Beer & Wine Wine

The 12 Best Merlot Wines to Drink in 2021

Merlot vineyards are in their prime right now and these are the bottles to get.

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Merlot makes a very tasty wine, period. You may not realize it, but wine made from merlot grapes is probably your favorite wine. Originating in the Bordeaux region of France, merlot is classically known for producing a softer, fleshier wine than its outsized counterpoint, cabernet sauvignon, which is often blended with merlot because the merlot softens the cabernet. Still, Merlot has a reputation for being a wine for first-time wine drinkers; a wine with a light touch; a starter wine of sorts. 

Lucky for you, that reputation for merlot is hogwash. I witnessed one of the great wine writers of our time, Anthony Giglio, giving an impassioned closing speech during a merlot seminar, in which he stated that iconic merlot vineyards are “now in their prime and making wines that are more approachable than cabernet but with cabernet structure to go the long haul. I’ll say it,” said Giglio, “Cabernet takes a backseat to these modern merlots. They belong in your cellar and if you miss out you are really missing out.” 

He’s absolutely right. Merlot is the king behind the king (if you still consider cabernet sauvignon the reigning king). It is the Queen’s Gambit, the tick before the tock, and in the right hands it is a chameleon: ”Is this a fine cabernet?” it will have you saying. “No!” someone will shout from the rafters. “It’s merlot, you crazy fool!” 

French-born winemaker Benoit Touquette, the producer of my Best Overall merlot pick, says that the trick to making utterly lip-smacking merlot is to get it right in the vineyard. “If you let the berries become too big,” he explains, “or if you don’t control the water, you have to watch out. [Merlot] is very sensitive to heat,” he says, “so first we have to control the berry size,” which is done by assessing the risk of heat, and canopy management. The goal, Touquette says, is to “always have minimal intervention in the winery,” so getting it right in the vineyard, making sure the berries are compact, and full of flavor, is the not-so-simple trick of making exceptional merlot.

Picking the best merlot requires tasting hundreds of them, which I have painstakingly done for years. Here is a list of outstanding merlot wines to drink on really any occasion.

Best Overall: Realm The Tempest 2017

Realm The Tempest 2017

Courtesy of Wine.com

  • Region: Napa Valley, California
  • ABV: 14.6%
  • Tasting Notes: Blueberry, Blackberry, Black Cherry, Touch of Violets and Smoke

In this Bordeaux-inspired bottle of perfection, Realm Cellars winemaker Benoit Touquette culled together a perfect storm of grape varieties, making The Tempest a wine to be reckoned with. Led by merlot grapes, but flanked by cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and petit verdot, it’s a bottle that encapsulates the potential of Napa’s famed Stags Leap District and shows how Beckstoffer grapes in the right hands yield remarkable wines.

The 2017 Realm The Tempest is so complex, it makes reading Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as easy as reading a children’s book by Mo Willems. Energetic and fresh, this wine gives way to reveal spicy blueberry, blackberry, and black cherry notes with a neon tinge of violets and smoke that are tightly knit with fine-grained, elongated tannins. For as long as the bottle lasts, you’ll be steeped in contemplation, and it’s why this is the Best Overall Merlot. 

Best Under $20: J. Lohr Estates Los Osos Merlot 2016

J. Lohr Estates Los Osos Merlot

Courtesy of Drizly

  • Region: Paso Robles, California
  • ABV: 13.8%
  • Tasting Notes: Candied Violets, Blueberry, Fleshy Plum, Crushed Blackberries, French Oak Spices

This is a staple, stalwart, pioneering producer of Paso Robles and when a winery takes on that level of status, it’s easy to look past their recognizable label for something new and exciting. But take my word for it, pick up this 2016 vintage from J. Lohr, which benefited greatly from well-timed winter rains and an Italian-clone of merlot grown in a cooler pocket of Paso. The result is a wine with more juicy acidity than you might expect, possibly courtesy of earlier harvesting because phenolic maturity is achieved with this clone—all told there’s a lightness and freshness that makes this a wonderful wine for the price.

Related: The Best Cheap Wines

Best California: Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot 2017

Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot 2017

Courtesy of Drizly

  • Region: Napa Valley, California
  • ABV: 14.5%
  • Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Oak, Plum, Blackberry

The Duckhorn label gets to boast about being among the first producers of single-vineyard merlot in California, as well as pioneers making North American merlot an international prize. The secret’s in the terroir of this royally famous Three Palms vineyard where volcanic rock absorbs the heat of the day, continuing ripening overnight, and protecting grapes from any unusually cold mornings where frost may threaten to unhinge them.

Vanilla and oak roll off the tongue right off the bat, complemented by deeper hues of plum and blackberry. This wine is bold and dry with just a touch of acidity. An exquisite texture, it goes down with an elegant finish.

Related: The Best Wines

Runner-up Best California: Gundlach Bundschu Merlot 2016

Gundlach Bundschu Merlot

Courtesy of Drizly

  • Region: Sonoma Valley, California
  • ABV: 14.6%
  • Tasting Notes: Plum, Oak, Red and Black Cherries, Tobacco

With 160 years and six generations of wine production in Sonoma Valley, the folks who romance the vines at Gundlach Bundschu deliver a merlot that’s sturdy and peppy. Their vineyards have been delivering the goods for so long that it’s hard for them to miss a beat. Their 2016 vintage is a doozy.

Tip: I’ve had the chance to taste some old GunBun wine with none other than Jeff Gundlach himself and let me tell you—these are age-worthy jewels. Buy enough to enjoy now and some to enjoy down the road, especially of the 2016 vintage. This is a merlot that slaps. Bold aromatics of plum, oak, red and black cherries are complemented by an undercurrent of tobacco in this hearty and spicy medium-bodied wine.

Related: Get to Know Merlot and 6 Bottles to Try

Best French: Château l'Arrosee Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé 2010

2010 Château l'Arrosee Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé

Courtesy of Vivino

  • Region: Saint-Émilion, France
  • ABV: 13%
  • Tasting Notes: Black Currant, Blackberry, Cassis, Vanilla-tinged Tobacco

Chateau l’Arrosse winery is so French that one of its first owners was Pierre Magne, Finance Minister to Napoleon III. These days, the owners are slightly less under the radar but retain the same level of clout. Something to note: With Saint-Émilion wines, a “Grand Cru” classification sounds impressive, but unlike Burgundy (where “Grand Cru” means you’re the top of the heap), the more impressive bottles from this AOC include the word “Classé,” as in “Grand Cru Classé,” and this storied producer rarely yields anything other than a classy, classé, class-act-in-a-bottle.

This is French merlot at its finest. Sturdy tannins are supported by inviting, lip-smacking acidity. A beautiful mess of red and purple florals. 

Runner-up Best French: Les Roches de Yon Figeac Saint-Émilion Grand Cru

Château Yon-Figeac

Courtesy of Vivino

  • Region: Saint-Émilion, France
  • ABV: 14%
  • Tasting Notes: Blum, Cherry, Raspberry

Yes, both the Best French and Runner-up Best French are from Bordeaux’s Saint-Émilion region (and more to follow). It’s safe to say that any merlot from this AOC is worth consideration, especially when it’s an estate like Yon-Figeac, which was once part of the iconic Chateau Figeac estate, one of the great Right Bank producers.

Make no mistake, the sandy, clay, and iron-rich soils here provide excellent conditions for merlot to ripen evenly, while fermentation in stainless steel and aging in just 35% new French oak for up to 14 months creates a wine that is bright, engaging and will taste great now and in 15 years.

Explosive plum, cherry, and raspberry aromas find intricate and subtle earthy notes cut by balanced acidity and a medium-bodied texture, framed by satiny tannins. One of the finest kosher French wines you’ll ever taste.

Related: The Best Moscato Wines

Best Washington: Leonetti Merlot 2015

Leonetti Merlot

Courtesy of Vivino

  • Region: Walla Walla Valley, Washington
  • ABV: 14.3%
  • Tasting Notes: Plum, Cherry, Cocoa, Black Licorice, Orange peel

Here we have a wine that’s 100% merlot, 100% Walla Walla Valley, and 100% delicious. Leonetti makes sure their cherished merlot grapes grow on their cooler appellations with heavier soils, proving that best practices beget pristine rewards. The 2015 vintage is a silky treasure and the magic in the vineyard follows through in the cellar to the bottle, with Leonetti crafting some of the region’s most structured, most beautiful wines.

Best Italian: Le Macchiole Messorio 2016

Le Macchiole Messorio

Courtesy of Vivino

  • Region: Tuscany, Italy
  • ABV: 14.5%
  • Tasting Notes: Burnt Oranges, Black Olives, Silky Dark Fruit, Walnuts

From straight out of Tuscany comes this Messorio merlot, more or less the flagship bottle of the highly reputable Italian winery, Le Macchiole. Every vintage of the Messorio seems to improve year-to-year. It’s not just a class-act merlot, it’s also a sought out critical darling racking up 99-point scores here and there like it’s a walk in the park. 

This wine is juicy, savory, silky, vibrant, and downright awesome, with a generous dose of perfectly-delineated flavors and velvety, smooth textures. Nothing quite like it. Just be sure to wear at least two pairs of socks as this wine will certainly knock the first pair right off.

Best For Mulled Wine: Robert Mondavi Rum Barrel Aged Merlot Private Selection 2017

Robert Mondavi Rum

Courtesy of Drizly

  • Region: Monterey County, California
  • ABV: 14.5%
  • Tasting Notes: Oaky and Spicy, Vanilla, Coconut, Plum

Some winemakers like to be coy about how their wines are made, so kudos to Robert Mondavi for detailing their process for this wine right there in the name. The rum barrel aging process makes this merlot an excellent choice for adding in mulled spices, perfect for the rest of winter. And if you miss making mulled wine in winter, make it in summer—no one will question your motives when it tastes this good. The rum influence is evident and welcome.

Related: The Best Wines for Mulled Wine

Best Value: Hahn Estate Merlot 2018

Hahn Merlot

Courtesy of Drizly

  • Region: Central Coast, California
  • ABV: 14.5%
  • Tasting Notes: Plum, Vanilla, Mint, Dark Chocolate, Savory Black Olive Finish

The Hahn Estate grows its fruit in a rich stretch of California’s central coast at the foot of the Saint Lucia Highlands where the soil is gravelly and the air is cool and breezy. These conditions are favorable to merlot grapes.

This wine was aged in French oak barrels, to give the flavor and texture a kick. Classic aromas and flavors of plum, vanilla, and a hint of mint intermingle with a bit of dark chocolate. This wine has a grippy palate-feel and savory black olive finish. 

Best For Collectors: La Mondotte Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé 2016

La Mondotte Saint-Emilion Grand Cru

Courtesy of Drizly

  • Region: Saint-Émilion, France
  • ABV: 14%
  • Tasting Notes: Plum, Blackberry, Cassis, Vanilla, Raspberry, Oak Spices

Not every winemaker can say that their wines were grown in a UNESCO World Heritage site, but La Mondotte can. Wine grapes have been growing in the historically rich Saint-Émilion region since the 8th century and that makes wine like this a novelty for collectors. It’s also tacks on “Premier” to its “Grand Cru Classé” designation, which puts it in the company of just 18 wineries that are permitted to let the public know they are the premiere classified growths of the Right Bank.

This is a wine meant for collectors; it ain’t cheap. But in a decade, or two decades from now, from the night it’s opened, it will mark a watershed moment in your life—either because it will astound or because you waited 20 years to open one wine. Vanilla and raspberry sneak up, giving the scintillating acidity an energetic lift, framed by rich, burly tannins with impressive flourishes of savory oak spices. Pretty impressive!  

Best Splurge: Le Dome Saint-Émilion Grand Cru 2009

Le Dome St Emilion Grand Cru 2009

Courtesy of Drizly

  • Region: St. Emilion, France
  • ABV: 15%
  • Tasting Notes: Floral and Smoky Aromas, Intense Cedar, Plum, Mulberry

What do you get when you mix Bordeaux-grown grapes, a rock star winemaker, and a limited, specially curated production? You get a merlot that makes it worth taking out a second mortgage if just to own a few bottles.

Chateau Le Dome is run by winemaker Jonathan Maltus who first made a splash in the wine scene during the “garage period” of the 1990s, but he’s been an enduring figure, staying current, and making excellent wine. If you want to create a scene some Christmas dinner or New Year’s Eve, or on some significant birthday, lock into a bottle of this, and proudly display the price tag. Layers of cassis, graphite, crushed stones, earth, and fine leather find remarkable texture, structure and poise. It’s an easy drink—but not easy on the wallet.  The taste, in this case, equals the price you pay.

Related: The Best Malbec Wines

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Jonathan Cristaldi has written about wine and spirits for over a decade. He regularly tastes wines from around the globe, and personally tasted every wine in this roundup, except for the 2009 Le Dome, though he’s had several other vintages of Le Dome, and Yon-Figeac. Cristaldi was named a "Wine Prophet" by Time Out New York for his witty and often avant-garde approach to wine education.

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