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The much-maligned Merlot

It’s hard not to discuss the red grape Merlot without touching on the recent Hollywood movie Sideways.

The film’s main character, Miles, has several tantrums in which he declares his disdain for “insipid” Merlot (though, ironically, his most precious wine is a 1962 Cheval Blanc, which is 95 per cent Merlot and 5 per cent Cabernet Franc). The consumption of Merlot dropped off noticeably in the wake of the character’s tirades.

But the variety has not always been so out of favour. It got a kick along in Australia in the 1990s when many female drinkers searched out Merlot as they ventured from Chardonnay into the realm of the reds. It makes sense, as Merlot can be a silky fruit-driven wine with subtle tannins, and usually cost less than $20.

But few Australians realise it is the most widely planted grape in France, and about the fifth most common variety in the world. Its father is Cabernet Franc, which adds structure with tannin and anthocyanin, and its mother is a wild French grape called Magdeline Noir des Cheventes.

Its spiritual home is the right bank of the Gironde River in Bordeaux, where both Pommerol and St Emillon are powerhouse planters.

It is suited to wetter conditions, with the ability to ripen one to two weeks earlier than the finicky Cabernet Sauvignon it is often blended with.

Merlot is renowned for the filling of the “doughnut hole” in Cabernet Sauvignon. It is often said that the Merlot is Cabernet Sauvignon without the pain, and it has the potential for high yields and higher alcohol levels. Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot make up the classic five Bordeaux blend grapes.

It has found its way across cooler Europe from north-east Italy (places such as Friuli and Trentino), appearing in Slovenia and Romania, among other areas.

In the warmer Tuscan region, it is blended with Sangiovese to make the sought-after “Super Tuscan” reds.

Merlot is a well-known grape in the United States, where it is grown in Napa, Sonoma and Washington State.

Chile and Argentina also grow it well – for many years in Chile, Carmenere, its cousin, was thought to be a powerful rich strain of Merlot.

Australian wine growing was drawn into the Merlot revolution when many growers backed its ‘new wave’ status in the 1990s.

It was first planted in 1980, but then disappeared before being resurrected after 1988. However, poor clone selection, weak understanding of growth characteristics and incompetent wine making techniques have contributed to its decline from its earlier Cinderella status.

But the public isn’t stupid with its palate, and wineries in the Adelaide Hills, Coonawarra, Barossa/Eden Valley, Margaret River and the Yarra Valley have redeemed this noble grape to produce great Merlots.

Hats off also to our Kiwi cousins. Some of the NZ Merlots are a thinking person’s red that stand out in the sea of Pinot Noir. and the Gimblet Gravels area of Hawkes Bay excel.

 Wines tasted

2012 Parker Estate Coonawarra Merlot – a bright red in colour. Nice, lively red fruits, hints of plum and herbal notes. The palate is refined, with moderate fruit and good structure with a mid-palate finish. This wine evolves over an hour and is great with some roast smoked chicken (skin on with juicy fat). Cellar four to five years.

2012 Irvine Song Hill Barossa Merlot – James Irvine is the king of Merlot. His Grand Merlot is genius in a bottle. This competitively priced Merlot has some dark red colours. Aromatic, juicy stewed plums integrate with good vanillin notes from the oak. The palate is plush, with mid-palate integrated tannins. Very nice with chicken cacciatore. Cellar five to seven years.

2013 Kim Crawford Hawkes Bay Merlot – a very dark purple. The nose is intense, with prunes and spicy dates. The aromas are of a foreign nature with brambly, mineral overtones. Sharp anterior palate with good acidity, but little tannin effect. A good value wine for under $20 dollars, if you are in need of a NZ fix.

2010 Kendall-Jackson Sonoma California – intensely purple. Another foreign nose with prunes, licorice and earthy tones. Exceptional fruit and massive oak, American and French. Full, juicy palate, almost port-like, with nicely balanced tannins. One Big Merlot! I really enjoyed this with some nine-plus baked wagyu.