Merlot is the world’s third most prominently produced grape, and yet we still know so little about it. Let’s dive deeper into the world of Merlot. From fad diets to after-dinner drinks to age-defying skincare, here’s the lowdown on how Merlot infiltrates our everyday lives.
It was originally named for the merle, the French word for little blackbird, in the early 1800s. Today, Merlot has more than 50 synonyms, ranging from the familiar Alicante, popular in the Valencia region of Spain, to French pseudonyms like semillon rouge and plant medoc.
Merlot plays a major role in Bordeaux, partnering up with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to make desirable bottles that stock the cellars of serious collectors. But depending on where your bottles of Bordeaux are coming from, Merlot’s part in the production ranges from supporting actor to leading role.
Arguably the most well-known wine region in the world, Bordeaux’s vineyards are bisected by the Gironde estuary that branches out into two arms, the Garonne and the Dordogne. This waterway makes for two distinct growing regions with markedly different terroirs. The Atlantic-facing side of the region, known as the Left Bank, is known for Cabernet-heavy blends built for aging, while the Right Bank excels at producing easy-drinking Merlots that can be enjoyed in the shorter term.
While Bordeaux has always been in vogue, the early 1990s saw a significant increase in red wine drinking, and Merlot in particular. Why? A scientific study emerged with a new idea about health, which came to be known as the French Paradox. The study noted that while the French regularly indulge in all sorts of fabulously saturated fats (i.e. butter and cheeses), the incidence of heart disease in the population was considerably lower than in the United States. Serge Renaud, the originator of the hypothesis, claimed that this was due to the French fondness for red wine and its antioxidant properties. Renaud was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a scientist at Bordeaux University.
Merlot’s subsequent popularity extended beyond the bottle. Inspired by the French Paradox, Wayne Beckley, a.k.a. Dr. Grapes, created Merlot, a line of skin care that utilizes the natural antioxidant powers of grape seeds. According to Beckley, the benefits of grape seeds outweigh skincare heavy hitters vitamins C and E.
Merlot-drinking in the U.S. was riding high thanks to a boost from the French Paradox straight through to the early aughts, when another varietal momentarily stepped into the spotlight.
Alexander Payne’s 2004 film Sideways did wonders for Pinot Noir, but the wine bromance wasn’t so kind to Merlot. Merlot’s U.S. sales plummeted after a curmudgeonly Miles Taylor, played by Paul Giamatti, goes on a memorable parking lot rant railing against the varietal. (Ironically, the bottle of Cheval Blanc that Giamatti’s character drinks out of a styrofoam cup in a burger joint is made of 40% Merlot. Presently, the 1961 vintage featured in the film goes for more than $3000 a bottle.)
Happily, a few years after the film’s release, Merlot’s sales were once again on the rise.
The California wine country that set the backdrop for the film is a prime Merlot-growing region. In Paso Robles, the fruits of J. Lohr’s vines are appealing to both wine drinkers and wildlife alike. The winery’s commitment to sustainability has led to a unique method of pest prevention.
“We put owl boxes all over the property,” explains Brenden Wood, Assistant Winemaker at J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines. These wide-eyed nocturnal predators act as on-site grape security, making meals of the starlings and rodents that regularly dine on the Merlot vines. Thanks to the combined efforts of the owls and J. Lohr’s keen winemaking team, the grapes thrive and ripen, making their way into bottles of J. Lohr Estates Los Osos Merlot.
Although most folks put away the Merlot after dinner, the world of brandy is an ideal place to explore the finer points of the varietal. Pomace brandies such as French eau de vie and Italian grappa are made with the seeds, stems and skins that remain after the grapes have been pressed. Look out for single-varietal bottles to taste another shade of what Merlot has to offer.
Lambrusco might have the market cornered on sparkling red, but Merlot is giving it a run for its money. Italian and Australian producers are putting out fun and festive bottles of fizzy red that lend themselves particularly well to sunny days and barbecues.
As you can see, Merlot is an extremely flexible grape — running the gamut from serious, collectable Bordeaux wines to simpler, fruit-forward wines perfect for weeknight pizza. Throughout the wine industry, October is Merlot Month. You can learn more of this versatile variety’s story by using #MerlotMe on social media.