Reputation Rescue for Merlot

© Cape Times Friday 19th April 2013

When Miles completely rubbished Merlot in the movie ‘Sideways’, he opened the door to a whole host of bandwagon-jumpers who have so far failed to change their view that the grape is either blowsy and over-ripe or lean, green and under-ripe. Poor Merlot – it seems it just can‘t win either way and whereas most of the drinking public like the former style, the critics dismiss both as equally inferior. Here in SA, that has been very much the case – hang around any public gathering of wine cognoscenti and you are bound to hear “Oh I don’t think there IS such a thing as a good South African Merlot” crop up in conversation at some point or another. Is this true? Can we really not make good Merlot in South Africa? Or do we just need to try a little bit harder.

One person who knows how hard you have to try to make great Merlot is Peter de Wet from De Wetshof Wines. It was never going to be easy taking over the winemaking from his father Danie, one of the people who’ve helped shape the SA wine industry over the years, but Peter has no intentions of sitting back on his laurels and merely recreating his father’s wines year after year. He’s already persuaded him to add a bubbly to the portfolio (the 2008 Pinot Noir is deliciously savoury and more-ish at R190 a bottle) and his newest project is a red wine made from mainly Merlot.

After working vintages in St Emilion, Peter had plenty of experience with the variety, specifically where it should and should not be grown. Accordingly he felt sure he could improve the quality of a particular Merlot vineyard and with the help of American viticulturist Phil Freese, he was finally given carte blanche by Danie (“Everything new generally starts with an argument between me and my dad!”) to make the necessary changes in the way the vineyard was managed. The vineyard is still young – only 8 years old when the first vintage of this wine was made – and Peter feels they have already made improvements since then.

The site has deep, clay soils which are perfect for Merlot and throughout the journey, Peter has striven to capture the site in the wine – the essential quality that is ‘terroir’. The new wine is called Thibault after the legendary architect of the Koopmans de Wet House in Cape Town, on which the De Wetshof winery building is based, and is 94% Merlot with just a little Cabernet Sauvignon added for backbone. The 2009 is for sale from the farm for R250 and will hopefully shut a lot of Merlot nay-sayers up with its dark berry fruit, hints of coffee and chocolate and long smoky finish.

Because it isn’t Chardonnay, the wine won’t be labelled as ‘De Wetshof’, emphasising the fact that this is somewhat of a departure from the norm both for the farm and the Robertson valley where Chardonnay is indisputably the white grape of choice. Another area better known for Chardonnay is the Hemel en Aarde valley and interestingly enough, the only Bordeaux blend currently made there is also mainly Merlot. It comes from Creation Wines and is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot 2011 (R144 from the farm). The secret to its success (apart from the pristine, cool-climate vines) is actually the addition of 15% Petit Verdot, adding a perfumed, aromatic quality to the wine which lifts it out of any line-up, but it is the 50% Merlot adding richness and generosity which leaves the final impression. Two fine examples of why the maligning of Merlot must cease – bring on the blends!