With its large berries and thin skins, Merlot has a similar flavor profile to Cabernet Sauvignon, but with softer tannins. Often, because it can grow well in cooler regions, Merlot presents a brighter acidity than its Bordeaux sister. These two grapes are often blended, and are the two most planted grapes in the world, Cab being number one. For those of you feeling the need to jump to the defense of Airén, according to a report put out by the University of Adelaide, Airén has fallen from the number one to the number three spot in vineyard area planted.
The flavors of Merlot can be raspberry, cherry, blueberry, blackberry, plums, black currants, figs, or prunes. The spice of the wine might be cinnamon, clove, anise or sometimes even fruitcake. The telltale herb is mint, and from the oak, flavors of truffles, tobacco, chocolate, coffee, sandalwood and vanilla might be expressed.
Merlot can grow well in many types of soil. Sandy soils such as are found in Washington state and Chile do not retain water. As the water drains out, the calcium also leaches out, making the soil more acidic. Acidic soils have more micro-nutrients such as copper, zinc, manganese and iron. They also create a warmer ground. Warmth produces a less acidic grape. The sandy soils of Washington and Chile are partially responsible for the lack of devastation from the root louse phylloxera in both these areas. As a result, Washington and Chile are two of only a few areas in the world that have planted their wine grapes un-grafted. The vitus vinifera vines are growing on their original vinifera rootstock.
Clay soils, on the other hand, retain water and calcium and are more alkaline. They have less micro-nutrients and create a cooler ground, producing a more acidic grape.
Generally speaking, Merlot produces a wine with a medium acidity, medium tannins and medium alcohol. The structure will vary depending on the soils and climate in which the grapes are grown.
Many regions in the world produce good Merlots. Its most famous region is the right bank of Bordeaux, in the regions of St. Émilion and Pomerol. It is in St. Émilion that you might find the flavor of fruit cake in your Merlot, along with plum, blackberry and vanilla. Pomerol is famous for its 'crasse de fer' or iron-rich clay. The Merlot produced there has flavors of plum, cocoa and violet. The wine is smooth, rich, ripe and velvety.
Napa has close to 40 different soil types, so the same grape can taste very different depending on where it has been planted. Generally, however, Napa Merlot will be fruit-forward with flavors of sweet blackberry and vanilla, and a full, rich texture.
Washington state can produce some stunning Merlot with concentrated fruit flavors of blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry, cherry and plum. As noted earlier, the soil is sandy, but the nights are cool, and thus, the grape is able to retain a vibrant acidity.
In Chile, the Merlot presents both red and dark fruit flavors. While the wines vary with the producer, many of the less expensive Merlots exhibit varietal typicity sans élégance, though more complexity is coming out of the Rapel Valley.
A wonderful example of a Washington state Merlot is H3 from Columbia Crest. It is produced in the Horse Heaven Hills region of Washington and offers great bing cherry, violet, clove and oak aromas with lovely, silky tannins. It is available at Costco for $10.99
Clos de LaVieille Église is from the Bordeaux region. Its flavors are dark cherries, coffee, anise, and nutmeg with a full body and smooth, velvety tannins. It is available at Total Wine for $12.99.