Author: Max Allen
Photography: Rodney Macuja, Styling by Aimee Jones
"People told us we were mad to plant more merlot," says grape grower Colleen Miller of Ruckus Estate, a vineyard in Wrattonbully, just north of Coonawarra on South Australia's Limestone Coast. "But now winemakers come onto our block and taste the grapes and can't believe how good they are. And sommeliers taste the wine and they're blown away. They tell us they've never had an Australian merlot like it before. It's very exciting."
Ruckus Estate is just one of the vineyards helping to revive the fortunes of this overlooked grape. Merlot has fallen out of fashion over the past decade, but a growing number of producers, like David Bicknell of Oakridge in the Yarra Valley, refuse to lose faith in its quality.
"It's possibly the best variety we grow here on the vineyard around the winery," says Bicknell. "But it's a struggle to sell; merlot just isn't sexy. In good years like 2013 the merlot is every bit as good as the cabernet sauvignon here, which is why we bottle it separately. And we do okay with that wine at cellar door - when people taste it, they love it - but out there in retail and restaurants, there's no interest."
What's going on? Isn't merlot meant to be one of the classic grapes? After all, it's responsible for some of the world's most eye-wateringly expensive wines, such as Petrus. It's highly regarded in California and northern Italy. And in the hands of good makers in cooler regions such as the Yarra, Orange, the Tamar Valley and Coonawarra, merlot can - as David Bicknell points out - make wines that are every bit as good as cabernet.
The problem is that most of the merlot in Australia is planted in warmer regions, is cropped too heavily, picked too ripe and smothered in too much oak. And the resulting wines are flabby, jammy and vanillasweet. No wonder wine drinkers have lost interest.
"My perception of merlot used to be a wine with ripe, thick fruit, alcohol and wood," says winemaker Gareth Belton, now carrying a torch for the variety in the Adelaide Hills. "But merlot's actually quite a delicate variety: it doesn't have raging tannins, it can't handle too much new wood."
Belton sources merlot from two cool vineyards in the Hills: one at Basket Range and one high up at Norton Summit. He produces two wines with the fruit: one a merlot-petit verdot blend called Gnomes, and one a juicy, utterly delicious, single-vineyard straight merlot.
"There's strong red clay in the vineyard at Norton Summit," he says. "That's important for merlot, I think. We're not overcropping, we're picking a bit earlier. And people seem to be enjoying what we're doing; the Norton Summit wine was the first of my wines to sell out this year."
Low crops, a cooler site and clay soils are the key to the quality of the beautiful, perfumed Blue Poles Reserve Merlot, one of a few single-variety expressions of the grape in Margaret River worth tracking down.
"Merlot gets such a bad wrap here because it's seen as a second-rate variety after cabernet sauvignon," says Blue Poles' Mark Gifford. "In a region like Margaret River, where cabernet is so dominant, it can feel like merlot is the stepchild to a rich family. But if you keep the crops low and if you're cruel with irrigation - make the vines hunt in the clay for the water - then you can hopefully make good wine."
Another problem is clones . Most of the merlot planted in Australian vineyards is a clonal selection of vine material originally propagated in California, chosen for its ability to offer high yields rather than high quality. When they first planted their Ruckus Estate vineyard, Colleen Miller and her husband used this clone and found it difficult to produce quality grapes.
But at the end of last decade some new clones became available - selections from Bordeaux, Italy and Argentina. So when they decided to plant a "paddock up the back of the property on Rolls Royce soil with clay in among the limestone" at Ruckus Estate they chose these new clones, and from their first vintage in 2013 realised they'd made the right decision: the grapes developed finer, more complex flavours at lower ripeness, and made wine with a more savoury quality. Expect to see more interesting Australian merlots over the next few years as other growers explore these new options.
"It's been a tough road, convincing people to try a new $50 merlot," says Colleen Miller. "But we knew in our gut we had something special in the ground."