As with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot's native home is Southwest France, again in the Bordeaux region. However, Merlot is most prodigious in cooler climates, and it originally thrived on the eastern “right bank” of the Bordeaux region, in Pomerol and its surrounding areas. Merlot shares half of Cabernet Sauvignon’s parentage—Cabernet Franc – its other side being the less noteworthy Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. In regional French Gascon vernacular, the name Merlot signifies a “little blackbird” (“merlau”). The name references the birds’ fondness for eating the grapes off the vine.
California Merlot Timeline
French nurseryman Antoine Delmas is credited with bringing Merlot to California in the 1850s. Delmas imported some of the first French winegrapes to northern California in 1850, including vines labelled “Cabrunet” and “Merleau.”
Frederic Bioletti included Merlot in the collection of vinifera varieties in the new vineyard at the University Farm at Davis, despite being told it was not a good grape for the state.
A few acres of Merlot vines were found in California in Sonoma and San Benito Counties, plus some Merlot vines at Inglenook Vineyards in Napa Valley’s Rutherford AVA.
Louis Martini planted Merlot near Sonoma County’s town of Healdsburg in 1962 and is credited with being among the first to varietally bottle and label Merlot.
UC Davis’ team of Amerine and Winkler placed Merlot on the recommended list for planting in California, despite noting that the variety had never been grown commercially to any extent in the state. They advocated for regions I and II (and possibly region III) on account of the potential for adequate ripening and moderately good acidity. Merlot had produced above-average wines with a distinct Cabernet-like flavor and aroma in their university evaluations.
Dan and Margaret Duckhorn established Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Vineyards, which became the first modern day winery to focus on Merlot as a key variety. First vintage of varietal Merlot was 1978.
California Merlot – described by Jancis Robinson MW as “Cabernet without the pain, a red wine offering the classic nobility of a Bordeaux grape but without the austere tannins” -- exploded onto the American market, with estates such as Duckhorn, Newton, Robert Keenan, Matanzas Creek, St. Francis, and Silverado Vineyard leading the way. Merlot acreage grew faster than that of any other leading variety in the 10 years that followed, except Viognier (in 1991). It is confirmed that Merlot is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes by Montpellier’s Michel Boursiquot and his team.
The Oscar-nominated movie Sideways’ released and with it the film’s renowned odes to Pinot Noir and vicious takedowns of Merlot; Merlot sales quickly dropped almost 2% (while Pinot Noir sales increased 16%) in the Western United States.
Merlot jumped to second place as the world’s most widely planted grape. Only Cabernet Sauvignon has more vines planted.
Wine Intelligence survey reported that Merlot had surged back to become America’s preferred grape variety across all ages.
According to the OIV (Organization International du Vin), as of year-end 2017, there were over 657,300 acres/266,000 hectares of Merlot, making it the second most propagated red winegrape variety globally. In France, Merlot is the most planted variety and it covers 14% of the vine area. In the Golden State, Merlot is the fourth most widely cultivated red grape, trailing only Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.
As with Cabernet Sauvignon, the first documented instance of importation of Merlot into California dates back to 1852, when Antoine Delmas, a French nurseryman, brought French grapes to the Santa Clara Valley The first documented commercial plantings were at Santa Clara Valley’s then-new Almaden winery by Charles LeFranc.
However, unlike Cabernet and Chardonnay, there was no “Judgment of Paris” moment for Merlot. Organically and somewhat quietly, the grape rose to prominence and became a darling of the restaurant and retail trade in the early to mid-1980s in the U.S. Finally, there was a wine with a similar flavor profile to Cabernet Sauvignon, but more approachable when young (i.e. softer tannins, rounder mouthfeel) while still maintaining a deep color and engaging personality. But then there was Hollywood’s “Sideways” and the accompanying “Sideways Effect.” Down but not out and working her way back, Merlot has shown she can take a punch and stay in the ring.
According to Nielsen data, Merlot was the sixth-rated grape variety by volume in terms of 2018 U.S. sales in grocery stores, with the lion’s share coming from California. Today this variety and its resulting wines (many which are used in red blends, Bordelais and otherwise) are still among the most significant grapes sold in the US. For a deeper dive into the history and evolution of the grape in California please see UC Davis’s study on The Black Grapes of Bordeaux.