Merlot has had a rough time in Australia, ever since the first of the modern widespread
plantings of the variety in this country were later found to be cabernet franc.
It’s the sort of mistake which could happen to anyone – and the two varieties can indeed be rather difficult to tell apart.
After that small hiccup Merlot reappeared in genuine form in the 1980s, and its plantings have peaked since the turn of the century.
For most people, merlot is a soft, smooth and juicy, medium to full-bodied red that neither offends nor excites.
Or if it’s sufficiently accommodating in its youth to warrant the prospect of cellaring, it usually lets you down a few years later.
Ever since the early 1980s, Australian wine drinkers have been waiting for the birth of the first Antipodean Petrus.
From the occasional head-turner last century from makers like Yarra Yering, Petaluma, Evans
& Tate, James Irvine and Mount Mary – and the two Mount Mary releases were only made
by John Middleton in 1982 and 1992 to show Bailey Carrodus at Yarra Yering he could do it
better – we’ve flirted with what merlot is all about, but we haven’t gone all the way.
Mind you, with merlot at least, neither have the French, since it’s particularly rare to encounter a great wine from 100% merlot.
Petrus only went this way after 2010, joining Le Pin in the process. Otherwise, most of the finest merlot in Pomerol ends up in the same bottle as a splash or two of cabernet sauvignon and/or cabernet franc.
There’s good reason for this – merlot generally needs that little extra bit of the length and structure of its cabernet cousins.
So what’s the cause of the optimism?
It’s indeed possible that Australia is blessed with one of the world’s largest resources of third-rate merlot planting material.
Australian merlot has lacked the intensity, perfume, complexity and structure of the world’s finest, until now.
New clones of merlot, some directly from some of the finest estates in Bordeaux, are making
their way into Australian vineyards. This has shown to be particularly the case with several in Margaret River.
I have tasted some of the early trial results and I am entirely confident that the Australian benchmark is about to move upwards, at quite a rate.
Australian merlot is about to be reinvented, and this time I have no doubt it will meet and surpass some pretty high expectations.
Related: Australian Wine Guide