Make a Merlot out of It

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.

Our nation’s Merlot wine is ripe and delicious. Smooth as a nun’s thigh, soft as a fallen peach, Merlot adds a velvet cloak to many a blend, and on its own has introduced numerous former tannin-allergists to the wonders of a full noble red wine. If the wine is green and weedy, it is due to poor wine-making and not the grape’s fault.


I encountered two very delectable Merlots this week, both complemented by some age. First-up was a Merlot-led blend, the Lourens River Valley from Morgenster, this one from the comet 2003 vintage. Along with the great vintage – characterised by long, temperate ripening season in the Helderberg – one must take into account the diligence and perfection of the approach of all things vinous on Morgenster.

The Lourens River Valley 2003 was at its peak with an enticing fragrance of candy-store and musk-scented perfume. The palate was full and complete with tannins rounder than a bull’s balls before a Texas rodeo. Flavours of blackcurrant pastille were met with tufts of sagebrush, a lick of rose petal and dollops of wild, ripe strawberries of the “seven francs a kilo” variety Bryan Ferry sang about.

Almost promiscuous in its accessibility, the wine oozed Pomerol, but without the excessive confected characters one finds from the vines growing on the Left Bank’s sunny eastern slopes.

meerlust merlot

The above was a true feminine wine of the Rubenesque kind, while my second Merlot moment came from something more manly and meaty. Meerlust it was, and the gold labelled Merlot from the 1996 vintage.

The label is a bit Liberace for my liking, but the wine inside that bottle was red-blooded, muscled and loud, showing another side of the Merlot grape.

I don’t know if the age had a role to play, but the Meerlust had a salty-savoury umami-thing going which was knee-trembling stuff. The fruit was more suppressed, with concentrated fig paste, de-sugared quince jelly and crushed cherry hiding in the wings. Here, however, more adult feral notes of cooked deer hoof and lynx sweat came to the fore, off-set by black truffle and pine needle.

The kicker was the wine’s wonderful freshness after 18 years in the bottle. Not a hint of oxidation or Port-iness, the colour still violin and as seductive as the scent and flavours.

Trawling for South African great wines, you will be missing a good Merlot at your peril.

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