In honour of International Merlot Day, which is commemorated on November 7 every year, Thursday Food shares the remarkable story of this beloved French grape's cultivation in Argentina. Merlot, regarded as one of the world's noblest and most widely cultivated grape varieties, offers a wide variety of flavours that range from black cherry to hints of vanilla. Its roots can be traced back to the 18th century vineyards of Bordeaux in France, where it has long been a beloved cornerstone of classic wine blends. Argentina's love affair with Merlot started much later, but has since evolved into something truly remarkable and highly sought-after by vinophiles locally and internationally.
The word "merlot" is believed to have originated from local dialects of the Bordeaux region in France, where the words "merle" or "merlau" mean "blackbird." This name was likely chosen because of its dark blue-black colour and the resemblance of its small, round berries to the colour of a blackbird, which also liked to feast on them. Merlot grapes have an amazing capability to adapt to several terroirs and climates, making it one of the world's most popular grapes. In fact, the diversity of the Argentine microclimates, terrains and terroir all offer the ideal conditions for Merlot to flourish. The high altitudes, sunny days, and cool nights in the country's Mendoza region, for example, result in wines that burst with ripe fruit flavours, rich aromas, and a distinct minerality, making this region a perfect canvas for the Merlot grape. It is therefore no surprise that the vast majority of the country's vines are found in that region, widely regarded as the land of Malbec, Argentina's signature red variety.
According to the National Institute of Viticulture (INV), Merlot is cultivated mainly in the provinces of Mendoza (Luján de Cuyo, Maipú and the Uco Valley), Río Negro, Neuquén and San Juan (Pedernal). This grape produces full-bodied wines that are sophisticated, elegant and round. In its flavour, fruity notes can be appreciated such as plums along with cherries, as well as roses, spices and pepper. The wine's colours are red and violet, with a brightness that is not very intense. On the vine, Merlot grows in a loose cluster with elongated, small, very dark berries surrounded by round, five-lobed leaves.
A total of over 5,000 hectares are cultivated each year, which represents 2.5 per cent of the total vine of the country, with the province of Mendoza having the largest quantity of over 3,722 hectares (or 76.8 per cent), followed by San Juan with 339 hectares (or seven per cent) and the rest of the provinces with 784 hectares (or 16.2 per cent). Argentina's total Merlot grape production in recent times has exceeded 384,866 quintals from which 77,584 hectolitres of pure varietal wine was vinified. Of this number, 61 per cent was sold to the domestic market with the remaining 39 per cent being exported to countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, United States, Netherlands and China.
On November 7, 2023, vinophiles the world over indulged in this elegantly robust red variety and Thursday Food shares a few of the Merlot labels you should know from Argentina's Salta, Patagonia and of course, Mendoza provinces, respectively:
Primogénito Sangre Azul Merlot, produced from vineyards in Patagonia by Bodega Patritti, is a 100 per cent varietal wine that is pure elegance on the nose, with notes of very ripe red and black fruit, reminiscent of prunes. There is also a subtle spice and a smoky touch reminiscent of tobacco and vanilla to complete the aromatic palette. In the mouth, this Merlot flows between juicy and tense, leveraged by a present and persistent acidity. Its firm, slightly rough tannins add structure, leave a long memory, with more of that ripe fruit and ageing notes, like coffee. The result is an elegant wine, with balanced power and good freshness.
Budeguer Partida Limitada Merlot, by Bodegas Budeguer, comprises 100 per cent Merlot grapes grown in the Vista Flores area of Mendoza. Grown at 1,100 metres above sea level, these grapes produce a wine that has an intense burgundy colour. On the nose, the tomato and strawberry leaves stand out, which together with various spices, such as thyme, give it a very fine complexity. Its mouthfeel is fine, medium volume and very juicy.
Finca Domingo Merlot by Bodega Domingo Molina is a 100 per cent varietal made from grapes that are grown in the Salta region. The wine has a reddish colour, medium intensity, with dark violet reflections. Aromatically complex, given the mix of notes of ripe fruits and spices typical of the variety, the wine also reveals woody aromas. In the mouth it is an elegant wine, with a good body, a reflection of the high altitude terroir, soft tannins and a pleasant aftertaste that ends up making a round wine.
Cuvelier Los Andes Merlot is a 100 per cent varietal in Mendoza made by Cuvelier Los Andes located in the Uco Valley. The wine has medium intensity along with an attractive ruby red colour. On the nose this wine is intense, having complex aromas like red fruits, jam and slight mineral notes with spices. In the mouth it expresses the flavours of red fruits and jam, as well as being fresh and balanced with a long finish.
As Argentina continues to explore and experiment, the story of Merlot here is far from over. It is a story of passion, persistence, and excellence that invites wine lovers to savour the magic of Argentina, one glass of Merlot at a time. Salud!