Merlot is the most versatile of red grapes. Originally from Bordeaux it now pops up around the world, aided by its juicy, plummy flavour and its easy-to-drink appeal.
As a blend it helps shape some classic Bordeaux styles, while on its own it has found favour in countries such as Australia, Argentina, Chile and South Africa.
In France, the grape not only forms part of the classic claret blend but also shines on its own in Bordeaux as well as in the south and south-west of France.
In the New World, it’s in Chile that merlot has flourished with a host of good wines being produced in the central Colchagua Valley.
Elsewhere, Australia continues to impress with its red wines including some splendid merlots while New Zealand and South Africa also offer premium examples.
It was back in 2004 that the film Sideways that gave merlot an undeserved bad name, and apparently caused the “Sideways Effect” when the protagonist connects the wine to his ex-wife who likes it and says: “No, if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving”.
Now 15 years on it's been shown that far from being inferior, it's the red wine of choice for hosts of wine enthusiasts around the world.
Chemin de la Pinède merlot 2018, 14%, 75cl: £9.75, Lea & Sandeman
This is a Pay D’Oc merlot from vines flourishing on clay and limestone soils in the south of France near the Roman city of Nîmes. Smooth, characterful and immensely pleasing on the tongue, it’s a robust and fruit forward wine with medium tannins that doesn’t disappoint and at under a tenner it’s a bargain buy. Pair it with chicken, Italian dishes or even a pizza.
Bird In Hand merlot, Adelaide Hills 2016, 14.5%, 75cl: £19.50, Tanners Wine
Australian winemakers Bird in Hand won the coveted trophy for red winemaker of the year at the International Wine Challenge last May, and with limited release premium quality wines like this it’s easy to see why. Sourced from low-yielding vineyards in the Adelaide Hills where the grapes are picked in the cool of the morning, this ruby red wine offers deep and rich damson flavours with notes of black olive and tobacco. And like most good merlots it can pair with a variety of dishes, from roast chicken to beef wellington.
Otra Tierra merlot 2018, 13%, 75cl: £6.15: D’arcy
Documentary-maker Louis Theroux recently admitted that he liked a bottle of red wine around the £5 or £6 mark, so this Otra Tierra merlot from Chile’s Central Valley should suit him perfectly. Plum, blackberry and cherry flavours jostle for attention and its smooth structure and inviting arma make it a good match for most red meat or pork dishes.
Ventisquero grey single block merlot 2014, 13%, 75cl: £15.99, Flagship Wines
Ventisquero began making wine in Chile in 2000. It’s led by a young team of entrepreneurs whose aim is to create distinctive, high-quality wines. This merlot from head winemaker Felipe Tosso is, as the name suggests, a premium product made from a limited harvest of small concentrated bunches of grapes in a single block in Apalta in Chile’s Colchagua Valley. Aged for 18 months in French oak barrels, it’s a full-bodied wine that bursts with intense red fruit flavours allied to silky smooth tannins.
Journey’s End bluegum merlot 2017, 14%, 75cl: £11.50, Sainsbury’s
Long sunny days and cool coastal breezes might sound the ideal conditions for a good holiday but they also contribute towards making a decent merlot, as this example from the Gabb family winery in the foothills of the Hottentot Mountains in South Africa shows. Upfront flavours of bramble and mulled plums are offset by notes of spice and pepper. Can be drunk now or cellared for up to another six or seven years.
Berry Bros & Rudd good ordinary claret 2017, 13.5%, 75cl: £10.95, Berry Bros & Rudd
The word claret – which has been used for centuries to define red wines from Bordeaux – may have fallen out of general usage but it fits in well with this splendid offering from royal warrant holders Berry Bros & Rudd, who have 300 years of history to back it up. As the brand’s bestselling wine, it’s a classic Bordeaux blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon it’s eminently drinkable with plush fruit flavours and a balanced finish.
Matias Riccitelli old vines from Patagonia 2016 merlot, 14.5%, 75cl: £32.10, Shelved Wine
As its name suggests, this is an Argentinian merlot sourced from 60-year-old, ungrafted vines growing on the banks of the Rio Negro in Patagonia. With hot days but cool nights, there’s a longer ripening period resulting in concentrated flavours of bramble and dark fruits allied to notes of chocolate and spice. A red wine to savour, but be warned: it’s a limited production of just 3,000 bottles, so get it while you can.
Luis Felipe Edwards gran reserva merlot 2017, 14.5%, 75cl: £9.99, Majestic
A juicy merlot from a large family-owned winery in Chile’s Colchagua Valley where head winemaker, Nicolas Bizzari, ensures that only the best hand-picked grapes are selected. Aged for a year in French oak barrels, this full-bodied wine has cherry, plum and blackberry flavours to the fore along with soft tannins. As with many of the merlots the alcohol content is quite high, but then just a glass will add to the pleasure of a steak or a meal of lamb or pork chops.
Viu Manent estate collection reserva merlot 2018, 14%: £11.99, Winebuyers
From a Chilean winery established as long ago as 1935, this youthful and medium-bodied red from the Colchagua Valley brings a fruity vibrancy and a subtle oakiness to the table. With a smattering (2 per cent) of malbec included, its combination of ripe plum, blackcurrant and dark cherry flavours has an upfront appeal and should prove an ideal partner for beef, lamb or game.
McPherson The Angus merlot 2017, 14.5%, 75cl: £8.99, The Pip Stop
From an independent family-owned winery in Victoria, this Australian merlot is similar to many of the inhabitants of that wonderful country we’ve encountered over the years – laid back, easy going and a good all-rounder. Smooth and approachable it doesn’t hide its generous dark fruit and berry appeal and, as the winemakers promise, goes well with “anything cooked over a wood fire”.
Saint Clair pioneer block 17 Hawkes Bay merlot 2016: 13.5%, 75 cl: £20.55, Wine Poole
A rather special merlot from New Zealand made from a small parcel of vines within the Gimblett Gravels winegrowing area of Hawkes Bay. Carefully tended during ripening and harvesting, the resulting full-bodied wine has deep, textured flavours of bramble and damson alongside hints of cocoa and spice. It’s therefore an ideal match for any dish that’s perhaps exotic and slightly spicy.
Château Marsau Francs Côtes de Bordeaux 2015, 14.5%, 75cl: £18.99, Laithwaite’s
This is a 100 per cent merlot made from grapes from 30-year-old vines on gentle south-facing slopes near the village of Francs at the eastern edge of the Bordeaux wine region. Bottled after spending 12 months in oak barrels, it is deep ruby red in colour and offers intense plum and dark fruit flavours and a sinewy minerality that provides a long and impressive finish. Rich and vibrant it should bring something special to any meat-based dish or add a touch of French flair to an Asian meal.
Knights' Cellar merlot 2016, 13.5%, 75cl: £11.99, Winebuyers
Greece is an extensive and an expanding wine-growing region and this merlot from the Cair. winery on the island of Rhodes proves that its red wines can compete with the best. The vineyards benefit from long and sunny days and cool nights, producing a balanced and structured merlot that tempers its fruity and juicy appeal with hints of spice and vanilla. It’s a perfect partner for a good strong cheese.
Vincent & Arthur merlot 2017, 13%, 75cl: £9.99 Laithwaite’s
A merlot from the south of France that blends grapes from Saint Bauzille, close to Montpellier with those from Domaine de Longuet next to Narbonne. A product of father-and-son team Vincent and Arthur Gourdun, it won a gold medal at the Concours de National des Vins IGP last year and it’s not hard to see why. Appealing and deep red and black fruit flavours are balanced by notes of herbs and cocoa. A smooth, appealing and very approachable wine.
Château Pey La Tour Réserve Bordeaux supérieur 2016 75cl 14.5% £11.50 Wine Society
From a vineyard located between Bordeaux and Saint-Émilion, this blend of merlot (88 per cent), cabernet sauvignon (10 per cent) and petit verdot (2 per cent) is a perfect expression of the great red wines the region can offer. A silver medal prizewinner at this year’s Decanter World Wine awards, it’s a superb mix of plush black and red fruit flavours with notes of spice and smooth tannins. A glass would enhance any meat dish, from roast beef to spare ribs.
The verdict: Merlot wines
It’s Lea & Sandeman’s Chemin de la Pinède merlot that gets our vote as everything a good merlot should be – juicy, supple, full of flavour and very drinkable.
All of the Chilean merlots offer good wine and good value with the Ventisquero Grey Single Block providing premium quality at a not too expensive price. If you’re prepared to pay more, the Argentinian Matias Riccitelli old vines from Patagonia is a limited edition of an outstanding wine. Elsewhere in the new world, the Australian Bird in Hand doesn’t disappoint.
Closer to home, Laithwaite’s Château Marsau Francs Côtes de Bordeaux is another to savour.
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