Mention Petrus (from Pomerol, Bordeaux) or Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia (Tuscany) to wine aficionados and expect a collective intake of breath – an “Oh wow, if only I could add that iconic wine to my collection” or “I’d give anything to drink that right now!” moment.
But mention to many others that these prized, world-famous wines are made from Merlot and expect a dismissive shrug of “Whatever”.
Merlot is both revered and reviled. It wasn’t always so. Admired for its combination of black and red fruit and savoury notes, its plushness, softness and approachable tannins, it has featured widely as a varietal in its own right and as a blending partner, especially in Bordeaux-style blends.
It was cresting a worldwide wave of popularity before the advent of Sideways, a 2004 road movie featuring two men approaching middle-age. One, Miles, a schoolteacher and aspiring script writer, is spectacularly disappointed in life and the universe. At one point, he has a Merlot meltdown, threatening: “If anyone drinks Merlot, I’m leaving.”
Surprisingly, for an art-house movie, his sentiment resonated with a huge international audience and for a long time Merlot was left out in the cold, regarded as a no-good, lousy grape for the undiscriminating. Except, of course, by those who knew a whole lot better and continued to champion the fine grape and its wines.
(By the way, Miles was a great Pinot Noir fan and that suddenly it appeared on everyone’s lips, but we’ll keep that story for another day.)
Fortunately, there’s been a major Merlot correction in recent years as the appetite for this worthy grape grows and grows once again, and with good reason. When well made, it yields exquisite flavours of cherries, berries and plums, laced with alluring notes of spicy, cedar and tobacco. It can be savoured solo or in concert with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec or even Carmenère to create a Bordeaux-style blend. (There’s been some claim that DNA tests show Merlot is descended from Cabernet Franc and is a half-sibling of Carmenère, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon.)
South Africa is internationally recognised for the local expression of many of our Merlots, which is why you can expect to be spoiled for choice amongst those in the Vinotèque portfolio. We also have a particularly noteworthy Bordeaux-style blend to feature Merlot in the 2020 Zonnebloem Lauréat. The full-bodied, luscious wine was a gold medallist in the recent 2023 Red Blend Challenge.
It combines Cabernet Sauvignon (45%), Merlot (41%) and Petit Verdot (14%), individually vinified and then aged for 14 months in a selection of French, Hungarian and American oak barrels. The wine’s red and black fruit and chocolatey aromas herald a rich and vibrant palate of berries, chocolate and cedar with a velvety mouthfeel and lingering taste.
It’s going to be hard to resist opening a bottle this autumn or winter but perhaps you can indulge just a little, while keeping some bottles back for further cellaring. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
And here’s a fun fact: The grape supposedly takes its name from merle, the French word for blackbird because of the blue-black hue of the grape skins. But there’s another theory that the name refers to those same little blackbirds who love to love Merlot!