As chardonnay is to sauvignon blanc, so merlot is to shiraz. The former is often considered the Cinderella to the striking (and very popular) sister. We are undoubtedly in the thrall of a sauvignon blanc craze, and when it comes to reds, we crave shiraz. In terms of new plantings and media attention, they are indisputably the darlings.
Nevertheless, on dinner tables and at those times when a variety of wines are standing about, waiting to be drunk, chardonnay and merlot donâ€™t do too badly for themselves. Perhaps itâ€™s their flavour, it almost certainly has something to do with their image â€“ as being smooth easy-drinkers.
Merlot, according to many wine commentators, is our weakest red wine category. It is accused of being thin and tart, lacking intensity and generally forgettable. The worst accusation is that it shows green, overly vegetal, notes. But often I suspect that this is because we are expecting a naturally lighter, leaner red to be a blockbuster like shiraz and cabernet. What can be surprising about merlot is that, although itâ€™s regarded as easy-drinking, itâ€™s often quite tannic and unyielding in its youth.
Here are some thoughts on recent merlots Iâ€™ve tried:
Villiera Merlot 2005 is just what a medium-bodied red should be, fresh and perky, with mineral notes and a little earthiness â€“ in other words far from the big berries of, say, many cabs. This wine drinks well, especially with food. Another real winner is the regular Blaauwklippen 2005, with wonderful elegance and fruit. De Grendelâ€™s 2005 is on the other end of the spectrum, a big, bold and very extracted wine that seems to miss the earthy, mineral merlot zone by going for generosity. It divided the table, many loved it, and others thought it was a rather generic modern red wine.
Kloovenburg Merlot 2005 is an even riper version of the grape, packed with deep cherry fruit and charry oak. It features an incredibly dense palate but one that has surprisingly little length â€“ the wine has sacrificed elegance and acidity for alcohol and power. Again right on the other end of the scale is the Glenwood Merlot 2005 which weighs in at a far more respectable alcohol level of around 13,5%. This wine is very fresh, with taut acids that make the wine more and more austere as you drink it. Wines like these really depend on food.
Then one of the unluckiest merlots of 2005 is the Durbanville Hills Rhinofields, with such intense menthol, herbal notes I could only say it must be good for you because it tasted like medicine. Conclusions? This quick sampling of recent merlots really bears out the notion that you have to choose carefully if you want all-round pleasure â€“ something that merlot blends usually offer.