Merlot - the supple beauty, the graceful ballerina. Few grapes have the ability to bewitch and charm like this French temptress. For centuries, wines made with Merlot have been vaunted as some of the greatest in the world, and it has long been acknowledged to be one of the greatest noble French varieties. The American taste for Merlot skyrocketed in the 1980s, and as a result it became the third most planted wine grape variety in the world. Merlots can be lush, juicy and approachable; they can also be dark and seductive, captivating the oenophile’s senses and making them return to the glass again and again, trying to define precisely what it is that they find so beguiling.
Merlot is the traditional blending partner with Cabernet Sauvignon. This marriage-made-in-heaven originates in Bordeaux, where the two grapes grow side-by-side in the fabled rows of top Left Bank Bordeaux houses such as Chateau Latour and Chateau Duhart Milon. On the right bank of the Gironde it plays an even greater role, often dominating the blends for the incredibly in-demand wines of Pomerol - the vaunted Chateau Petrus is the prime example of this, a wine of such power and beauty that global collectors have made it almost impossible to find. In St. Emilion it also plays an extremely important role, blending with Cabernet Franc to produce wines such as the fabled Chateau Cheval Blanc. The heartiness, reliability, and complex fruit flavors that Merlot brings to blends has made it so critical that it is the most planted grape variety in Bordeaux.
Outside of Bordeaux, Merlot has made a stance in several new-world appellations. While not as prevalent as its more-respected partner Cabernet, the Merlots of Napa and Sonoma Valley can be intense and lush, while still maintaining a soft, velvety mouthfeel. Some great examples of California Merlot are produced by the vaunted wineries Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Duckhorn. These wines combine the power of bold North Coast fruit with a silky smoothness that is found only in the world’s finest Merlots.
Washington State has also made a name for itself in Merlot production, so much so that some sommeliers say that it should be the up-and-coming state’s signature grape, much as Napa Valley has claimed Cabernet as its own. Top-notch winery Northstar has made Merlot their focus; they create phenomenal wines from the Walla Walla and Columbia valleys. Mike Januik at Januik Winery also works his craft to produce an alluring wine from the variety; Wine Enthusiast Magazine named him one of the world’s “Masters of Merlot.”
The tannins in Merlot are less intense and prominent than its blending partner Cabernet, which makes it a great option for many food pairings. For instance, while most Merlots will work with grilled beef dishes, they also pair well with game birds such as duck or squab, and can be a wonderful pairing for the mellower cow and goat cheeses (though bolder blue cheeses should be avoided, as they can overwhelm the wine).
In recent years, overproduction and poor press have maligned the name of Merlot. But this regal grape can - and often does - produce wines that are truly world-class, full of richness and body while still being more approachable than many of the firmer, more tannic wines produced with other varieties. From the old world to the new, great Merlots are being produced in the finest wineries around the world.
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