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TRAVELLING through America during the early ’90s I was amazed at the number of people who were infatuated with soft, supple, velvety and, for the most part, simple red wines with ‘merlot’ emblazoned across the label.

The Yanks, bless them, couldn’t get enough of this variety. Many producers at the time were struggling to keep up with demand and thus plantings quadrupled overnight as merlot madness gathered strength. In and around the Napa Valley there were a few who were producing very serious, very good merlot wines, such as Swanson and, in particular, Berringer. However, they proved to be in the minority, as most of merlots I tasted were pretty uninspiring – in fact they were quite dull.

Usually a season or two behind in the fashion stakes, merlot’s popularity in Australia didn’t take off until the mid to late ’90s – almost half a decade behind the Americans. In 1997 only 10,000 tonnes of merlot were crushed throughout Australia. In the year 2000 the total crush of merlot had increased to 51,000t. This year’s crush was 104,917t, meaning it is about to overtake semillon as the fourth most widely planted variety in Australia. That’s quite a staggering set of numbers.

Like the Americans, the Australian public has become infatuated with merlot. Interestingly statistics presented at last year’s Xanadu International Merlot tasting showed that one out of every 15 bottles of wine sold by the Coles Myer group was merlot (or part thereof). Currently most of the bottled and cask merlot wines sold through Coles Myer and other liquor stores around the country will be under the $10 price point, although casks will be a tad more. This is where one of the problems with merlot stems from, I believe. Invariably, the merlot component of these wines will have come from young merlot vines with relatively high yields, lacking in depth of fruit, tannin or acidity structure and any real complexity.

Almost 90 per cent of the approximately 20,000 hectares of merlot vines planted in Australia will have been producing a crop for less than five years. One of the problems of this flood of merlot onto the market – and the style that is currently being produced – may come with regard to what will happen as these vines gain maturity. Will the demand for today’s style of merlot wines still entice consumers as these vines begin to produce fruit with more depth and structure?

Sure, winemakers can use the tricks of their profession to ensure the style remains, however, is that making best use of this variety? Will consumers continue to enjoy the spineless merlot presented in some wines as nothing more than a splash of colour with a cordial-like taste? Is it fair to consumers to produce wine from vines that often haven’t been in the ground any longer than a bottle lasts on the shelf in a liquor store? Does producing wines from young vines confuse consumers when they then purchase a more expensive (older vine) example of merlot, for example, and discover that it is nothing like the style of merlot they normally purchase?

Overall I think that there are a few inspired wineries here in Australia producing very serious and very good varietal merlot wines, yet there is very little consistency in the top-end merlot wines being produced.

You are, however, able to gain a glimpse of what could be around the corner with those who have access to older vine material, such as Xanadu, Petaluma, Parker and Irvine wineries.

So what is the allure and attraction to merlot that has made this variety so popular? In their book Australian Wine from the Vine to the Glass, Patrick Iland and Peter Gago describe merlot wines as: “Round and soft with fleshy texture and plum-like fruit characters that vary mainly in the intensity of fruit, tannin strength and contribution of oak”. Ask most consumers what attracts them to merlot and they will say it is the softness of the variety that makes it so acceptable across the board, not overtly green fruit, huge tannins, searing acidity or a barrel full of oak.

With all this in mind, I recently headed down to Margaret River and the annual Xanadu International Merlot tasting, which this year focused on wines from the 1999 vintage worldwide. When putting together this event, Xanadu had only one brief –to include the best merlot wines available from around the world. The tasting was another chance to explore this variety and hopefully come away with an increased knowledge of what I expect merlot characters to be.

In his address to the 100 or so punters on the lawn after tasting the first of the three brackets of seven wines at Xanadu, Master of Wine Steve Charters said he was looking for opulence in the wines with an integration of acidity and oak use, and overall balance.

By the end of the tasting each of those tasting the 21 wines offered would have given a different explanation of what merlot was all about. Regardless of the perceived faults in some of the wines there was no single defining style that I came away thinking was quintessentially merlot.

The challenge for many of the wines was finding balance.

My main gripes were the excessive levels of oak and alcohol. It was evident that there is very little consistency in the style, particularly from this vintage, and I would suggest perhaps Australia is still quite a way behind the complexity shown in the American and ‘old world’ wines of this variety.

One thing for sure is that I look forward to investigating the 2000 vintage at next year’s Xanadu’s Merlots of the World Tasting.

It was one of the most discussed tastings I have attended in recent times, a tasting that completely divided those in attendance, and a tasting that again raised the question: “Who is Brett and should he be invited?”

1999 Xanadu Merlot 17/20

I have tasted this wine on a couple of occasions and each time award it different points. It is a fabulous wine but, as winemaker Jurg Muggli says, it is not for the faint hearted. Vibrant and fragrant fruit aromas, with red berry fruits and underlying briary, spice and oak notes.

The palate displays amazing power with ripe blackberry and damson fruits with dusty tannins. Acidity and a little spice play a part, as does the oak.

There is balance that will continue to come together over the next few years and it has plenty on the finish.

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