The right bank Bordeaux appellations of Pomerol and St Emilion have built their reputations on merlot dominant wines. Pomerol’s Château Pétrus, for example, is regarded as the penultimate expression of merlot and is one of the world’s most expensive wines. (See Château Pétrus 1990: Is it worth the price?, Cellarit Wine Blog, 11 August 2011)
But what about Australian merlot? I don’t think too many people would have trouble naming Australia’s top shiraz, cabernet sauvignon or even pinot noir wines, but can you name our top merlots? In fact, not a single merlot dominant wine is represented in Langton’s 2010 Classification of Australian Wine V – widely regarded as the definitive list of Australia’s most collectible wines.
Australia has clearly demonstrated its mastery of other Bordeaux styles. Superb cabernet sauvignon blends from the Margaret River, such as the Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon for example, have outclassed the very finest competition from Bordeaux in blind tastings and competitions. (See Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon: A World Class Wine, Cellarit Wine Blog, 25 February 20111)
Typically in Australia merlot is blended with cabernet sauvignon, as the generous plummy fruit and soft tannins of merlot fill in cabernet sauvignon’s mid-palate and soften its harder tannins.
Eden Valley’s Irvine Wines stands out in the Australian wine landscape for its absolute commitment to making world class merlot. Its website documents years of research, careful planning and experimentation with the variety.
The real challenge for makers of fine merlot is to add complexity, depth and structure to the variety’s fleshy full fruit characters. For its flagship James Irvine Grand Merlot, Irvine Wines has experimented with various elements, such as ripeness levels, ferment temperatures, extended maturation on skins and oak selection, to create a wine that references the great wines of Pomerol and St Emilion but it also distinctly Australian in character. Winemaker Jim Irvine notes that:
The changes have resulted in a more complex wine than usual with tobacco/leather overtones above the plummy bouquet. Deeper tannins have added to the palate, firming the end but still leaving the plum fruitiness in mid-palate. There is a light pepperiness which adds to the overall kaleidoscope of the bouquet. The grandness in all this mostly refers to the completeness of the wine and its ability to express itself in a totally prestigious way.
One thing I’ve learned about merlot is that you need to give it time to evolve. The prized earthy and savoury overtones that add complexity and vibrancy to merlot’s plummy fruit bouquet develop with bottle age, and the best merlots should probably be cellared for at least 10 years. Irvine Wines also recommends that fine merlot be decanted for at least two hours before drinking.
Back vintages of Irvine Wines James Irvine Grand Merlot are available on the Cellarit Wine Market.