Think of Merlot as Cabernet Sauvignon's more easy-going sibling. It's a red grape varietal that typically produces softer, fruitier, and less tannic wines than the mighty Cabernet, yet exhibits the same wonderful fragrance and richness. Historically it's mainly been used as a blending wine to soften Cabernet Sauvignon's harsh edges—particularly with Bordeaux blends—but since the 1970s, it's been steadily gaining popularity as an enjoyable red wine that's both less expensive and easier to drink (and pronounce) than most Cabs. The caveat is that it's also more difficult to grow than Cabernet Sauvignon: it's more susceptible to fungus and disease, it ripens unevenly, and it only grows well in particular climate and soil conditions. Nonetheless, it's planted throughout the winegrowing world, with moderate to overwhelming success in places like Northern California, Washington, Long Island, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Italy, and Chile. The crème de la crème of Merlots, however, come from the Pomerol and St. Emilion appellations of Bordeaux, France. The grape typically produces medium- to full-bodied wine exhibiting plumy, cherry-like aromasand flavors, as well as hints of black currant, tobacco, chocolate, vanilla, and mint. If you like your red wine spicy and floral, look for Merlot from warm climates; cooler climes produce lighter, herbal varieties. As for food pairings, treat Merlot as you would Cabernet Sauvignon and serve it with beef, lamb, hamburgers, pizza, poultry with rich sauces, pasta with meat sauces, and such. Most Merlots aren't built for aging, so go ahead and pop that cork. Merlot is one of the four red wines (the others are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Pinot Noir) that make up the nine classical varietals (there are five white classical varietals: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Sémillion.)