There was a time, about 10 years ago, when I wrote a lot about Merlot which was widely regarded as wine world’s alternative to Chardonnay - an easy drinking red wine that went with almost any meal.
Then, as with Chardonnay, drinkers decided it was no longer cool, an impression cemented by the film Sideways in which the hero Miles expresses his view of it in no uncertain terms.
Now it seems Merlot sales are on the up again and we’ve fallen back in love with the grape, it’s worth taking another look at which foods work best with it and why.
Of course, as with every other grape variety, there’s Merlot and Merlot. Light gluggable Merlot, soft, voluptuous, fleshy Merlot and serious, structured Merlot, often blended with its stablemate Cabernet. But there are some general characteristics which affect its food pairings.
Merlot is generally softer, riper and fleshier than Cabernet lacking powerful tannins (though there are obviously exceptions to this) and marked acidity. Unlike Cabernet you can drink it very comfortably with a range of Italian dishes, especially tomato-based ones and it responds very well to the ‘umami’ (i.e. deeply savoury) tastes you get in foods such as roast chicken, mushrooms and parmesan.
Because a great many Merlots are medium-bodied they tend to pair well with richly sauced dishes such as steak (or even fish) in a red wine sauce or with casseroles, where a more powerfully tannic wine would be overwhelming. (It’s also a good wine to use cooking, making a rich base for red wine sauces)
Good Merlot accompaniments for main dishes are caramelised roast veggies especially those with a touch of sweetness, such as roast squash, red peppers and beets and - as mentioned above - fried or grilled mushrooms. Fruity Merlots also segue comfortably into red fruit accompaniments such as cranberry sauce and salads that contain red berry fruits
Because of its inherent sweetness it also works well with foods that have a touch of hot spice, not so much Indian spicing as hot and smoked pepper: dishes such as blackened fish or jambalaya. I also find it works with the anise flavour of five spice and fennel.
Here are my top picks for the main styles:
Light, quaffable Merlots
Tend to work with dishes with which you might otherwise drink a Gamay or a Sangiovese:
Pizza and other toasted cheese dishes such as panini and quesadillas
Pasta dishes with tomato-based sauces, especially with pancetta/bacon or mushrooms
Grilled chicken, especially with Mediterranean grilled veg such as peppers, courgettes/zucchini and aubergines/eggplant
Charcuterie (e.g. pâtés, terrines and salamis)
Cold York ham
There’s some overlap here between styles but a typically ripe new world Merlot from e.g. Chile will obviously take more robust, rustic flavours than a leaner more classic wine from e.g. Bordeaux, particularly if the latter has a bit of bottle age.
Riper, fleshier styles
Italian-style sausages with fennel
Spaghetti and meatballs
Baked pasta dishes such as lasagne and similar veggie bakes
Burgers - especially cheeseburgers
Spicy rice dishes such as jambalaya
Bean dishes with smoked ham or chorizo
Roast turkey (a ripe Merlot makes a good Thanksgiving or Christmas bottle)
Mild to medium (but not very strongly flavoured) hard cheeses
Seared - even blackened - salmon
Chinese style crispy duck pancakes.
Braised short ribs
Chicken, pork or rabbit casseroles with a fruity element such as apricots or prunes
Classic, elegant Merlots or Merlot-dominated blends e.g. from Bordeaux
Grilled chops - veal, pork or lamb - especially with herbs such as thyme, rosemary and oregano
Steak, especially in a red wine sauce
Roast rack or leg of lamb, served pink
Roast chicken , turkey and guineafowl
Simply roast duck
Full-bodied rich Merlots or Merlot-dominated blends
Basically you can pair these with the same sort of dishes with which you’d drink a Cab - especially chargrilled steak, roast beef and roast lamb - preferably served rare
Merlot tends to make a soft, off-dry style of rosé that goes particularly well with:
Salads that contain red berry fruits and pomegranate seeds
A range of Chinese dishes - hence it’s a good bottle to order in a Chinese restaurant
Summer buffets - it’s a good choice for summer entertaining.
What I wouldn’t pair with Merlot
Light fish and vegetable dishes
Pasta, fish or chicken in a creamy sauce
Sharp sauces or salsas containing lemon juice (makes Merlot taste too sweet and jammy)
Chocolate - a controversial view as I know a number of my colleagues argue that it works. But I feel it’s a case of ‘You could but why would you?’ when there are so many better alternatives.