SASA Benchmark Series

Benchmark Series - Merlot Edition

On Monday 15 April James Downes from Shannon Vineyards in Elgin ventured across the mountain range to Somm’s home venue at The Woodmill Lifestyle Centre in Stellenbosch to bestow merlot wisdom on the members of the South African Sommelier Association. James presented statistics, explained the difficulties and possibilities in working with such a fickle yet potential grape and showcased the evolution in his own wines made from the grape in comparable vintages.

What is merlot and where does it come from? Why does it have a reputation of being soft, round and textured yet it makes some of the most expensive and age-worthy wines in the world, like the famed Château Petrus? Firstly, to set records straight, Merlot is a bastard, a little bit like Jon Snow from the Game of Thrones. One of the parents is Cabernet Franc, the other is an obscure and unnamed variety from Brittany in northern France. Nowadays, Merlot is the second most planted grape intended for winemaking in the world, coming shortly after its sibling Cabernet Sauvignon. The most prime examples are still thought to come from its home region, Bordeaux, more specifically from Pomerol on the right bank where about 80% of the plantings are made up by Merlot.

Merlot has for long been frowned upon for pleasing the mainstream market but providing little intellectual stimulation for the consumer. But like Pinot Noir, Merlot is difficult to work with from a viticultural perspective, and only just less fashionable than the former. It has a tendency to be too vigorous in fertile conditions, yet it tends to produce the best wines in soils that contain a good portion of clay which often equals vigour in South Africa. Managing the canopy and the crop levels are key to producing high-quality fruit without the highly disapproved green characters that can otherwise appear in the wine.

The first flight focused on maritime and cool climate expressions of single varietal merlot. Contextually the wines from Elgin showed great depth, yet brightness, but with low and fine fruit tannin. Constantia has a similarity to Elgin in the sense of low and fine levels of tannin but still possess a darker fruit profile than the comparative Elgin fruit. Durbanville showed a dark fruit profile with a naturally higher fruit tannin than the other regions. There is potential here, if the vinification changes from focusing on the classic fruit-forward and early drinking style of merlot to something a bit more daring.

The second flight explored warmer and more continental climate conditions as well as blends with a merlot dominance, together with some international examples for comparison. In this particular context, Stellenbosch fruit seemed to lack a bit in freshness unless the grapes were grown at altitude, one of the best performers happened to be Rainbow’s End Merlot 2017 high up in the Banghoek Valley. A very serious example was the Holden Manz Merlot Reserve 2015 with incredible structure from both fruit and wood with a classic savouriness that will only get better over the next 10-15 years. If anyone manages to keep any bottles back until then, they will most likely be rewarded.

The following tasting notes were done with the assistance of Coravin for the wines that were available at the time of the assessments.

Shannon Mount Bullet 2016
Such a smart wine. Seductive. Bright and complex red fruit notes with noticeable cranberry and underlying dark and broody notes, toasted oats, fresh ginger and roasted nuts. The wine is finely textured both from fruit and wood tannin with searing, refreshing acidity and a very well-judged wood type and toast to fit the fruit profile. This is overall a very complete wine and it really excels were many red wines from this vintage struggles to achieve greatness. This vintage of the Mount Bullet will only evolve for the better over the next 6-8 years.

Shannon Mount Bullet 2012
A very good comparison and vision for what 2016 might become. Deeper and darker fruit, spicier, yet with the same bright red fruit in the finish that freshness up the wine. The texture is rounder from age and the fine fruit tannin is polymerised. The wine shows earthier characters from evolution and a deeper spice from the toasting of the wood. Pretty perfect as it is with direct decantation and should be served at 14-15 degrees to retain its balance, otherwise the wood might become prominent. Although the wood to fruit ratio is rather high the 2012 vintage will still evolve into a more savoury direction for another 2-3 years, but it is drinking pretty perfect at this point in time!

Steenberg Merlot 2016
Dominated by a red fruit profile rather than the usual dark fruit, resulting in a brighter, rather refreshing, flavour profile. The wood shows prominence in this vintage due to the lightness and lower acid in the 2016 wines, with the wood profiles character and sweetness resulting in the wine seeming slightly confected. There is a good tannic grip, mostly provided from the wood rather than the fruit. The wine is smoothly textured and should be enjoyed early due to the low fruit structure and dominant wood but will still evolve positively for another 1-2 years. Should be consumed within the next 3-5 years though.

Groot Constantia Merlot 2015
Shows a deep, dark and broody fruit with a savoury, bready undertone from extended lees contact. The wine is very textured, both from a well-managed extraction of fine fruit tannin together with the lees contact and the structure provided from the wood. The ageability of the wine is contextually very good, it will benefit from another 4-6 years of evolution based on the overall structure but should be consumed within the next 10 years.

De Grendel Merlot 2017
Shows slightly more reductive notes but aside from that shows a clear similarity to the Durbanville Hills fruit profile with a dark fruit profile and a fine tannin at higher levels than the Constantia fruit. The wine is clearly youthful and due to its fruit extracted style it will only benefit from a short period of ageing of another 2-4 years and should be enjoyed relatively young.

Durbanville Hills Collectors Reserve The Lighthouse Merlot 2016
Pretty linear and uniform dark fruit profile, bright cassis and blueberry with a clear eucalyptus note. High fruit tannin from well-managed extraction, more so than the Constantia fruit. Marginally higher acidity than the Constantia counterparts. Due to the extraction there is a good concentration but the ageability is related to the fruit forwardness of the cold soaking technique and it will probably not evolve positively for more than 2-3 years and should be enjoyed within the next 5 years.

Creation Reserve Merlot 2016
Ripe and dark fruit profile with slightly elevated notes. Gives all the textural sensation that is expected from merlot. Well judged wood profile that fits the dark and broody fruit but quite generous in wood impact. There is a clever blending of parcels involved with a small but vital core of bright, red fruit that lifts the wine and provides freshness to the finish. Drinks pretty good as is, but will evolve in texture to the benefit for another 2-3 years.

Hartenberg Merlot 2016
Dark, plummy and slightly sweetish, elevated fruit profile. Soft and fruity by Hartenberg standards, presumably due to the weaker vintage. Smart wood management with a subtle and elegant dry spice and toast from the oak influence, which provides most of the structure to the wine. The acidity is relatively mellow and with the structure of the wine in mind, this vintage is better enjoyed young although it might benefit from another 1-2 years of evolution.

Rainbow's End Merlot 2017
Ripe, dark, deep and broody with a savoury undertone. This is one of the highlights of the tasting, very compact and concentrated fruit and although the fruit profile is very much in the dark spectra there is a bright blue fruit character that lifts the wine. This wine has a serious fruit tannin but no notes of greenness, clearly from well-judged extraction well managed, small bunch, fruit in the vineyard. The potential is good, to say the least, positive evolution is expected to be between 5-8 years and the wine really deserves at least 2-3 years before being enjoyed.

De Toren Z (54% Merlot) 2016
The only South African merlot-dominant blend in the lineup and a slightly lighter vintage, due to the 2016’s vintage conditions, than what is usual for this wine. This resulted in the wooding being slightly more upfront and prominent with toasty dry and sweet spice notes followed by the black fruit with notes of blackberry and dark cherries. Due to the delicacy of the fruit in comparison to the wood, the equilibrium of evolution will be relatively narrow and the wine should benefit from developing further for another 2-3 years but should be consumed within 5-6 years before it goes wood dry.

Summary of Event and Thank You to Partners

Overall the Merlot category is promising and it seems like South Africa overall has learnt how to work with the grape. In order to create a single varietal, prime example, cool climates or altitude seems to be necessary or a very quality dedicated and thorough viticultural practice.

Thank you to Great Domaines and Coravin which allows us to access the wine in our own time to write thorough tasting notes as well as all the wine brands that participated in the tasting and making it possible, to begin with.

The South African Sommelier Association