Merlot had been largely relegated to the role of blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, even though it is the most widely planted varietal in France today. The varietal suffered from an identity crisis for many years, and it still does, to an extent. California has been planting more Merlot lately, to the point that it will soon be one of the largest growing regions in the world for this varietal. Notable successes of varying weights are coming from Napa alone.
As with most grapes, the Merlot has its unique demands from its growing regions, or you could say that it yields different styles depending on the qualities of the terroir where it is grown as well as the goal of the wine maker. This is why lighter Merlots pair a little better with some cheeses and the bigger Merlots line up a little better with others. Regardless of the resulting styles, Merlot in all its dimensions marries very well with many cheese types and it clashes badly with only a few. That being said, Merlot should not be taken lightly, even though it has a “light” red wine reputation. When the rare cheese clashes occur with Merlot it is important that we do not “blame” the cheese. The wine may be delicious and the cheese may be delicious but sometimes they do not get along. Like a great guy and a great gal, they are simply not compatible. People can easily blame the cheese. This is one reason why it helps to first assess cheeses and wines on their own.
Merlot is no pushover. The grape should not be taken for granted. Looking over our cheese pairings we find that 100% goat milk cheeses do not make the Merlot cut, though there are a few cheeses with some goat milk in the mix that pair okay. It would be interesting to see if the “no-goat” cohort among cheese lovers might also be Merlot fans. The blues can also challenge the Merlots somewhat. The elevated butyric acids in blues are part of the problem. Merlot wines are not noted for their acidity – sufficient acid to harmonize with the acid levels in most blues. The more fruit-forward Merlots can match some of the mellower blues nicely but even those matches are rare. On the other end of the pH scale, the thistle rennet sheep cheeses do not balance the Merlots so well; those cheeses (Serpa, Torta del Casar, Azeitão, Serena, etc.) have a little bitter note which the Merlots do not. This suggests that Merlots pair better with the cheeses that are more middle-of-the-road on the pH scale. Relative acidities influence the success of cheese and wine pairings.
The traditional rennet sheep cheeses such as the Ossau Iraty, Pecorino Sardo DOP, Abbaye de Belloc, Idiazábal and Royale; all of these make excellent partners for the Merlots. Bloomy rind cheeses such as Lillé and Chaource, cheese types that can be especially challenging to other wines can pair nicely with the Merlots. Among the cow cheeses, some of the wash-rind cheeses can pair well with this varietal, Dorset among them. The basic pressed and cheddar-style cow cheeses make good candidates for Merlot: Windsordale, Cantalet, Brazos Cheddar, Le Moulis, and Tomme de Savoie (another cheese that can be challenging with many wines). The huge-flavored 4 yr. old Gouda and Roomano dissolve nicely with Merlot, tyrosine crystals and all; as well as most of the Alpine styles: Comté, Appenzeller, Hoch Ybrig, Gruyère and Scharfe Maxx. It is interesting to note that Merlot is one of the few successful red varietals grown in Switzerland. Then there is the majestic Sbrinz; that cheese gets along with most wines, reds and whites.
If you happen to find a little Merlot left in your glass at the end of your meal, try a couple of these cheeses alongside it. The finish will be memorable.