OKANAGAN MERLOT DESERVES RESPECT
Promising future awaits much maligned grape
Is Merlot the next big thing in British Columbia? A few folks are betting it might be but there is plenty of serious work to be done in the vineyard, the winery and, perhaps more importantly, in the marketplace where retailers, sommeliers and we media types have badmouthed the grape for more than a decade.
Overproduced and under-flavoured Merlot was infamously damned in the movie Sideways during a scene where would-be novelist and Pinot Noir snob, Miles, informs his pal Jack: “if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any ... Merlot," a line that set back Merlot sales for a decade. When it is not busy being soft and insipid, a lot of New World Merlot comes over-extracted and coated in heavily toasted oak, obscuring any sense of place. The biggest and richest often feature dead fruit flavours, little complexity and alcohol off the charts.
The pendulum is swinging back. There is little doubt the finest Merlot still comes from Bordeaux’s Right Bank in St. Emilion and Pomerol, and from isolated vineyards in California and Tuscany’s Bolgheri sub-region, but one of the spots with a promising future is the nearby Okanagan Valley.
There is something about Okanagan Merlot, the red fruit and acid perhaps, that suggests it could be headed for prime time. The fruit is easy to ripen, the tannins are mostly soft or at least fine-grained at the top end, and the flavours come supercharged with a savoury thread and enough acidity to intrigue on the palate. It deserves more respect by winemakers, consumers and media.
Last month I organized a tasting of select B.C. Merlots with Lake Breeze Winery owner Drew McIntyre, who threw in some of the biggest names in the Merlot world from his personal cellar. McIntyre is on a mission to pump up the image and the quality of B.C. Merlot, and has recently released the McIntyre Family Ardua Merlot to chase that dream.
We also invited Checkmate winemaker and Australian Phil McGahan, who has recently released four different Merlot labels under the Checkmate name from select benches on both sides of the south Okanagan Valley. Also asked was French-born winemaker Severine Pinte, to pour her Le Vieux Pin Equinoxe Merlot and LaStella Maestoso Solo Merlot sourced from both sides of the south Okanagan Valley. Both McGahan and Pinte try to keep the winemaking minimal and constant, thus letting the individual sites express their story in the bottle.
The tasting results were bit of jumble due to several of the foreign wines sporting different levels of Brett or Brettanomyces (accurately described by scientist and wine writer Dr. Jamie Goode as “a yeast — that is a unicellular type of fungus, not a bacterium — that is a common spoilage organism in winemaking.”)
Since we all have different levels of tolerance to brett, some winemakers and tasters would suggest low levels of Brett contribute to a wine’s complexity, while others think Brett at any level is a negative erasing any sense of place, no matter where in the world you encounter it.
The top six wines according to the group were Chateau Trotanoy 1998, Vérité La Muse 1999, Checkmate 2013 Black Rook Merlot, Chateau Petrus 1999, Macintyre Ardua 2013 Merlot and Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia Masseto.
My mostly Brett-free top picks, were Macintyre Ardua 2012 Merlot, Chateau Petrus 1999, Lake Breeze Merlot 2012, Le Vieux Pin 2013, Equinoxe Merlot, Checkmate 2013 Black Rook Merlot and Vérité La Muse 1999.
What we learned, and it’s hardly a surprise, is that we are much closer to the top than outsiders know. But it’s hard to know when you have never heard of B.C., or our wines. It’s the biggest challenge ahead for B.C. winemakers, who have long preferred the safety of Vancouver to the uncertainty of foreign markets. Maybe it is time to fish, or cut bait.