A tale of small berries


In South African wine circles it’s not often that one hears Merlot spoken about in hushed tones. Yet there appears to be cautious optimism about it this year. Actually, some winemakers were not so cautious: Rianie Strydom said the Merlot grapes that hit the Dombeya and Haskell winery in Stellenbosch “was the best Merlot I’ve seen in my winemaking career”.

The frequent criticism of Merlot in the local context is that it displays green vegetal and leafy flavours and lacks generosity of fruit – something which is hard to reconcile with the consumer perception that Merlot is easy to drink and approachable, a soft and gentle wine for red wine beginners.

Holden Manz winemaker Karl Lambour said he’d been blown away by the potential quality of the Merlot. “The berries have been really small but with beautifully ripe, super-polymerised tannins” he said. “We are seeing anthocyanin levels which are stupendous! They’ve got Andy Roediger going ‘Wow!’ which is really something.” (Cape Wine Master Andy Roediger did his thesis on anthocyanin levels and phenolic ripeness as an indicator of ultimate wine quality.)

Fellow Franschhoek winemaker, Irene Waller at La Bri also had nothing but praise for Merlot. “Merlot gets a lot of stick for green flavour but we’re not seeing it this year.” Lambour attributed the ripeness to additional time on the vine with harvest being a week to 10 days later than usual. “Everyone thinks Franschhoek is hot because we get heat spikes in February – and they’re higher and hotter than elsewhere because the whole valley is in a cauldron surrounded by mountains, but they don’t last long.” He also said the nights had been cool.

Cool nights providing a respite for the grapes is what James Downes of Shannon Vineyards in Elgin honed in on when asked for his opinion of Merlot in 2012. “We had a cool start to the vintage with slow ripening – a bit of heat wave in January but the Merlot hadn’t gone through veraison at that point so it wasn’t really affected but it’s the cool nights in February which have been stunning.”

Downes said there were 14 nights in February where temperatures of below 13 degrees were logged. “In fact the coldest night was on February 15 when we logged 8.8 degrees. And that’s usually a month when you battle to sleep at night because it’s so hot!” Along with that Downes praised the lowish alcohols, good sugars and low pHs. “I’m very very happy.”

The small berried bunches, high ratio of skin to fruit and ripe tannins was something else consultant winemaker Mark Carmichael-Green praised. “Some of the best Merlot I’ve seen in years.”

Further afield, Tulbagh winemaker Dewald Heyns of Saronsberg said he was “cautiously optimistic”. “You know me, I’m always sceptical and negative about the wine until the end of the year when it’s been in the cellar for a while and is truly starting to show its colours – but…all the Bordeaux varietals looked phenomenal. Last year was probably the best Merlot I’ve made in my career – and with hindsight I should probably have given it a bit more time on the vine.” Positive factors for Heyns? Smaller berries and ripe tannins at lower sugar levels. “I even adjusted the gaps on my sorting tables to accommodate the smaller berries.”

In Stellenbosch, Meerlust’s Chris Williams said it was a little early to make pronouncements but his experience had been that Merlot tasted wonderful in the vineyard but really needed “a year or two for those edges to show.”

Williams said he was pleased with the analyses of the grapes he’d taken in. “All the indicators for good potential are there”. He prounounced himself happy with ripeness and sugar levels as well as the consistency of the ripening.

Hillcrest is regarded as one of Durbanville’s top Merlot producers and winemaker Graeme Read said the slow ripening had been a good thing. “I’m quite happy. It’s a bit lighter in body than in previous years but the wines we’ll make will be fruit-driven, with good colour and the really interesting thing is that everyone’s talking about the naturally lower alcohols on Merlot this year.”

Nobody’s talking “vintage of a decade or lifetime” here, but there is optimism about – and, for once, it’s potentially good news about Merlot.

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