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Red wine guide: merlot

Fruity, elegant merlot is in the pantheon of great red wine grapes. Today we’ll explore why wine lovers know that this is a style worth fighting for.

Fruity, elegant merlot is in the pantheon of great red wine grapes. Today we’ll explore why wine lovers know that this is a style worth fighting for.

What kind of wine is merlot?

Merlot (pronounced “Mər-lo”. The “t” is silent, madames et monsieurs) is a red wine grape varietal from France. It pours a gorgeous ruby color. France really couldn’t keep it a secret and now it thrives on vineyards around the world, from Washington state to Italy and New Zealand up to China. Merlot grapes ripen a little quicker than cabernet, and winemakers watch them like hawks to make sure they harvest them when their acidity is just right. Check out our beginner’s guide to red wine for more in-depth info on how it all goes down.

Is merlot expensive wine?

Merlot tends to be more affordable than cab and pinot noir. The “Sideways effect” and increasing production drove the price down, so you can get a truly excellent bottle for under $20. Remember: higher prices often indicate product scarcity rather than unparalleled quality.

What’s a very good merlot?

Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot represents everything a merlot should be. It’s extraordinarily fruity, well structured and nicely balanced. The Pomerol and St. Emilion areas of France produce some of the most revered and rare bottles of merlot, but they’re wildly expensive and very difficult to find. Luckily, we’re also seeing great things out of Washington state. Josh Cellars is always a crowd-pleasing choice that’s surprisingly affordable.

Flavor of merlot

Merlot really earned its reputation as an “easy-drinking”, red. A good bottle produces a wonderfully fruity flavor profile, with plum, black cherry and raspberry leading the charge. Blackberry pops up a lot, too. Don’t be surprised if you pick up milk chocolate notes and a pleasant vanilla character from the oak ageing process, either. Merlot’s smooth, silky texture and full-ish body balance its medium-high tannins, but its acidity is often a little more restrained than the most bold red wines. It’s complex, but quite balanced, approachable and drinkable.

Curious about the quality of merlot? Delicious, complex, fruity merlots from all over the globe can rival any kind of wine in the world in terms of quality and depth of flavor. We’ll put it this way: merlot wouldn’t be the most-planted red wine varietal in France if it wasn’t up to snuff.

Is merlot a semi-sweet wine?

No. Merlot has very little residual sweetness, so we describe it as a dry red wine. This makes it more drinkable and better with food.

Does merlot age well?

You can pop open your bottle of merlot as soon as your Drizly driver drops it off, but a good bottle can age in your cellar for quite some time. Cabernet sauvignon has a better aging reputation, but merlot certainly can improve with age.

Merlot blends

What’s a good cabernet/merlot blend?

Just because they’re perennial heavyweights doesn’t mean that merlot and cabernet can’t work together. The French realized the value of teamwork even before The Avengers movies came out, frequently combining merlot and cabernet sauvignon to make their Bordeaux blends. This wine radiates with the fruitiness of merlot but has the long-term aging potential of cabernet.

Merlot vs. other red wines

How are merlot and cabernet sauvignon different?

Cabernet sauvignon and merlot share an ancestor in cabernet franc, so they certainly have similar, bold fruit characteristics. Merlot’s big party trick, however, is that it manages to explode with fruity flavor and roundness at a relatively young age compared to cab, which benefits from extended aging. Merlot has less acidity and astringency than cabernet, too, another reason why we love it as an anytime, any occasion kind of red.

Pinot noir vs merlot: Is pinot noir better than merlot?

As a rule, no - even if Sideways suggested otherwise. They’re both world-class grapes, but this is an apples/oranges comparison. Many of us here prefer merlot to pinot noir, but this is an intensely personal decision that you must make for yourself.

How are pinot noir and merlot different?

Merlot is a bolder, more intense red. For example, pinot noir carries a significantly lighter body than merlot, as well as fewer tannins and astringency. Merlot also tends to have notes of chocolate, compared to pinot noir’s more earthy, almost mushroom-y character. Finally, merlot is usually 1-2% stronger on the ABV scale.

Going back to Sideways and merlot...

Why did Sideways trash merlot?

Surely you’ve seen the scene… It’s important to remember that Sideways is a CALIFORNIA wine movie; when it came out merlot production was really skyrocketing in the Golden State. It was CA’s hot, trendy grape varietal, but as with anything trendy, it faced its fair share of backlash from pinot noir and cabernet purists. The Sideways characters fancy themselves wine experts, so drinking some “fashionable” wine like merlot would feel like amateur hour for them - even if they were wrong about that. That’s why Paul Giamatti’s character famously bellowed “I am NOT drinking any [freakin’] merlot”.

Did Sideways hurt merlot sales?

Yes, apparently. Words can hurt. It’s a funny scene and probably wouldn’t have worked if they had had to explain themselves, but that concept is generally wrong and unfair at the very least. Merlot sales, which had been steadily climbing, dropped by at least 2% in the years following the Sideways release. The good news is that this wine is more than good enough to withstand some lousy PR.

Merlot food pairings

Merlot is perhaps the most versatile red wine. You can have it with Friday pizza or with cheese and crackers at Saturday cocktail hour. Dried meats like prosciutto also make excellent companions. For dinner, it’s robust enough to enhance your filet mignon or pairing with dark chocolate when dessert rolls around.

What cheese pairs with merlot?

We like smoked gouda and gorgonzola with a glass of merlot. Pair it with a semi-aged goat cheese like bûcheron and legend has it that you’ll be speaking fluent french within the hour (not a guarantee).

How to drink merlot

Drink merlot slightly chilled in an oversized red wine glass. Let the bottle aerate for 30-60 minutes after opening - unless it’s an emergency party.

When to drink merlot

Merlot is actively unpretentious. It’s a classy wine that excels in casual occasions. You can break it down in a blind tasting with friends or enjoy it as the backdrop to a football game or barbecue. Nothing’s out of bounds.

Top 10 popular merlots on Drizly this year

Have we sold you on merlot yet? We’re hoping it’s a resounding yes. So venture on friend, and find out for yourself what merlot is all about right here on Drizly.