Merlot is grown all over the world, including Chile, Australia, New Zealand, China, Argentina, Spain, South Africa, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Italy. In fact, some of the best wine from Italy is made from Merlot. It is also responsible for one of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines, the ‘Château Pétrus‘ from France, for which you would expect to pay over $1,000 for a bottle.
Merlot produces wine that is similar in character to Cabernet Sauvignon, namely it is deeply coloured, with a noticeably cedary/cigar box flavour. In many instances it is hard to tell the two varieties apart. However, Merlot wines tend to be a bit plumper, with slightly less colour and higher alcohol, and less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon. The flavour spectrum leans more towards plums, while Cabernet Sauvignon leans more towards blackcurrant. They both respond well to ageing in oak barrels.
Its most useful function, however, is as a component in a blend. It originates from Bordeaux (the home of claret), and in the Medoc, the part of the region of Bordeaux which produces great classic claret such as Château Lafite and Château Latour, it plays second fiddle to the leaner, more aristocratic Cabernet Sauvignon, filling out Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines to give them roundness and balance. It is a more productive vine than Cabernet Sauvignon, easier to ripen, and is less fussy about where it is grown. Specifically, it grows well in soils with high clay content, and doesn’t need as good drainage as Cabernet Sauvignon. It is thus the major variety to be found in Saint Emilion and Pomerol, where there is more clay, unlike the Medoc where there is a high proportion of free-draining gravel. It is more widely planted in the rest of the region as well, covering in all approximately twice as much acreage as Cabernet Sauvignon.
Like Cabernet Sauvignon, it has travelled from its homeland and is to be found all over the rest of France, Europe and throughout the world. It makes significant quantities of dull wine in Italy, and is grown extensively in Romania and Bulgaria. Spain’s most expensive wine, Vega Sicilia Unico, contains some Merlot, though very little is seen in Spain, and almost none in Portugal. It is grown in Argentina, and also Chile, though it has turned out that much of the so-called Merlot in Chile is in fact another Bordeaux variety, Carménère, which produces a wine similar in flavour to Merlot – in fact, if you buy a bottle of Chilean Merlot even now you may be drinking Carménère. In the US interest in Merlot flared up in the late 1980s and 90s in California, with one or two wineries, such as Duckhorn, specialising in the variety, and it flourishes in Washington State.
Overall, it is a variety that in rare circumstances, if the conditions are just right, can produce great wine, and lower down the quality ladder is capable of producing soft, plummy easy-drinking wines that appeal to a wide cross-section of wine drinkers.