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An interesting phenomenon has taken place in the world of wine since the release and subsequent success of Sideways, a 2004 film about two friends visiting Santa Barbara’s wine country. One of the true stars of the film was Pinot Noir, giving the variety a good deal of deserved notoriety. In effect, a shift has occurred in the United States, replacing Merlot with Pinot Noir as today’s trendiest red wine.

Ripe Merlot grapes

Actually, Merlot has gotten a bad rap, mostly because simple, cheap, jammy wines have been the norm in many New World wineries. Merlot produces some of the world’s best wine, notably that of Bordeaux’s right bank. California is also capable of making quality Merlot despite the trend toward bland crowd pleasers.

Merlot, with its soft, lush, fruity character, is referred to as Cabernet Sauvignon without the pain. It generally demonstrates less acidity and tannin and more plummy fruit, which makes it a great blending partner for Cabernet. Cabernet provides the backbone, and Merlot the flesh. It takes well to oak, has the potential for higher levels of alcohol, but has less capacity for aging.

In the vineyard, the high-yielding Merlot grape is vulnerable to damp conditions, susceptible to frost, downy mildew, coulure, and rot. One of its benefits is that it ripens well in areas where growers struggle to cultivate Cabernet Sauvignon. It prefers well-drained clay soils.

It’s hard to talk about Merlot without describing its texture. It makes soft, plush wines that are usually accompanied by juicy flavors of black cherry, fig, plum, prunes, and chocolate.

Without a doubt, the best examples of Merlot wines are found in Bordeaux. It is grown in many places in Bordeaux, but the best sites historically are St. Emilion and Pomerol. In the New World, it’s found all over the place including California, Washington State, British Columbia, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.