Merlot is one of the most misunderstood grape varieties. While it has a reputation of being a soft, easy drinking quaffer, the world's most famous merlot, Chateau Petrus from the Pomerol district of Bordeaux, is the exact opposite. Merlot is a very popular blending option to round out other bolder varietals.
In mid-2000, we joined with fellow Clare Valley winemakers for a meeting at the classic Rising Sun Hotel and a historic decision was made. After a long night of conversation which centred on the shortcomings of the cork closure (and a few glasses of wine), the Clare Valley winemakers agreed to initiate what would be a game-changing move, to bottle the region’s iconic riesling under screwcap.
Part of the image is due to the cute name, which came from the Aquitaine dialect for 'little blackbird'. There are a couple of theories as to why it was called this. One is that ripe merlot is the same colour as the blackbird, another is that ripe merlot grapes are the favourite diet of the little pest.
It can be a difficult vine to grow and can have setting problems during flowering and rot during ripening because of its thin skins. However, the thin skin means that it doesn't have the tough tannin of thick-skinned cabernet and that has been the reason that it is so popular as a blending option. A little bit of merlot tends to round out a boisterous young cabernet. It is vinified in the traditional red wine way but most merlots can't take as much new wood as the equivalent cabernet, nor do they have the same longevity.
Merlots plummy mid palate richness and smooth tannins mean that it is suitable with leaner types of meat: lean pork, veal, and spring lamb.
Where food matching is concerned, red meat is the obvious choice but it is lamb and cabernet that find the perfect match. The unique, piquant savour of lamb and the aristocratic aromatics in cabernet make for gastronomic harmony.