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THE word on the lips of many a red wine drinker these days is more often than not merlot. Just why this grape variety has become so popular so quickly is a question being asked by many winemakers. At the other end of the supply chain, wine marketers and consumers can’t get enough.

Much of the merlot madness being experienced across our country has, in all likelihood, stemmed from the home of fads – the United States.

The yanks took hold of merlot in a big way during the late 1980s. By the time the ‘oh no, not chardonnay again’ set had moved on to drinking red wine in the early ’90s, the yanks were ready for punters to sink their corkscrews into merlot. Indeed, varietal merlots took off throughout America like a Tiger Woods drive. About 900 hectares of merlot were planted in the mid 1980s, but plantings hit nearly 13,500 hectares over the next decade.

Like many other major grape varieties, merlot has its origins in France. While numerous vineyards across Bordeaux have plantings of merlot, the variety seems to show its true colours when grown on what is affectionately known as the right bank, the area surrounding the regions of St Emilion, Pomerol and Libourne. One of the world’s most expensive wines, Petrus, comes from a vineyard situated in the heart of Pomerol, which I seem to recall is a one-church town with a population of about 10. If you weren’t looking for Petrus you would have a hard time finding it.

Unlike other famous wineries and chateaux in France, Petrus has no outward signs of wealth. Yet bottles of this wine regularly fetch record prices in auction houses around the world. If you fancy it, you might be able to snap up a bottle for around $1,500.

While the French have been playing around with merlot since the 1850s and the Americans since the mid 1960s, we Aussies have been a little slow to jump aboard the merlot train. Merlot has been planted in Australian vineyards since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the mid 1990s that merlot began its surge towards recognition.

Only 722 hectares of Merlot were recorded as being under vine in 1994, producing 6,500 tonnes. By 1999 this had increased to a merlot crush of approximately 32,900 tonnes. Not surprisingly, the Wine Makers Federation is projecting continued growth in the crush of merlot for the 2002 vintage, with an increase of more than 50 per cent over 2001 to 85,000 tonnes.

The merlot madness that seems to have mesmerised the Australian public doesn’t look like moving on for some time. More and more wineries are releasing wines with merlot splashed across the label. Unfortunately, some consumers are so transfixed on merlot that they don’t realise the wine they have just purchased may have only a dash of merlot in the blend –

the remainder could include up to 90 per cent of other varieties. They seem more caught up in the fact that it says merlot.

In order to try to understand the success wineries have had with merlot, you need to go back to the grape itself. The merlot grape and wines that are based around it generally have loads of gorgeous, sweet, soft, lush flavours and have an approachable silky smoothness. That would be enough to win over most people I know! Yet there is another point to ponder – much of the wine consumed today slides down the hatch within minutes of being purchased. Consumers, cafe owners and even some restaurants don’t necessarily want big brooding Aussie icons overpowering their gourmet delights – especially when there are wines in the marketplace today offering drinkability at a younger age while still presenting a spectrum of flavour.

Having said that, Australia does have some very serious merlot wines that are starting to command attention. Bearing in mind that we have only just started to sink our teeth into producing this variety, merlot could become another variety where Australia will challenge the rest of the world. It may take a little time to find out where exactly merlot will blossom and produce the best results, however. Like chardonnay it will probably be here in WA, but we are happy for others to play around with it for a while until they work it out themselves.

The best Australian merlot I have tasted is the very serious Irvine Grand Merlot. It’s hard to find but well worth the search. Evans and Tate, Petaluma, Katnook and the odd bottle of Yarra Ridge have also impressed. This weekend at the Karrinyup Country Club the Xanadu Merlot tasting will be a fantastic opportunity to see just how well we are doing relative to other producers when a masked line up of some of the world’s best merlots will be presented.

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