Merlot is America’s second more popular red grape (Cabernet Sauvignon is #1) and it’s a soft, elegant, easy-drinking red. Merlot is actually French for Little Blackbird, which suits its light, gentle nature very well.

Merlot is a friendly varietal, suitable for people new to red and it can be drunk enjoyably with food as well as on its own.

Merlot’s history

It’s thought that Merlot was first produced in the late 18th century when a winemaker in the Bordeaux region of France first labelled the grape as one of the ingredients in his Bordeaux blend.

After this, the Merlot grape became known across the Bordeaux region and was used to add a soft fruitiness to wines made with the more popular Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This pair became so popular and well-known that they became the main ingredients in the Bordeaux blend that’s the classic red the world over.

Travelling companions

As Bordeaux gained traction and popularity all over the world, its assistant Merlot did too. When Merlot finally arrived in California in the middle of the 19th century, winemakers there didn’t bother blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon; instead they started making 100% Merlot. The grape thrived in California and Americans thoroughly enjoyed its softness and low tannin content.

While Merlot started out in California, it went on to become popular in New York and Washington state, where it has found a place as one of these states’ most important grapes.

The lowdown

Merlot is a stronger wine – it has an alcohol content of at least 13.5% and it can get nearer to 14.5% if the grapes have been grown in a warmer region, like California, Chile or Australia.

The wine is often described as having a plummy taste, with notes of chocolate and an herbal aroma. It appeals to new red drinkers as it’s not as challenging as other reds; this is a characteristic that experienced red drinkers can find unappealing, which is why Merlot is also found in blends with harsher varietals.