The Complete Guide to Merlot Wine

Cabernet Sauvignon may be the most popular red wine in the world, but there is another, softer red wine that’s famous both on its own and an esteemed French blend.

Merlot is a decadent, versatile wine, perfect for sipping solo or paired with several dishes. Its smooth tannins, dark fruit taste, and velvet textures make it a pleasant experience for wine lovers.

Keep reading for everything you need to know about the incredible Merlot.

What is Merlot?

Originating in Bordeaux, France, in 1784, Merlot was considered by officials to be one of the area’s best wines. However, it wasn’t until 1824 that the grape got its name. “Merlot” translates to “blackbird,” referencing a local bird that liked the ripe grapes on the vine. 

Merlot is considered the half-sibling of the heavier, more structured Cabernet Sauvignon, as they share the same parent grape, Cabernet Franc.

By 1855, Merlot vines were planted in abundance in the Medoc region and later introduced to Switzerland and Venice, Italy.

Around the 1990s, red wine hit a stride in popularity in the United States, resulting in a heavy appreciation for Merlot.

Where are Merlot Grapes Grown?

While Merlot is planted worldwide, it is primarily grown in the Left Bank and Right Bank regions of Bordeaux, which are separated by two rivers and an estuary. Specifically, the highest quality of Merlot is thought to come from the St. Emilion appellation, located on the Right Bank.

Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit, Verdot, and Malbec, Merlot is among the few varietal wines permitted in Bordeaux blends. Its soft, velvety tannins (the puckering, astringent taste) and fruity flavor profile add a softness to these full-bodied wines.

The Complete Guide to Merlot Wine Infographic | Macy's Wine Shop

What Does Merlot Taste Like?

As mentioned above, Merlot is characterized by lush fruit flavors and smooth tannins, making it an incredibly versatile wine. Key tasting notes include cherry, plum, chocolate, bay leaf, vanilla, and oak when aged in oak barrels. 

Since Merlot is heavily influenced by its growing climate and winemaking production, it's important to differentiate between Merlot grown in warmer climates and those grown in cooler climates.

Warm Climate Merlot

When we think of warm climate Merlot, California, Argentina, and Australia come to mind. These wines contain fewer tannins and are more fruit-based. Wine producers in these regions also age Merlot in oak barrels for 24 months or more, resulting in a more structured wine.

Cool Climate Merlot

If you’ve sipped a Merlot from Washington State, France, Italy, or Chile, you might have first mistaken it for Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are tannin-rich with bold, complex structures and earthy flavors like tar and tobacco. 

Merlot Color

Merlot wine grapes are characterized by their larger size, thinner skin, and dark blue hue despite being red. When young, Merlot boasts a semi-opaque to opaque red hue containing dark blue undertones. It can be classified as a deep ruby color, between light Pinot Noir and darker Cabernet Sauvignon. 

One way to tell you may be drinking Merlot is to look for brick orange tones around the rim. As Merlot ages, it loses its pigmentation and brightness, turning garnet.

Is Merlot Sweet or Dry?

Despite its notable plum and cherry flavors, which could trick the palate into thinking it’s sweeter, Merlot is classified as a dry red wine. During winemaking, the sugar from the grape must (juice) is either almost or entirely converted into alcohol.

Speaking of alcohol, Merlot is on the average to higher end of the spectrum at 13-14$ alcohol per volume (ABV). 

As for calories, a 5 oz glass of Merlot has roughly 125 calories, or 625 calories, in a standard bottle. Alcohol may be responsible for driving up the calories, but more sugar means more carbs. This will vary depending on if your Merlot has less or more residual sugar. 

Merlot contains less than one gram of residual sugar per glass, making it a dry wine.

Cheersing glasses of red wine | Macy's Wine Shop

Best Merlot Food Pairings

Merlot is well-loved for its fruity, versatile qualities, which makes it excellent for meal pairing. Lighter Merlot tastes decadent with meats like chicken, turkey, and pork, while full-bodied styles are perfect with beef, lamb, bison, roast duck, and mushroom with wild herbs. 

Try Merlot with everything from hearty pasta to burgers, barbecue, and pizza. Avoid spicy foods or dishes that are too delicate, like white wine pasta, light fish, and salads, as these clash with Merlot’s deep fruit and earthy notes.

For dessert, try Merlot with rich chocolate dishes like dark chocolate lava cake to bring out its cocoa undertones.

Lastly, Merlot is best served at a moderate temperature of 60–65°F to bring out its flavors best. This can be achieved after storing the wine for just fifteen minutes in the fridge before opening. 

Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon

While Merlot is softer and less complex with ripe fruit flavors and delicate tannins, it can be easily mistaken for the robust Cabernet Sauvignon, depending on the climate. Both wines have organic chemicals known as pyrazines, responsible for bell pepper and herb notes in wines from cooler regions. Fuller, more structured Merlot from warm climates like those in Bordeaux can easily mimic the complexity of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon may share the same parent grape, but telling them apart becomes easier if you know what to look for. Merlot will be more fruit-forward, smoother, and less complex than your average Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Pouring a glass of red wine | Macy's Wine Shop

Merlot vs. Pinot Noir

Another famous red wine, Pinot Noir, is the antithesis of richer wines like Merlot and Cabernet. Its thin-skinned grape produces wines with moderate alcohol, color, bright fruit notes like cherry, cranberry, and raspberry, and high acidity. 

Merlot has more tannins than Pinot Noir, more body, darker hues, and richer, dark cherry notes. 

Drink the Merlot!

As you can see, Merlot is worth sipping, whether as a delicious Bordeaux blend or a single varietal. Its softer, well-rounded tannins and dark fruit flavors like black cherry and plum perfectly combine uniquely smooth and rich qualities. With additional undertones of smoky oak and dark chocolate, it’s a wine that truly has it all. 

Shop an incredible selection of Merlot wines at Macy’s Wine Shop. You won’t want to miss out on it. 

Check out The Wine Blog for your guide to drinking and enjoying your favorite wines.