A rare triumphant merlot

Merlot tends to get a rough deal from wine critics in South Africa. This, understandably, irritates producers, who rightly point to the improvements made in recent years, improvements resulting especially from hard work in the vineyards. Poor old merlot is just the whipping boy, they suggest, with the same inherent problem of many black grape varieties in the Cape.

That problem is that the wines easily show a green, unripe character. “Choc-mint” is a common tasting note for the many less successful merlots. When herbaceousness combines with lushness and massive alcohol resulting from leaving the grapes hanging long on the vine in the hope of attaining true ripeness, well, the combination can be grim.

This particular characteristic does seem commoner with merlot than shiraz, say, or cabernet. But it’s true that there are more and more good wines labelled “merlot” these days, and not only at high prices. Laibach, Dombeya and Mont du Toit Les Coteaux are among the mid-priced examples with much to offer.

A more expensive success comes from one of the Cape’s tiniest producers. Bein Merlot, from Luca and Inga Bein’s few lovingly tended Stellenbosch hectares, has proved itself to be one of the country’s best examples, in classic, firmly structured but deep-fruited mode.

Thelema is another reliable source. Both the standard merlot with its herbaceous tinge and the excellent Reserve tend to have high alcohol levels – about 15% – which will be a problem for some. Both are so well made, however, that they are harmonious. Recent Vergelegens have been excellent, too.

Moreover, there is now a wine that should explode any lingering doubts. If there can be one South African merlot as superb as Shannon Mount Bullet, why not more? Shannon Vineyards is a small, newish producer in Elgin, owned by Stuart and James Downes (the latter a meticulous viticulturist). The area’s cooler climate has made for excellent white wines for some years, but success with reds other than pinot noir has been less obvious, although Iona’s Syrah tells a new tale, and the merlot-dominated Oak Valley Blend is also good. (James Downes in the pic, with a bottle of the Mount Bullet.)

But now there’s Mount Bullet ­Merlot. It’s made, like the other Shannon wines, by Gordon and Nadia Johnson in the Newton Johnson winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley. (The Sanctuary Peak Sauvig-non Blanc 2010 is superb and many people admire the Rockview Ridge Pinot Noir 2009 more than me.)

The first vintage of Mount Bullet was 2007. I remember being given it “blind” and failing to guess the variety, like most people, but it was clearly good. The 2008 was better and the latest-release 2009 is finer still.

Also not varietally obvious, it has a telltale hint of milk chocolate (no mint!) in its fragrance, with a savoury, mineral quality. Above all, there’s a rare freshness, with a subtle tannic force woven into the silk of its balance. Lovely to drink now, it will surely become even more winning with five or more years in the bottle.

The triumphant Mount Bullet sells for about R285. At a time when some desperate producers are posting aspirational and frankly silly prices to attract attention, this is good value indeed for one of the country’s finest red wines – of any variety.

Postscript: Tasting Shannon

At a recent tasting of newish releases, I tasted three Shannon wines together with Angela Lloyd and Ingrid Motteux. First up was the Shannon Vineyards Sanctuary Park Sauvignon Blanc 2010 – actually with a good dollop of semillon (12%, which spent 3 months in new oak), but sadly a wine is more likely to sell if it is labelled as a sauvignon than as a blend. The semillon serves well to add complexity to the aromas, which struck us as floral, a little waxy, with orange rind notes. I found more typical tropical characters (especially grenadilla) emerging the next day, but this wine is definitely a blend in character, not a varietal sauvignon. It is rounded, and quite rich (again, semillon adding texture and weight), with a  fine, big but unaggressive acidity and a slippery satin texture; long, satisfying. Polished and characterful. We scored it 17/20. R108 is not at all a bad price.

The Mount Bullet we unanimously rated very high – an easy 18/20. It’s is drinkable now, but should be even more interesting and satisfying in a few years.

Shannon Vineyards Rockview Ridge 2009 was less unanimously received. I found more earth than fresh fruit charm, and rather too much smoky oak. There was some supportive tannin in the structure, but the wine was structured more by an acidity that I found rather harsh, and there was little of the limpid purity that I relish in pinot noir. Frankly, I didn’t much care for it much; even when I went back to it a day later, although much of the smokiness had gone, I still found it somewhat disjointed, with the acidity out of balance. I scored it 15, but Angela and Ingrid rated it higher (Angela consistently with her 4.5 stars in Platter; Ingrid giving it 16.5/20 here).  The wine costs R250.

First published (without the postscript and pic) in the Mail & Guardian, 1-7 April 2011

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