Merlot is one of those grape varieties that can produce superb wines – or complete rubbish. What makes the difference?
Whenever the tasting panel at the Wine-of-the-Month Club is confronted with a selection of Merlots a collective groan of anguish can be heard all the way from Muizenberg to Stellenbosch. We know from bitter (and I do mean bitter) experience that we are in for an evening of horrors. In a line-up of 20 Merlot wines we will end up with about four that are a pleasure to drink (on a good night). Most of the rest will be mouth-searingly tannic, bitter, thin, oxidised or vinegary.
And the cry will go up again: “Why do winemakers persist in making this muck? Why don’t they just pull out their Merlot vines and plant Shiraz, Cinsaut, or potatoes, or anything but Merlot.”
The other side of the Merlot mystery is that wine shop owners say it’s always a popular seller. One cynical dealer muttered to me: “I suspect it’s because people can pronounce it without making fools of themselves.” Maybe it’s this commercial popularity that prompts winemakers to keep on producing it year after year, in spite of having the wrong soil, the wrong climate and hardly any experience with the grape.
Let me hasten to say there are some excellent Merlots produced in the Cape. Cellars such as Thelema, Camberley, Raka and Hartenberg make delicious Merlots, as do Jordan, Noble Hill, Meerlust and Vergenoegd.
And of course, one of the most expensive wines in the world, Pomerol’s Chateaux Petrus, consists mainly of Merlot.
In his authoritative, but possibly dated book, Wine Grape Varieties in South Africa, Professor CJ Orffer says Merlot is grown in the Bordeaux district of France to “give softness to the wines of the area”. So a Merlot should, first and foremost, be a soft wine, a wine that adds an easy drinking character to the harsher Cabernet Sauvignon. It is added to the traditional Bordeaux blend to make the wines ready for drinking sooner than a straight Cabernet Sauvignon. It smoothes the rough edges of the blend.
So where do our winemakers go so very wrong?
I believe it’s a lack of understanding of the grape. Cellarmasters think: “I need a Merlot in my range, so I must plant some Merlot.” And they have a spare piece of ground so they stick in a few hundred Merlot vines and hope for the best. In all likelihood the soil is unsuitable, the situation too warm and the harvesting fitted in when there’s a gap between the other varietals.
In California they coined the term “Merlot madness,” when everybody suddenly decided Merlot was the fashionable wine to drink. Our own form of Merlot Madness attacks wine producers who suddenly feel the need to add the grape to their wine list.
My advice to unsure buyers?
If you want to be on the safe side, buy a Shiraz.