A Short history of Merlot........
We can trace Merlot back to the 1st Century in France but Merlot as a noble Bordeaux varietal standing on it's own doesn't appear till the 1800s. Merlot, Malbec and a few others owe their existence to the 'biturica' variety from which it has evolved.
Other names for Merlot around the world include: Petit Merle, Vitraille, Crabutet Noir and Bigney. In a further twist of mistaken identity, DNA profiles reveal that some wines from Chile labelled as Merlot come from a vine called Carmenère or Grand Vidure. This story on it's own is fascinating so see the note at the end of this article.
Merlot is an early ripening variety. This is wonderful as it will ripen before the winter rains set in. Also this is terrible as it is vulnerable to spring frosts. It tolerates and even thrives in soils too poor or too moist or too cold for top class Cabernet Sauvignon. The colder climates produce wonderfully complex Merlots with lots of soft fruit flavours not found in the warmer climate fruit. It's sensitive during flowering and wind or vine diseases will decimate the crop. A sound strategy with Merlots is to leave excessive bunches during flowing and thin them out later. This allows us to adjust the yield after the critical flowering time has passed. The berries are thin skinned and physically large. They wont tolerate bird damage or sunburn or splitting, as they'll rot as soon as any moisture finds the damaged berries.
Merlots most famous home is in the Bordeaux. Even the Medoc region, famous for its Cabernets has about 40% area under Merlot. Merlot comes in third behind Carignan and Grenache as the most planted red grape variety in France. It thrives in northeast Italy, is spreading through Eastern Europe and the new world regions can't produce enough. The Winemakers Federation of Australian, 2002 vintage report tells us that: 'Merlot intake increased dramatically, up by 31% to 105,000 tonnes, representing 6% of the total wine grape intake.' Merlot is a doubly versatile grape. It is widely blended with many other grapes providing a soft, luscious, velvety fruit characteristic softening the harsher varieties. This makes for extremely drinkable young wines. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is our best-known blend with tannins and structure from the Cabernet Sauvignon and a fruity rich middle palate from the Merlot.
The most famous producer of French merlot wines is Chateau Petrus, whose 1990 bottling earned a perfect 100 score from Wine Spectator (it sells for about USD$1,700 a bottle). Ouch! Merlot on its own is not great for long bottle aging. It's become ridiculously popular in the last few years as a stand-alone varietal. More so among people wanting a 'drink now' wine rather than a long term cellaring wine. Ripe Merlot gives you lots of fruit flavours; plums, cherry, raspberry, mint and subtle spice. However unripe Merlot, goes towards herbaceous green flavours. It's great with rich dishes, pasta, meats and even chocolate. For the same season with the same conditions from the same vineyard, the Merlot will end up higher in alcohol and less tannin than the Cabernet Sauvignon.
Some of the characteristics you'll pick up in various Merlots
This is one of those fascinating stories we often uncover when researching articles for this newsletter. It's somewhat related to Merlot, but still interesting reading. Carmenere is almost exclusive to Chile and virtually extinct in its French homeland. Carmenere was very important in the Bordeaux vineyards from the 1700's onwards but is now virtually unknown. When wineries started to become trendy in Chile around the 1850's, the natural source for vine material was France. The valleys around Santiago were planted with vine material from Bordeaux including a lot of Carmenere. Naturally the winemaking skills mirrored the French and when phylloxera struck in Europe, the wines from Chile helped quench the thirst for fine wines back in France.
The massive replanting of vineyards in France after phylloxera hit, left Carmenere out of the mix. A condition called 'coulure' hits vines in certain climates. It prevents flowering when the spring is cold and wet and Carmenere is particularly susceptible. Carmenere ripens several weeks after Merlot and often produces yields lower than Merlot. The French vineyards had this golden opportunity to replant their stocks and many chose the more robust Cabernet Sauvignon or stuck with traditional Merlot. The thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon berries better resisted the rain and resulting rot than the thin-skinned Carmenere. And, here was an ideal opportunity to replant onto phylloxera resistant rootstocks.
Chile has very little rain during the growing season and was spared the destruction of phylloxera. There was no systematic replanting of vineyards and Carmenere remained safely growing amidst the Merlot vineyards. And, since Carmenere and Merlot look alike, over the centuries Carmenere lost it's identity and both varieties assumed the Merlot tag. Meanwhile back in France, Merlot thrived. Chile was relatively isolated from international wine markets and Carmenere to the rest of the world was an old forgotten and/or extinct wine grape. Wine sales have boomed around the world in the last 20 years. As more Chilean 'Merlot' found it's way onto the world markets, someone noticed the 'Merlot' had stronger and spicier and more sumptuous flavours than Merlot from anywhere else in the world. Finally in 1994 Professor Jean- Michel Boursiquit of Montpellier's renowned school of Oenology identified the Chilean 'Merlot'. Using DNA mapping he showed the world the Chilean 'Merlot' was really Carmenere and was identical to Carmenere vines found in France.
* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans at The Gurdies Winery