Pennsylvania Wine School: Merlot

Chambour-huh? Vidal who? Need some help demystifying some of Pennsylvania’s most essential grape varieties? The PA Wine Land Post is at your service, schooling you on the grapes you need to know.

Varietal: Merlot (pronounced mer-loh)

Grown: Across Pennsylvania

Similar to: Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmine

First mentioned in the late 1700s in the notes of a local official in Bordeaux, “Merlot” is a riff on the French word for Blackbird. The moniker was either inspired by the dark blueish color of the grape or by its popularity with the local blackbirds — or possibly both. In the centuries since, this versatile red varietal has become one of the world’s most beloved wine grapes.

Merlot shares heritage with some other heavy hitters. In the late 1990s, researchers at UC Davis demonstrated that, genetically, our little blackbird is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and a half-sibling of Carménère, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The second parent wasn’t identified until the late 2000s: It’s an obscure variety called Magdeleine Noire des Charentes.

As a wine, Merlot is a crowdpleaser with boisterous fruit flavors and soft tannins. That said, the grape is malleable. Resulting vintages change dramatically depending on where the vines are grown. While California and other warm climates produce velvety, jammy wines that are full-bodied and higher in alcohol, cooler regions — including the grape’s home turf of Bordeaux and Pennsylvania — tend to produce wines with higher acidity, medium body, fresh fruit flavors, and vegetal undertones.

No matter where it is grown when you sip Merlot, anticipate notes of black cherry, raspberry, plum, blackberry, blueberry, and fig. Other common flavors include tobacco, mushroom, and chocolate in the finish. Truffle, violets, and plum are typical aromas. The wine’s main calling card is a combination of supple tannins and lush mouthfeel. For this reason, Merlot is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon in an effort to smooth out that grape’s tannic bite.

Merlot is also a popular grape for rosé (you will sometimes see this sold under the name “White Merlot”) and these iterations tend to be a bit sweeter, with fresh raspberry notes.

Pairing Merlot is a pleasure. When you have a bolder, full-bodied bottle, choose something with rich, robust flavors such as roasted game, cassoulet, steak au poivre, or mushroom risotto. Lighter, fresher Merlots are lovely alongside pizza and ratatouille or dishes that play with bitterness such as pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe or grilled radicchio.