The Merlot typically has a soft, smooth taste with pleasant black cherry flavors. This dry, red wine is popular for its rich, fruity tones, pronounced yet delicate tannins (wines with high tannins can be described as bitter and astringent), with moderate acidity and a chocolatey or mocha finish. The Merlot is the most planted wine grape in Bordeaux, France; however, it is grown in several regions around the world, and the different climates and wine-making techniques in these regions cause slight nuances in the taste of Merlot wines. In this article, we will go into depth about the nuances in flavor, the best temperature to serve your Merlot, and the best food pairings.
The Taste of Merlot
The Merlot adapts to different environments, exuding characteristics peculiar to its region and techniques. We will go into the difference in Merlot wine tastes based on climate; however, the ever-present primary flavors of Merlot include black cherries, plum, blackberries, chocolate, vanilla, figs, and bay leaf. The Merlot’s smooth taste is enhanced by the fruity aroma of berries and cherries and an underlay of vanilla that gives this red wine a silky and pleasantly creamy mouthfeel. Furthermore, the Merlot’s low tannin quantity has led it to be used for blending in Bordeaux and other locations around the world, as blending astringent wines (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon) with Merlot often takes the harsh edges off and makes these wines drinkable. So the question goes: is Merlot sweet?
Is Merlot Sweet or Dry
Merlot is not a sweet wine; it is a dry, fruity wine. A dry wine refers to a wine with little to no residual sugar after fermentation, which means you can taste all the fruit flavors without the sweetness. Essentially, wines left to ferment until yeast consumes all their natural sugars and converts them into alcohol are known as dry wines. The fruitiness of Merlot is often confused with sweetness, but that isn’t the case: the tasting of supple fruit flavors like berries and plums isn’t the same as tasting the sweetness of sugar. Nonetheless, although the Merlot is a dry wine, it still has a pleasant taste due to the low levels of tannins present in it.
Taste of Merlot in regards to Climate
Depending on the climate, the taste of Merlot can vary distinctly. Let’s examine the differences between Merlot from warm and cool climates:
- Taste of Merlot from Cooler Climates: This is also known as the Old World Merlot. These wines are generally medium-bodied with earthy flavors. They have strong acidity, tannins, and dominant flavors of fig, bitter chocolate, allspice, raspberry, violet, and mint. Generally, they taste fresher and spicier than the New World Merlot: the colder the climate, the fresher the wine. These wines are made in cooler climates such as France, Spain, Italy, etc. These wines usually have an alcohol content of 13 to 14%, which is higher than the warmer climate Merlot.
- Taste of Merlot from Warmer Climates: This is also known as the New World Merlot. These wines made in warmer climates (e.g., Australia, Argentina, Sonoma, New Zealand, etc.) tend to have lesser sugar content due to higher sugar-alcohol conversion resulting in more pronounced fruity flavors; lower tannin levels making them less astringent; strong notes of chocolate, vanilla, coffee, and cedar. This type of Merlot wine is medium-plus to full-body, making it heavier than its Old World counterpart. The New World Merlot contains about 14.5% alcohol and gives off aromas of cherries and plums, as well as chocolate and vanilla, due to common new oak usage. Basically, this Merlot is typically sweeter, creamier, and heavier than wines made in cooler climates.
Merlot Wine Regions and Tastes
Derived from the French word Merle, meaning Blackbird, the Merlot wine originated in Bordeaux, France. However, it has gained popularity in several countries, with the differences in climate, blending, and wine-making techniques across countries bringing about differences in taste. Below are some popular Merlot wine regions and their distinct taste and blends:
- France: Primarily grown in Bordeaux, the French Merlot can be blended or single varietal. The red Bordeaux blend is a famous wine that combines Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Merlot. The Merlot grapes in Bordeaux are often blended with these other varieties as the Merlot is thought to be fresher and smoother, taking the sharp edge off other grapes. Merlot wines in this area typically have prominent earthy and fruity flavors and intense minerality. The winemakers often use oak barrels for aging the wine, so you may find your Bordeaux Merlot to be enveloped in French oak notes.
- Chile: The Merlot wines in Chile are richly-fruited and full-bodied. Merlot is the third most widely grown grape in Chile; they are typically mixed with grapes known as Carménère (historically misidentified as Merlot). The Chilean Merlot range from easy-drinking blended wines to single-variety, high-end, top-quality wines from Maule Valley, Maipo, and Colchagua. Chilean Merlot has subtle yet pronounced dark fruit flavors.
- United States: California was one of the first places where Merlot was bottled and made as a single-variety wine without other grape varieties. It is also the second-most popular red grape variety in California. The Merlot wine in this state can boast of warm-climate characteristics like supple fruity flavors, spicy notes, and vanilla-chocolatey finish from regions like Napa Valley and Paso Robles. Conversely, cooler areas in California, such as Bennet Valley in Sonoma County, boast of more astringent Merlot wines with less fruity flavors and richness. Merlot wines are also produced in Washington, Ohio, Virginia, and Texas. Merlot wines made in the US are generally of the New World variety.
- Italy: Merlot wines in Italy can either be a single varietal wine or blended with Bordeaux grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or local grapes like Sangiovese to produce the famous Super Tuscans. Italian-blended Merlot wines generally have soft flavors and tannins, a balanced weight, and a rich yet spicy mouthfeel. Furthermore,these Merlot wines are known for their green notes (slight taste of being underripe).
Many other countries produce Merlot wines, including Argentina, New Zealand, Hungary, Canada, South Africa, Germany, Spain, etc. The tastes of these Merlot wines will differ depending on the climate and wine-making techniques where they originated.
Harvesting Period and Its Effects on Taste
The harvesting period of Merlot grapes can affect the taste of Merlot. There are two harvesting approaches:
- Bordeaux Style: In this approach, the grapes are harvested early from the vines, and the wines are produced from them. The early harvest causes the grape to have high acidity and pronounced green herbal notes that may taste spicy. The wines gotten from this style are lighter with moderate alcohol levels and fresh fruity flavors.
- International Style: In this approach, the grapes are left on the vines till they ripen completely. The delayed harvest causes low levels of acidity in the fermented wine. Merlot wines made with this style are typically full-bodied with higher alcohol levels; they are creamier and have strong notes of cherries, plums, and berries.
Furthermore, for blended Merlot, the blending of Merlot with other grape varieties can be done before, during, or after fermentation. All these different approaches can bring about slight differences in the taste of a Merlot-centric wine.
What Temperature Gives the Best Taste?
The Merlot is best served at 60-65 ºF. The temperature you serve your Merlot at contributes significantly to how delicious your wine will taste. The notion that all red wines should be served at room temperature isn’t necessarily true, mainly because people’s home temperatures vary primarily due to weather differences. If you serve wine that’s too warm due to your room temperature, you will end up with a drink that tastes heavy and sharp with muted flavors. Also, the alcohol will grow hot, and your drink will taste excessively alcoholic. Conversely, serving a Merlot that’s too cold will cause the scents and fruity notes to be toned down.
Achieve the perfect temperature by letting your Merlot chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes (for fuller-bodied Merlot with higher alcohol contents, 60 minutes will be enough). Uncork it afterward, and air it out for 15 to 20 minutes before serving to get the best possible taste.
Furthermore, an opened bottle of Merlot usually keeps well for about 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator before it oxidizes (ensure you re-cork it properly before storing it).
What Food Pairings Goes Best with Merlot?
Perfectly pairing wine with food to elevate the taste of both is equal parts art and science. The Merlot is an easy-drinking wine that pairs with a variety of foods, and this is one of the reasons it’s so popular. The typically smooth texture and rich flavors of the Merlot make it a versatile choice that goes with a range of meals ranging from sweet to savory. However, different types of Merlot pair best with different types of meals: the crucial part of pairing wine with food is ensuring the wine’s flavor intensity and weight matches the weight and flavor intensity of the meal.
A New World Merlot with elevated fruity flavors can be paired with a variety of fresh or roasted fruits (blackberries, cherries, and plums) that will elevate the wine’s fruity flavors. Also, the wine’s dark fruit flavor with cocoa notes makes it a choice drink to pair with chocolate desserts. New world Merlot can also be paired with richly flavored cheeses such as Gouda, blue cheese, cheddar, and cheese-based meals like pizza. The New World Merlot, which has a fuller body with higher alcohol content (14.5 abv), can handle various full-body meat dishes such as venison, bison, lamb, veal, and beef. Chicken, pork duck, burgers, roasted mushrooms, and roasted or smoked root vegetables are dishes that create delicious pairings when combined with the earthy flavored, easy-drinking Old World Merlot.
Conversely, the meals that generally do not pair well with Merlot are delicate seafood, light salads, extra spicy meals, meals with high sugar content, and acidic citrus dishes. So eating or serving foods like sushi, sweet rolls, sugary cookies, shellfish, chili-based dishes, meals with high citric splashes or flavors, etc., with Merlot will make for a bad combination.
Nonetheless, drinking wine should always come with no judgements. Taste is largely subjective, and while we can recommend what meals are best paired with your Merlot, the food is yours to savor and consume. So experiment and drink your Merlot with whatever food you have chosen to eat; all that matters is that the flavors in the wine plays off the flavors in your dish.
Type of Glass
Most oenophiles understand that the glass used in drinking wine makes a difference in how it tastes. One wine will display completely different characteristics when served in varied glasses. So what is the best wine glass for savoring your Merlot?
The best wineglass to unlock your Merlot’s full flavor is a tall glass with a wide bowl. The taller glass lets you swirl freely before sipping, and the large bowl exposes your Merlot to adequate oxygen, mellowing out extra-pronounced flavors and allowing the underlays to come through. Generally, the wider the glass, the more aromatic complexities our noses can detect, so using a glass with a small bowl for an aromatically nuanced wine like Merlot will be doing your drink a massive disservice.
Summarily, in the right glass, the fruity and flowery aromas will rise to the top of the glass; the herbaceous and mineral notes will settle in the middle; lastly, alcohol, possessing the heaviest aroma, will settle right on top of the wine.
Regardless of blends, the Merlot has dry yet fruity flavors, moderate acidity, low astringency due to soft but present tannins, and medium to high quantity of alcohol; all in all, it possesses a nuanced yet simple taste that is ideal for new wine drinker and pleasant enough for oenophiles. As mentioned, although the Merlot wines have a typical taste, the tastes of these wines can differ due to their origins and the wine-making techniques involved. The various underlays of flavors in the Merlot make it a delicious choice to pair with various dishes.