‘Where to buy the best Merlot?’ is a question fans of this soft, smooth and fruity grape often ask. Merlot lovers could do well by looking in Bordeaux, Merlot’s birthplace. Bordeaux has earned its reputation as a prime source of superior quality wines and you’re getting a lot more for your money with a Merlot from Bordeaux . . .
To be fair, most of Bordeaux’s Merlot goes into its Clarets, particularly those from the Right Bank AOCs, but Bordeaux also produces some hedonistic 100% Merlots that are at the pinnacle of their game. Chateaux Petrus, Le Pin and Clinet are famous names that roll of connsoisseurs tongues and they are all incredible wines made from Merlot. They have incredible price tags too. However smaller chateaux with lesser profiles also produce superb Merlots and it is here that true bargains can be found.
Bordeaux’s Merlot came into being when the two red grapes Cabernet Franc and the newly rediscovered Magdeleine Noire des Charentes crossed at some distant point in the past. No one knows whereabouts in Bordeaux it happened but the new grape flourished and producers started to cultvate it in their vineyards for the qualities it brought to the wines: lush texture, fruitiness, richness and smoothness. Merlot’s flavours and fragrance of blackberry, plum, black cherry, dark chocolate, anise, blueberry and cedar added a new dimension to Bordelaise wine making too.
Bordeaux is the birthplace of Merlot.
I’d place a bet that Merlot started out on the Right Bank as the soil type and conditions there suit it down to the ground.
The earliest recorded mention of it dates to a Right Bank wine labelled ‘Merlau’ in 1784. ‘Merlau’ means ‘blackbird’ and either refers to the blueish black colour of the dark skinned grapes or the blackbirds who couldn’t eat enough of them.
As time progressed Merlot found a home in the rest of Bordeaux. Its main champion was Armand d’Armailhacq who introduced it to the great estates of the Medoc AOCs on the Left Bank. Thanks to him Merlot took root at First Growth Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Classified Growths d’Armailhac and Pontet Canet. Today, Merlot is not only one of the primary grapes used in Claret and the most planted grape in Bordeaux but it is also one of the world’s most planted grapes.
Merlot is the star player on the Right Bank thanks to the region’s pockets of iron rich clay. Pomerol Merlot’s are among the world’s most prestigious with Saint Emilion coming in close behind, followed by Fronsac. Looking beyond these well known AOCs there are superb Merlots being produced on similar soils under similar conditions. Tracking down the talent in the sea of hopefuls is one of the joys of being a wine merchant although it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Finding the perfect candidate:
A good Merlot shouldn’t burn out. Fruit bombs tend to suffer from fatigue; one quick burst of power and then they are exhausted. This is where Bordeaux really comes into its own, producing velvety Merlots with good structure and layers of fruit to enjoy is one of the region’s strengths.
Given that Merlot thrives on clays it makes sense for the talent spotter to hunt down areas that fit this criteria but fall under the radar.
Looking beyond the Right Bank, the hillsides of the Dropt Valley in the Pays du Haut Entre Deux Mers (the Highlands of Entre Deux Mers) is a good place to start. The Entre Deux Mers is a great inverted ‘v’ of land sandwiched between the right bank of the river Garonne to the south and the left bank of the river Dordogne to the north. Named ‘between the two seas’ thanks to the two tidal rivers; it’s bordered by Graves and Pessac Leognan to the west and Pomerol, Fronsac and Saint Emilion to the east. The south facing open mouth of this ‘v’ spills out into the Pays de Hauts Entre de Mers and disappears into the Cotes de Duras and du Marmandais in the Lot et Garonne.
Of course borders drawn on maps don’t apply to soils and the clays that nurture the Merlots under Pomerol and Fronsac naturally pop up elsewhere.
There are less well known pockets of favourable soils suited to a variety of famous Bordeaux grapes dotted throughout the entire Entre Deux Mers but it is the Pays de Haut and its outlier the Cotes de Duras where Merlot has deep roots (in more ways than one).
It is here that you can find petits chateux wine makers producing lovely examples of pure Merlot wines (and Clarets but that’s another story).
Newly discovered: Chateau Grand Champ
Chateau Grand Champ is a recent discovery of mine and I have introduced it to the UK for the first time. The chateau is a fourth generation family owned property in the village of Camiran, bordered by the River Dropt.
The Pauquet family specialise in making award winning single variety wines and this Merlot won Gold Medal at the Concours de Bordeaux.
The wine is named after the ‘great field’ (Grand Champ) that bears the grapes next to the 18th century limestone petit chateau.
Camiran lies deep in unspoilt countryside overlooking the Dropt Valley in the Pays de Haut Entre de Mers. This a sleepy, secret region tucked well away from the beaten track – in fact roads were scarce here as the nature of the river made building them difficult. Even today the best way to discover the region is by bicycle along the lanes and tracks. The valley is scattered with little wine making farmsteads, meadows, plum orchards and vineyards. Camiran’s history is linked to the River Dropt, along which wines were traded for centuries. The settlement had its own little port between the 15th-19th centuries which was a hub for sending wines to Bordeaux.
The French historian and writer, Hippolyte Taine, wrote of the Dropt Valley in the 1850s that ‘this is a good country; a good country that reveals itself only to those who are able to discover it.’ Discovering Chateau Grand Champ is well worth it. The Pauquets practice sustainable agriculture (certified since 2004) and combine tradition and modernity. Merlot is their dominant grape and they have honed their craft to a fine art over the years; hence their array of awards in France.
Rich, rounded, classy, medium bodied Merlot. Full flavours of plump black cherry, blueberry and plum with lovely notes of ripe raspberry, nutmeg, chocolate and caramel. Silky sweet tannins, good structure and a long lasting finish.
100% Merlot. 13.5% abv. 75cl.
Being a smooth, soft, medium weighted wine, Chateau Grand Champ pairs well with a whole range of foods. It marries with Mediterranean pizza and pasta; tomato, bell pepper and aubergine dishes (moussaka, lasagne, stuffed peppers), chicken, pork, ham, lamb and steak. It can even be a match for pan fried salmon or tuna.