Merlot ('MERL-oh' in British English, mer-LOH in American English and standard French) is a red wine grape that is used as both a blending grape and for varietal wines. Merlot-based wines usually have medium body with hints of berry, plum, and currant. Its softness and "fleshiness", combined with its earlier ripening, makes Merlot a popular grape for blending with the sterner, later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, which tends to be higher in tannin. Merlot is also one of the most popular red wine varietals in many markets. This flexibility has helped to make it one of the world's most planted grape varieties. As of 2004, Merlot was estimated to be the third most grown variety at globally, with an increasing trend. This put Merlot just behind Cabernet Sauvignon's .
It was first recorded in Italy around Venice under the synonym Bordò in 1855. The grape was introduced to the Swiss, from Bordeaux, sometime in the 19th century and was recorded in the Swiss canton of Ticino between 1905 and 1910.
Until 1993, the Chilean wine industry mistakenly sold a large quantity of wine made from the Carmenere grape as Merlot. In that year, genetic studies discovered that much of what had been grown as Merlot was actually Carmenere, an old French variety that had gone largely extinct in France due to its poor resistance to phylloxera, which as of 2006 does not exist in Chile.
The labeling Chilean Merlot is a catch-all to include wine that is made from a blend of indiscriminate amounts of Merlot and Carmenere. With Merlot ripening 3 weeks earlier than Carmenere, these wines differ greatly in quality depending on harvesting.
After a series of setbacks that includes a severe frost in 1956 and several vintages in the 1960s lost to rot, French authorities in Bordeaux banned new plantings of Merlot vines between 1970 and 1975.
In Merlot early history with California wine, the grape was used primarily as a 100% varietal wine until wine maker Warren Winiarski encouraged taking the grape back to its blending roots with Bordeaux style blends.
A mutant that produces white grapes has been found, and white wine is made from this mutant by Beringer in California and Skalli in France. It has nothing to do with the rosé wine made from red Merlot that is sometimes sold as "White Merlot".
Merlot is produced primarily in France, Italy (where it is the country's 5th most planted grape) and California, Romania and on a lesser scale in Australia, Argentina, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, Slovenia, and other parts of the United States such as Washington and Long Island. It grows in many regions that also grow Cabernet Sauvignon but tends to be cultivated in the cooler portions of those areas. In areas that are too warm, Merlot will ripen too early.
Merlot is the most commonly grown grape variety in France. In 2004, total French plantations stood at . Merlot's status as France's most planted variety is a recent phenomenon, from the early 2000s, owing both to the increase of Merlot and the decline of varieties such as Carignan and Ugni blanc. Plantations of Merlot in Bordeaux have expanded, as previous white wine areas have been converted to the production of Merlot-dominated red wines. The largest increase in Merlot plantations, however, has occurred in the south of France, such as Languedoc-Roussillon. Merlot, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have partially replaced the previously popular varieties of the south such as Carignan and Cinsault.
In the traditional Bordeaux blend, Merlot's role is to add body and softness. Despite accounting for 50-60% of overall plantings in Bordeaux, the grape tends to account for an average of 25% of the blends-especially in the Graves and Médoc. However, in the regions of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion Merlot commonly comprises the majority of the blend. One of the most famous and rare wines in the world, Château Pétrus, is almost all Merlot.
In Italy, the Merlot grape is often blended with Sangiovese to give the wine a similar softening effect as the Bordeaux blends. The Strada del Merlot is a popular tourist route through Merlot wine countries along the Isonzo river.
In Hungary, Merlot complements Kékfrankos, Kékoportó and Kadarka as a component in Bull's Blood. It is also made into varietal wine known as Egri Médoc Noir which is noted for its balanced acid levels and sweet taste.
Merlot grapes are identified by their loose bunches of large berries. The color has less of a blue/black hue than Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and with a thinner skin, the grapes also have fewer tannins. Also compared to Cabernet, a Merlot grape tends to have higher sugar content and lower malic acid.
Merlot thrives in cold soil, particularly ferrous clay. The vine tends to bud early which gives it some risk to cold frost and its thin skin increases its susceptibility to rot. It normally ripens up to two weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. Water stress is important to the vine with it thriving in well drained soil more so than at base of a slope.
Pruning is a major component to the quality of the wine that is produced. Wine consultant Michel Rolland is a major proponent for reducing the yields of Merlot grapes to improve quality. The age of the vine is also important, with older vines contributing character to the resulting wine.
A characteristic of the Merlot grape is the propensity to quickly over ripen once it hits its initial ripeness level, sometimes in a matter of a few days. There are two schools of thought on the right time to harvest Merlot. The wine makers of Château Pétrus favor early picking to best maintain the wine's acidity and finesse as well as its potential for aging. Others, such as Rolland, favor late picking and the added fruit body that comes with a little bit of over-ripeness.
White Merlot is made the same way as its more famous cousin, White Zinfandel. The grapes are crushed, and after very brief skin contact, the resulting pink juice is run off the must to then be fermented. Some producers of White Merlot include Sutter Home Winery, Forest Glen, and Beringer. It normally has a hint of raspberry. White Merlot was reputedly first marketed in the late 1990s, and should not be confused with wines made from the white mutant of the grape.
Merlot is sometimes referred to as "Merlot Noir" to distinguish it from "Merlot Blanc" an unrelated white wine grape.