Merlot is certainly a huge player in the red wine market. It is characteristically low in tannic bitterness which allows for its easy consumption almost as soon as the grape is squeezed.
Bordeaux is the ancestral home of the grape. The coolness and dampness of the region means that Cabernet-Sauvignon (Bordeaux’s primary grape) cannot always ripen, so Merlot, with its resilience and mellow character, can be found blended with some of the best Cabernet-Sauvignons imparting its richness and subtlety to the mix.
Elsewhere in Europe, Merlot has been adopted in response to its popularity. An area to look out for is Ticino. This Italian-speaking region of southern Switzerland produces some superb Merlots. They tend to be soft and easy to drink but some ultra-fruity examples can be found and some wines, after being aged in oak barrels, can be very distinctive and unique.
In the New World, wine can have an industrial efficiency about it and often lacks the personal touch of the age-old estates in Europe. There are, of course, exceptions and Chile has shown itself to be the leader of the pack. The wines here are of surprisingly high quality. Really fruity and rich Merlot is blended with the lesser-known grape Carmenere to form some great wines which are best drunk young.
Australia, on the other hand, doesn’t do Merlot very well at all. The same can be said of California; however, other regions in the States produce some fine grapes, my favourite being Washington State.
The grape is surprisingly flexible when it comes to food. Most game (pigeon, goose, duck) is well complemented with simple and even cheap Bordeaux. The low tannin content means that Merlot isn’t great for red meat but it would still wash down pork or liver quite well. Sometimes, though, it is enjoyed best without food.
If you’re having finger food then note that Merlot is a perfect partner for Parma ham, and New World Merlot enhances “hard” cheeses such as Prima Donna (Holland), Doddington (United Kingdom) and Pecorino Toscano Stagionato (Italy). For soft cheeses try a Chilean Merlot with Brie de Nangis (France) or even Brillat Savarin (France).
The sheer popularity of Merlot means that one doesn’t have to look very far for a cheap bottle.
I personally recommend Karu Merlot (2006), which you can pick up for € 6.99 in O’Briens. This Chilean wine is simply delightful and shockingly cheap. It has fruitiness to spare and will leave your mouth watering long after your final sip. Having roast beef this Sunday? Cook it rare and make sure to serve this with it.
Château Tarreyrots (2005) from Bordeaux is also a treat and at €11 from O’Briens, it’s a bargain too. Its subtlety is perfect for any lamb dish. It’s also perfect on its own and could be enjoyed with snacks or at a buffet.