Merlot is perhaps the most versatile grape variety when it comes to food pairing, which may go some way towards explaining its universal popularity. Often seen as simple, fruity, easy-drinking red wines, we shine a spotlight on a new wave of Merlots that are being created by passionate winemakers who want to dispel this myth.
Where Can You Find the Best Merlots?
The finest examples of Merlot are considered to be blends as opposed to mono-varietal expressions where Merlot is the dominant component. These originate from Bordeaux in France, especially the sub-regions of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, as well as from Tuscany in Italy in the so-called ‘Super Tuscan’ blends.
There are also some excellent blends and mono-varietal wines coming from the Languedoc in southern France, Friuli in north-east Italy, Bulgaria, South Africa, Chile and Napa Valley in California.
As one of the world’s most planted grape varieties, Merlot can pretty much be found anywhere that wine is made including more obscure countries like China, Japan, India and even Russia.
Making a Meal of Merlot is Easy
Merlot can be split into two distinctive styles. Cool climate and warm climate. Both styles suit a range of different foods.
Cool climate Merlots are those coming from northern Europe and elevated parts of the southern Hemisphere like Chile, Orange in Australia and Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. Bordeaux and Tuscany sit in this category and the resulting wines are characterised by dark fruit as well as leathery, tobacco notes and higher acidity and tannins.
Best Food Pairings for Cool Climate Merlots
Lighter-bodied wines will work well with meat or vegetarian pizzas, pasta dishes with tomato-based sauces with pancetta/bacon, charcuterie and a simple ham, egg and chips.
Fuller-bodied wines are perfect with steak (especially in a red wine sauce), fillet of beef with a mushroom sauce, roast shoulder of lamb with a red wine and rosemary reduction, roasted root vegetables, simple roast duck, chicken, turkey and partridge, Chinese crispy duck pancakes, beef or wild mushroom Wellington and grilled pork or lamb chops with a truffle mash.
Warm climate Merlots can be found in Mediterranean Europe, California and hotter parts of the southern Hemisphere like South Australia and South Africa. These tend to be more fruit-forward, jammier and lower in tannins and acidity. Some of these will be oak aged in order to add structure and tannin to the wine.
Best Food Pairings for Warm Climate Merlots
Lighter, fruitier unoaked wines work with Spaghetti Bolognese, Lasagne, Macaroni cheese, burgers, bean stews with or without chorizo and chicken, meat-based paella and braised pig cheeks.
Richer, spicier and more weightier wines are great with roast turkey, casseroles with dried fruits added, Moroccan lamb tagine, blackened salmon, rabbit pie and Chinese-influenced dishes that are sweeter rather than spicier.
Spotlight on Three Majestic Merlots that we’d Recommend…
The Largesse Merlot, IGP Pays d’Oc hails from the Languedoc region of France, a region that has been witnessing the greatest increase in plantings of Merlot in the country and now represents around 26% of France’s total. With less stringent rules than the more historic regions, the winemaking team here are producing really drinkable wines at outstanding value.
This is a single varietal wine that shows all the fruity characteristics that you would expect for this variety with nice concentration and supple, ripe tannins that give this a little more weight than simpler quaffing wines. No oak is used so it will pair beautifully with something like grilled chicken with Mediterranean grilled vegetables such as peppers, courgettes and aubergines.
To see an alternative side to Chile’s mass-produced Merlots, Odfjell’s Armador Merlot is well worth a try. This boutique producer is organic certified and also follows biodynamic principles using cover crops to adjust and stabilise the soil, and beehives and Fjord horses to work the vineyards. Grown on alluvial soils in the lower Maipo Valley, the pristine berries are hand-picked and vinified with the whole clusters kept intact. This adds a brightness to the wine along with beautiful silky tannins.
This is no shrinking violet and has great concentration and texture making it robust enough to partner up with fennel sausages and truffle mash or a slow-cooked chorizo, chicken and bean stew.
Now we bring the spotlight onto Mulderbosch Faithful Hound, a South African Bordeaux-style blend where Merlot plays an important supporting role. Based in Stellenbosch, this conscientious producer makes authentic wines with international appeal and reinforces why South Africa are becoming so revered for this style of blend.
Complex, expressive and tight structured, this brooding red needs plenty of time to breathe before drinking and would certainly benefit from a few more years in the bottle. There’s dark, spicy fruit and mocha notes backed by a good acid structure and smooth grainy tannins. An ideal match for grilled steak or a classic Sunday roast.
Sunday 7th November marks International Merlot Day and we’ll certainly be opening a bottle with our Sunday roast. What a perfect opportunity to savour this popular variety!