A Guide to Pairing graphic in red with a wine bottle

A Guide to Pairing: Merlot

Today (November 7th) marks International Merlot Day, so what better way to celebrate than talking about Merlot pairings!

A bit about Merlot:

  • Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, is a child of Cabernet Franc, a fact that was only recently revealed through DNA testing
  • Merlot has a silky skin for such a structured grape, but that can lead to growing issues resulting in losses of entire crops due to molds and rots, much like Pinot Noir deals with
  • The name is derived from mèrle, or the local French blackbird who is known for eating the fruit of the vines
  • Merlot ripens earlier and has much lower in tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon, and the two are usually blended to find a perfect tannic balance

That said, let’s talk food (think like a chef):

Ah Merlot..not as much a chameleon of a grape as, say…Zinfandel, but it’s pretty high on the spectrum of stylistic versatility.  Different growing regions can produce a very different wine when made from Merlot due to an array of seasonal and regional differences, however, it’s not nearly as affected as a Pinot Noir for example.  But what does this all mean?

Merlot has a very nice pocket it fits into; not as narrow as a Cab Sauv (which is the definitive steak wine and really struggles to find versatility in a wider array of food pairings) but not so wide as a Zinfandel (where you might not have any idea what to expect until trying the wine itself as it can vary so much in style from one producer to the next).

Merlot shows different regional variations due to climate, so if you have a Right Bank Bordeaux (which is a Merlot dominated blend) you’ll find a more red plum and cedar-like profile, where a California Merlot will be more along the blackberry and vanilla profile.  Aside from those major profile variances, you’ll find anything from baking spices and chocolate to leather, figs, and/or bay leaf.  All very food friendly flavors for a wine.

So with Merlot, we’re working with red to black fruits, herbal notes, earthy tones, and wooded influence and a mouthfeel of softer, silkier tannins.

Compare AND contrast:

Comparable flavor pairings first: cheeses and fig spread will be the way to go with a herbed or neutral cracker base.  Any savory dish with a plum sauce would be another great way to go (or any red fruit sauce for that matter).  Dark chocolate (as unsweet and as dark as possible) will also pair nicely with Merlot.  And anything heavy on bay leaf flavoring will do right by your Merlot.

Previously we mentioned the limited pairability of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Merlot has this winning trait of pairing with anything a Cab can go with, but in addition, Merlot shines with a wide array of roasts, stews, and side dishes with garden herbs.

In the spectrum of contrasting pairings, grilled or roasted meats from chicken to pork to veal, or even a Filet are right at home with Merlot.  From the cheese world, blue cheese, cheddar, and gorgonzola all work very well with Merlot. Any dish with heavy garlic flavors work well with Merlot, we (believe it or not) very much enjoy Merlot with pasta in a garlic cream sauce with a bit of Italian herbs, but it also works very well with pasta in a classic marinara or pomodoro sauce.  A wide array of mushrooms (from meaty, hearty Portobellos to delicate Tree Oysters) will pair beautifully with Merlot.  Merlot also contrasts the gamier flavors of lamb, softening the blow to the palate that many folks aren’t a fan of (for the “I don’t like lamb…” crowd) and accentuating herbed flavors on the dish.  Merlot also does very well with tarragon and tomatoes, so you can feel free to pair it with salads with those ingredients, a favorite of ours is greens with tarragon, tomatoes, and fried herbed goat cheese in a French vinaigrette.  Lastly, braised dishes.  All the items we just spoke about previously in any combination you like, braised and finished with a glass of any Merlot you can lay your hands on.

*PRO TIP: use the Merlot you’re planning to pair with dinner (unless it’s a $5k bottle of Petrus) in your braising liquid to add an extra layer of congruency with your pairing come plating time.  Standard boxed red wine for cooking will be good, but cooking with the Merlot in question really infuses the pairing into your food before your guests take the first sip of the wine itself.

Get weird:

Merlot & French Fries.  Just go try it.

So there you have it, our guide for pairing Merlot on International Merlot Day.

How about you though? For our other guests, please feel free to share your pairing suggestions for Merlot in the comments below.



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