Merlot is the descendant of a red grape which was brought to France in the first century. From this stock came many of the varieties we know today - Cabernet and Malbec being but two. The "Merlot" grape was not named as a distinct variety until the 1800s - when it became part of the Bordeaux family.
Merlot is not well suited for long aging, so until recently the wine made from Merlot grapes was used solely as a blending wine - to mix with Cabernet in the French Bordeaux wines. A Cabernet Merlot has a more mellow aspect than a straight Cabernet.
Coinciding with the rapid expansion of viniculture in the New World, Merlot has recently come into vogue as a superb wine in its own right. Some of the most notable Merlots of the last decade have come from the vineyards of California, Chile and Australia.
Not quite as harsh as the other reds in its extended family, Merlot has less tannin than a Cabernet and can therefore be drunk earlier - while you might not find the most drinkable Cabernets holding a vintage within the last five years, there are many excellent Merlots that are two or three years old. It is a perfect match for beef and other medium-heavy dishes. Try some with a rich, red pasta dish, or even a heavy chicken dish. Merlot is also an excellent compliment to chocolate.