Soft, plummy and yummy, like Cabernet Sauvignon without the pain. At least that's what Merlots are supposed to taste like. How many actually do?
Merlot is something of a fashion victim. Although its best role is as a softener for the more angular Cabernet Sauvignon, it has been thrust into the limelight and asked to perform solo. With lots of TLC, it can, but it doesn't always get it …
The best Merlots are wonderfully rich, heady wines, and have spawned a host of imitators. However, many of these fail to live up to the generously fruity, user-friendly stereotype.
In its home territory of Bordeaux, Merlot usually forms part of a blend with the sterner Cabernet Sauvignon and the more fragrant, earthier Cabernet Franc.
The success of the Merlot-dominated wines of St. Emilion and Pomerol in the late-1980s prompted a rash of Merlot-mania around the world. However, efforts to duplicate their silky, plummy style have been mixed, not least because the variety tends to grow like a weed and produce rather dilute, insipid wine. California and Washington state can do it, but at a price, as increasingly can New Zealand. Havens of good value are Chile (although see below) and southern France.