Making it with Merlot

Friday, 16 April, 2004
Tessa de Kock for Nederburg
It is likened to Chardonnay in its ability to attract a broad spectrum of drinkers
Merlot (or Merlu, as many South Africans pronounce it, not to be confused with the fish, which, in any event, they call hake or stockfish) is seen by many retailers and restaurateurs as the great red hope.

Less demanding on the palate than Cabernet Sauvignon, with generally softer tannins and juicy, plummy flavours, it is likened to Chardonnay in its ability to attract a broad spectrum of drinkers.

In South Africa, where it represented less than 1% of the national vineyard in 1990, the count had grown to 5,4% by 2001 (the most recently available official statistics), although WINE magazine estimates that by 2002 it had reached 6%, making it the fourth most planted red grape after Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and Shiraz.

Initially it was planted mostly for blending, either to give local Cabernet Sauvignons a softer edge or as a partner in Bordeaux-style reds. Although a Merlot varietal wine made its debut in the 1980s, it is only in more recent years that local vintners have begun to explore its potential as a varietal wine because of its accessible structure and its ability to mature earlier than other red varietals.

However, until a year ago, not much confidence was being expressed in these wines. In the Cape for the 2003 harvest, internationally renowned winemaker, consultant and judge Zelma Long urged South Africans to choose the right planting sites, saying that clay soils with good water retention could work in favour of the varietal, provided good quality plant material, the right clones and good rootstock were used.

‘Warm summers, tempered by humidity and marine influences, have helped shape the finest Bordeaux Merlots. In my experience, Merlot shows its best in Bordeaux and Washington State. I’ve nevertheless encountered some rich and complex Merlots from the Cape - certainly as good as the best to emerge from California. So the growing conditions and the potential very definitely exist.’

Then, a few months later, noted Australian wine author, judge and vintner James Halliday visited the country to assess the entries in the 2003 Fairbairn Capital Trophy Wine Show. He pronounced himself ‘enchanted’ by the 79 Merlots on the show. ‘Merlot is a desperately difficult variety to pinpoint; there is ready agreement that it should be medium-bodied, with fine, savoury, olive-accented tannins ... My vision of Merlot is shaped by 35 years of drinking the wines of Bordeaux ... So I look to the savoury, olivaceous flavours and fine tannins as integral markers for Merlot, and was amazed by the number of wines that effortlessly met my criteria.’

While he called for winemakers to use oak with a lighter hand, he praised the texture, weight and structure of the Merlots he tasted and said producers had picked at optimal ripeness, which he regarded as an ‘admirable achievement’. He viewed the wines as stylistically occupying a middle ground between Old and New World.

Once again back in the Cape for the 2004 harvest, Long sounds a note of caution. ‘Merlot can become one of South Africa’s foremost varieties, provided the right investment is made in plant material and viticultural technique. There has been a tendency to plant Merlot on the same sort of sites as Cabernet Sauvignon.

‘They have different needs. Merlot responds well to damp, cool soils while Cabernet Sauvignon does well in warmer environments with well-drained soils. It also ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and requires different vineyard management techniques.’

She believes that to succeed, Merlot must be treated as a stand-alone varietal, as opposed to a blending component. ‘Californian winemakers have tended not to do this, which is why their Merlots generally are rather unremarkable, although obviously there are exceptions.’

Another bit of advice is to stay away from eucalyptus trees, which are known to impart a distinctively menthol or mint character to nearby vineyards, since their leaves secrete oils carried by the wind to land on grape skins.

John Platter, founder of the wine guide that carries his name and an internationally respected wine writer and critic, believes we have yet to see the best that Merlot can deliver in South Africa.

‘Make no mistake,’ says Nederburg’s cellarmaster Razvan Macici. ‘Merlot might be easy on the palate but it isn’t always easy on the winemaker. It needs a lot of attention and is very sensitive to vintage variations.’

He cites the effect of the February heat wave on a delivery of Merlot that came into the cellar showing some green tannins. ‘In that respect it did not respond as well as Pinotage, for example. But it is nevertheless a wonderful variety and I’m very excited at how our 2003 vintage is developing in the barrel at the moment. I’m tasting some wonderfully juicy, fruity characters with a marvellously smooth finish.’

But as to whether we can expect a Nederburg Merlot in the Classic range, we’ll have to wait, says Macici. ‘Nederburg doesn’t believe in rushing to the market for the sake of fashion. We’d rather wait to get it right before we do that. But it will be sooner rather than later.’

Merlot is certainly winning the approval of South Africans themselves with local retailers tracking a distinct upward curve in its popularity. Catherine Rebel of the national Makro group says demand is growing markedly. ‘Virtually every other day we have customers asking specifically for Merlot because they consider it smooth on the palate and easy to drink. This is especially true of consumers who are newer converts to wines.

‘If more producers make Merlots under R45 a bottle, we will see the category grow even faster.’

Murray Giggins, wine retailer and consultant to game lodges, the exclusive Blue Train and restaurants countrywide, says: ‘The category is definitely on the up, especially among women, who drink it because it’s a softer alternative to other reds.’ He would like to see more varietal as opposed to blended Merlots coming to the market. ‘Unless a blend has a particular reputation, it’s tough to give it any distinction when pitted against so many competitors.’

Echoing his view is Vaughan Johnson, whose specialist retail store at the V&A Waterfront is the gateway to Cape wines for many domestic and foreign tourists. ‘As a varietal wine, it has a great future here,’ he says.