What Is Merlot Wine?

Pouring a glass of Merlot

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Merlot is one of the world's most popular red wine grape, producing dry, medium-bodied wine with soft tannins and juicy dark fruit flavors. With origins in the Bordeaux region, the grape is also commonly used in red wine blends with cabernet sauvignon and cab Franc, like the celebrated Bordeaux blend. Merlot is still popular in France and is grown throughout the world, including Italy, California, Chile, and Australia. The alcohol content in merlot is average for red wine.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: Bordeaux, Toscana, California, Chile, Australia
  • Origin: Bordeaux, France
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Color: Dark red to red-brown
  • ABV: 13–15% 

Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon

Merlot and cabernet sauvignon sometimes get mixed up in blind taste tests and are often used in red wine blends together. While the two wines come from different grapes, they do share a parent—cabernet Franc. Both wines have flavors of juicy dark fruits and herbal notes (especially when grown in cooler climates). Merlot tends to be more fruit-forward, with a supple texture and soft tannins, while cabernet sauvignon has firmer tannins and stronger herbal flavor. Merlot is often cheaper and sometimes viewed as less complex. The two marry nicely in red wine blends like the Bordeaux blend and "super Tuscan."

Taste and Flavor Profile

Merlot is planted in a variety of conditions around the world, resulting in a range of characteristics in the wine. The red wine is typically dry, medium-bodied, with medium acidity and characteristically soft tannins. Classic merlot often pops the nose with cherry and cocoa and can exhibit aromas of herbs and spice. A range of dark fruits like plum, cherry, and blackberry can dominate the palate.

Cool climate merlot from regions like Bordeaux and Northern Italy express notes of violet, tobacco, bay leaf, licorice, bitter chocolate, and earthiness. Warm climate merlot from regions like California and Australia is often more fruit-forward, with leafy green notes, chocolate, and rich baking spices like vanilla and clove from oak-aging.

How to Taste Wine

When tasting wine, follow these steps to ensure the best experience:

  1. Look: Take in the wine with your eyes, examining the color and opacity through the glass.
  2. Smell: Swirl the glass for 10 seconds and take a quick whiff. Then stick your nose into the glass for a deep inhale, gathering your first impressions of the wine.
  3. Taste: Take a small sip and let it roll around your mouth. Note the sugar, acidity, tannins, and alcohol content, then move on to tasting notes (fruit, wood, spices) and finally the finish.

Grapes and Wine Regions

The merlot grape originated in the Bordeaux region of France, where it is still widely grown and used in the classic Bordeaux blend. It is also a popular wine grape in California, Italy, Chile, Australia, and Argentina. Merlot can thrive in cool or warm temperatures, although the characteristics in the wine can vary depending on climate. The vines prefer sandy, well-draining soils, and the thin-skinned grape is somewhat susceptible to the usual wine grape maladies. Grown in the spring and summer and harvested in the fall (often mid-September in the northern hemisphere), merlot is a chameleon of a grape, highly influenced by its growing conditions and treatment after harvest.

In addition to bottles of 100 percent merlot, the red wine grape is recognized as a terrific blending partner for other varietals such as cabernet sauvignon and cabernet Franc. The soft tannins in merlot help to mellow the cabs a bit, while the merlot enjoys more structure and definition.

Food Pairings

Merlot pairs well with a range of meat, from chicken to pork to beef. Try serving fruity, lighter merlots with braised chicken thighs or pork loin. Serve heavier, bolder merlots with lamb, venison, and flavorful beef dishes like brisket. All merlot pairs well with pizza, burgers, and hearty mushroom and bean dishes. Bold cheeses like aged goat cheese are a nice accompaniment to the red wine.

Serve merlot at cellar temperature (60 to 68 F) in a red wine glass. Decant for about 30 minutes if possible before pouring. If you don't have a wine cellar or wine fridge, pop the bottle in the fridge for about 15 minutes before serving.

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Merlot is widely available in grocery stores, wine shops, liquor stores, and online. You'll often find a merlot section among the red wine. Bottles are available for a range of prices, with plenty of very good options in the $15–30 range. If you can't find a merlot to your liking, try a bottle of cabernet sauvignon or a red wine blend featuring merlot.

When shopping for merlot, look for these quality producers:

  • Long Meadow Ranch
  • Ancient Peaks
  • Edna Valley
  • Rabble
  • Rombauer Vineyards
  • Hall
  • Stag's Leap
  • Markham Vineyards