Merlot is a popular wine, both as a single varietal and for blending. The wine usually appears as a dark purple or blue colour, and has a fresh and fruity taste, full of dark berries. The Merlot vine tends to come into season much quicker than other red grapes, and the wine is often used with wines which take longer to mature, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. The purpose for blending the wine like this is to diminish the tannins of the other wine, and Merlot‘s flexibility as both a blender and a single varietal wine have made it extremely popular with wine growers.
The vine often favours soil in cold climates, particularly clay soils, but it is still vulnerable to frost and rot, which mean that it needs to be relatively warm and dry. Growing the grape in South Africa has tried to find a happy medium, locating the grapes within the Paarl and Stellenbosch areas, but mainly upon estates in colder areas. This allows the grape to bud and produce fruit in relatively warm conditions, while the overall chill of the area prevents the grape from ripening too soon. Many grape growers in this area combine Merlot vines with another vine in order to get two harvests, ensuring that some grapes at least will survive.
Merlot wine very much depends upon when the grapes were harvested for its taste. Those grapes which have been picked as soon as they are riper have a better acidity, and tend to last longer before the wine becomes undrinkable. Grapes which have been picked later have a shorter maturity time in the bottle, but do add a greater body, as well as a depth of fruit that lasts throughout the bottle and well into the finish. Although a great wine can be produced from the early picking, in most cases the estate will produce a cheap, drinkable Merlot which does not have so much distinction as its slightly tardy siblings.
Merlot wines of the best quality tend to be rather purple, and well rounded by the additions of other fruits and flavours. Their richness tends to make them unsuitable as an afternoon tipple, and instead they should be savoured with meats and pasta dishes in order to bring out the best in the wine. The lesser Merlot wines actually make great afternoon companions, being ideal for a Sunday lunch without being too fruity or acidic.
One of the best Merlot wines come from Veenwouden. They mostly have very young Merlot wines, and did not begin bottling until 1993. Nevertheless, they have produced some very interesting Merlot, with the 1997 being a classic, although the tannins were quite harsh. The biggest taste was probably that of smoked oak, which hung about in the aftertaste. More modern wine makers, such as Shannon, have created Merlot with more flavour and slightly less character, particularly the Mount Bullet. The 2008 vintage was awarded 5 stars by John Platter’s Guide in 2011, the highest praise possible, and its rich tastes of fruit, cassis and cream enliven the wine and make it one of the best around.