Merlot ‘deserves more attention’ in Australia

Merlot may not be venerated in Australia and it’s been “abused” in the US, but the grape “deserves more attention”, according to winemaker Chris Carpenter.

Chris Carpenter

Chris Carpenter is a Cabernet specialist who believes that Merlot doesn’t receive the credit it deserves

Carpenter, who works for Jackson Family Wines, and heads up the winemaking for the company’s Lokoya, Cardinale, La Jota and Mt Brave wineries in Napa, as well as Hickinbotham in McLaren Vale, told the drinks business earlier this month that he’s on a mission to raise the quality profile of Merlot, even though the majority of his wines are Cabernet-based.

“Merlot is one of those varieties that deserves more attention,” he said, having previously discussed his work improving the Cabernet at Hickinbotham’s prized Clarendon Vineyard.

“Merlot has been abused in the US, and it isn’t respected in Australia, but Merlot produces some of the greatest wines in the world, from Petrus to Masseto,” he continued.

“Merlot does well when it’s grown in the right place and produced in the right way, and, beyond Bolgheri or Pomerol, there are spots in other parts of the world where it does well too, and one of those is California, and the other is at Hickinbotham in the McLaren Vale,” he recorded.

Speaking further about the latter site in a region best known for its Mediterranean grapes such as Grenache and Shiraz, he told db that a vineyard planted with Merlot back in 1976 had produced one of his “greatest successes” – 238 cases of pure Merlot called The Revivalist from an inaugural 2013 vintage.

“To make good Merlot you need the right kind of soil, a good amount of sunlight and an area that stays relatively warm, and our site at Hickinbotham has all of that: Merlot has one of the highest concentrations of pyrazines and you need the light to get rid of those, and you need the heat to get the fruit weight, and then the right soils to regulate the vigour: Merlot can throw a lot of fruit.”

HVC-13-Revivalist

Carpenter’s Merlot was called The Revivalist because of the extensive work needed to the canopy before fully ripe grapes could be harvested from the 40 year old vines

“If you kick the soil in Bolgheri or Pomerol and Hickinbotham, it’s similar, in all these places it is a dense, more clay-like soil.”

However, due to Merlot’s poor image, Carpenter said that when he was first shown the plot of Merlot vines after the Jackson family bought Hickinbotham in 2012, he was told that he wouldn’t want them.

“The greatest success for me [at Hickinbotham] is the Merlot… there was resistance when I said I wanted to bottle 200 cases of pure Merlot, but it is the wine that sells out the first.”

Looking to the US, Carpenter said that the quality attainable in California was similarly high, but there was an issue selling the wines.

Like the Hickinbotham Merlot, Carpenter makes around 200 cases of 100% Merlot under the Mt Brave label. “There is still a stigma associated with Merlot, I couldn’t make 10,000 cases and expect to sell it,” he said, adding that it was the same with the La Jota Merlot from Howell Mountain.

“The potential is there on both continents, it is just a case of a dogged pursuit of that,” he said, adding, “I am driven by the quality potential rather than the market opportunity.”

Key to the Hickinbotham Merlot is vineyard management – before Carpenter took over the winemaking at the estate, the canopy was covering the fruit, allowing the green pyrazine flavours in the berries to dominate.

He also stressed that it was vital the Merlot vineyards weren’t overcropped, and explained that Merlot’s image had been damaged by the production of poor vines, in part due to the use of the wrong type of clonal material in Australia, but also because it had been planed in the wrong areas in California. However, the grape’s reputation was given a real bashing in cult US film Sideways, which was released in 2004, when the wine-obsessed lead character expresses his hatred for the grape (even though his ideal wine is a bottle of Château Cheval Blanc, which is made with around 50% Merlot).

“In the mid 90s a lot of California companies thought that Merlot was going to be the next White Zinfandel, so they planted a lot for example in Carneros, where it doesn’t get too warm, and the result was weedy Merlot. But after Sideways, Merlot sales plummeted, and Pinot Noir sales increased, so around three quarters of those Merlot vineyards were ripped out and planted with Pinot Noir, which works very well there.

“What was left were the sweet spots for Merlot,” which he said, were Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, Mount Veeder and Stag’s Leap, although he also expressed his high regard for Verité’s La Muse, which is made from Merlot grown in Sonoma.

4 Responses to “Merlot ‘deserves more attention’ in Australia”

  1. Great article! Hits the nail on the head as to the confluence of factors required to create great Merlot. There is no reason why New World producers cannot create a world class Merlot wine from the right site, if the care is taken and if it given the respect it deserves. Australia is not all beaches and bbq and sunshine in a bottle. Explore the regions and sites capable of producing quality world class cool climate wines. To add to this discussion, on our site at Ruckus Estate, we have created a large parcel of four newer clones of Merlot snd have been blown away with the quality of the fruit. Now this parcel is mature, and based on that quality advantage, we have a single vineyard wine label. Very exciting times for Australian Merlot!

  2. Rita Richter says:

    Hear Hear!!! Thank you Chris. We agree.
    We moved to Tasmania in 1987 to establish our vineyard and grow Merlot & Pinot Gris
    Our Merlot is grown on clay soil, unirrigated,high density, (8800 vines/Ha) low crop and ages beautifully. Our crrent release is the 2008 as it takes that long for the wine to soften and be approachable…but it still has 6-8 yrs cellaring potential. Most of the ‘bad wrap’ that Merlot gets is due to it being made in ‘soft, sweet’ styles…mass produced and over cropped.

  3. Jeff Del Nin says:

    Australian Merlot clones have traditionally been poor. I remember reading something on the Yalumba Nursery site about clone 181 and how excited they were to be getting it. That clone is pedestrian, at best, and will only do well on the very best sites. Other clones such as cl. 347, make superior wine.

    Merlot, despite being ubiquitous, is actually very hard to make into world class wine. I see only about 10% of my total production making it to a world class level, which comes from the best clones on the best sites (aspect and soil). I contrast that to Syrah, which makes about 85% world class wine in our vineyards with no special farming techniques applied.

    The rest of my merlot (90%) goes into nice price-friendly blends. It’s never green, but it’s just solid quality with generic dark fruit flavours with moderate density and minimal complexity. It’s role is primarily as a blending grape to which you add tannic and flavour intensity and complexity with cabs and petit verdot.

    In my estimation, merlot is tied with pinot is actually the heart-break grape. It’s tough to make a good stand-alone that commands a high price on it’s own.

  4. rob gibson says:

    Certainly USA has more experience with this variety. I enjoyed Chris’ perspective..like most challenges ,and in particular growing winegrapes from Merlot and Pinot Noir, passion and persistence in the face of easier options is required. .Bordeaux show us that the ” holy grail ” is well worth seeking…unique wines of exemplary quality are possible and clonal improvement is all part of the Aussie experience too.

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