generally seen as a dry red that can be medium to full-bodied and similar in taste to a Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot grapes grown in cooler climates will typically possess an earthier flavour with hints of tobacco, plum, and cherry, as well as a high amount of tannins.
Merlot grapes grown in medium climates will typically be more fruity with fewer tannins. Whereas grapes grown in warm climates will have a more mature taste, something closer to fruitcake or chocolate.
In addition, Merlot is often subject to eight to twelve months of oak ageing to truly bring out the flavour of the wine.
Merlot in Australia
The Majority of stories about a grape’s introduction to Australian soil involve the British-New Zealand resident James Busby, who was responsible for the introduction of the Pinot Grigio and Shiraz grapes to Australia. However, Merlot’s introduction to Australia is more understated and far less romantic. Merlot’s story in Australia truly starts in 1965, after grapes were introduced from UC Davis in California. Until 1992, Merlot grapes were barely being planted in Australia and made up less than Mataro in the number of grapes crushed.
However, after the tireless work of Jim Irvine in Adelaide’s Barossa region, Merlot started to grow in popularity. Irvine blamed the initial unpopularity of Merlot on the fact that it was being grown incorrectly in Australia. Irvine believed that it was being incorrectly grown as if it was a Shiraz or a Grenache when Merlot grew best in well-drained soil.
After the work of Irvine and other Merlot enthusiasts, the Merlot grape gained in popularity. In 2008, Merlot was the third most popular variety of red grape in Australia. This was not unique to Australia, a global ‘Merlot craze’ not only led merlot to challenge Shiraz for Australia’s favourite red wine but also propelled Merlot to the USA’s second favourite red wine.
Where is Merlot Grown?
While Merlot initially found life in Australia to be difficult, it is now going from strength to strength. The Merlot grape has found a comfortable home in South Australia. Merlot grapes are perfect for the climate of South Australia’s Limestone Coast in Coonawarra, as well as the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. Although, Merlot does have a home outside of South Australia, as the grape is grown along the Margaret River in Western Australia. With each year, winemakers are learning more about Merlot and allowing their Merlot vineyards to age and become more balanced. Consequently, Merlot in Australia is only going to improve with each year!
As the flavour of Merlot wine depends upon where it is grown, the Merlot produced in each wine region will taste slightly different to the other, making it a fantastically diverse wine. While the movie Sideways may have put people off drinking Merlot for a little while, people have finally started to realise how approachable and flexible this dry red can be. It can be enjoyed with a vast variety of food and, depending on where it was grown, can give rise to swathes of different flavours. It is no surprise that Merlot is quickly growing in popularity, becoming the second most consumed red wine in the USA and chasing Shiraz for the top spot in Australia.