Curious about Italian merlot? Whenever you hear about Merlot the first association is always with the southwest region of France where it originated. However, even if the surroundings of Bordeaux are the native home of this grape variety, you might be surprised to discover that some of the best Italian wines are, in fact, based on Merlot.
Nowadays this red-skinned grape is cultivated in all of Italy, with the main areas of production being the northeast regions where it was first introduced in the early 1800s. This variety became more popular and relevant after 1830 when phylloxera decimated native grapes. Merlot replaced them, especially in Friuli and Veneto where there is now a long history of its production. Colli Orientali del Friuli and Friuli Grave, hilly areas close to the border with Slovenia, got the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) in 1970 and have been producing some of the best Italian Merlot wine in the country ever since.
During that same period, this grape became important in another area of Italy as well. In 1970 and 1980 Tuscany was taken over by the “Super Tuscans”, excellent red wines produced without following the strict rules imposed by the region. This variety was obtained by mixing together grapes with different characteristics. Sangiovese, the typical grape of Tuscany, is the main component of the Super Tuscans. Its strong tannin and acidity are perfectly balanced by the more gentle and round taste of Merlot through a process of blending similar in style to the famous “Bordeaux blend”.
As you can see, you might already have tasted some merlot Italian wine without knowing it!
What are the key characteristics of Italian Merlot?
As you probably already understood, Merlot is a very adaptable grape that can be cultivated in areas with different characteristics. Interestingly enough its name derives from the French word merle (Common blackbird) which recalls the color of its grape, even if some say that it’s one of the fruits most appreciated by these birds (can you blame them?), hence the name!
This variety is at its best when grown in cooler climates and in a terrain made of clay which allows it to retain high quantities of water. The result is a wine with low acidity, gentle tannins, and a rounded body. Ruby garnet in color, its flavors span from blackberries to plum, cherry, and fig. On the nose, we can find notes of tobacco leaves, purple flowers, mushrooms, and forest floor, whilst on the palate, we might taste licorice and a bitter chocolate finish. The alcohol percentage generally ranges between 13% to 14%.
Easily blended with other varieties to balance more tannic grapes, it can be enjoyed by itself and paired with both white and red meat.
What are the top Italian Merlot wine brands?
If you are undecided about which Italian Merlot brands to choose for your next trip to Italy, or to show up with when invited to dinner, here’s a list of our suggestions:
1. “Maurus” from Vie di Romans
Friuli Venezia Giulia
Where else could we start other than the home region of Italian Merlot wines? This producer has been making wine for more than 100 years (from 1900 to be exact). Even if the winery is dominated by white wines, they decided to experiment and produce one red wine as well: Maurus. Needless to say, the experiment was very successful and the result is one of the best Merlot in Italy. The wine is left to age for 12 months in oak barrels and another 27 in the bottle. You can expect to smell ripe plums and blueberries, a hint of moss mixed with a finish of vanilla. In the mouth, you will find an intense tannin with a red fruit finish.
2. “Maria Teresa Merlot” from Tenuta Maria Teresa
Moving to central Italy, we find this amazing Merlot grown near the city of Lucca. Grapes are cultivated with biodynamic techniques and macerated on the skin at 28 C° for 12 days after the harvest. The wine is then refined in oak barrels for 12 months before being moved to steel containers for the winter to help the tartaric stabilization. Finally, it will age for at least 6 months in the bottle before being put on the market. The final product is a wine characterized by a deep and brilliant purple-red color and an intense floral bouquet of blackberries and sour cherry. In the mouth, it is enveloping and persistent with a final touch of dark chocolate.
3. “Serafino Riserva” from La Badiola
If you visited Tenuta Maria Teresa but you want to try another Italian merlot wine brand nearby, La Badiola is the place for you. The grapes grown in the hills of San Pacrazio get the perfect southwest exposition, before being handpicked on the last week of September. After the harvest, the wine ages for at least 18 months in barrels made of French oak, and it is then poured into the bottles where it will remain for an additional 6 months to refine and stabilize. What is obtained at the end of this process is a ruby red wine with purple shades. On the nose, we can find ripe red fruits, undergrowth, and wood while in the mouth the gentle tannins are well-balanced by a light acidity and a fruity aftertaste.
4. “Ventiterre” from Zonin
Moving back to the northeast of Italy, we have the “Ventiterre” Merlot produced by Zonin nearby Vicenza. Their wine is a blend of 85% pure Merlot and 15% different red grapes, all handpicked and left to ferment for 8 days before a week of fermentation at temperatures up to 28 C°. Once the vinification is over, the aging process is done in oakwood barrels. Once poured into the glass, we are met with a deep ruby-red color enhanced by sparkling reflections. It has a fresh aroma mixed with pomegranate and white peach. In the mouth, the fruitiness is accompanied by a full-body taste and soft tannins.
5. “Baffonero” from Rocca di Frassinello
Do your passions span across architecture and art as well as wine? Then you can’t miss the beautiful winery of Rocca di Frassinello. Their wine cellar has been designed by none other than award-winning architect Renzo Piano and they use it to host events and conferences. Imagine enjoying a piano concert while sitting among oak barrels full of marvelous Italian Merlot! Their “Baffonero”, produced with 100% pure Merlot grapes, is aged in barriques for 24 months before being poured into the bottles where it rests for an additional 12 months. The final product brings a ruby red color to your eyes and a bouquet of blackberries and vanilla to your nose. Full-bodied on the palate, you’ll find hints of tobacco, dark chocolate and coffee.
6. “Casara Roveri” from Dal Maso
Do you prefer wines with good aging potential? If so, you should definitely check the winery Dal Maso near Vicenza. Their Merlot is classified within the DOC of Colli Berici, a hilly area surrounding Mount Berico, and gets a perfect exposition to the southeast. They produce around 6000 bottles every year. Harvested in September, the grapes age for 18 months in oak barrels and for another 5 months in the bottle. However, this Merlot doesn’t fear time and can be left to mature and develop for up to 12 years! What you will get once you pour it into your glass is intense ruby color with a scent of blueberry and vanilla, a gentle aroma that will be found also in the mouth thanks to its soft tannins and velvety body.
Italian wine similar to Merlot
If you’re curious to try something similar to merlot, why not opt for:
– Cabernet Sauvignon: another variety native to the area surrounding Bordeaux. It’s commonly used like Merlot to soften more tannic and acidic grapes. However, it can be enjoyed by itself for its fullness and herbal notes mixed with scents of red fruits.
– Nero d’Avola: typical of Sicily, this ruby red wine is appreciated for its spicy scent accompanied by cherry, raspberry, and dried plum.
Inspired to try Italian merlot? Order with confidence at the enoteca the next time you’re in Italy or try one of the bottles on our list of best Italian merlots to try. Have a favorite? Let us know in the comments.