Merlot is often best described by what it is not. It is not as soft as Pinot Noir, nor as big as Cabernet Sauvignon. Its flavors are not as defined as Syrah/Shiraz or Gamay. Its descriptors cross many varietal profiles, as do the references to its structure.

Stylistically, Merlot can be light, easy drinking, and fruit-driven or more complex, with big, bold tannins, dark fruits and dark spices. Site and viticultural practices play a large role in determining the flavors in the glass, as does winemaking technique. As a result, this grape can deliver juicy quaffing wine or powerful, age-able bottlings.

The most frequent, but not exclusive, aromas and flavors typically found in Merlot include:

Merlot Smell and/or Flavor Elements
Varietal Aromas/FlavorsProcessing Bouquets/ Flavors
Fruit: currant, black cherry, plumOak (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood
Floral: violet, roseOak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar
Spice: caramel, clove, bay leaf, green peppercornBottle Age: truffle, mushroom, earth, coffee, leather, cedar, cigar box
Herbal: bell pepper, green olive 

Tasting Merlot—or any other kind of wine—involves more than just your sense of taste; it also involves sight, smell, and a certain kind of touch.

1. Look at the Color

Hold your glass up to the light. Color can vary substantially, even within the same varietal.
Reds range in color from pale red to dark brown. White wines appear golden, sometimes with elegant green tints.

2. Follow Your Nose

Swirl the wine in your glass; it will release a range of delightful aromas. Then take a quick whiff for an initial impression. Finally, smell more deeply and slowly. You might notice flowers or fruit, an earthy scent or an oaky aroma.
What aromas do you smell?

3. Consider the Taste

Take a sip of wine, and then let it rest in your mouth for a moment before swallowing. Now consider the taste. Do you taste fruits or spices? Does the taste go away quickly or linger? Is it tart or sweet?
Practice helps distinguish the different qualities of individual wines.

4. Feel for the Body

Take another sip of wine. Before swallowing, take in a little air. This will activate your senses further. Notice how the wine feels in your mouth. How does the touch affect your tongue and throat as you swallow? Was the feel of the wine lean or rich, velvety or smooth, silky or sticky?