Merlot grapes have had a strong presence in Washington State since 1956 when the late Dr. Walter Clore brought cuttings into the state, according to Peter Bos, wine instructor at South Seattle Community College.
Clore, considered the grandfather of Washington’s wine industry, included Merlot in the first wine grape trial planted in 1960 at what is now WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. The French varietal was commercially planted for the first time in the state in 1972 at Sagemoor Farms in Pasco and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Cold Creek Vineyard, with the first commercial Merlot wine made by Ste. Michelle in 1976, said Bos. Another winery, Preston Wine Cellars, was also among the first wineries to produce Merlot wines, releasing their first in 1978.
Bos gave the short history lesson on Merlot during a session looking at Merlot’s future during the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, believe that Merlot is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and a sibling of Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Merlot means ‘young blackbird’ in the Occitan language that was spoken in southern France,” said Bos. Merle is the French word for several kinds of thrushes, including blackbirds. The naming of Merlot came either because of the grape’s beautiful dark-blue color, or the blackbirds’ fondness for grapes.
The variety likely dates back to the first century, but it didn’t receive noble status until 1784 when it earned a reputation as one of the best wines made in Bordeaux. Merlot comprises about 40 percent of the grapes planted in Bordeaux—nearly 5,850 acres—and is the third most planted wine grape variety in the world.
Merlot is said to have helped put Washington wines on the map in the 1980s, dispelling the perception that Washington’s climate was too cold for red wine grapes.
Acreage in the state has grown significantly, increasing from 1,800 acres in 1993 to 8,235 in 2011, according to the 2011 vineyard acreage report compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Merlot outpaced Cabernet Sauvignon plantings until 2002 when Cabernet became the number-one red variety planted. Cabernet has held the lead since, and, today, there are nearly 10,300 acres planted.
In terms of Merlot tonnage in Washington, the variety has been in second place for red varietals behind Cabernet for the last five years. The five-year average for Merlot crushed by wineries is 24,340 tons compared with the five-year average for Cabernet of 26,100 tons.