Inspired by one of VinePair’s most popular site sections, the Wine 101 Podcast takes an educational, easy-to-digest look into the world of wine. This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by William Hill Estate Winery. To experience William Hill Estate Winery is to discover another side of Napa Valley. William Hill Estate Winery is a place where extraordinary vineyards are tucked away along the serene Silverado Trail. A place where you can still discover an incredible wine for the first time. A Napa Valley winery that is off the beaten path. At William Hill Estate, we believe the beauty of wine is in its simplicity, sincerity, sun, soil, and the power of human hands and minds. That’s the spirit in which we make our wines, staying as true to nature and its fruits as we can. William Hill Estate Winery, pair with life.
Welcome back to Wine 101. In this week’s episode, VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers goes through everything you need to know about Merlot: Its parentage, its use as a blending variety in wines like Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and how its extreme popularity (and a line from the movie “Sideways“) has given it a bad reputation in more recent years.
As Beavers explains, the Merlot group came from two orphan grape varieties: Cabernet Franc and Madeleine. In France, Merlot is predominantly grown in Bordeaux, where it is celebrated for its blending abilities.
Outside of France, the grape is also grown in the Friuli region of Italy, as well as in Croatia, Slovenia, California, Washington State, and New York. Following the wine’s peak in popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it began to decline after being overly mass-produced and saturating the market, but, as Beavers explains, Merlot is worth a second try. The grape is used in many blends on the U.S. market — especially Pinot Noir, thanks to the 75 percent rule — meaning most are already consuming it, whether they are aware of it or not. And when it is done right, Merlot can be a beautiful, soft but round wine.
Or check out the conversation here
My name is Keith Beavers, and Mercury is in such retrograde right now. Can you feel it?
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to episode 22 of VinePair’s Wine 101 Podcast. My name is Keith Beavers, I’m the tastings director of VinePair, and salutations!
OK, here we are. We are at the Merlot episode. This is going to be awesome. It’s time to set the record straight on this awesome grape. I promise you’re gonna love it.
Often throughout these episodes, I have mentioned the variety Cabernet Franc, and I call it an orphan grape. And I never really explained what that means. We know that Cabernet Franc originated in the Basque region of Spain, where it was called Achéria. DNA profiling cannot find its parentage, so it’s an orphan grape. It appeared in the Basque region of Spain, and then it began to travel with humans, eventually making its way to the Bordeaux region.
If you were to head north off the coast of the Basque region of Spain, you would be in the Bay of Biscay. And if you go straight north from the Basque region, the town called Bilbao, which is the capital of that region, you would hit the northwestern peninsula of France, which is called Brittany. Inland from the coast of Brittany is a town called Saint-Suliac (my French is terrible). Here, in the middle ages, was a monastery or an abbey — monks were everywhere around this time. And of course being monks, they had vineyards and it’s thought that the Cabernet Franc grape, at the time, made its way to Brittany. And then from Brittany down into the Loire Valley, then from the Loire Valley down into Bordeaux.
One thing about Bordeaux that I couldn’t mention in the Bordeaux episode is that the majority of the activity in old-school Bordeaux before the Médoc was even created, because it was created, took place mostly south of the town of Bordeaux. A lot of wine was made in Entre-Deux-Mers, that big swath of forested vineyard land, where all the white wine is made now.
But there are a lot of vineyards all around that area. There’s also islands in the Garonne River where vines were planted back in the Middle Ages. And early on, these vineyards were not one set variety, they were field blends of different varieties. And it’s here in this mix of vineyards, maybe even on one of those islands and the Garonne River, where Merlot was born. And the DNA profiling for a long time showed that Cab Franc was a parent of Merlot. But at the time, no one could figure out what the second parent was. So let’s say Cab Franc was the father. Who was the mother?
In 1996, there was a vine sample that came from that little town Saint-Suliac from an abandoned vineyard on a slope called Mont Giroux. Brittany had abandoned all winemaking 200 years prior, actually to this day there’s only one vineyard in that area making wine. Nobody knew what this vine was, it didn’t even have a name. And then, a few years later in the Charente Department, which is just northeast of Bordeaux, this same vine was found on the front of four houses in four villages in that department. Is that cool, or what?
They actually named this grape the Grape of Madalena because at the time, the grape ripened around the holiday of Saint Madeleine, on July 22. Initial DNA profiling showed that it was also an orphan grape, so they named it Madeleine Noir de Charente, the black grape of Madeleine from the Department of Charente. And then in 2008, further DNA testing showed that it is, in fact, the mother of Merlot. No one knows where Madeleine came from. But two orphan grapes that probably came through Brittany and made their way down to the mixed vineyards of Bordeaux back in the day, and somehow, Cab Franc and Madeleine cross-pollinated and created Merlot.
And in the early 19th century, the Médoc has been around for a minute, and there is documentation coming out showing the origin of the name Merlot, which is really cool as well. It says that the name was given to the variety because there’s a blackbird in this area that likes this grape very much. And in the old tongue called Occitan, which is this very old language that’s been around this part of France and Spain for a long time, the name of the bird was Merlau. We started to see documentation about the Médoc, celebrating the Merlot grape as a blending partner to Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Cab Franc, but Merlot has this softness to it that rounds everything out. And of course, on the Right Bank, Merlot is being focused on because it is an early ripening variety. And over on the Right Bank, it thrives because of the climate over on that side. And this is the home of Merlot. This is where it came from. And like we talked about in the Bordeaux episode, it reaches its peak of awesomeness on the Right Bank, specifically north of Saint-Émilion in the Pomerol appellation, specifically with Pétrus being a hundred percent Merlot, and another one called Le Pin. And this is something to know about this grape. It is not really known for its varietal character, so much as it is known mostly for its blending ability.
Merlot is a lot about texture, more than it is about varietal characteristics and aroma. But the cool thing about Merlot, and somebody who was part of the DNA profiling had this to say about it: From its mother Madeleine, it gets its early ripening because that grape was an early ripening variety, from its father Cab Franc, it gets it’s high-quality tannin and pigment. Also, when it’s grown in cooler climates, you can get some of this herbaceous nuance with Merlot and that is absolutely a characteristic that comes from Cab Franc.
It’s kind of wild. Cab Franc gives Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon its peppery stuff. I mentioned this in the Bordeaux episode, but we might as well mention it again because it’s the Merlot episode, the majority of those affordable Bordeaux coming from the Right Bank from the Côtes de Bordeaux and Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux AOC Supérieur, those are all primarily Merlot blends. And this is aided by the fact that it is an early ripening variety but also it’s very friendly to a high yield. And speaking of high yields, California, my god … we’ll get there. So in its home, it’s known mostly as a blending variety, with few exceptions.
What happens when this grape leaves its home? We don’t see a lot of Merlot being celebrated outside of Bordeaux. There is Merlot being made in the southwestern part of France, north of Bordeaux, and also in southern France, but Bordeaux is really where it shines. But because of its early ripening and because of its friendly high yielding, it is the blending grape for the world, it seems, for red wine. As of 2010, it was the second-most-planted grape on the planet.
I love Merlot. I think it is such an awesome grape that makes awesome wine. It’s a workhorse around the world for blending, but there are places in the world outside of France that do 100 percent Merlot that is just stunning as well. If it’s done right, in the right soils, and the right climates, it is just beautiful. Even though the thing is it’s not really about aroma, you can get some blueberries sometimes, and there’s that peppery note that comes in, but it’s the texture of Merlot that is so wonderful. And one of those places in the world outside of France that makes Merlot this way is Italy. And not just Italy, Friuli. One day I should do a Friuli episode, am I right? The Merlot coming out of Friuli can be so wonderful. It’s often a 100 percent variety, sometimes it’s blended with Cab Franc, but the climate there and the soils and the slight elevation of their vineyards, just make the most beautiful Merlot. There actually is Merlot made on the lower plains area, which is a little more basic, but still beautiful and plump and juicy. But Merlot in Friuli is a thing, it’s not often available, but you should definitely try to seek it out, because that’ll give you a sense of what a 100 percent Merlot can taste like in one of its purest forms.
Actually, Merlot makes up 15 percent of the wine produced in Friuli. And sometimes they call it Merlott, with two “T”s at the end, because it’s part of their dialect. But what’s really interesting is there’s an actual agriturismo touring route called Strata de Merlot. It goes along one of the main rivers in Friuli, the Isonzo river. And you can travel along the river and you hit all these little towns and you drink Merlot the whole time. It’s real. It’s awesome. Outside of Friuli in northern Italy, Merlot has grown all over the place in the Veneto and the Trentino-Alto Adige, but significantly. Merlot plays a big role in the central part of Italy in Umbria. In Tuscany, in Chianti Classico, Merlot is allowed in their blends. And I have to say, there’s something really nice about a Merlot and a Sangiovese being blended together. Sangiovese has this crazy ripe cranberry and cherry thing going on, and Merlot comes in and softens and rounds it off. It’s just beautiful. Also in Bolgheri, which we’ve talked about before, Merlot is allowed in those blends and it softens the Cabernet that’s grown in that area. Just south of Tuscany in Umbria, there is a grape that’s native to that region called Sagrantino. It’s one of the most tannic varieties on the planet. It’s huge and ages forever. And sometimes, they blend that with Merlot and it’s just an amazing thing. What it does is it softens and keeps the depth, and it’s really an awesome blend. And they call that Montefalco Rosso, which is an appellation in Umbria.
Just across the border from Friuli in Slovenia, Merlot is awesome as well, because political lines don’t define terroir. So it’s a similar terroir to Friuli, it’s awesome stuff. Also down into Croatia, Merlot is done as well. I just say that because those wines are coming onto the market, and it’s something to look out for, but what we really have to talk about is why a lot of people are like, “Should we hate Merlot?” Thanks California.
OK, so it’s not California’s fault as a whole. In wine, it’s usually the human’s fault, not the wine’s fault, because the humans are the ones that make everything crazy. And this thing went crazy.
Merlot in California wasn’t really a thing before Prohibition. It wasn’t until the late ’60s, ‘69 into ‘70, that Merlot began to be experimented with as a blending variety to Cabernet Sauvignon, which was quickly becoming a very popular vine in the area. And it wasn’t until after the 1976 Judgment of Paris, and in 1980 when the first AVA was awarded to California in Napa Valley, that Merlot started really making a name for itself. Cabernet Sauvignon was so popular, and Merlot was such a great blending variety, Merlot was just everywhere. People started making Merlot on its own as a variety itself. And people started thinking, “Hey, this is really nice. It’s soft.” There was a quote calling it “Cabernet without the pain.”
So in the ’80s, it built and built, and by the 1990s, Merlot became one of the most powerful, popular wines out there. It was one of the most popular glass pours in America in the 1990s. In 1991 or ‘92, there were about 8,000 acres of Merlot under vine in California. By 1995, there were 26,000 acres of Merlot under vine in California, and they got more and more popular, and it got crazy. By 1999, this dude named Rex Pickett was writing a book about two loathsome dudes rolling around in wine country in Santa Barbara. For research, he would go to wine tastings. It was like $4 for a wine tasting back then, so he went to all these wine tastings, and what he realized was that no one liked Merlot. The people that were working the tasting rooms weren’t really a fan of it. And there was this perception at the time, Merlot had saturated the market so much, and so much mass-produced Merlot was being made, it went from being one of the most popular varieties to a variety that was so overdone, that people were done with it.
And the book “Sideways,” Rex Pickett had a few versions of it, and in one of the versions of the novel, that famous line from the movie is in it, but he deleted it from the final novel. And when the movie was being made, he gave the director of the movie every version of the novel that he had, and the director found that line and kept it in the script, because it was a good punchline for the movie.
But by 2003, there were over 52,000 acres of Merlot under vine in California. So in 2004, when the “Sideways” movie came out and that line hit, Merlot had been suffering for a while. It had not been a popular wine at all because of its over-saturation in the market. And of course, because of that amazing Pinot Noir monologue in the movie, Pinot Noir becomes the No. 1 grape in the world. It kind of takes Merlot’s place, if you will, as the soft alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon. And within a year after the release of the film, Merlot’s sales in California dropped by $77 million. That’s a big hit, it didn’t destroy the Merlot industry, but it definitely messed it up. And there were winemakers that make great Merlot in California that were like, “What going on?”
Merlot is not bad. It doesn’t make bad wine. It’s sort of what we’ve done with it that turned it into what it was. And Pinot Noir went down that path for a while as well. The popularity of Pinot Noir, and the oversaturation of it. You can’t mass-produce Pinot Noir, so it had to be blended with other varieties like Merlot and Syrah and be called Pinot Noir because of the 75 percent rule that’s available in the New World. It was a trend. Merlot is awesome.
To this day, 10 to 15 percent of all Merlot made in California goes into a California blend. It’s a blending variety. It just is. But when it’s in the right place. it can be beautifully done. And there are places, specifically in California, in Napa, that are very good for Merlots, that are often 100 percent Merlots. You have the cool climate of the Carneros region, which actually has some fun Merlots. Coombsville, Oak Knoll, and, of course, the famous Stags Leap district, which is near Carneros. Those areas have great soil and climate for good Merlot that people make, and they don’t have to blend it with other varieties.
Outside of California — Merlot is grown everywhere, it’s all over the United States. If there’s a wine- growing region in the United States, Merlot is being grown. It was once a big deal in Washington State, and they make great Merlot over there. But, like California, it was more popular in the ’80s and the ’90s. It’s still there, but just not as popular as Riesling.
New York is doing Merlot in a really wonderful way. Last episode, we talked about the Riesling happening in the Finger Lakes. Well, the Finger Lakes also does really great Cab Franc and Merlot. But Merlot really shines on Long Island, specifically on what’s called the North Fork of Long Island. It’s a bunch of old potato farms that are now vineyards, and it has a great climate. There’s actually a sign when you’re going to Long Island saying, “Last stop before Bordeaux,” because it’s across the ocean and stuff. But it’s a great place for Merlot, and I’m sure you’ll see some of that on the American market.
That’s Merlot, guys. Are you guys into it now? Is it something that you’re like, “You know what, man, Keith, you’re right. I’m going to go check out some Merlot.” Check it out, guys. It’s a great blending variety. It’s going to be in a lot of wines, whether you know it or not, especially in American wines. But it can really shine on its own as well. And it’s great in blends from Bordeaux. Give it a chance.
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Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Erica, Adam, and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo.
And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.