Guide to Merlot Wine Taste and Food Pairing

Merlot wine is regarded as the underdog to Cabernet Sauvignon. How come? Because cheap commercial Merlot has given the varietal a bad reputation. It’s time to set the record straight: Merlot wine is first class. Not only does it command the highest respect in the wine world, Merlot also tastes great with food.

It’s time to set the record straight: Merlot wine is first class.

Merlot Wine Guide

Merlot Wine Profile

MAJOR REGIONS: ~600,000 acres worldwide.

  • France (~280,000+ acres) Bordeaux, Languedoc-Roussillon
  • Italy (~93,000+ acres) Toscana, Campania
  • United States (~55,000+ acres) California, Washington
  • Australia (~39,000 acres) South Australia
  • Chile (~25,000 acres) | Argentina (~13,000 acres)

FRUIT: Black Cherry, Raspberry, Plum
OTHER: Graphite, Cedar, Tobacco, Vanilla, Clove, Mocha
OAK: Yes. Usually medium oak aging (8-12 months)
TANNIN: Medium
ABV: 12-15%


St. Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac, Côtes de Bourg, Blaye


Merlot Wine Taste

Red fruits, easy tannins and a soft finish are the characteristics of Merlot wine. But there’s more to Merlot than being smooth. It’s actually a bit of a chameleon, partly because of how Merlot is vinified and mostly because of where it’s grown. Take a look at the range of Merlot wine taste based on region (cool climate vs. warm climate).

Cool Climate Merlot Taste

Cool climate Merlot is more structured with a higher presence of tannins and earthy flavors like tobacco and tar. Some cool climate Merlot are mistaken as Cabernet Sauvignon.

France, Italy, Chile

A classic example of cool climate Merlot wine is Right Bank Bordeaux, such as St. Emilion, Pomerol and the earthy Fronsac.

Hot Climate Merlot Taste

Warm climate Merlot wine is more fruit-forward and tannin is less prevalent. Some producers use judicious oak-treatment of up to 24 months to give their Merlot wine more structure.

California, Australia, Argentina

A classic example of hot climate Merlot is California Merlot, such as Paso Robles and Napa Valley.


The Stemmy Taste In Some Merlot happens during grape ripening and is because of vigorous leafy vine canopies. Pruning helps but causes thin-skinned Merlot grapes to shatter in the sun!


Merlot Food Pairing

Merlot wine matches with a wide variety of foods because of its position in the middle of the red wine spectrum. In general Merlot pairs well with chicken and other light meats as well as lightly-spiced dark meats. With medium tannin and not too much acidity you’ll find Merlot pairs well with many foods.

Try an herbed Chicken en papillote with a lighter alcohol fruit-forward Merlot. credit

Merlot Food Pairing Don’ts Merlot doesn’t pair well with fish or leafy green vegetables unless they are braised or cooked a certain way. Also, spicy food will most likely overwhelm Merlot’s nuanced flavors.

Pro Merlot Pairing Tip
Higher ABV and more oak aging generally means the Merlot will be richer and full-bodied.

7 Fun Facts About Merlot Wine

The Most Planted Variety in France
Forget acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon grapes of Bordeaux and high-priced Pinot Noir of Burgundy, Merlot wine is currently the most planted grape variety in France.
Who’s Your Daddy?
Merlot is the offspring of Cabernet Franc (the father) and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes (the mother).
Harder to Grow Than Cabernet!
Merlot is a thin-skinned grape that is very sensitive to its environment. Merlot grapes do have one benefit over Cabernet: they ripen up to 2 weeks earlier. On a rainy harvest, one week can make a big difference!
Major Player in Italy
Merlot is Italy’s 5th most planted grape. Merlot is popular in the IGT wines of Toscana commonly referred to as “Super Tuscans”
The Blind Tasting Tell on Merlot
Because Merlot wine is so sensitive to light, Merlot based wines tinge orange on the rim. The orange rim is the telltale sign of Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon.
$1,870 For a Bottle of Merlot?!
Yep. Believe it or not, the most famous Right-Bank Bordeaux called Chateau Petrus is mostly Merlot.
American Oak Does Wonders
A few producers are using American Oak to make their Merlot wines rustic and rich like a Cabernet Sauvignon. Find out more about the different types of oak-aging if you’re curious.


Merlot vineyard in Alexander Valley during ‘Bud break’ Thanks to Jordan Vineyards

California Grape Variety acreage (2010) Grape Acreage on
Determining Australia’s Merlot Acreage from New Bordeaux and
Italy Merlot Acreage from Wine Business Monthly
Merlot Profile on Wine Pros
Merlot hectares in Argentina via
Words from Duckhorn Wine on Merlot wine parentage

About Madeline Puckette

I'm a certified sommelier and creator of the NYT Bestseller, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. Find me out there in the wine world @WineFolly