The “Who’s Your Daddy” series takes a brief look at the parentage of grapes, in order to get a better understanding of where particular varietals come from and how they are genetically related to one another. So far, we’ve covered: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Pinotage, Gamay, and Petite Sirah. Feel free to click on any one of the varietal names to read all about their parentage.
The subject of today’s “Who’s Your Daddy” post is Merlot, which along with Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most popular varietals in the world.
In relative terms, the Merlot grape has not been around very long. Some sources indicate that the first mention of Merlot came from an official in the Bordeaux region of France in 1784, though others say it wasn’t until the 19th century that Merlot had been noted in the record books. It has been said that this official declared Merlot some of the finest wine of its time. Today, Merlot remains one of the five major Bordeaux varietals, and has also seen widespread plantings throughout the world, including in the United States, Chile, Australia, and many others.
In the 1950s, a severe freeze had all but wiped out the Merlot (and Malbec) grape vines in France. French winegrowers attempted to replant the vines the next year; however those vines were subsequently destroyed by rot. Year after year, attempts to replant the Merlot were made, only to be met with year after year of failure and ruin. As a result of the physical and financial loss occurring year after year, the French government placed a ban on planting new Merlot vines in 1970, which was later lifted in 1975 due to increasing popularity of Merlot wines worldwide.
Rather than me telling you about the most recent history of Merlot, including its’ “death” and then it’s more recent comeback, I’ll leave it up to the clever folks at Gundlach Bundschu with this clever video:
Merlot is characterized by having loss grape clusters and large berries. The name Merlot; likely derived from the word Merle which means “blackbird” in French; is likely a reference to the dark color of the grapes (or perhaps to the fact that blackbirds are known to be very fond of the juicy berries). The Merlot grapes are a dark bluish color, and also possess relatively thin skins, which contributes to the relative softness of the wine.
Merlot grapes tend to be less hardy than other varieties, which results in greater risk of infection by molds, mildews, or rots. While it is more able to thrive in cooler climates than Cabernet Sauvignon, it still prefers to grow in a warmer growing environment.
Merlot does best when grown in clay or limestone soils, and ripens earlier than its’ Bordeaux cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon (2 weeks earlier, roughly). At harvest, Merlot produces higher alcohol and lower acidity than other Bordeaux varieties. These characteristics allow Merlot to calm the stronger tannins and structure of other Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which allows it to function as a nice blending grape for that region. Of course, Merlot is also well known and able to function as a single varietal wine as well, though in the Bordeaux region of France and in regions where it is more difficult to grow, it is known primarily to be blended with other varietals.
In general, Merlot tends to be softer and fruitier than its cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon, though it does share some similar aromas and flavors. Of course, every bottle of Merlot is going to taste slightly different, depending upon where it was grown, what vineyard management practices were employed, and what winemaking techniques were used, though there are in general some common tones that resonate throughout the Merlot world. Some of these common aromas and flavors of Merlot are black cherry, currant, and cedar, as well as tobacco, licorice, and chocolate. Other aromas and flavors found in Merlot wines include black raspberries and plums, as well as jam and blueberries.
So, Merlot….”Who’s your daddy?”…
Enough of this chatter about the history, viticulture, and sensory characteristics of Merlot. Let’s get down and dirty…Who’s your daddy, Merlot?
In 2009, a group of researchers at the University of California at Davis cleared up some of the fog surrounding the Merlot parentage debate. Using inheritance analysis of DNA markers from thousands of grape varieties, the group was able to confidently answer the question of which grapes the Merlot grape originated from.
Without further ado, I present to you the parents of Merlot:
……Magdeleine Noire des Charentes
There you have it! This research also found several other relatives of Merlot, including Carmenére, which may be a sort of sibling of Merlot.
If you’d like to learn about the parentage of another grape variety, simply leave a comment below and I’ll see what I can dig up! Note: there are many grape varieties with unknown parentage still, but I’ll try my best to find data that may suggest particular relationships and origins. This type of genetic research is ongoing, so even if I can’t find information on a particular grape of your choosing today, that may change in the future!
I am not a health professional, nor do I pretend to be. Please consult your doctor before altering your alcohol consumption habits. Do not consume alcohol if you are under the age of 21. Do not drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly!