The one scene almost everyone remembers from the movie Sideways – other than the downing of the spittoon – is the one where Merlot is slagged off by the main protagonist. Merlot sales in the United States plummeted as a result…
Sadly, South African Merlot really hasn’t performed as well as it could or should do. While consumers love it and believe it to be the most approachable red wine around, the reality is that single varietal Merlot is not great. It’s quite hard and unyielding in texture and all too often quite tannic and vegetal or green in flavour. A multitude of theories abound – “planted in the wrong places”, “must have a bit of clay for water retention”, “no-one really focuses any attention on it”… all of which are true. Yet renowned viticulturist Phil Freese is of the opinion that South Africa has “near ideal growing conditions for Bordeaux varietals – that’s why we own a farm here and not in California!” He and partner Zelma Long give Merlot (along with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc and also Malbec) the attention it deserves at their Vilafonté operation near Paarl.
Just how close to the mark the explanations are was brought home this week during a tasting of Vilafonté Series C and Series M, along with their respective component parts. The level of detail that Long and Freese, along with winemaker Martin Smith and vineyard manager Edward Pietersen, bring to bear is astounding. Long gave a virtual masterclass to the media, turning things on their head and starting in the glass and then working back to the vineyard. Many wine producers pay lip service to ‘attention to detail’ – Vilafonté lives it! We’ve seen the spreadsheets…
Freese and Pietersen detailed how some “poor unsuspecting student usually” is tasked with doing the berry sampling in the lead up to harvest. A representative sample of 500 berries per vineyard block per day is the mission, all of which are individually weighed and measured. This is correlated graphically. Long referred to an analysis of Vilafonté’s Merlot vs the average Merlot over a number of vintages. Interesting to note that local laboratory VinLab couldn’t initially do the testing required and it took them two seasons to refine their methodology. “But once they knew what we wanted with regard to anthocyanins, tannins and physiological ripeness levels they were great,” Long said.
Looking at the 2007 vintage, Long listed the average individual berry weight, tannin level, total anthocyanin and extractable anthocyanin levels. The fascinating thing was that Vilafonté’s Merlot berries were smaller (1.04g per berry vs 1.43g), higher in tannin (86 vs 71) and higher in both total and extractable anthocyanins (1922 and 842 vs 1666 and 757). It was pointed out that the industry sample Vilafonté was compared to comprised the total producers who had their samples analysed by VinLab – not the SA industry as a whole. What that translates to is Merlot that is what it’s supposed to be – soft, supple, fleshy and packed with black fruit rather than the rather hard, green and vegetal examples which have given SA Merlot a bad rap. The 2010 Merlot, which Long is in Stellenbosch to blend with Smith for the Series M, is unbelievably textured – rounded, full, silky smooth and packed with succulence and abundant black berry flavour and cocoa.
Freese also pointed out the climatic differences between SA and California. “There’s a higher day and lower night time temperature experienced in California while the relative humidity in South Africa plays more of a positive role.” He also said the same clones which Vilafonté planted – Merlot clones 343 and 348 – produce vastly different results. “In California there is almost no difference in the flavour profile of the wines they make whereas in Vilafonté they are marked. It all has to do with soil and growing conditions.”
And that’s just the info on Merlot…their spreadsheet detailing their wooding regime is amazing! “But we’ve done this at Vilafonté for 11 years now and we’re constantly refining our processes,” Long said.