Merlot | The red grape for white wine lovers

Merlot Grapes on vines

Fast Facts

  • Low in tannins - perfect option for white wine drinkers
  • Second most planted grape varietal in the world
  • Merlot means Little black bird in French

History

Derived from the French word Merlot meaning Little Black Bird, the varietal is relatively new in comparison to many other mainstream grapes. Only dating back to 1784, it was first mentioned within a wine’s ingredients when blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, the beginning of the Bordeaux blends. An official described these wines of Bordeaux as “merlau”, from which the merlot grape began its ascent.

As Bordeaux gained global fame, it took the merlot grape with it. Plantings appeared in all different regions around the world to use both as a single varietal wine and as a blend to replicate the perfection that is the Bordeaux blends.

The parentage of Merlot was left unresearched for quite a long time, until the late 1990s. It was found that Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine des Charentes were the contributors to the Merlot grape we know today. Taking the easy ripening ability from the Magdeleine varietal which, as a highly obscure grape type, was known for ripening in mid-July for the day of the Mary Magdeleine feast.

Location

Within the Bordeaux region it is prominent grape on the Right Bank of the Garonne River, in the sub-regions of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. Being highly reliable to ripen correctly and in a timely manner has allowed it to spread beyond these sub-regions to the wider Medoc and beyond the borders of Bordeaux. From this characteristic it stemmed the thought that the varietal would suit any and all climates around the world, with it being planted everywhere, to the point of causing overcrowded vineyards, and subpar growths. Now settled in every major region around the world: Italy, Chile, America, Switzerland, Australia.

Growing the Grape

Looking at the vines and the ripened berries, the grapes sit loosely in bunches and are quite large in size. Not the pure black colour of the Cabernet, but still a dark blue filled with the rouge juices. The reasoning for the grape being so versatile is the early ripening, almost two weeks before Cabernet, allowing it to thrive in cooler climates. There is a lot of debate over harvesting times, ultimately coming down to the flavours the winemaker wants to push forth, whether to save the acidity or allow the grapes to ripen with extra fruitiness.

While Merlot is less susceptible to mildew, it buds early leaving it more vulnerable to frost than slower to grow grapes. Overall it is no more precarious than other varietals, simply providing a bit more certainty with the eventual ripening season. Almost too much certainty, with winemakers furiously pruning and reducing yields as best they can to encourage the limited volume to be the highest quality.

Drinking Merlot

With thinner skins, Merlot holds much less tannins than most other red wine grapes. With a higher sugar content and smoother finish it is the primary choice by white wine drinkers when starting out with reds.

Single Varietal Merlots are best enjoyed slightly cooler than room temperature, around 13-14C. This can be achieved with a short half hour in the fridge before consumption. With cool and warm climate wines varying greatly, the warmer, fruitier iterations can be enjoyed as an accompaniment to anything hearty and centred. Even with spicy foods to play out the smooth wine to quench the spice.

The strong structure of the French single varietal Merlots, as well as the Bordeaux Blends, are best enjoyed in a traditional setting with large roast meals and a nice dash of gravy to blend the flavours together. Can also be enjoyed slightly warmer around 15-16C.

Petrus winery with Petrus bottles

Spotlight - Pétrus, Pomerol

The most well-renowned Merlot wine is still grown in the heart of Bordeaux, by Chateau Pétrus. Pétrus is undoubtedly one of the most acclaimed wines of Bordeaux and certainly the best of Pomerol. The Chateau champions every aspect of its terroir, located on the highest hill of Pomerol on the right bank of Bordeaux.

Since 2011, the vineyard has been entirely planted with Merlot grapes, having done away with a half a hectare of Cabernet Franc. Pétrus is the only estate in Pomerol that has its whole vineyard planted on iron-rich clay soil, with blue clay veins running throughout, adding to the extreme complexity of its makeup. The Merlot grapes at Pétrus are therefore able to ripen better and gain more complexity with the help of good water drainage. The vineyard is managed to produce a few grapes per vine in order to naturally concentrate the wine and increase the complexity and ageing potential.

In 1945, Marie-Louise Loubat became the sole owner of the seven hectares of vineyards which became Pétrus. She granted exclusive distribution rights to Jean-Pierre Moueix, a successful négociant in Libourne, Bordeaux. He acquired majority ownership in 1964, and promptly began promoting it abroad.

Jean-Pierre’s eldest son, Jean-Francois Moueix, bought the remaining shares and became the sole owner in 1969. Today, is is Jean-Francois Moueix’s son Jean that runs and owns Pétrus. Also vital to the success of Pétrus is winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet, whose instinctive talent and knowledge increased the quality of the wine over the decades he was at the helm. His son, Olivier, has now taken over and has inherited his father’s talent and is also a trained oenologist and agricultural engineer.

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