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Merlot is back, and it’s better than ever. After a brief downtick in popularity in the early 2000s (thanks in large part to the film “Sideways”), most consumers have finally experienced their long-awaited revelation with the grape. And rightfully so: This fruit has the capacity to make some seriously delicious wine.
Whether your tastes run more to fleshy fruit-driven cuvées from New World regions or to restrained earth-driven blends from Europe, there’s really nothing that merlot can’t do. Couple that with the fact that it’s a crowd-pleasing and food-friendly wine, available at an array of price points, and we can’t think of a reason not to fall back in love with this versatile variety.
Merlot is a blue-skinned red grape variety used to produce both monovarietal (single grape) wines and blends. The grape is known for producing soft and fleshy wines with medium levels of acid and soft, silky tannins.
The word “merlot” is derived from the French world “merle,” which means blackbird. Some believe that this name is in reference to the dark hue of the grape’s skin, while others argue that it’s due to the heavy presence of said blackbirds that regularly swoop down and eat the fruit from the vines. Merlot is an offspring variety of cabernet franc, which also makes it a sibling to carménère and cabernet sauvignon.
Merlot has its roots in France’s Bordeaux region, though the grape is cultivated all over the globe. Along with cabernet sauvignon, merlot is one of the most widely planted red grape varieties in the world.
It’s vinified in a variety of styles, and its final flavor profile depends on whether it’s vinified varietally or in a blend, where it comes from, and the vinification techniques imparted on it.
Most winemakers tend to use some form of new or used wood during merlot vinification, although steel-vinified expressions do exist.
Like many grape varieties, merlot tends to show two different sides of itself depending on where it's vinified. In New World regions, merlot-based wines tend to be plusher, fuller-bodied and loaded with flavors of juicy plums, blackberry compote and sweet spice. New World merlot is usually marked by higher levels of alcohol and velvety, approachable tannins.
In Old World regions (specifically Bordeaux’s Right Bank), merlot usually shows a more vegetal side, as the fruit usually is harvested earlier. Flavors are dominated by red fruits (raspberry, strawberry and red currants) and earth. Acid, tannins and alcohol levels tend to be relatively moderate.
Merlot is basically the Goldilocks of red wine in that no matter what you’re looking for, the juice is generally just right. Equal parts fruit-forward and earth-driven and balanced by moderate tannins and acidity, merlot is one of the most food-friendly red wines on the market. In addition to roast chicken, steak and hamburgers on the grill, the wine also comes to life when sipped alongside pizza, red pasta sauces, short ribs and bean-based dishes. Simple cheese and charcuterie boards will also do the trick.
These are the six bottles to try.
Château Coutet Saint-Émilion Grand Cru (Bordeaux, France)
Located on the first hill of Saint-Émilion, this organically certified estate is putting out one of the region’s best Right Bank (merlot-dominant) blends today. Notes of blackberry skin, plums, red currants and cedar spice jump from the wine’s luscious palate. Serve with wagyu steak, braised beef or hearty vegan stews.
Domaine de Galouchey Vin de Jardin (Bordeaux, France)
Located on the “other” side of the Dordogne (across the way from Saint-Émilion and Pommard), this vin de jardin (wine from the garden) is produced from organically farmed merlot with a smidge of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and carménère. The wine’s restrained earth-driven palate is loaded with flavors of red and black fruits, forest floor, potting soil and smoke.
Januik Winery (Columbia Valley, Washington)
This classic New World merlot bursts with flavors of ripe plums, crushed blackberries, raspberry coulis, chocolate and sweet barrel spice. The wine’s smooth and velvety finish makes it perfect for sipping with cheesy gratins, homemade veggie burgers or juicy steaks on the grill.
Mayacamas (Napa Valley, California)
This rich yet restrained merlot comes from California’s most highly respected estates. Powerful notes of black cherries, fresh cut herbs, tobacco and sweet spice ooze from the wine’s silky medium-bodied palate. This classic, sophisticated expression of merlot is perfect for either drinking now or laying down in the cellar, though why not do both?
Paumanok (North Fork, Long Island, New York)
Merlot from Long Island? You bet. This savory palate-coating cuvée from Paumanok is packed with flavors of dark fruits, cherries, graphite, sweet baking spice and smoke. Pop a bottle of this with a DIY charcuterie board for a delicious at-home happy hour.