What is the story with Merlot? There is a tale that sales went down after the character Miles trashed its reputation in the movie Sideways. But to be honest Merlot had its image problems long before that. And they still continue today.
So what gives here? I mean, Merlot is an appealing, medium-bodied wine, with soft tannins and rich fruit that matches with a host of foods. Its critics say it can be a bit hollow in the mid palate, and that it is best as a blending grape, smoothing out the likes of Cabernet, Malbec and Petit Verdot and helping make these wines a much more ‘drink now’ proposition.
If you could personify Merlot it would be that teasy going kid who is neither offensive nor excellent at anything. Pinot would the dux of the class while Shiraz and Cabernet would be the two super jocks, opposing each other as captains of the sports teams. When it came down to choosing players, the options would dwindle until Cabernet would eventually say, “I guess I’ll have Merlot on my team”. And Merlot would be great, doing all the hard yakka, while Cabernet would hog the limelight.
Perhaps Merlot was never meant to be a start. If you trace its history you’ll find that Merlot originates in the Bordeaux region, more specifically St Emilion and Pomerol. This very fact relegates Merlot to the back-seat, as Cabernet has already called ‘shotgun’ on the big drive down wine avenue. You could imagine Cabernet in the front seat, windows down, hooting and hollering at all and sundry while Merlot sits in the back, pretty much out of view.
While Cabernet is an ancient grape, Merlot was only discovered relatively recently – just a few hundr3ed years ago (I did say relatively). The story goes that each year Bordeaux vineyard workers found blackbirds eating a certain section in the vineyard because these particular vines ripened before the others. They also noticed that the berries were different, and the leaves too, as was the taste of the grape – soft and plummy, especially when fully ripe. They dedicated a vineyard to this new varietal and called it after the blackbirds, Merle, and so it became known as Merlot.
Due to the fact that it ripened there of four weeks, ahead of the Cabernets, it became a bit of a workhorse, a low level cash crop while producers waited for the Cabernet to ripen, or in poor years when bad weather rolled in and rotted the Cabernet, Merlot may have been the only source of income. See, it is such a great team player.
But even then, it is pretty rate to find a straight out Merlot in Bordeaux. Even when it is the main player in a wine, it is blended with Cabernet Franc, which adds some structure and spice.
THE HOME FRONT
Merlot has been grown in Australia for quite some time but it was always blended with Cabernet or the like. One of the first to champion Merlot was Jim Irvine from Irvine Wines in the Barossa. Her truly loves Merlot and is recognised as Australia’s foremost authority on the varietal. Despite him blowing Merlot’s trumpet quite loudly for near on three decades, even he is still rusted red by Merlot’s place in the new wine order.
“Our first Grand Merlot was 1985”, Jim tells me when we speak after the tasting. “Right then I found exactly how little was known about Merlot; how little was made as a varietal; and how often Merlot was referred to as a blender of soften other reds. Not much has changed in the last 29 years in spite of our winning World’s Best Merlot twice.”
Jim’s sentiments on Merlot were confirmed by our Member Merlot tasting. We invited five Wine Selectors members to sample some of Australia’s best examples of Merlot.
Three members admitted they knew very little about Merlot before the tasting . However one member, John was more in your Jim Irvine mould. He loves Merlot.
“I didn’t really care for red wine very much, but then one day I had a Merlot and from then on I’ve only ever drunk Merlot, he explained at the tasting.
One of the key factors to come out of the tasting was the fact that Merlot does not really have a home in Australia. It is grown quite well in nearly every wine region across the nation, but it is not really the flagship of any, like Shiraz is with the Barossa, or Cabernet is in Coonawarra. This certainly holds merlot back. If you’re in a restaurant and you see an unfamiliar Shiraz from the Barossa you can be pretty sure that you’ll be OK. The same can’t be said for the homeless Merlot, whose reputation has also been tainted by wine producers who didn’t’ understand the varietal.
“Far too many Merlot vineyards were planted in unsuitable sites,” Jim Irvine tells me later. “Too many winemakers made poor wines from less that ripe fruit; and many vineyards were so young with no mature vines. The end result of all this was yet another blow to Merlot, for if poorly made, Merlot will, lake any other variety, result in poor wine.
“So anybody getting these Merlots for their first taste is likely to refuse it ever again – till they taste a good Merlot!”
THE GOOD, BETTER AND BEST
In this tasting we tasted plenty of good Merlots. Two members found they loved the Merlots from McLaren Vale, while John, who is a staunch supporter of Hunter Valley Merlot, discovered that he also liked Merlot from Coonawarra. All agreed they would be looking forward to their next delivery of red wine to uncover what Merlot gem the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel had uncovered.
So the ‘take home’ message is Merlot can be great. It is medium bodied so fits the trend for reds and is a great match with a wide range of foods, you just need to find a style you like. When you do, not eh producer, and begin a special relationship with a new wine friend.
Words Mark Hughes