For the past several years Merlot has taken a hammering from wine writers. In the meantime it remains the most popular variety among South Africa’s red wine consumers. This is not as contradictory as it may seem. Most critics focus their attention on wines selling in the rarefied atmosphere of R150+ per bottle whereas more than half of all red wine in South Africa is on shelf for under R50.
There’s no doubt that part of merlot’s appeal to people who are regular everyday wine drinkers is the idea of it: soft-tannined, easy drinking and accessible. Unlike cabernet which is understood to be a cultivar that needs to evolve in the bottle, merlot is expected to deliver bucketloads of fruit the moment the cork is drawn. Since people tend to taste what they are expecting – at least when it comes to wine (and anyone who doubts this generalisation can google the reams of research which substantiates it), the sales of merlot flourish – at least in part – because the punters believe that it’s juicy and consumer-friendly.
The serious merlot producers on the other hand have been battling with the cultivar’s negative press. Its critics point out that many of the more premium examples are either unpleasantly green, or overripe and porty. Winemakers hoping to steer a course between the two positions tend to produce wines which reflect the compromises they must make: super-ripe berry notes underpinned by chewy herbal textures. Our leading producers regularly host workshops to see how best they can manage its idiosyncrasies in the South African context. Today (4th August) they are being addressed by the world’s most famous merlot producer – or at least the winemaker (Olivier Berrouet) at the world’s most famous merlot-based estate, Chateau Petrus.
This is therefore an opportune time for me to look at the examples which have lately made a positive impression – and to acknowledge the work that has been done with Cape merlots has produced some very positive results. Take the Protea 2015 for instance. This is a wine (like all the others in this great value range) which retails for about R70 per bottle. Fresh, savoury, with creamy tannins and real vinosity (despite its youth) it scored an impressive 88 points, tasted blind. There’s nothing of comparable value about: to find a merlot closer to the 90 point mark (and in this case, right on it) you need to look to roughly three times the selling price. For this you get the Rust en Vrede Merlot 2015, which is palpably bigger and richer, without a significant loss of freshness. Weighty, textured and indisputably ripe, it’s not everyone’s idea of an easy to drink wine. However, it is savoury rather than porty, and something of a classic in the big and bold style.
Of course, not all merlots have to be accessible and showing well within a year or two of coming to market. The De Grendel 2015, for example, still has a hint of almost cabernet-like greenness: not hard, chewy, unripe tannin, but rather a distinctive herbal note, reminiscent of Right Bank Bordeaux wines that have been made for French rather than new world consumers. The Vilafonte Series “M” (which is merlot and malbec dominated) has none of the greener notes, but needs as much time to evolve if it’s to justify the investment in complexity which comes with its terroir and winemaking.
Finally, the industry’s undisputed benchmark – the Shannon Mount Bullet (the 2013 of which I scored at 90 in a blind tasting two weeks back) – balances ripe plum and mulberry aromas with real textural nuance. Stylistically this is, I guess, the Grail for merlot: opulence balanced with freshness, intricacy and persistence lighting up the finish. You don’t see it very often, not even in its heartland of Pomerol, but when you do, it’s possible to understand how even the R50 bottle of everyday drinking wine can be imbued with the aura of Petrus.