November 24, 2021

Merlot is Back!

Truth is - it never went away, but its popularity is such that it is once again a smart choice for wine-by-the-glass programs (and it happens to suit a wide range of food). As the US transitions into winter months, restaurant wine teams will likely note a swing to medium to fuller bodied red wines. The seasonal changes in food usually require a different wine match, and Merlot steps up. 

The variety did suffer for a time from the release of the movie Sideways, where the dialogue suggested it was no longer the California ‘in’ wine - seemingly having a dramatic downward effect on sales. 

Merlot has remained one of the heroes of the grape world – it does seem to live somewhat in the shadow of the mighty Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc though both these varieties ironically don’t seem to do as well without it. The variety underpins some of the great red wines of Bordeaux (France) with many famous producers and places such as Petrus or Le Pin and St Emilion or Pomerol – making Merlot dominant blends.  These wines and others from around the west coast of France have inspired producers across the globe to include Merlot in their plantings and to make wine that is fragrant and fruity delivering a soft, plush and round textured wine with easy, yet abundant tannins. New Zealand has historically favored Merlot over Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc - at 1256 Hectares it is the second most widely planted red grape after Pinot Noir, far outweighing plantings of the Cabernets.

New Zealand has a number of local and internationally recognized producers of Merlot based wine, and it is commonly used (sometimes dominant) in a blend – naturally with Cabernets, and also Malbec and Petit Verdot. It is seen as the glue holding these varieties together on the palate. Merlot grows successfully in NZ in Hawke’s Bay (notably), Wairarapa, Auckland, and Canterbury.

The aromas and flavors of Merlot can include blue fruits such as plum and blueberry, red fruit such as raspberry and red cherry, black fruit such as blackberry, black cherry, and sometimes fig or fruitcake. Elegant examples can also show scents of purple flowers especially violets, sometime a little mint, bay leaf, fern or tobacco can be included in the descriptors. The use of oak in straight Merlot or blends can show aromas and flavors of toast, chocolate, coffee, cinnamon and vanilla. Its structure is most often dry, moderate to moderate plus body, moderate to elevated tannin and moderate acidity - it typically ripens a little ahead of the Cabernets so is often less exposed to disease.

Some of the dishes that suit this versatile variety include lean lamb cuts cooked rare to medium, winter casseroles with borlotti beans and usually any sort of protein including Chicken, Salmon and densely textured fish.