The red grape variety comes from France. The name is probably derived from the French word for blackbird (merle), because these birds like to nibble on the very sweet berries when fully ripe. However, the name can also be an allusion to the black-blue colouring of the berries similar to that of the bird. There are more than 60 synonyms, which testify the worldwide distribution. The most important are Alicante Noir, Begney, Bigney, Bigney Rouge, Bini, Black Alicante, Blue Merlot, Bordò, Cabernet del Cleto, Crabutet, Crabutet Noir, Crabutet Noir Merlau, Hebigney, Higney, Médoc Noir, Merlau, Merlot Black, Merlot Blue, Merlot Crni, Merlot Nero, Merlot Noir, Merlott, Merlou, Picard, Pikard, Plant Médoc, Saint Macaire, Sémillon Rouge, Vidal and Vitraille.
It must not be confused with the Carmenère, Menoir or Saint-Macaire varieties, despite the fact that they appear to have synonyms or morphological similarities. Since Carmenère and Merlot vines are very similar in appearance, vines imported overseas were very often planted in mixed sets in the vineyard. For this reason, the Carmenère variety has long been mistaken in Chile for a variety of Merlot. DNA analyses carried out by Dr. Ferdinand Regner (Austria) in 1999 had already identified the Merlot parent Cabernet Franc (father). But it was not until ten years later, in 2009, that Jean-Michel Boursiquot identified the variety Magdeleine Noire des Charentes (mother) as the second parent.
The varieties Abouriou, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Cot (Malbec) have at least one parent in common with Merlot. The Merlot Gris and Merlot Rosa varieties discovered in Brazil in the early 1980s are colour mutations. The variety Merlot Blanc on the other hand, is the result of a cross between Merlot and Folle Blanche. A first mention under Crabutet Noir dates back to the 14th century. Under the name Merlau or Merlot, it was first mentioned in documents in 1784 in the Libournais area and was one of the most important Bordeaux varieties at that time. In the Italian region of Veneto the variety was mentioned in 1855 under the synonym Bordò. A first complete description was given by Victor Rendu (1809-1877) in 1857 in his work "Ampélographie Française".
Merlot was partner of the new varieties Artaban, Artzebat, Carmine, Cosmo, Ederena, Erilon, Fertilia, Incrocio Bruni 452, Incrocio Terzi 1, Laurot, Malverina, Mamaia, Mendeleum, Mendioberena, Merlese, Merlot Kanthus, Merlot Khorus, Negru de Yaloven, Nigra, Plamennyi, Prodest, Rebo, Rigotti, Sennen and Voltis. It was also used for rootstock breeding. From a presumably natural cross between Cabernet Franc x Merlot, the Caberlot variety was created. The early to medium-ripening vine is susceptible to trickle, downy mildew and botrytis, as well as being sensitive to spring frost and drought, but very resistant to powdery mildew. It produces full-bodied red wines with soft tannins and a variety of aromas of plum, ivy, caramel, black cherry, raspberry and blackcurrant.
It is the most common grape variety in France and is particularly widespread in the Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon regions. The variety is the determining factor in Bordeaux blending on the right bank of the Dordogne river(Rive droite) together with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. These are the Graves area, as well as Saint-Émilion and above all Pomerol, where it is an almost single-variety main component of the great red wines of Château Pétrus and Château Le Pin. These are among the best and most expensive red wines in the world. The total area under cultivation in France is 115,746 hectares.
In Italy it occupies 28,042 hectares, mainly in the northern half. Other countries are Algeria (1,510 ha), Bulgaria (10,573 ha), Germany (469 ha), England (2 ha), Greece (1,248 ha), Croatia (780 ha), Moldavia (8,123 ha), Montenegro, Austria (649 ha), Portugal (772 ha), Romania (10.988 ha), Russia (1,588 ha), Switzerland (1,028 ha), Slovenia (996 ha), Spain mainly Aragon, Catalonia, Navarra and La Mancha (15,540 ha), Czech Republic (90 ha), Turkey (355 ha), Ukraine (2,820 ha), Hungary (1,907 ha) and Cyprus (63 ha). Overseas stocks can be found in Argentina (6,282 ha), Australia (10,028 ha), Bolivia (30 ha), Brazil (766 ha), Canada (999 ha), Chile (10,041 ha), China (3,560 ha), India, Israel, Japan (817 ha), Mexico (391 ha), New Zealand (1st half of 2009), and the United States (1.369 ha), Peru (2 ha), South Africa (6,497 ha) and Uruguay (875 ha), and in the US states of California (18,924 ha), New York, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington (3,334 ha). In 20 years, Merlot has almost doubled its area from 154,752 hectares in 1990 to 267,169 hectares in 2010. This puts the variety in second place in the worldwide grape variety ranking behind Cabernet Sauvignon and ahead of Airén (statistics Kym Anderson).
Source: Wine Grapes / J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz / Penguin Books Ltd. 2012
Pictures: Ursula Brühl, Doris Schneider, Julius Kühn Institute (JKI)