Mer­lot still a mys­tery but with prom­ise

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

IF the ob­ject of Kat­nook Es­tate’s Mer­lot Mas­tery Sym­po­sium in Melbourne in Novem­ber was to dis­pel the mys­tery and con­fu­sion sur­round­ing the grape and the wine, it was a fail­ure. If it was to present a se­ries of wines that rep­re­sented its di­verse stylis­tic bound­aries, it was a suc­cess.

Mer­lot is the most widely planted red variety in France, its 101,000ha tow­er­ing over caber­net sauvi­gnon’s 53,000ha. In the 1990s, plant­ings of it in Aus­tralia in­creased at a faster rate than all other im­por­tant red va­ri­eties, but sta­bilised by 2002 at a lit­tle more than 10,000ha, well be­hind shi­raz (now 41,000ha) and caber­net sauvi­gnon (28,100ha).

The truth is that over­all plant­ings have slowed but why should the halt of mer­lot have been so abrupt? The ini­tial surge in Aus­tralia fol­lowed a sim­i­lar pat­tern in Cal­i­for­nia and Wash­ing­ton, and the most con­vinc­ing an­swer for the surge was the ap­peal of the weight and tex­ture of the wine.

It is (or should be) medi­um­bod­ied, with a smooth and sup­ple tex­ture thanks to soft tan­nins. This was all that was re­quired in the early stages but in­creas­ingly peo­ple started to ask what it should taste like. Here to­tal con­fu­sion reigned, con­fu­sion that con­tin­ues to this day, hence the abrupt stop.

Part of the prob­lem is that there are few straight mer­lots of dis­tinc­tion made in Bordeaux. The vast ma­jor­ity are blends with up to four va­ri­eties: caber­net sauvi­gnon, caber­net franc, petit ver­dot and mal­bec.

In St Emil­ion and Pomerol , the lat­ter home to the two great­est mer­lots — Chateau Petrus (with a lit­tle caber­net franc) and Le Pin — the most com­mon blend is with caber­net franc, which is some­times the dom­i­nant part­ner.

Since caber­net franc is one of the par­ents of mer­lot (the other is still to be iden­ti­fied) the syn­ergy of the blend is not sur­pris­ing. The fact that mer­lot is also a half-brother to caber­net sauvi­gnon adds spice to the equa­tion.

It is in the New World, with Cal­i­for­nia, Chile and Aus­tralia the lead play­ers, that mer­lot has ap­peared as a wine in its own right which, if noth­ing else, has put the spot­light on this ques­tion of flavour. Tra­di­tion­ally, the higher the mer­lot com­po­nent in the wines of Bordeaux, the more the black olive and herba­ceous flavours were ev­i­dent. Cal­i­for­nian and Aus­tralian wine­mak­ers tended to shy away from th­ese char­ac­ters, util­is­ing warmer re­gions (or sites) and plenty of new bar­rels (in­clud­ing Amer­i­can oak, re­gret­tably). The re­sults were wines best de­scribed as wannabe caber­nets, or caber­nets with­out the (tan­nin) pain.

But none has achieved what Chile’s largest win­ery, Con­cha y Toro, has come up with. Three of its wines were in­cluded in the wide-rang­ing tast­ings (in four sec­tions) at the Kat­nook sym­po­sium. Its 2005 Mar­quis de Casa Con­cha has amaz­ing depth of colour by any stan­dards, let alone the nor­mally lighter hue of mer­lot, and a lus­ciously thick and jammy palate, with tan­nins some­where in the back­ground. It sells like hot cakes for about £5 ($11) in Bri­tain but it might as well be mer­lot from the moon.

I wrote above about the tra­di­tional taste of mer­lot blends from Bordeaux. The im­pact of US wine critic Robert Parker, of con­sul­tant wine­maker Michel Rol­land, and of a suc­ces­sion of very warm vin­tages has rad­i­cally changed per­cep­tions and prac­tices and in some ways moved mer­lot to­wards the best New World ex­am­ples. (New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay can pro­duce out­stand­ing mer­lot by any stan­dards.)

In Aus­tralia, the Great South­ern, Mar­garet River, Coon­awarra, Orange and Yarra Val­ley have shown they can make mer­lot or mer­lot blends of real worth. The prob­lem is that mer­lot is also widely grown in highly un­suit­able ar­eas, that we have a poor clonal base and that overex­trac­tion and ex­ces­sive oak use is com­mon­place.

And just to con­fuse the sit­u­a­tion, Jim Irvine makes his Grand Mer­lot from the Barossa Val­ley. His 2004 won high praise in the blind-tast­ing seg­ment at Kat­nook, com­pet­ing against the might of highly rated 2005 bordeaux and other hand­picked wines from the US, Chile, NZ and Aus­tralia.


James Halliday

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