Domenico Winery + Osteria

Famous California Wines 101: Merlot

When you talk about the most popular grapes in the world, you can’t skip over Merlot. This French varietal is world-famous, not just because of its infamous role in the movie Sideways (although it’s always a fantastic reference.) Merlot is one of France’s premiere grapes, bringing a very unique character to the table. Today, it’s shining in vineyards all over the world – most famously, in California!

So, what makes Merlot so special? Let’s learn all there is to know about one of the most popular grapes grown in California!

Merlot is a very popular grape

Cabernet Sauvignon may carry more fame by name. However, Merlot is the underdog French red wine grape. It had it tough over the years, dealing with many things thrown at its reputation. Still, it is the second most planted grape in the world, just behind – of course – Cab Sauv. That means you can indeed find Merlot beyond France and California, grown in vineyards all over the world.

It’s named after a bird

Merlot is – as you guessed – a French name. But, what does it mean? Well, the story goes that Merlot comes from the French word “merle,” or blackbird. Whether that’s a reference to the bird’s feathers being equally as dark as the grape or the bird’s love of eating the Merlot berries is still up for debate.

Merlot’s home is in Bordeaux

When it comes to its origins, Merlot can be traced back to the historic wine region of Bordeaux. This French wine production area is world famous for its red wines along with its sweet wines from Sauternes. Here, Merlot has thrived since the 18th century, growing mostly in the North Bank. It’s actually a descendant of another famous grape – Cabernet Franc! Nevertheless, you will find Merlot mostly in the wines of Pomerol, Saint Emillon, and Margaux.

A not-so-fun fact: Merlot experienced a devastating frost and battled diseases in the 1950s and 1960s. This led to a Merlot ban that lasted 5 years, from 1970 to 1975!

California Merlot has a funny history

So, eventually, Merlot made a major pilgrimage of roughly 5000+ miles to California. Curiosity led the way in the 1970s, leading to it becoming the most commonly planted grape in America until the late 1980s.

Merlot’s popularity slimmed due to the popularity of other grapes. But, it took a pretty hard hit when the movie “Sideways” came out. The protagonist Miles and his disdain for Merlot did damage this wine’s reputation in real life. The wine’s sales went down as folks went for Miles’ preferred Pinot Noir.

Now, sure there were some bad Merlots back in 2004 when the movie came out. Yet, the dislike of this wine was purely exaggerated for cinematic effect. There are many fabulous Merlots in California! Currently, you will find Merlot grown the most in San Joaquin, Napa Valley, and Sonoma County.

Merlot is grown in other states too

Merlot has slowly recovered from its film PR nightmare. It’s found new homes beyond California. Washington State has long grown Merlot since the 80s. You can also find Merlot on the East Coast, in wine regions like the Finger Lakes in New York and Virginia.

What does Merlot taste like?

Let’s get down to the important stuff – what does Merlot taste like? Well, this can vary, especially as Merlot is often blended. But, when we’re talking about around 100 percent Merlot, particularly from California, you will often find aromas of red fruits (like cherry, plum, and raspberry) with baking spices and even chocolate or mocha flavors. These more toasty spice elements evolve from the slow barrel aging this wine often undergoes.

When in doubt, say plum

There’s one little pro tip everyone says when it comes to Merlot. If you don’t know what aromas you sense, just say plum! It is the most commonly known Merlot aroma.

Domenico Winery 2018 Livermore Merlot

If you want to savor a true California Merlot, look no further than Domenico Winery’s elegant 2018 Livermore Valley Merlot.

It’s a full-bodied wine with a gorgeous spectrum of classic Merlot flavors and a lengthy spice-driven finish. It can persist with rich French-style dishes or the most succulent steak paired with all your favorite steakhouse-style sides.