A thin-skinned, early ripening variety which is subsequently at risk of frost damage in cooler climates, Merlot is fairly adaptable to variations in temperature and soil composition, and is capable of producing moderate to high yields across a diverse range of terroirs. In sandy soils the grape tends towards softer wines, in limestone it is noted for its perfume, whereas soils that are rich in clay - such as in the Bordeaux appellations where the grape is most successful - deliver balanced, more structured examples with ripe tannins.
A large amount of the world’s Merlot is grown in France, particularly in Bordeaux where it is traditionally used to soften the blend. However, the grape is also the principal variety (in many vintages, the only variety) of the famous ‘Château Pétrus’ Grand Vin. This rare and exclusive wine, produced on the ferrous clay of the Pomerol appellation, ranks amongst the world’s most expensive.
Switzerland’s canton Ticino and a number of northern Italian regions such as Alto Adige, Umbria and Veneto also cultivate this variety with some success, producing everything from light and fruity, easy drinking wines to rich, well-structured examples that mature in oak barrels. The Ticino region also vinifies the Merlot grape to produce a white wine aperitif which has a fine reputation in its locality. Further afield, Chile, Argentina and Australia all have significant plantings of Merlot, yielding a diverse range of blends and varietals across all quality tiers.
In its French homeland, Merlot is typically made in two distinct styles. Traditionally the crop is harvested early and vinified to produce medium bodied wines with moderate alcohol levels and fresh fruit flavours; the early crop ensuring that optimum acidity and ageing potential is maintained. However, many in southwest France have now adopted the international approach to making Merlot - harvesting much later to ensure grapes reach full physiological ripeness, and producing lusciously smooth, full-bodied wines that have a higher alcohol content and darker fruit profile.
A versatile variety, synonymous with everything from basic table wines to some of the world’s most exclusive varietals, Merlot’s characteristics reflect the best qualities of its parents - Magdeleine Noire des Charentes and Cabernet Franc.