Ah, poor old Merlot. A grape variety that has been derided in Hollywood movies and shunned from the limelight on wine lists across Australia. Despite this it is one of Australia’s favourite red varieties according to research from Wine Intelligence. Merlot is one of the most popular red wine varieties in the UK and is the second most popular red variety in the USA after Cabernet Sauvignon.
So why is the variety so popular with consumers but shunned by the wine cognoscenti? The prevalence of supposedly poor-quality Merlot clones in Australia regularly gets a run as one of the key reasons. Others think that the variety isn’t given the love and attention in the vineyard and winery like that lavished upon wine darlings like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
But if you look past the rumours and accusations you’ll find that Merlot has never been in better shape in Australia than it is today. Exciting wines from a diverse range of Australian regions are helping to reshape perceptions of this perennially popular grape.
The (relatively short) history of Merlot in Australia
Normally when we focus on the story behind a grape variety in Australia we start with the story of James Busby and his famed journey to Europe in the 1800s. Things are a little different when it comes to Merlot. There are no precious old vine resources to discuss. No romantic stories of cuttings being sourced from the famous Merlot vineyards of Chateau Petrus.
Instead the Merlot story in Australia really gets started in 1965 despite plantings being reported as early as 1923. Rather than coming from the traditional heartland of Merlot in Bordeaux, Australia’s first major plantings of Merlot were sourced from UC Davis in California. It’s here that we first meet our infamous friend, the D3V14 clone of Merlot. This clone would go on to be the most widely planted clone in Australia and the source of much debate and consternation.
But more on that later… For many years Merlot was merely a minor player in Australia. The variety didn’t even register in official records of tonnes crushed in Australia until 1987. Up until 1992 Merlot languished below Mataro in the charts of tonnage of grapes crushed. Then everything changed.
Merlot rides the wave of the Great Australian Wine Boom
Timing is everything and it must be said that the timing of Merlot’s plantings in Australia was impeccable. Australian wine exports peaked in 1937 at 18 million litres and didn’t regain those numbers until the breakthrough year of 1986/87 hitting 21.1 million litres. To give some idea of the size and scope of the boom in Australian wine in the 1990s this figure had grown to 119.9 million litres in 1994. And it didn’t stop there reaching a peak of 786 million litres in 2007.
Just as the Australian wine community experienced unprecedented growth so too did Merlot, growing from just 1,000 tonnes crushed in 1987 to 6037 tonnes in 1995 to a phenomenal 112,000 tonnes in 2016 It would be foolhardy to argue that all additional plantings and production were devoted to premium Merlot production. But this explosion also introduced the variety to Australian winemakers whose passion for the variety would produce stunning wines in the years to come.
The King of Australian Merlot holds court
When it comes to tireless promoters of the joys of Australian Merlot you would be hard pressed to find someone more passionate than Jim Irvine. Jim’s family have a long tradition of fine wine making in the Barossa, with Jim a veteran of more than 60 vintages in the region. While several varieties are lovingly grown and made by the family, it’s Merlot where Jim’s passion truly lies.
As could be expected for someone so passionate about Merlot, Jim doesn’t take a backwards step when asked to discuss the reasons for Merlot’s perception problems in Australia. He doesn’t blame the D3V14 clone, responsible for making up the majority of the grapes his highly successful, award-winning Merlots. Instead he believes that poor site selection, young vine age and the lack of understanding of the variety by winemakers are the key culprits.
“So much Merlot in Australia is planted on the wrong sites — people expect that it will just grow like Shiraz or Grenache, but it doesn’t — it hates wet feet, for a start, it needs well-drained soil, so if you plant it in clay you’ll have problems, the fruit won’t set properly. The day will come when we get rid of the Merlots that are lean, green and mean, the poorly made Merlots — they’re a damnation. Merlot has a hard enough time being heard above the cacophony of Shiraz.”
Jim Irvine, Irvine Wines interviewed for Mad for merlot by Blair Speedy
Regions and producers shining a light on Australian Merlot
Jim Irvine isn’t alone in making thrilling examples of terroir driven Australian Merlot from special sites. Brian Croser is renowned around the world for his ability to identify special sites for grape growing. During his time at Petaluma he identified the Evans Vineyard in Coonawarra as a special site for growing Merlot (and Cabernet Sauvignon). He purchased the vineyard from Len Evans in 1978 and released the first varietal Petaluma Merlot in 1990. The wine has gained a reputation for long-lived elegance and finesse, with current Petaluma chief winemaker Andrew Hardy building on this reputation since taking the reins in 2004.
It’s not just classic Australian wineries that have made waves with Australian Merlot. Formerly one of NYC’s top sommeliers, Brad Hickey has made an instant impact on the fine Australian wine label with his Brash Higgins label. He has a reputation for pushing the boundaries with interesting varieties and winemaking methods, and his MRLO (Merlot blended with 10% Nero d’Avola for ‘added acidity, tannin and a touch of the exotic’) is no exception. The grapes for the wine come from the Lennon vineyard in McLaren Vale and are fermented in a combination of clay amphora and open top fermenters. After pressing, the wine is settled and then aged for nine months in the clay amphora. Not your usual Merlot but just the type of wine that is reshaping perceptions about Australian wine now and into the future.
The future’s bright, the future is Merlot?
After a difficult start to life in Australia, Merlot is just starting to deliver on the promise of the potential to become one of Australia’s great grape varieties. Each year special sites for the variety are being identified in regions like Coonawarra, Margaret River, McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley. Each year winemakers are understanding more and more about how best to work with the variety in the vineyard and in the winery. Each year the vineyard sites across Australia get that little bit older, moving past the difficult teen years becoming more balanced and mature. Merlot exports have grown from 6 million litres in 2000 to over 60 million litres in 2016.
Classic winemakers are making exceptional examples of Australian Merlot while avant garde and experimental winemakers are breathing new life into the variety. With Merlot vying with Shiraz for the title of Australia’s favourite red variety, being one of the most popular wine varieties in the UK and the second most popular red variety in the USA there is great potential for Australian Merlot to find success at home and abroad in the coming years. Exciting times ahead for a variety that continues to defy the doubters!
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