These two red varietals grew up in southwest France teaming together and with others in the classic Bordeaux blend. Their stories are of ups and downs, booms and busts, and having to leave home because of slim prospects.
Merlot is one of the most popular and widely planted grapes in France, reaching perfection in its Bordeaux homeland. It started earning a reputation for producing quality wine in the 1700s due to the growing fame of the wines produced on the right bank of Bordeaux.
In the late 1990s, genetic testing showed Merlot was an offspring of Cabernet Franc and a half-sibling of Carménère, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Later, an obscure variety named Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, discovered at an abandoned vineyard in Brittany, was identified as its second parent.
Merlot thrives in well-drained clay soils and is a thin-skinned grape with large berries that ripen early. Due to its thin skin, it is susceptible to frost and rot. If bad weather occurs during flowering, it can develop coulure, a condition where some berries fail to set fruit or simply fall off the plant.
Spreading across Bordeaux, Merlot became known for its ability to add softness and luscious fruit to a wine when it was combined with the region’s favorite grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. This pair complemented each other so well that they became the main ingredients for the world-renowned Bordeaux blend coveted by many of the world’s wine drinkers.
Praises were heaped upon the beloved Cabernet Sauvignon as a worthy varietal and it often contributed to the lion’s share of the Bordeaux blend. As a result, Merlot was often dismissed as merely a reliable blending variety and suffered unwarranted image problems,.
Immigrating to the New World, Merlot found a home in California where winemakers made wines using 100% Merlot. The grape grew easily there and Americans loved it for its fruity softness. During the 1980s there was a significant increase in plantings, followed by mass production of easy-drinking, rather sweet wine. The 1990s ushered in the Merlot wine craze.
Although Merlot’s popularity had been declining, the 2004 movie “Sideways” provided the final blow: its reputation plummeted, along with its consumption. The good news is this curse is finally starting to lift and Merlot is making its comeback, finally getting the attention it deserves from dedicated winemakers.
Malbec is native to southwestern France, specifically in Cahors, where it is better known as Côt or Auxerrois. It was widely grown all over the region and especially important in Bordeaux as one of six grapes allowed in their famous blend. Reaching its peak in the 1850s, some estates used as much as 50% Malbec in their wines. Today Cahors still requires 70% Malbec in their blends, making Malbec the grape of the region. Cahors winemakers are also producing excellent varietals in addition to the blends.
Malbec and the Bordeaux terroir did not get along well. It had difficulty ripening and was very susceptible to frost, disease, rot, and coulure. On top of that, Malbec is prone to high yields, often producing diluted wines. The final fall from favor for Malbec in the Bordeaux region came with the famous frost of 1956 which destroyed the crop.
After the frost, growers began replacing it with varieties better suited to the region like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But Malbec was determined to find a better life and set out for the New World. Finding bright sunshine and higher altitudes in foothills of the Andes Mountains to its liking, Malbec knew Argentina would be its new home.
Malbec thrives in the higher elevations of Mendoza and produces outstanding quality wines. Today, Argentina and Malbec are synonymous. Because of this success, Malbec is spreading in other areas in the New World, particularly Chile, Australia, and California.
Taste and Food Pairings
Both Merlot and Malbec are widely used in blends, but our focus here is on the New World varietals to learn more about their individual characteristics..
Deep ruby colored Merlot boasts plum, cherry, blueberry and blackberry flavors with warm spices such as vanilla and clove. This is often mixed with notes of chocolate and black pepper. It is a dry wine with medium tannins and acidity.
Climate influences Merlot’s taste profile. Cooler growing regions showcase more tannins, muted fruit flavors, and earthy notes like tobacco. Warmer growing regions bring out the ripe fruit flavors and silkier tannins.
Argentine Malbec delivers black cherry, raspberry, plum and blackberry fruits, often with a jammy character. The climate in its new home produces rich wines with freshness, balanced acidity, and higher but more supple tannins. There are also notes of chocolate, violet, leather, and, depending on the oak aging, a sweet tobacco finish.
Merlot is versatile when paired with food, especially when centered around broiled, roasted, or braised meats like poultry, beef, game, and pork. Italian dishes, such as roasted chicken with parmesan, are a natural fit. Riper merlots, with bolder flavor notes, work well with heavier dishes such as meatballs, meatloaf, hamburgers, seared salmon, short ribs, or lamb.
Lighter Merlots work well with grilled or barbecued chicken.
Malbec’s flavor notes and softer tannins complement lean meats and make it an ideal pairing for flank steak, sirloin, and skirt steak. Chicken, lamb, and pork are also good. If you want heartier meats, try roast beef or prime rib. Young and fruity Malbec can be paired with smoky cured beef, fajitas, and meatballs. It even pairs well with some heartier fish entrees, such as swordfish, tuna steaks, or salmon.
Light-bodied Malbec wines generally pair well with pizza, pasta dishes, or quesadillas. Medium-bodied ones work well with rich sauces, roasted veggies, or grilled mushrooms.
Malbec is versatile enough to stand up to spicy Mexican, Cajun, Indian, Thai, or Italian fare, with preference given to barbecue and spices that have earthy or smoky flavors such as parsley, thyme, rosemary, smoked paprika, black pepper, cumin, coriander, clove, and garlic. It is robust enough to match with the heartiest of dishes.
These Bordeaux half-siblings have survived their ups and downs. They are finding different ways to express themselves in New World varietals while being faithful to their roots in the Old World.
Try each as varietals and then see how they work their magic in blends. As you explore, you may find a marvelous blend of just the two of them together.