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Merlot is the second most widely planted wine grape in the world, which means there’s an abundance of mass-produced, mediocre bottles on the market. Unfortunately, that familiarly has bred some contempt for a variety that is responsible for some of the most collectible and compelling bottles on the market, such as Petrus, Masseto and Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard.
For many wine lovers, merlot’s best use is to create blended red wines. Merlot is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, where it is the principal grape in Pomerol and Saint Emilion but has increased its presence in vineyards around the region. Merlot is usually the dominant grape variety in red wines sold as Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, used to soften the strong tannins found in cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Merlot has become popular in many wine regions around the world because it is an early ripening variety, which means it can thrive even when temperatures are moderate. The name recognition and reputation for making pleasant wines with soft and generously fruity character make it easy to sell, except to those who love to hate it.
California’s Napa Valley adopted the Bordeaux playbook to create structured and age-worthy red wines from cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The success of cabernet sauvignon means growers first look to plant the more profitable cabernet sauvignon and default to merlot in areas with cooler temperatures or clay-rich soils where cabernet would struggle to ripen. As someone who enjoys red wines from Napa but cannot afford the current prices of cabernets, I look instead to buy merlot from celebrated producers like Antica, Duckhorn, Freemark Abbey, Frog’s Leap and Robert Mondavi.
Merlot has become the most widely planted grape variety in British Columbia, where pioneering wineries Burrowing Owl, Mission Hill and Tinhorn Creek helped to turn it into a star. Checkmate, La Vieux Pin, La Stella, Painted Rock and Vanessa Vineyard also contribute to its lustre. In Ontario, it is the second most planted red vinifera variety after cabernet franc. Longstanding producers Inniskillin and Trius continue to produce exciting single vineyard examples, while Fielding, Leaning Post and Stratus also craft noteworthy (and age-worthy) examples.
But outside of the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur categories, the serious examples mentioned above aren’t responsible for merlot’s checkered reputation. It’s the value for money selections that struggle with being too soft and bland. When I’m teaching wine appreciation classes, I often pour Barefoot, the non-vintage California label, that consistently captures the textbook black cherry and plum fruit with vanilla and spice notes. Many Chilean wineries have a good handle on merlot, including Adobe, Casillero del Diablo, and Santa Carolina, while Italian examples, such as Adesso and Cusumano, could elevate the reputation of merlot with affordable and enjoyable bottles.