Merlot outsells all other single red wine varieties in South Africa, yet it is given a wide berth by the pundits. For popularity among the general public and commercial success are not deemed being critically hip, nor trendy. To misquote the late great Yogi Berra: who wants to encourage people to drink something everybody else is drinking?
Oh, wait, apparently there is a reason why Merlot is sniffed at in some informed wine circles. This be an assumption the variety does not ripen properly in South Africa. Something about Merlot showing “green” and “weedy” notes.
If this were true, surely Merlot would not find its way into those kick-ass South African Bordeaux blends, after Cabernet Sauvignon our strongest red wine category? Kanonkop Paul Sauer, Meerlust Rubicon, Simonsig Tiara……with a Merlot component that is green and weedy?
Get out of town.
Why, had me two great Merlots just the other day. Backsberg Merlot 2015 is, of course, from the vintage that can only be described as a “koekhou”. Down Backsberg way in 2015 the berries ripened long and slow, spurred on by some glowingly warm days offset by fresh evenings.
In this Merlot wine, varietal expression is as precise as a body blow from a white-shirted parliamentary security-guard. The tell-tale whiff of savoury and leather is evident and pronounced, so much so it can be detected from Robben Island. In the mouth the Backsberg offers something many Merlot-lovers don’t admit, which is a run of exciting power and muscle. Although aged in third-fill French oak, this wine attacks the palate with woema and verve, presenting the eye-watering grip a Texan virgin employs while trying to stay atop her new bronco stallion during the Yakuma Bareback Rodeo.
The power and inky intenseness opens up to a veritable Eden of juicy dark and red fruit. There are plums, soft and plush, while raspberries provide threads of edgy acidity and poached blackberries offer a plush, palate-coaxing sensation. Finishing long and full, this is a Merlot for steak tartare, chopped liver and dishes containing offal and blood.
Jordan’s Black Magic 2014 is another animal of a Merlot. The name does not allude to Jacob Zuma’s ability to maintain his gaggle of wives. Nor to practises on Jordan Estate involving severed chicken heads, manic dancing under a full-moon and naked bodies smeared with organic cow dung.
Non. Here the “Black” comes from the colour of the soils the vines grow in, namely the tourmaline – yes, that one – coupled with granite. As granite-soils tend to do, the wine is aired and light, with a definite floral and perfume component.
The Merlot spent 16 months in a combination of new and 2nd fill wood, and is very broad as it enters the palate. Full and complete, initially, but then the vitality and life take over, allowing a sense of wonder to get its grip on your senses.
This is definitely a Merlot of the more delicate and succulent kind, offering enticing flavours in a wine that is simply gorgeous to drink. There is some typically brooding Merlot fruit with waft of cigar box. But then tastes of spice, mince-pie and slightly stewed fruit take over, lifted by a squirt of autumnal cleanliness that envelopes the senses and leaves the mouth with a clean, brisk finish.
And that is why the sun’s never going to set on Merlot.
· Lafras Huguenet