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Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste Along: New World Merlot Under $20

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

It's been nearly 8 years, but when I mentioned we were doing a Merlot tasting, I got a lot more Sideways-esque comments than I would have liked.

I remember drinking Merlot after I saw the movie, and I thought, "What's the big deal? Why was he so angry about Merlot? And about the people who drank it? No wonder he needed to chase with Xanax!" Despite my own affinities for the glass in hand, it was sad to realize such a blanket statement about a grape would stick around for a while.

Fortunately for us amateurs, we get to make up our own minds about this grape variety. Here are a few tips on where it's made, how to serve it, and some tasty (and affordable) bottles to try out.

What to Expect

Merlot is a grape native to France with a moderately thin dark blue skin that produces medium to full bodied wines. While of course there is a fair amount of variability from bottle to bottle, probably the two most commonly used words to describe these wines are 'plummy' and 'soft'. While 'plummy' is pretty self explanatory, there are a few factors going into the description of 'soft'.

First of all, with relatively thin skins, the Merlot grape yields wines that have lower tannins, especially when compared to something like Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot also has relatively low levels of the harsh malic acid, which we learned about when we were tasting Tempranillo. Now this isn't to say that Merlot is low in acid, but that it's acidic profile might be milder than what you'd find with some other grapes. Growing conditions affect these acidity levels, so let's talk a little bit about where Merlot is produced.

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[Photograph: Merlot Grapes on Vine from Shutterstock]

France

In France, Merlot is a commonly grown grape, particularly in the Bordeaux region. Although, as with many French wines, the grapes used are not made obvious by the label. So if you'd like to pick out a bottle of Merlot from the store and find a Bordeaux, be keen to the fact that Merlot is often used as a secondary component to Cabernet Sauvignon and / or Cabernet Franc in these blends. Merlot's role in these blends is to provide softness, ripeness, and body to the other grapes. Look for bottles from Pomerol and Saint Émilion to get a bottle that's primarily Merlot, and you'll experience the earthy-herbal complexity that Merlot can offer when grown in the right spot.

Merlot is also produced in many other regions in France, including Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, and the Loire Valley, but these tend to be a little harder to find. With a little cooler climate in some of these areas of France, you may pick up a bit more acidity than with some of the new world bottles.

United States

In the US, you're much more likely to see Merlot flying solo in a single varietal wine. Merlot is a commonly grown grape in California, especially in the Sonoma and Napa regions. Expect a littler higher alcohol and / or a little more sweetness in these bottles compared to their old world counterparts, given the warmer climate.

You can also find a fair amount of Merlot from the Pacific Northwest, specifically Washington. I had heard several claims that Bordeaux and Washington are on the same latitude, but I was always confused by this because the entire state of Washington lies above the 45th parallel, which cuts through Bordeaux. As in California, you can often find Merlot on its own in a Washington wine.

Merlot is also grown quite successfully in the cool climate of New York state, as we saw in a recent visit to Long Island wine country.

Rest of World

Merlot is one of the most commonly planted grapes in the world, so it pops up in multiple countries beyond France and the US, too. In Italy, Merlot is grown largely in the northern region of Friuli (in cooler climate sub-appellations of Grave DOC, Isonzo DOC and Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC, which should be indicated on the label) as well as Tuscany (including in the Val di Cornia DOC).

In South America, Merlot is produced in Argentina and more commonly in Chile. Oddly enough, Chile's signature grape, Carmenere, was originally assumed to be Merlot. In the 1990s, the distinction became clear and winemakers began to feature Carmenere on its own (which I'm personally very grateful for, because it's one of my favorites).

Other southerly markets that produce a Merlot include Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

How to Serve Merlot

In terms of temperature, Merlot is best served a little cooler than room temp at around 18°C or 65°F. Stick it in the fridge for 15 or 20 minutes before serving.

As for food, some Merlots are light enough to go with seafood like salmon or tuna. And for the fuller bodied versions, try with lamb or other red meats. Cheese can also be a good accompaniment—like a hard cow's or sheep's milk cheese with a punch of saltiness. When in doubt, try good Parmigiano Reggiano. In general, just try to avoid choosing food that will overpower the wine (and vice versa.)

Our Favorites

In this roundup, we tasted our way through 14 affordable new world options to look for some winners to recommend.

The Earthstone Merlot 2009 Sonoma County ($10) poured a clear, bright red color. It wasn't super aromatic, but you could pick up a tiny whiff of vanilla and nutmeg. This bottle was dry and not too fruity, with only a little bitter plum on the finish. The pronounced acidity and mildish tannins gave it enough structure to stand on its own, with or without food. This was pretty good right after uncorking the bottle, but became even smoother a few minutes in the glass.

The Santa Rita Reserva 2008 D.O. Maipo Valley ($12) from Chile smelled like sweet cherries with a little hint of asphalt. This wine was easy drinking and had a bit more sweetness, which reminded us of the blackcurrant drink Ribena. This wine has tannins strong enough to prevent it from being too juicy or flabby. Try it with salmon for a nice weekday dinner option.

Heading back to California, the J. Lohr 2009 Paso Robles Merlot ($14), smelled like Fig Newtons and was a sweeter wine with rosy, floral flavors. This wine was very drinkable with a distinguished licorice / anise taste on the finish.

A really interesting number came from the Portillo Merlot 2009 Valle de Uco, Mendoza ($10). This wine smelled like a hiker's snack pack—beef jerky meatiness and fruit leather. And the juice offered very ripe blackberries, black cherry and a little cinnamon spice. With smooth tannins and rich coffee on the finish, this is a bottle I'd definitely reach for again.

Others to Consider

The Dry Creek Merlot 2007 Dry Creek Valley ($20) smelled like dried cherries. We popped and poured with this one, but I would try to give it a few minutes of airing out before jumping in to let the acidity and alcohol mellow out a bit. This wine was not too fruity initially, but some characteristic plum flavors and a bit of blackberry came through after airing out. With strong tannins and acidity, this bottle would be better with food, even if it's just a hunk of Parmesan cheese.

The Ancient Peaks Merlot 2009 Paso Robles ($15) had a beautiful dark ruby color. It smelled a little like alcohol, which—like the tannins—softened over time. This wine had mouth watering acidity and a little savoriness. This bottle would probably be best served with juicy steak or a meaty pasta dish.

We were also pleasantly surprised by the Recanati Merlot 2010 Galilee ($15). This juice smelled like caramel and gave way for fruity, dark raspberry sweetness on the palate, that was balanced by a hint of bitter smokiness on the finish.

The rest we tried were admittedly unimpressive or over-oaked and artificial tasting, but this should give a good starting point. Have you drank Merlot recently? Any affordable bottles you'd recommend? Let us know!

About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting.

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