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Merlot — A Guide to the Basics

11 October 2022
Merlot may not receive the same widespread adulation as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, but it is absolutely capable of producing wines with the same level of complexity and longevity. Sure, there is plenty of over-cropped, excessively oaky, and boringly fruit-forward Merlot to be found, but the good stuff is mind-bogglingly delicious. Best of all, you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on a bottle of Château Pétrus for the experience (although if that's an option and within budget, then you should certainly feel free to do just that!) Ultimately, Merlot from Bordeaux to Napa Valley and lots of other locations around the world, is capable of greatness. The trick, as always, is simply knowing where to look.

What is Merlot Wine?

Merlot is a red wine that is produced from the grape variety of the same name. Stylistically, it runs the gamut from fruit-forward and sweet with oak to more structured and nuanced, capable of aging for decades. For an entire generation of wine drinkers, however, Merlot was known for the kind of cheap-and-cheerful bottles that could be picked up for little money, and that were intended to age for approximately as long as it took to drive home from the supermarket. But the stereotypes never tell the whole story: Merlot, after all, is one of the key components in the classic blends of Bordeaux. On the Right Bank, in Pomerol in particular, it is often crafted into wines (or incorporated into blends, typically with Cabernet Franc) that rank among the most profound in the world. Merlot is one of the great grapes, and it deserves to be considered so.

Where Does Merlot Wine Come From?

Merlot is most famously grown and produced in Bordeaux and California. In the former, it is one of the most important of the five main permitted varieties, alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. It reaches its peak of quality and expressiveness on the Right Bank, and in Pomerol, home of Château Pétrus, it can fetch serious money on retail shelves, at auction, and on restaurant wine lists. Merlot also does brilliantly in neighboring St.-Emilion. It is also a key component in the affordable and often delicious wines labeled simply Bordeaux Supérieur.

Great Merlots are produced in Napa Valley and Sonoma County too, and are often used to add further nuance and silkiness to Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds. Of course, they also can make great wines on their own; throughout California, in fact, it's easy to find terrific examples of Merlot-based wines. Tuscany is also a source of world-class Merlot; wines like Massetto, Ornellaia, Antinori's Il Bruciato, and Le Macchiole's Messorio lead the way, either as 100% Merlots or blends that include it. Australia's McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley are also home to excellent Merlot, as are Chile, Argentina, Washington State, and more.

Why Should You Drink Merlot Wine?

If you haven't tasted Merlot in a while or more fully explored what it's capable of around the world, then this is a great time to do so. Merlot experienced what can only be called a "grape-variety meltdown" in the mid-2000s; it arguably reached it popular low-point in the movie Sideways, which famously features Paul Giamatti passionately proclaiming to his friend before heading into a restaurant, "No, if anybody orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any Merlot!"). Yet in the nearly 20 years since, producers around the world have redoubled their efforts to plant Merlot in more-perfect places, not over-crop it, and craft it into the kind of serious wine its fans always knew it was capable of producing. As a result, Merlot has seen something of a comeback in the popular American imagination.

Because of its often softer tannins and plush texture, Merlot is well-suited to being sipped on its own. At the table, Merlot offers fantastic food-friendliness, too. Classic pairings like steak and hamburgers are easy and enjoyable, but the generous plums and dark berries of a good Merlot also work well alongside fruit-based sauces glossing lamb and duck, too. Merlot is a solid option with cheeses like cheddar and gouda, whose own subtle sweetness finds complimentary characteristics in the ripe fruit of Merlot. When it comes to bold blue cheeses, however, or funkier washed rind cheeses, proceed with caution, as more tannic expressions of Merlot will likely not pair as well as, say, Port with the former and Sauternes with the latter (though red Burgundy is a solid option for Époisses, too). Merlot is a wonderful partner for chocolate; just make sure that there is a high enough percentage of cacao and not too much sugar, as that will make the tannins in the Merlot feel gritty and overly assertive. In general, Merlot is a wine whose range of styles and expressions make it far more versatile than it often gets credit for.

What Does Merlot Taste Like?

Merlot generally boasts notes of red and black berry fruit, currants, cherries, and plums. It's not uncommon to find underlying hints of dried herbs like sage, and if it's been aged in new oak — or a percentage of new oak — it can take on aromas and flavors that are reminiscent of chocolate, vanilla, and cafe mocha. As it ages, Merlot may show characteristics of cigar tobacco, leather, dried mint, and leather. Its tannins range from medium-grained and relatively velvety to more assertive, especially in wines that are meant to age for a longer period of time.

Merlot is best enjoyed at slightly warmer than cellar temperature: If you keep your wines at 55°F, it's best to enjoy a bottle of Merlot approximately 20 minutes after it was removed from the cellar or wine fridge. If it's being stored at room temperature, then placing it in a refrigerator for approximately 20 minutes will brighten up both the fruit and acidity. Merlot is best enjoyed from either a universal or Cabernet Sauvignon-style glass.

Five Great Merlot Wines
There are countless great Merlot wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Merlot has to offer.

Château Lassègue

From their base on the Right Bank, in St.Émilion, Château Lassegue produces two excellent reds: Les Cadrans and their eponymous grand vin. The flagship wine brings together Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and represents not just excellent fruit and winemaking, but also remarkable value. The current-release 2018 costs around $60, and its brambly berries, plums, and subtle core of savoriness make it excellent for enjoying right now, as well as a great candidate for aging in the cellar.


Arguably the first producer in Napa Valley to craft Merlot that won widespread acclaim as among the best on the market. Duckhorn produces a wide range of wines, and a number of expressions of Merlot, but their Three Palms Vineyard bottling is a perennial favorite. The 2019 showcases mountain berries enrobed in chocolate ganache, beautifully calibrated vanilla, and a finish that promises years of evolution.

Justin "Justification"

The well-loved Paso Robles producer crafted their 2019 from 51% Cabernet Sauvignon and 49% Merlot, which has resulted in a wine with notes of cigar humidor, cherries, plums, and currants, all of it sweetly spiced with vanilla and cafe mocha.

Le Macchiole "Messorio"

This great producer, located in Bolgheri, produces a range of standout wines. Messorio is a gorgeous expression of Merlot, and proves that the Tuscan Coast has the potential to be every bit as exciting for the great grape variety as Bordeaux's Right Bank. The 2018 Messorio sings an aria of coffee, orange oils, kirsch, blackberry liqueur, and black licorice, and will age brilliantly for the next three decades.

Mayacamas Merlot

The iconic producer crafts critically lauded Cabernet Sauvignon as well, but their 2018 Merlot, from Mt. Veeder is phenomenal. Layered with sage, rosemary, currants, cherries, and a nod in the direction of violets and blueberries, this wine is framed by fine-grained tannins that carry savory notes of pencil led. It can be enjoyed now and for the next 15 years or more.