South Africa has a number of wine groupings each representing and promoting specific grape cultivars, the activities of whom vary from blossoming and busy to cold and dormant. On the blossoming side, the Merlot Forum is headed up by an energetic bunch of wine makers keen to underscore the fact that Merlot is not only South Africa’s most-consumed red cultivar, but also one deserving a reputation as a variety of quality.
While doing some exhaustive research so as to be of service to the informed readers of this publication, it was quite amazing to see how little has been written, spoken and sung about South African Merlot wine. There are reams of missives on Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc and little-known, trendy bottles made from weird grapes like Verdelho and Palomino, but the Merlot voices are largely silent.
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?
Hindsight brings wisdom, so it is only now that I am truly beginning to get what Mike Ratcliffe and his team were on about with Vilafonté. It was in 2005, at a gathering of the Wine Swines – the most famous wine-tasting circle in South Africa – that Mike used the word “luxury brand” to introduce a thing called Vilafonté which he was driving together with Californians Phil Freese and Zelma Long. It was the maiden 2003 vintage of the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Vilafonté “C” and the more Merlot-ish “M”.
Despite the centuries of blue-blooded Cape wineland culture resonating from its splendid buildings and vineyards, there is something wild and sparse about Meerlust that intrigues me. As if the entrance gate next to the dam is a frontier post, beckoning those who have crossed wild, unwelcoming terrain from Cape Town and is now about to take the first steps into the amicable palm of Stellenbosch’s wine region.
South African Merlot gets a lot of bad press, mainly because of some fourth-hand message alluding to the grape’s greenness and inability to ripen properly in this neck of the woods. Someone mentioned this somewhere, it sounded quotable and opinionated, so after having gone viral the skewed assumption has been taken as gospel. It is, of course, not worth the Chinese iPhone knock-off it was mentioned on.
I love a winter vineyard. There is just something magical about the starkness of the gnarled, leafless vines and their bewitching tentacles that strikes a chord with my heritage which is one where the tracks of cold country European wanderers lie etched in the annals of meaningless history.
Yes we can. Viognier, South African that is, is deliciously drinkable. But then again, whoever said it wasn’t?
Like Merlot, Viognier has been victim of the shallow throwaway line: “We can’t make that in South Africa.” Said thrower then goes on to pontificate about “excessive greenness”, a perceived hiccup in Merlot’s ripening procedure under South African conditions. Really? So how, pray, is the country making such sterling Bordeaux-style blends if the Merlot is deemed to be so tart?