It is now 17 years since the Hollywood movie Sideways delivered what many thought was the coup de grâce for merlot when lead character Miles (Paul Giamatti) said: “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing merlot!”
At the time, merlot, a leading Bordeaux varietal, was being produced in large if not industrial quantities and as a result, the quality suffered. But this fleshy, dark-skinned grape (its name comes from the French for blackbird), wasn’t going down without a fight.
Carefully tended and nurtured merlot is capable of providing us with some excellent wines – supple, smooth and easy to drink. Its use and appeal are universal.
How we tested:
We looked at wines from California, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. Some are everyday “let’s have a bottle with supper tonight” choices. Others are more costly, where production may be small – perhaps a single vineyard – and meticulous development and husbandry are paramount, and the end result is superlative.
So, don’t let one man’s view from a 2004 film put you off. Merlot is here to stay and well worth exploring. The rewards will be many.
The best merlot wines for 2021 are:
- Best overall –Philip Shaw The Conductor Merlot 2017, 14.2%, 750ml: £16.49, Auswinesonline.co.uk
- Best for a special occasion – Peter Franus Napa Valley Merlot 2016, 14.5%, 750ml: £43.37, Hometipple.com
- Best for a drink with friends – Jordan Black Magic Merlot 2018, 14%, 750ml: £17.45, Pullthecork.co.uk
- Best for a midweek meal – Caliterra Merlot Reserva 2019, 13.5%, 750ml: £8.95, Yorkwines.co.uk
- Best for a grilled supper – Wakefield Estate Merlot 2020, 14%, 750ml: £11.95, Cheerswinemerchants.co.uk
- Best to mark a memorable event – Rutherford Hill Merlot 2016, 14.5%, 750ml: £41, Henningswine.co.uk
- Best to aid the community – Co-op Fairtrade Merlot 2017, 12.5%, 750ml: £6.50, (in-store only) Coop.co.uk
- Best for a Sunday roast – Boschendal Elgin merlot 2016, 14%, 750ml: £30, Laithwaites.co.uk
- Best for fruity flavours – Duckhorn Decoy merlot 2018, 14%, 750ml: £34.95, Secretbottleshop.co.uk
- Best budget choice – Taparoo Valley Australian Merlot 2021, 10.5%, 750ml: £3.99, Tesco.com
- Best for cheese and wine – Villa Maria Hawke’s Bay Merlot 2019, 13%, 750ml: £12.49, Waitrosecellar.com
- Best everyday choice – Chateau Los Boldos Tradition Resérve Merlot 2019, 13.5%, 750ml: £9.95, Nicholsonswines.co.uk
Philip Shaw the conductor merlot 2017, 14.2%, 750ml
Australia – hot and sunny, right? Well not quite, and certainly not true of the orange wine region in New South Wales where winemaker Philip Shaw found what he felt were the perfect growing conditions: high altitude, cool continental climate and rich volcanic soils. Now with his sons Daniel and Damian in charge, the fruitful yields of this 900m-high vineyard, which enjoys chilly nights and distinct seasonal changes, are rich and rewarding.
The merlot, aged in French oak, has distinct black cherry and dark berry flavours with notes of cocoa and cloves and brisk but structured tannins. If Philip Shaw is the conductor, then in musical terms this is a symphonic triumph that deserves an encore.
Peter Franus napa valley merlot 2016, 14.5%, 750ml
Best: For a special occasion
Winemaker Peter Franus sees it as his mission to restore merlot to its rightful stature as one of the truly great grape varieties. With that in mind, the grapes for this wine are grown in a single vineyard in Carneros, the cooler, southern section of California’s Napa wine region where Franus feels merlot can realise its true potential. The quantities produced are small, but the quality is high.
Huge but balanced flavours of plum, blackberry and dark fruit jostle with structured tannins and intriguing notes of woodsmoke and tobacco. It’s a serious wine with a price to match, but this sort of perfection never comes cheap.
Jordan black magic merlot 2018, 14%, 750ml
Best: For a drink with friends
The black magic invoked here by husband and wife winemaking team Gary and Kathy Jordan is less supernatural and more geological. The merlot grapes for this South African wine are nurtured in black tourmaline, a granite that gives the Stellenbosch terroir a darkness and warmth. The result is a merlot that with careful handling – including the use of gravity and gentle pressing – fully realises its rich potential. Sumptuous dark berry flavours are complemented by soft tannins and notes of cocoa and vanilla. Maturation in French oak adds that final velvety touch.
Caliterra merlot reserva 2019, 13.5%, 750ml
Best: For a midweek meal
From the Colchagua Valley in central Chile, a full-bodied and smooth merlot from the winery established in 1996 as a partnership between the renowned Californian Robert G. Mondavi family and the established Chilean winery Viña Errázuriz. With a name, Caliterra, that is a fusion of the Spanish words “calidad”, meaning quality, and “tierra”, meaning land, there’s a focus on sustainability as well as quality from a vineyard that enjoys a Mediterranean-like climate. Fruit-driven, with concentrated dark plum and cherry flavours at the fore, it’s a great wine to enjoy with grilled or roasted beef and chicken.
Wakefield Estate merlot 2020, 14%, 750ml
Best: For a grilled supper
“Respect the fruit” is the catchword of the Taylor family who have been producing wine next to the Wakefield river in South Australia’s Clare Valley for more than 50 years. The wine is most definitely as good as their word too, with lashings of plum, cherry and red-berry flavours allied to notes of vanilla and chocolate, all rounded off with velvet-like tannins. Matured in a mixture of French and American oak barrels for six months before being blended and bottled, it’s ready to drink now or can be kept for a few more years for an even more rounded flavour.
Rutherford Hill merlot 2016, 14.5%, 750ml
Best: To mark a memorable event
Winemaker Marisa Taylor adopted an 18th-century technique for this 21st-century Californian merlot – adding syrah along with cabernet sauvignon to add structure, body and character to the blend. Capitalising as well on a terroir that resembles Pomerol, the original Bordeaux home of the merlot grape, the wine produced combines the best of the old and new world.
Aged for 16 months in French oak it has rich and structured dark fruit flavours with notes of pepper and spice and a long and satisfying finish. The family-owned vineyard’s philosophy is to make a Napa Valley merlot that is “supple and refined”. This one wins in both categories.
Co-op fairtrade merlot 2017, 12.5%, 750ml
Best: To aid the community
If you feel any guilt at opening a bottle of wine, then here’s something to alleviate it. Funds from the sale of this merlot from the La Riojana wine co-operative in Argentina’s Famatina Valley go towards a variety of local charitable projects including the construction of a clean-water facility and new secondary school. Fruity and forward with smooth tannins and satisfying long finish, it’s Fairtrade certified, traded and audited and sourced from Fairtrade producers. So simply enjoy a glass and think of all the good that it will bring.
Boschendal elgin merlot 2016, 14%, 750ml
Best: For a Sunday roast
The Boschendal estate, about an hour away from Cape Town, is South Africa’s second oldest wine farm with a history of wine-making that stretches back to the 17th-century. But decades of disrepair took their toll and it’s only in the past five years that new investment and ecological advances have brought it back as a major player.
Now employing 550 people it produces wines such as this super smooth merlot with its delectable dark fruit and red cherry flavours rounded off by hints of chocolate and ultra-silky tannins. A product of the cool climate that characterises the Elgin wine region of the Western Cape, it’s a bottle to enjoy now or savour fully in two or three years’ time.
Duckhorn decoy merlot 2018, 13.9%, 750ml
Best: For fruity flavours
A merlot from a winery founded in California’s Napa Valley in 1976 by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn (hence the avian name and label image) that’s renowned for its Bordeaux-varietal wines. Aged in oak it has bold and pronounced flavours of plum, cherry and blueberry, enhanced by notes of cocoa and spice. Smooth and full on the tongue, it’s a quality wine which would hugely benefit any meal involving roasted or grilled meat. It’s also worth decanting an hour or two before the meal to enjoy it at its best.
Taparoo Valley australian merlot 2021, 10.5%, 750ml
Best: Budget choice
Well, here’s a surprise. A decent bottle of merlot for under £4. It may not have the trappings of its more illustrious competitors, but it’s come all the way from South Australia and has a relaxed and laid back style with enough jammy fruit flavours to please everyone. If you’re searching for a bottle to celebrate a special occasion, then perhaps look elsewhere, but if you want an easy-going wine for everyday use then this isn’t a bad choice.
Villa Maria hawke’s bay Merlot 2019, 13%, 750ml
Best: For cheese and wine
With around 2,200 hours of sunshine in an average year and cool winters, Hawke’s Bay, on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island, is the home of some splendid wines including this succulent merlot from the family-owned Villa Maria winery. Rich and supple with forward flavours of plum and blackberry and notes of vanilla and oak, it’s a versatile wine and the ideal companion for any type of red meat, a soft blue cheese or various Italian and Mediterranean dishes.
Chateau Los Boldos tradition resérve merlot 2019, 13.5%, 750ml
Best: Everyday choice
It’s in the New World that traditional Bordeaux varietals such as merlot have really prospered. This medium-bodied Chilean example is from Cachapoal near the western slopes of the Andes where the Mediterranean-like climate helps to produce smooth, eminently drinkable wines such as this. Aged in French oak for six months, there’s lots of fruit on the nose – think black cherry, plum and blackberry – plus notes of cocoa and vanilla. A long finish and welcome tannins round things off nicely.
The verdict: Merlot wines
It’s the New World which has adopted merlot and made it its own. The Caliterra Merlot Reserva from Chile offers excellent value at under a tenner whole. The Villa Maria Hawke’s Bay from New Zealand doesn’t disappoint either, with its fruity dark fruit and plum flavours. If you’re really pushing the boat out then try the succulent Rutherford Hill Merlot or the truly classic Peter Franus Napa Valley.
Our top choice though, has to be Philip Shaw’s the conductor. It comes from Australia where winemaker Shaw and his family have produced a rich and fruity merlot that’s supple, smooth and so rewarding.
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