Merlot still a mystery but with promise
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.