The Merlot grape is pleasantness locked in a red grape. Many winemakers use it as a go-to grape to base their wines on, safe in the knowledge that the resulting wines will be easily understood and enjoyed. Having said that, although it is found around the world and is capable of producing fine wines virtually anywhere, this does not mean that it is a characterless grape. The fact that one of the most idolized and cherished wines in the world, the Château Petrus, is chiefly made from a base of Merlot is clear proof of its qualities.
It was already an important grape variety in both Pomerol and Saint-Émilion in France by the end of the 18th century. It is still the star grape there in the Right Bank of Bordeaux where it steals the limelight from Cabernet Franc and, especially, Cabernet Sauvignon. On the other bank, in the Médoc region, Merlot is used for adding pleasantness, fruit and elegance to compensate for the austerity of Cabernet Sauvignon. Its maximum expression is found in and around the area of Libourne, whose clay soils give structure and produce mouth-watering and velvety wines.
Merlot in Italy takes on a similar profile. Here, too, among the Bordeaux grape varieties, it is the roundest, due also to the Mediterranean climate of some areas where it best expresses itself. It excels as a single variety in Tuscany, both in the Bolgheri area with the legendary Masseto and in the interior in the Chianti Classico area with the Apparita di Castello di Ama, not infrequently aged in new barriques. It is widely cultivated in many other Italian regions including in Veneto, where it is the most significant international red grape in terms of quantity.
Merlot wines are often light and juicy, but also generous and reasonably long-living. American Merlot wines, for example, are usually mature and rounded with aromas of black cherries and figs, while Bordeaux wines tend to remind wine-lovers of Christmas cake, spices and truffles. Wines made in warmer climates offer the most mature aromas while those from cooler climes or wines which have not accumulated so much sugar tend to show vegetal or balsamic aromas. In general, most wines are fruity and juicy with a velvety texture being their strong point. Many are produced for early or immediate drinking but the structure gained from the Bordeaux ageing style can also be found in some wines from Italy or the USA.