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A large and diverse wine region in northeastern Italy, the Veneto is home to a vast array of different styles of wine. With no defining regional characteristics, it can be a bit confusing to the general consumer to parse through its many subzones, but the patient wine lover will find many treasures to be discovered here, typically at wallet-friendly prices. Red and white wines are produced here, with more emphasis on the latter, as well as the ultra-popular sparkling wine Prosecco. The region is sheltered from harsh northern European winters by the Alps, which form its northern border, but the climate is still relatively cool, making the Veneto ideal for white wine production.
Much of Italy’s Pinot Grigio hails from the Veneto, where it can range from neutral and inoffensive to crisp and refreshing. Soave, made primarily from the Garganega grape, has a reputation for producing relatively ordinary, bulk wines, but can be very elegant when yields are carefully monitored, with aromas of lemon, almond, and white flowers. Valpolicella is the region’s best-known red wine, with juicy, tart red cherry flavors derived from the Corvina grape. Recioto and Amarone wines made from dried grapes are a regional specialty and can be very intense, heady, and cerebral.
An easy-going red variety with generous fruit and a supple texture, Merlot’s subtle tannins make it perfect for early drinking and allow it to pair with a wide range of foods. One simply needs to look to Bordeaux to understand Merlot's status as a noble variety. On the region’s Right Bank, it dominates in blends with Cabernet Franc, and on the Left Bank, it plays a supporting role to (and helps soften) Cabernet Sauvignon—in both cases resulting in some of the longest-lived and highest-quality wines in the world. They are often emulated elsewhere in Bordeaux-style blends, particularly in California’s Napa Valley, where Merlot also frequently shines on its own.
In the Glass
Merlot is known for its soft, silky texture and approachable flavors of ripe plum, red and black cherry, and raspberry. In a cool climate, you may find earthier notes alongside dried herbs, tobacco, and tar, while Merlot from warmer regions is generally more straightforward and fruit-focused.
Lamb with Merlot is an ideal match—the sweetness of the meat picks up on the sweet fruit flavors of the wine to create a harmonious balance. Merlot’s gentle tannins allow for a hint of spice and its medium weight and bright acidity permit the possibilities of simple pizza or pasta with red sauce—overall, an extremely versatile food wine.
Since the release of the 2004 film Sideways, Merlot's repuation has taken a big hit, and more than a decade later has yet to fully recover, though it is on its way. What many viewers didn't realize was that as much as Miles derided the variety, the prized wine of his collection—a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc—is made from a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.