Guide to Merlot


Merlot can be traced back to the eighteenth century when a French winemaker in the Bordeaux region of France used the grape in his now world-famous ‘Bordeaux blend’, along with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Merlot is said to add softness and luscious fruit flavours to a blend, but as the US discovered a century later - it is actually delicious on its own.

Merlot flavour

Red fruits and a smooth finish are the popular characteristics of Merlot. But like many wines it can change dramatically based on where in the world it is from, and the subregions where it is grown.

Cool climate Merlot (like New Zealand Merlot) has a higher presence of tannins and more earthy flavours. Some common aromas are tar and even tobacco. These wines are quite easy to mix up with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Merlot wine produced in warmer climates are more fruity on the nose, and tannin is not as prevalent. It’s not unusual for winemakers to use oak barrels to offer more ‘structure’ and depth to these wines.

New Zealand Merlot

The majority of local Merlot is grown in the North Island regions of Auckland, Northland, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Marlborough.

New Zealand’s cooler climate and long ripening season allows the grape to grow slowly and therefore concentrate its flavours.

Like most wines, climate and soil are a major factor in defining a regional’s style, so each one of these districts produces their own nuances of characteristics.

Tasting notes on our Tohu Hawkes Bay Merlot 2017 offers insight into an indulgent flavour profile;

“Black fruit and dark plum aromas seamlessly blend with subtle spicy notes in this smooth and silky Hawkes Bay Merlot. On the palate flavours of blackberry, cassis and hints of cocoa are balanced with fine tannins leading to a dry and richly textured finish”.

New Zealand is also notable for its ‘Bordeaux blend style’ of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, merging the structure and vivacity of local Cabernet Sauvignon with the ripe, vibrant fruit flavours of Merlot.

Storing Merlot

To maximise the shelf life of an unopened bottle, store in a cool, dark area, away from direct heat or sunlight. Try your best to keep the temperature steady.

Merlots on the cheaper side may improve slightly with age but you may as well drink off the shelf (with a cheap and cheerful mac and cheese dinner).

Middle-tier Merlots can typically drink very well from between two to five years. Of course outstanding examples can flourish and do better with even longer cellaring of ten years or more.

New Zealand’s top Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blends from Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke produce bottles that can be stored for decades.

Question the winemakers on cellaring if you have the luxury of being at a winery cellar door.

Storing opened Merlot

Once you twist the cap your wine is exposed to oxygen and bacteria which begins to alter its colour, aromas and flavour.

Always sit your open wine in the fridge with the cap back on. It may seem strange to put a red in the fridge, but it’s the best way to slow down the oxidation process.

Your Merlot should still be drinkable for around three to five days. If in doubt, leftover Merlot can also be used for cooking. Like most reds it’s a great addition to rich, savoury sauces.

If you’re concerned that it has turned, look at the wine in a clear glass for changes in colour and trust your sense of smell. Then taste it - it won’t ever hurt you, even if it has turned. If you detect an ‘off’ odour, flavour or appearance, it should be discarded, unless you want to turn it into wine vinegar, which is becoming more popular (and is remarkably easy).

How to serve Merlot

Serve a little less than room temperature, at around 17 degrees.  

Impress your dinner guests by serving your Merlot in a red wine glass with a wide bowl. The ‘Bordeaux glass’ is perfectly designed for full-bodied red wines like Merlot. The glass is taller so the wine proceeds directly to the back of the mouth to maximise flavours.

Nutritional information

Merlot will vary greatly in terms of nutritional breakdown, especially as the fermentation process differs from brand to brand, season to season, and bottle to bottle, and depends greatly on the age of the grapes and style of wine.

But the experts can offer us ‘averages’ for standard bottles / glasses, when it comes to things like calories and alcohol content.

Calories in Merlot

A ‘standard’ glass of Merlot will contain around 120 calories (though the calorie content will change depending on the sweetness and ABV (alcohol) of the wine.

An easy thing to remember is the “bigger bodied” the wine, the higher the carb count will likely be. Lighter, dry wines will generally always have a lower carb count. Check the label before drinking if you are worried about these things.

Alcohol content in Merlot

Because Merlot is fermented from grapes some of the calories will be carbohydrates in the form of sugar, but the majority of calories actually stem from the alcohol content itself, which is usually around 12% - 14% ABV in this wine.

Preservatives and additives in Merlot

Mass-produced wines often from overseas are more likely to be additive-rich. We recommend always checking labels.

In New Zealand, strict food safety regulations control the use of wine protectants or preservatives and all wineries are audited on this annually.

At Tohu, the concept of caring deeply for our lands and their rich and fertile condition create wines of personality and purity.  We therefore use as little additives as possible and adhere to the strictest of standards. Our vineyards and winery are certified by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand.

Pairing Merlot with food

Merlot wine sits in the middle of the ‘red wine spectrum’ with medium tannin and not too much acidity, so it matches beautifully with a wide variety of foods.

It’s generally promoted as being a great match for chicken, or meats in a red wine sauce like casseroles, or slow cooked red meat.

Also caramelised roast veggies work well, especially those with a touch of sweetness, like roast butternut, capsicum and baby beetroot, or grilled mushrooms. Be careful with spicy food like Indian, as the food will probably overwhelm the Merlot.

Merlot is a great cooking wine as a rich base for red wine sauces.

Cheeses that compliment this varietal are Camembert, Gouda and Gruyere.

Merlot compared to other Red Wines

Here are some characteristics to expect from Aotearoa’s most popular red wine varieties, in order of “body”:

  • Pinot Noir: cherry, plum, perfumed florals and spice, through to earthy

  • Syrah / Shiraz: dark berries, pepper, spicy aftertaste, high tannin

  • Cabernet Sauvignon: black currant and leather, high tannin, longer finish.