Throughout the history of Italian wine there have been many great vintages that are more than worth a moment of your time, there are some that stand apart due to having developed a reputation for quality that has extended through decades, if not centuries.
Names like Chianti and Prosecco are instantly recognisable and just as readily associated with high quality in Italy. However, in France Merlot is a name that deserves to stand right alongside those two, plus it has a history that is just as rich and interesting as well. Here we will take a look back at the origins of Merlot and how it came to be one of the most recognisable French wines in the entire world.
While wine historians are in general agreement that the first mentions of Merlot can be traced back to 1784, when the wine was noted by an official in Bordeaux, the history of the grape extends much further back. In fact, it is believed that the grape has been in use for winemaking since the very first century. Back then it was likely used to create a fairly basic wine, but the quality must have been such that it managed to stay in semi-regular usage until it really took off in popularity around the period previous mentioned.
The official who originally made mention of it was also sure to include the information that it was a wine of the very highest quality, ranking it amongst the finest of its time. This provides some explanation as to why it quickly began gaining in popularity as the early 1800s rolled around.
This led to many winemakers, particularly in the Bordeaux region, planting the grape and often dedicating entire vineyards to it. Back then it was referred to as “little blackbird” or “young blackbird” and there have been a number of other names attached to the grape in the years since. These names were likely a reference to the dark skin of the grape, though some like to speculate that it achieved this name due to the fact that blackbirds appeared to demonstrate a particular fondness for the grape and would often eat it directly from the vine.
Despite this early recognition as a wine of the finest calibre, Merlot was considered a secondary grape early on its existence, often being used in blends with others to create different types of wine, rather than the standalone Merlot that we are more aware of in the modern era. This may have had something to do with the fact that it found its origins in Bordeaux, thus meaning that it was forced to compete with the wine that carries the name of that region that is itself one of the most popular wines to ever emerge from France.
Slowly but surely, the popularity of the grape began to grow, with plantings extending from the Bordeaux region and into Medoc and other surrounding regions. It eventually began gaining a reputation as a quality grape in its own right, with many producers starting to use it as a primary, rather than secondary grape. This continued through to the 1950s, when a catastrophic event nearly led to the extinction of the grape itself.
Disease and Devastation
In 1956, the Merlot grape experienced a catastrophe that almost wiped it entirely from the map, which would have massively influenced the wine market of the time and the one that we know now.
The problem was caused when a deep freeze hit France in February of 1956, destroying many of the existing Merlot vines in addition to wreaking havoc on a number of other varieties as well. While most other grapes were able to recover quite quickly, merlot was much less fortunate. Following the frost, many vintners attempted to replant their Merlot crop with a view to bringing the vines back to the fore over the next couple of years. However, they were afflicted by a severe round of rot that utterly devastate the crop again, meaning that any of the 1960s vintages of Merlot were lost.
The recovery was slow and the resulting grapes were producing wines that failed to live up to the name that they bore. This led the French government to taking radical action in the 1970s, when they banned the planting of Merlot altogether.
Due to the constant issues with rot, the planting of Merlot was banned in 1970, in an effort to weed out the poor crops and begin anew. The ban lasted for a total of five years and was eventually repealed in 1975, due in large part to the fact that the wine had experienced a boom in popularity unlike anything that it had experienced before during the same period.
As such, the vines were quickly replanted and, luckily, the time had allowed for a reduction in the cases of rot and far more consistency in the eventual yield. This also had the effect of making the vines much younger than many others in the country, with even some of the best Merlot vines only being a few decades old, in contrast to centuries for many of the other older wines in France.
The 1970s signalled a turning point for Merlot and demand for the wine began to increase enormously, possibly because it was now only available in fairly limited supply. Whatever the cause, the French realised that they had a demand to meet and quickly repealed their ban, allowing winemakers to once again create some truly stunning Merlots.
It was during this period that the wine began to attain a certain level of prominence in the United States, with many producers there looking to emulate the growers in France by planting their own vines. Whether the end product is of the same quality is up for debate, however, it can’t be argued that the climate is perhaps a little bit more favourable in the States.
This boom in popularity peaked in the 1990s, with many producers creating Merlot to satisfy the demand. Though it has since declined in popularity a little, it is still one of the highest selling varieties of wine in the entire world, with millions of bottles sold each year.