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Merlot in Australia vs Pétrus

"Merlot can be velvety and plummy, or rich and oaky. There’s something for everyone, which is why Merlot is adored." Wine Enthusiast

Yes we all know about Sideways and the rubbishing of merlot in favour of pinot noir and the subsequent fall of merlot from grace, but actually was it as important as some say?

It's certainly true that 'amateur' connoisseurs and indeed some 'professional' connoisseurs will, indeed rubbish merlot, so much so that one is almost intimidated into not daring to give it a try. Even Wikipedia rather snootily says:

"The popularity of Merlot stemmed in part from the relative ease in pronouncing the name of the wine as well as its softer, fruity profile that made it more approachable to some wine drinkers." Wikipedia

Come on - what's so hard to pronounce about pinot or shiraz? And why does soft and fruity mean that it's not worth considering. Although women are not mentioned - not politically correct after all - I suspect that merlot is considered to be the red wine of choice for women.

Besides merlot - 100% merlot since 2010 - is the grape used in one of the world's most expensive wines - Chateau Pétrus from the Pomerol appellation of Bordeaux. You can pay upwards of $3000 for a bottle of this. So it's got to be good doesn't it?

"Regardless of the effect the movie had, the bottom line is that bad, good and sublime Merlot exists, and because of the latter, Merlot is making a comeback." Wine Enthusiast

Also, world-wide, including here in Australia, merlot is the 2nd or maybe 3rd (there seemed to be some disagreement on this) most cultivated grape i.e. most acres grown. Yes some of it is blended with other grapes - a typical Bordeaux blend generally contains some merlot, but it is also a wine variety in its own right.

"Its softness and "fleshiness", combined with its earlier ripening, makes Merlot a popular grape for blending with the sterner, later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, which tends to be higher in tannin." Wikipedia

They said that merlot sales dropped enormously after that film, but others say that no it was declining in popularity at the time due to overplanting and a multiplicity of bad wines, or that it was more a rise in the popularity of pinot noir than a fall in the popularity of merlot - admittedly due to the film. One was swapped for the other. I also think that at the time - in America - where the fall was noted, there was also some problem with the disease which led, the Australians to plant more merlot for export to America. I'm not sure about this though.

So what is merlot? Well it is a very dark skinned grape that grows in loose bunches. It's a cross between Cabernet Franc, and an almost extinct grape called Noire des Charentes, which was found grown decoratively in a very few neighbouring villages in France. In America (and probably elsewhere) they have continued to hybridise merlot itself with all manner of other grapes that I have never heard of. Merlot itself is first mentioned by name in 1784, but it was really in the early nineteenth century that it became well-known and part of the Bordeaux blend. The name is from 'merle' which means blackbird and was adopted either because of the dark colour or because the birds liked to eat them.

Here in Australia it seems the first vines were planted as late as 1923 - well maybe, but more clearly in 1965 some was imported from California - from UC Davis. There was reference made to a 'notorious' 03V14 clone but I couldn't find out anything more about this. It was really in the 1990s that the growth of merlot plantings began, and one of the major instigators was Jim Irvine of the Barossa winery Irvine wines. He was followed by Petaluma's Brian Croser who decided that Coonawarra was the best place to grow merlot and so he took over Len Evans winery for the purpose.

"While planted all over, this varietal favours cooler regions. Coonawarra is recognised as one of the best Australian regions for merlot, with most wines from here resplendent in sweet berry flavours and a silky elegance." Halliday Wine Companion Online

I can't tell you which is the best Australian merlot - there are lots of lists out there and they are all different. Suffice to say:

"Although it’s sneered at by amateur connoisseurs who know enough about wine to tell when a vintage is crap, but not enough to pick the right bottle in the first place, Merlot is one of Australia’s best reds—if you know where to look." D'Marge


“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

So what does it taste like? Well again, everyone will say something different, but this chart from Wine Selectors is a good place to start. Mind you I see no mention of spice there and several sites I saw mentioned spice. Plum seemed to be pretty common though.

"The "International style" favored by many New World wine regions tends to emphasize late harvesting to gain physiological ripeness and produce inky, purple colored wines that are full in body with high alcohol and lush, velvety tannins with intense, plum and blackberry fruit. While this international style is practiced by many Bordeaux wine producers, the traditional "Bordeaux style" of Merlot involves harvesting Merlot earlier to maintain acidity and producing more medium-bodied wines with moderate alcohol levels that have fresh, red fruit flavors (raspberries, strawberries) and potentially leafy, vegetal notes. Wikipedia

As to colour - somewhere between pinot and cabernet I believe with:

"One indicator that you’ve got Merlot in the glass is the glint of brick/orange tones on the rim." Wine enthusiast.

But what of that very expensive Pétrus wine - not that any of us are about to taste any of that?

Chateau Pétrus is the most renowned label in the Pomerol appellation. There is no village of Pomerol, just a church. The houses are all on the vineyards - well they all had to go to church somewhere didn't they.

Its history is really quite interesting and relatively recent. Yes vines were grown here as far back as 1750 but it wasn't until the 1920's when a Madame Laboud, owner of a restaurant in the nearby town of Libourne quietly began buying shares in the property until she owned the lot. She took on Jean-Pierre Moueix to manage the estate but left him just one share of the property when she died in 1961. The rest went to her niece and nephew. But like his boss, Jean-Pierre Moueix bought them out and his family still owns the property - actually a relatively modest looking chateau.

But very expensively run. The grapes are hand picked, berry by berry, and the same meticulous discriminating procedures continue throughout the whole process. Helicopters are called in to dry the grapes if they get too wet.

As I was looking for pictures to illustrate this post I came across a very informative post on an American website called SpitBucket in which the author, Amber LeBeau described the 'bucket list' achievement of drinking a bottle of 2006 Chateau Pétrus merlot, which had cost him $2600 (American dollars). He also gave a lot of information about the vineyard itself, some of which I have repeated.

Why is Pétrus so special? After all Oz Clarke said that is situated on

“…one of the muddiest, most clay-clogged pieces of land my shoes have ever had the ill luck to slither through.” Oz Clarke

Although Mr. LeBeau puts it slightly differently:

"Pétrus sits on a “button-hole” of blue muddy clay which covers a subsoil of gravel that is followed underneath by a virtually impenetrable layer of hard iron-rich crasse de fer. The soil is around 40 million years old compared to the 1 million-year-old gravel soils surrounding the Pomerol plateau. The dense, hard smectite clay causes the vine to struggle as its roots cannot penetrate deep.  However, the soil amply retains moisture. This trait becomes invaluable during warm years and dry summer months when the risk of hydraulic stress is high."

Which is interesting because of Jim Irvine's comments quoted earlier on, that state that merlot should not be grown in clay, and the following from Wine Selectors:

"Merlot does possess a reputation for being difficult to grow. The soil, drainage, amount of wind and sunshine all need to be perfect or else the grapes may not fully ripen, resulting in a bitter, sour taste. " Wine Selectors

So is the expense of a Premier cru (no it's not a Grand cru) wine worth it? It probably depends on how much money you have. After all to a billionaire around $3000 for a bottle of wine is peanuts. For some $5.00 is too much. So it's all relative. I am assuming that Amber LeBeau is relatively well off with a few passions - that include wine. He ultimately compared it to actually going to the Super Bowl (I assume an expensive experience) rather than watching it on television or going to the local high school game.

"It truly is a remarkable wine that enchants you as it continuously evolves in your glass. Not just hour by hour but sip by sip."

"no one needs to attend the Super Bowl just like no one needs to try Pétrus. There are a lot of great football games at all different levels. Likewise, there are lots of great wines at all different price points. Whether or not it is “worth it” is purely about how much the experience means to you."

If you are really into red wine, well wine really, you would really like to know would you not, what the one considered the best in the world of that variety, tastes like? And if you could just afford it, then why not?

Or you could try the best Australian merlot - whichever one that is.


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