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Australia’s top not-so-mellow Merlots

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“My name is Sue! How do you do!” roared Johnny Cash at the dirty, mangy dog of a Dad that named him Sue. If I was Merlot, I’d feel the same about whoever gave me that wussy moniker. Not that it was meant to be an insult. In Merlot’s case, the name was more of a warning to the grower. A soft-skinned, mould-prone, early-ripening member of the Cabernet family, Merlot seems to have got its name because the merle – the blackbird, or its thrush-family songbird relatives – ate it first.

The blackbird has good reason to have the irrits about being called Turdus merula. While it does play in the manured end of the garden, its voice is prettier than Johnny Cash’s, if not quite in the class of Australia’s grey shrikethrush, which is even more prettily called Colluricincla harmonica.

One big reason for searching the honky-tonks and bars to kill the man who gave it that awful name is that somehow, in the United States, Merlot became a synonym for mellow.  Which to me would be more insulting than Sue. Sure, you can make Merlot mellow, but you can do the same with Coke if you make it sweet and dumb enough.

It’s fitting that when Johnny met his old man dealing stud he was in an old saloon on a street of mud.

While Merlot doesn’t like to have a wet canopy, it thrives best with cold wet feet, provided the water doesn’t sit: it must drain; it must move. Which may be why what I thought was one of Australia’s best Merlot patches was in the clay at the bottom of the Jud’s Hill vineyard in Clare, where all the moisture of that bony hill funnelled through.

When he bought the vineyard from his uncle Brian, for sensible economic reasons Peter Barry removed those vines. Merlot, let’s face it, was on the nose in the premium marketplace because few Australians grow or make it well. But that was one patch of king-hell Merlot.

If the leafy, tannic, austere Cabernet sauvignon hadn’t somehow evolved from the more entertaining Cabernet franc, Merlot may never have been seen to be mellow, in name or mood. It’s all a matter of contrast. Cabernet often smells good, but apart from the likes of Wendouree, most of it’s as amusing as John Calvin, and it probably wouldn’t have proliferated to anywhere near its current extent if it didn’t grow like a weed. Its profusion, to me, has much more to do with its thick Protestant skin and its resistance to disease than anything to do with gastronomy. Cabernet sauvignon is really easy and cheap to grow.

Merlot’s thinner skin gives it softer tannins. It has little of the harsh green methoxypyrazine which distinguishes its siblings, Cabernet sauvignon and Sauvignon blanc. The methoxypyrazines are natural insecticides and repellents which deter predators until the pip of the berry is ready for germination, at which point the vine ceases producing its own version of Pea Beau and suddenly turns the sugar on, the acid off, changes colour and becomes an alluring attractor for the same predators it had been trying to deter. Bird or fox eats grape; shits out germinating seed; plant survives.

I like to think Merlot evolved without so much methoxypyrazine so humans would find it more sexy and ensure its perpetuation by growing its cuttings for ethanol in its most luxurious and sensual form. To suit our anxious impatience for intoxication, its thinner skin would ensure it ripened first. It would be the first in the bacchanale jugs, and the first past our purpling lips. Without birds or foxes, humans have made Merlot the world’s third most prolifically planted wine grape: there was more than 260,000 hectares of it growing a decade back, and I’d suggest there’s a lot more of it now.

By what I see on the shelves, of our 11,000 hectares, there are about 20 hectares of really good Merlot growing in Australia. Too much of it’s the wrong vine planted in the wrong places by wrong people for wrong reasons.

We have nothing quite like Château Petrus, which is in the Pomerol part of Bordeaux. This small (11.4ha) vineyard is usually regarded as the world’s best source of Merlot. Petrus is hardly mellow. But in place of that sharp leafy edge of Cabernet, when mature, it has layers of mushroomy, ferny, mossy earth: deep soulful characters that seduce with their hint of damp, cool ground. All over the top is a wholesome mess of fruit that to me seems like dried figs stewing in Pinot with a few black cherries, a good dose of fresh plum and maybe a dribble of quince juice.

Petrus IS tannic: sometimes boisterous, sometimes tending a little toward the more juniper tannins of Cabernet, and the best of it has wondrous acidity. But these two sharp ends of the wine are usually swamped by that remarkable mix of vegetal earth and huge, complex fruits which sits in the middle.

I’ve been hunting for the best Merlots Australia has to offer, and tracked down the following beauties. We’ll never make Petrus, but a few are getting closer, and deserve recognition.

BOTSHOT---Merlot

Blue Poles Reserve Margaret River Merlot 2010 (sold out; 13.2% alcohol; screw cap; 94+ points) has become a moody, shady sort of wine since I recommended it 14 months ago. Now, it seems to watch you out of the corner of its eye. It has a dark plum perfume, some very dark bittersweet cherries, a tidy hint of cedary oak, and a great base of that mossy earth. After a couple of days, it came back to look me square on, and took on a more heady whiff of perfume which reminded me of the hookers on the Madelaide, soused in Soir de Paris, the fragrance created by Ernst Beaux, who went on to create Chanel No. 5. It gives zephyrs of violet, amber, and the tiny flowers of the Linden tree. I can hear the rub of black satin as she sashays past in the dark. The flavour is more homogenised than that cinematic bouquet, being smooth and modestly viscous, and mainly plum and moss until that limy Linden re-emerges in the bright, savoury tannins of the finish. It’s sublimely refined and elegant, gentle and beautiful, but hardly mellow.

Moss Wood Ribbon Vale Vineyard Margaret River Merlot 2011 (just released; $40.50; 14% alcohol;  screw cap; 91+ points) shows its alcohol more with the passage of each day. It has all those plums, in a conserve rather than a jam, with an extra lash of morello cherry. It is primarily fruity, with not much sign of my beloved moss after a day of air.  It’s the most austere of the team. Its tannins are more chalky than the bright ones of the Blue Poles – it actually smells a little chalky – partly because the wine includes 7 per cent of Cabernet franc, and its oak projects a little charcoal and tea tin. Maybe it’s a Merlot for the Cabernet lover. The wine is not mellow. It’s at its best about a day past the snap of its screw. Juicy pink lamb with a sprig of rosemary sent it to heaven with my sensories panting along in its wake.

Oakridge Vineyard Yarra Valley Merlot 2012 (recently released; $26; 13.3% alcohol; screw cap; 93++ points) is the bright little darling of the set. It is closest to the Blue Poles in style, but is more primarily fruity, and, like the Moss Wood, adds morello cherries to its pool of plum. Its oak is somewhere between lemon and ginger, and twists the end of the bouquet up cheekily. It does have underlying moss, which will rise slowly with a few years’ dungeon. And that rindy lemon – which I suspect may end up like the amber/Linden in the Blue Poles – keeps the finish bright and perky well into the third day. It is another elegant and understated wine, captivating in its delicacy, with tannins closer to the franc chalk of the Moss Wood. I’d be pointing myself at a really zippy Amalfi saltimbocca (capers!) if I was close to that funky temple of Italianacy. Like the restaurant, this wine is not mellow.

Highbank Coonawarra Single Vineyard Merlot 2012 ($49; $39 at the cellar; 14% alcohol; cork; 93++ points) is dedicated by his family to the memory of my sweet buddy Morgan Vice, who fiercely loved the Merlot in the Vice’s pioneering organic vineyard in the heart of Coonawarra. The Highbank ’94 was previously the best Australian Merlot I’d tasted. This one’s ripe, and the first of my selection to have some blackberry in there with the cherries and plums. It’s bigger and riper and more boisterous than the others, with no moss, but it’s still not like ordinary Cabernet. It’s a good stretch apart from the determined and wondrous Highbank Cabernets (big Medo- style organic Coonawarras; go, buy). It, too, has a whiff of something approaching Soir de Paris, and it has some twisty soft licorice, violets and lavender. Again, the tannins are chalky. Until, at the very end, they take up that amber/Linden citrus. This one’s freshest of the lot on day four, so despite the cork, it’d be my suggestion if you’re talking about serious dungeon. Those serious alcohols are never too evident, but they help make this a bigger wine than the rest. Like Morgs, this drink never heard the word mellow. Call it mellow, and the Vice family will sue.

Which almost gets us back to the top. Before that, however, I should mention a drink which is only 70 per cent Merlot.

Blue Poles Margaret River Allouran 2010 (just released, $28; 13.2% alcohol; screw cap; 94+++ points) is the climax of the many years of dreaming, planning, money and blood, not to mention rare gastronomic nous, that geologists Mark Gifford and Tim Markwell have thrown at their future pleasure. And ours. As they endured their dongas and campfires at mining camps way out in the West Australian desert and Africa and everywhere, they planned this vineyard from the base rocks up, dreaming of Pomerol and Bordeaux’s Right Bank. Which is spiritually and politically the left, of course. Then they went looking for that geology for their vineyard. Unlike many famous peanuts who’ve done it all round the wrong way, they drilled their holes first. Seems they found what they wanted at a very specific spot in Margaret River. Merlot (70 per cent) and Cabernet franc (30 per cent) add up to just about my favourite idea of a red wine of elegance and tease. Like more tease than poke. The absence of the jerky Cabernet sauvignon is essential. Instead we have the creamy mossiness and white fungus soil aromas that I expect of proper Merlot, with the acute electric blue smells of the Cabernet franc. It prickles my nostrils, then smoothes them with the most beautifully-perfumed cosmetic cream. Its texture is creamy, too, until that gently cheeky velvet tannin rises up to dry everything off and leave you screaming for real veal, as in the best saltimbocca. It is a delicious, rare, slender drink.  But it is not mellow. Stack some away. This very generous price can’t possibly hold. If you insist on buying 2010s, the Allouran is $A4300.00 cheaper than Petrus.

I asked Mark Gifford to explain himself. So ever so gently he bit off a piece of my ear.

“Personally,” he said, “to make great Merlot you need to love it in your heart of hearts. You need to know it makes great wine and you need to set that ambition every vintage. As a winery we are only just surviving, with my professional work having to take up every hour outside of the vineyard work. But I don’t care about the hours. I care about my family, friends, colleagues, vines, wines and my role, however little it may be… my family, and greater family, planted them based on my ‘science’ and ‘feel’, and to them I am most grateful.”

This drinker is most grateful to you, Mark. And Tim. And your burgeoning tribe. Take a bow.

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