Merlot Wine Tasting Tips: A Master Class


For years, people have either loved to love or loved to hate Merlot. Those in the former camp praise its soft fruit flavors and expressive nature. To others, however, Merlot is a “middle of the road” wine: a dinner party variety that’s easy-drinking but nothing to write home about. 

Some of the latter group might have been influenced by what’s called the Sideways effect. In a scene from the Academy Award-winning 2004 film starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church and a host of other Hollywood stars, Giamatti’s character expresses his disdain for Merlot. This declaration actually caused a slight dip in Merlot sales and consumption after the film’s release. 

According to a 2009 Journal of Wine Economics report, “The Sideways Effect: A Test for Changes in the Demand for Merlot and Pinot Noir Wines,” the impact was nuanced. “The negative effects of the movie on Merlot were confined mostly to the lower priced segment, under $10 per bottle, while at the higher price points, the movie may have had a positive impact or at least slowed the rate of decline.”

As of 2020, Merlot accounts for almost 36,000 acres planted in over a dozen California counties. While the grape crush tonnage in California has also significantly decreased over the last decade, that doesn’t mean that quality Merlot isn’t being produced.

Born in the wine capital of the world, Merlot is one of the six classic Bordeaux grape varieties. It’s often confused with its half-sibling Cabernet Sauvignon in blind tastings. Medium in body and rich in flavors of cherry, plum and chocolate, Merlot has velvety texture, berry jamminess and woodsy vibes in the aroma and on the palate. These characteristics make it easy to mistake as bodacious Cabernet Sauvignon, but Merlot’s deep purple hue sets it apart. 

Merlot grapes also have thinner skins than Cab, and excel in clay soils. It can grow in both warm and cool regions, but climate can majorly impact the style of the finished wine. Harvesting the grapes early can create Merlot with fresh red-fruit flavors and high acidity. However, if a winemaker chooses to harvest their grapes late, the wine will be intense in color, with rich blueberry and plum flavors and soft yet structured tannins. 

Just like any grape variety grown around the world, Merlot has the ability to uniquely express itself based on where it is grown and how it is harvested. Here are six different styles of Merlot you should explore the next time you are walking the aisles of your favorite wine shop. 

Merlot glass wine tasting tips
Merlot is one of six classic Bordeaux grape varieties / Getty

Bordeaux vs. Languedoc

In Bordeaux, specifically on the Right Bank, Merlot is the dominant planted variety because it can successfully grow on the clay soils of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon would have difficulty ripening there. In Saint-Émilion, Merlot can produce elegant wines that have soft tannins but are rich, full-bodied and velvety in texture. The flavor profile typically consists of red fruit like strawberry and cherry. Over time, it can produce tertiary flavors of cedar and tobacco. In Pomerol, Merlot also exudes richness and soft tannic structure, but with flavors of blackberry. 

In France’s southeastern region of Languedoc, Merlot is a major grape used for international stylings of the variety, meaning they are not necessarily overtly indicative of terroir or sense of place. It can be found labeled under the appellation Pays d’Oc. 

Bordeaux vs. Languedoc

Wine 1: Find a wine from either Saint-Émilion, Pomerol or any of their satellite regions in Bordeaux.

Wine 2: Look for the term Pays d’Oc on the label of a Merlot from Languedoc.

West Coast vs. East Coast 

In California, Merlot is widely planted and makes approachable wines with ripe black-fruit flavors and soft tannins. San Joaquin Valley has the largest plantings of Merlot in California, and many of the wines from this area are affordably priced. In cooler sites like Monterey, Sonoma County and Napa Valley, quality Merlot expresses itself with flavors of black cherry, blackberry and plum. These wines tend to have higher alcohol content, supple tannins and a luscious, round mouthfeel to create a beautiful structure. 

In New York, Merlot is largely produced on Long Island and has quite the range. Amid sandy soils and a moderate climate, Merlot expresses itself as balanced with pleasant acidity, ripe red-fruit flavors like raspberry and pomegranate, and warm spiciness on the finish. About 460 miles south, in Virginia, Merlot is considered light and lean with cherry and vanilla flavors. 

West Coast vs. East Coast

Wine 1: Taste a Merlot from Californian regions like Monterey, Sonoma County or Napa Valley.

Wine 2: Look for a Long Island or Virginia bottling.

Chile vs. Argentina

Chile’s warm Mediterranean climate, along with its dry and sunny growing season, might seem to pose problems for Merlot, but it is actually the second-most planted grape after Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s full-bodied and low in alcohol, but has bold and spicy flavors of cherry, raspberry, blackberry and black currant. Like Chile’s Carmenère, Merlot from here can have a green herbal vibe to it as well. 

Stomping Merlot wine tasting tips
Stomping Merlot grapes in Sonoma / Getty

In Argentina, Merlot ripens and doesn’t carry as much acidity and tannin on the palate as it does in other parts of the world. While bold Cabernet Sauvignons and Malbecs dominate Argentina’s red wine scene, Merlot here is delicate and often used as a blending grape. However, when made into varietal wines, those bottlings tend to be lighter in body and ripe red cherry and red currant. 

Chile vs. Argentina

Wine 1: Seek out a bottle from Chile.

Wine 2: Bypass blended red wines from Argentina to find a varietal Merlot bottling.