Merlot Wine: Quick Guide

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Merlot is a wildly popular red wine and one that I drink regularly (because I make Merlot and it’s delicious). So if you’re just discovering Merlot, welcome! You’re in the right spot.

Merlot is a classic dry red wine made around the world at all price points. Wine drinkers love Merlot (pronounce mer-low) for its smooth, velvety texture with juicy black cherry, plum, and kiss of chocolate and vanilla. Pair Merlot with hearty dishes like stews, pasta, and roasted vegetables.

Here’s everything you need to know about Merlot wine.

What Does Merlot Wine Taste Like?

what does merlot wine taste like infographic

Merlot wines taste like black fruit; think blackberry, black plum, and black cherry. You may taste subtle hints of herbs and even dust or graphite.

Merlot wines aged in oak will have warm spice, vanilla, mocha, or even cedar. Merlot wine will have medium acid, medium soft tannins, and medium to high alcohol (13%-14% ABV).

Expect your Merlot wine to have a medium to full body.

Merlot wines that use grapes from warmer growing climates, like Eastern Washington, will have higher alcohol, jammier fruit flavors, and a fuller body.

Merlot wines grown in cooler climates may have just-ripe flavors of crunchy black fruit and more herbal notes.

Both styles of Merlot wine are fun to explore.

What Does Merlot Mean?

merlot wine - blackbird

Merlot the name comes from the way the grapes look on the vine. Merlot wine grapes are deep purple, almost like blackberries. History mentions Merlot under the synonym Merlau back in the 1700s. It’s believed that Merlau is the diminutive form of the local word for blackbird. 

Merlot means blackbird, just like the lovely black grapes of this famous wine.

Fun Post: The history behind wine names fascinates me – and maybe you, too!  Here’s a quirky post that looks at the origin stories of 13 random wine names

(Brief) Merlot History

Merlot, an oft-misunderstood red wine grape, has been a key player in Bordeaux wines throughout history. Merlot’s a standard blending grape alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux wines but makes delicious single-varietal wines all on its own.

The grape’s popularity skyrocketed in the US, especially in California, where it thrives in the warm Mediterranean climates and crafts beautiful, full-bodied fruit-forward wines that won over wine lovers throughout the twentieth century.

Helpful Tip: Check out this post that covers all of the winegrowing regions around the world that make Merlot wine.

But then came the 1990s and the infamous wine film “Sideways.” 

If anybody orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any fucking merlot!

This trendy wine movie set the standard for wine-drinking habits across popular America.

Merlot was cast in an unflattering light, portrayed as a lesser wine when compared to Pinot Noir.

Sales of Merlot plummeted and many winegrowers actually had to pull out their vines or re-graft them to ensure their livelihoods. 

Wine tastes are a fickle thing.

Fast forward to today, and Merlot is once again capturing the hearts (and wine glasses) of wine lovers who’ve discovered this versatile little red grape.

Merlot’s grown around the world in all major wine-producing regions. Whether it’s used as a blending partner or vinified into a single varietal wine, Merlot makes solid wines worthy of your cellar.

Is Merlot Wine Dry?

Merlot wine - sugar

Merlot wine is typically made in a dry style. However, some wine producers may leave a little sweetness in their Merlot wines, especially if they are inexpensive, entry-level Merlot wines.

Merlots with a little sweetness appeal to more consumers who may not be accustomed to drinking dry red wines.

White Merlot (a rosé style) is usually sweet. 

Helpful Tip: The technical term for sweetness in wine is residual sugar, often shortened to r/s or rs. You may see this on the technical sheets for wine. Here’s a helpful post on how to figure out if your wine is sweet or not. It’s useful if you’re looking for sweet wines or if you want to avoid sweet wines. 

Does Merlot Have a Lot of Sugar?

No, dry Merlot wines don’t have a lot of sugar. Merlot that’s made into a dry red wine will have less than 2 grams of sugar per liter of wine, which is, at most, 0.4 grams of sugar (less than ½ of a paperclip). 

Some producers may make off-dry Merlot wines.

If you’re concerned about the sugar content in your wine, then take the time to look for the technical sheets from your favorite labels.

Helpful Tip: Do a search for “Wine Name technical sheet pdf” and you’ll get all the information you need on your wine’s sugar content. If you can’t find the producer you’re looking for, email the company directly.

Can You Sweeten Merlot?

how to sweeten Merlot wine

Yes, you can sweeten Merlot. If you want to add a little sweetness to Merlot, start by adding 1/8th of a teaspoon (~.5 grams) at a time to your glass. Add the sugar and then swirl the wine to mix in the sugar.

Take a sip.

If it’s still too dry, add another 1/8th of a teaspoon (¼ tsp. total), mix it in well, and take another sip.

Keep adding small amounts of sugar until your Merlot tastes the way that you want it to taste. 

Helpful Wine Tip: As you sip your sweetened Merlot, rub your lips together. They should have a viscous, almost slippery texture to them. This is from the sugar. Any wines that have sugar (including Merlot), will give your lips this textural feeling. Neat!

What’s the Typical Merlot Wine Color?

medium ruby - merlot wine

Merlot wines are red because Merlot grapes have red skins. Merlot wines have a medium ruby color.

You should be able to see the stem of your glass through your Merlot wine, but just barely. Merlot is darker than Pinot Noir but lighter in color than Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec.

Expect aged Merlot wines to have a brick red or garnet color.

You may see some orange notes around the edges of an old Merlot wine. This is normal.

Merlot wines blended with other red grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Petit Verdot, will have a deeper ruby color and you may not be able to see the stem of your wine glass through the wine.

Some winemakers will make a rose wine out of Merlot grapes, or even a white wine out of Merlot grapes. These wines will be pink and white in color, respectively.

Helpful Tip: Here’s a much better post on how they make rosé wines that goes into pink winemaking if you’re curious about that sort of thing. If not, onwards!

How Much Alcohol Is in Merlot?

Merlot is a medium- to high-alcohol wine, with alcohol between 13%-15% ABV. The alcohol level in Merlot depends on the growing climate of the grapes used in the wine.

The warmer the climate, the riper the grapes, and the more sugar that can be turned into alcohol resulting in higher alcohol wines.

Here’s a quick snap-shot of the alcohol in different Merlot wines made around the world:

How Much Alcohol Is in Merlot
Napa Valley Merlot14% – 15.1%
Santa Ynez Merlot14.1%
Whaluke Slope, WA Merlot14.4%
Veneto, Italy14%
Chile13% – 13.5%
Fronsac (Bordeaux)14.5%
Paarl, South Africa13.5%

Is Merlot a Strong Red Wine?

is merlot a strong red wine -red wine glass

Merlot is a medium-bodied red wine and isn’t as strong as other red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrahor even Petite Sirah.

Despite the fact that Merlot wines can have high alcohol (+13% ABV), Merlot wines have soft, velvety tannins and a plush, plummy mouthfeel that are more inviting than most strong wines.

These qualities make Merlot a more approachable red wine than Cabernet, for example. 

Fun Wine Fact: Often, winemakers will use Merlot as a blending partner to help smooth out the rough edges of strong red wines.

Helpful Tip: Here’s a whole post that covers strong red wines – along with 11 strong red wines if you’re looking for big, bold blockbusters.

Is Merlot a Light or Heavy Wine?

Merlot is a medium wine, neither light nor heavy. Merlot falls right in the middle spectrum of red wines. Pinot Noir and Gamay (Beaujolais Nouveau) are almost universally light red wines and Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Alicante Bouschet are almost always considered heavy red wines.

Merlot is a medium wine. It has more weight than Pinot and Gamay but isn’t as heavy as Cab or Syrah. 

Should Merlot Be Chilled?

don't chill merlot - fridge - merlot wine

If you’re wondering how to serve Merlot, it’s actually quite simple. Serve Merlot at room temperature. Merlot doesn’t need to be chilled. 

Helpful Tip: Most red wines are served around room temperature. Very few red wines need to be chilled, among them are sparkling red wines often made in Italy and Australia. 

Can You Put Ice in Merlot?

You can put ice in your Merlot. I get it. You want to drink a cool wine. If you live in a hot climate and you want to put ice in your Merlot, you can!

Here’s what will happen if you put ice in your Merlot wine:

  1. Your Merlot wine won’t seem as flavorful and may smell muted. This is because you’re slowing down the aroma molecules bouncing around on the surface of your wine. They won’t escape from their bonds to waft up to your nose. Swirling your wine may help.
  2. The ice will dilute Merlot’s flavors as it melts. You may or may not care about this. You do you.

Helpful Tip: Instead of adding ice cubes to your Merlot wine, add frozen grapes to chill your wine. Or, freeze leftover red wine in ice cube trays and add your wine cubes instead of ice cubes. This will limit flavor dilution.

Do You Refrigerate Opened Merlot Wine?

Yes, you want to refrigerate opened Merlot or leftover Merlot. This will slow down the chemical reactions that will cause your Merlot to oxidize and help you keep leftovers fresher for longer. 

Helpful Tip: Here’s a great overview post on refrigerating wine. A must-read if you have lots of leftover wine (I always do, which is why I wrote it). 

Is Merlot a Good Wine for Beginners?

Merlot is an excellent wine for beginners because of its smooth texture and fruit-forward style. Merlot’s tannins are soft and velvety, more so than Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. Merlot doesn’t tend to have green or under-ripe stemmy flavors that can creep into other red wines. Instead, Merlot showcases ripe plum, blackberry, and warm spice – all making for an inviting red wine perfect for beginners.

Looking for wines similar to Merlot? Go check out this post on Gamay wine, a soft, fruity red that may be perfect for you.

What Food Goes Well with Merlot Wine?

what food goes with Merlot - steak - merlot wine

So, you’re wondering: what foods pair best with Merlot? Think rich stews and savory flavors that will benefit from black and red fruits flavors.

  1. Grilled hamburgers with cheddar cheese and caramelized onions. The fruit-forward and spicy character of the wine contrast with the savory flavors of the burgers, creating a delicious and easy weeknight meal.
  2. Roasted chicken with an herb rub. Merlot’s fruit-forward plum will bring out the flavors of the chicken, making for a winning combination. 
  3. Pasta with tomato sauce and fresh basil or parsley. The acid in the tomato sauce will marry with the acid in the wine, lifting both the wine and meal up, and enhancing the flavors in both. Yum!
  4. Fried fish with lemon. Choose a medium-bodied, lighter style of red wine for your fried fish pairing. The wine’s soft tannins will wrap around the rich, savory flavors of the battered fish for a satisfying experience. 
  5. Pizza night. Merlot makes an excellent, easy pizza pairing wine. The fat in the cheese and the acid in the tomato sauce – both come together for a weeknight treat.  
  6. Sauteed sausage with veggies. Chop up some spicey sausage and your favorite veggies and toss them in the skillet for a quick and easy dinner.
  7. Go completely vegetarian with grilled vegetables drizzled in olive oil and a balsamic glaze. Add a generous pinch of sea salt that will help bring out Merlot’s fruity character. 
  8. Ready for heartburn? But maybe it’s worth it! Meatball subs with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. Merlot’s soft character contrasts with the marinara and greasy meat goodness for a great game-day meal. Or Tuesday take-out night.
  9. Grilled chicken or steak fajitas with peppers, onions, and cheese is one of my favorite Merlot wine pairings. If you don’t feel like cooking, pick up some street tacos, pour yourself a glass of Merlot, can call it a night. 

Helpful Tip: If you’re just getting started out with wine, I put together this helpful overview of food with wine pairing to get you started. Side note – I spend just as much time thinking about food with wine pairing as I do deciding what I’m going to eat every night. Utter hedonism. What can I say?

5 Fun Merlot Wine Flight Ideas

Ready to host a Merlot wine night? Why not host a Merlot side-by-side comparison? Go to your favorite bottle shop and pick up 2 bottles of wine: 1 bottle needs to be a Merlot (of course), but then have fun with the second bottle.

Here are five Merlot wine flight ideas to get you started:

  1. 1 Bottle of inexpensive Merlot (under $10 USD) + 1 Bottle of mid-priced Merlot ($15-$20 USD)
  2. 1 Bottle of Merlot + 1 Bottle of Malbec (similar prices)
  3. 1 Bottle of California Merlot + 1 Bottle of East Bank Bordeaux (pick Fronsac AOC or Lalande-de-Pomerol AOC)
  4. 1 Bottle of Merlot + 1 Bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon
  5. 1 Bottle of California Merlot + 1 Bottle of Chilean Merlot (similar prices)

Helpful Tip: Wine flights are probably the best way to unlock the mystery of wine. Here’s a quick post to get you started on how to host your own wine flights beyond Merlot! There’s a whole world of wine out there worth exploring. Go explore!

Final Thoughts – Merlot Wine Is Perfect for Most Wine Lovers

merlot wine cork

Merlot wines are versatile and friendly red wines known for their smooth, fruity profile.

Merlot doesn’t overwhelm in the glass and is an excellent choice for beginner wine drinkers.

Merlot also crafts some of the most iconic red wines in the world, proof that this wine deserves your attention.

Take time to explore Merlot and to discover how different winemakers shape this red wine. Be indulgent if you dare!

Discover More:
Merlot vs Pinot Noir
Merlot vs Chardonnay
Merlot vs Cabernet Sauvignon
Merlot vs Malbec

Thirsty for More?

Ready to buy a bottle of Merlot? Here’s how much you should spend on Merlot wine.

Here’s what you need to know about aging and cellaring Merlot wine.

Check out this list of more foods that work well with Merlot and figure out how the different Merlot wine styles pair up.

Love Merlot as much as me? Check out these other wines that are similar (but distinctive and delicious) to Merlot.

Go check out that post on strong red wines – it’ll help you pick out big reds it that’s what you’re looking for.

And here’s that link to the post on how to figure out if you’re wine is sweet or not, which is helpful if you’re looking for a little sweetness in your Merlot (or any other wine for that matter).

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