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Merlot Members Tasting

Merlot is a mystery to a lot of us. Many other red wine grapes have much more recognisable varietal personalities, giving them more immediate impact than Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, nearly always says ‘Cabernet’ emphatically, via varietal cues that cut across the vagaries of region, climate, winemaking, and culture. Blackcurranty character, leafy austerity, angular, savoury personality and tannic backbone mark Cabernet-based wines, apparent even in warmer, riper versions. So it is with Pinot Noir’s distinctive fruit characters, softness and silken structure. Pinot Noir says Pinot Noir loud and clear, but what of Merlot?

Confusing Merlot’s identity crisis is the multiplicity of different styles available. In the coolest places, the variety’s leafiness can become too herbal and green; in the warmest places, it can be big, jammy and soupy. When overcropped and made on an industrial scale, Merlot can be washed out, sometimes sweet, a simple quaffer. In the middle of all this, we find Merlot’s ideal spot in skillfully tended vineyards in temperate areas. Here we encounter suggestions of plum, mulberry and fruitcake, raspberry, cherry, violet, spice and dried herb hints, maybe chocolate and olive from oak input. These wines tend to be soft, plump and juicy, worthy of plenty of attention as a friendlier type of red wine than tannic Cabernet or Shiraz. Compared to Cabernets, Merlots are generally much lower in methoxypyrazines too. These compounds in grapes give raw, green, herbaceous characters that can be shrill and unpleasant, another reason for good Merlot’s friendly personality.

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Cabernet’s comrade

Merlot’s historic role as a blending variety also tends to compromise its individual identity. In its Bordeaux home, its early ripening characteristics act as insurance against the later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, especially across difficult vintages. Merlot develops higher sugar levels and riper fruit characters weeks before Cabernet, and it’s planted much more widely in the Bordeaux region as a result. Its rich, supple personality tempers Cabernet’s more severe traits in a blend, and it usually doesn’t need nearly as much mellowing bottle age to be gluggable.

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Around the world

Merlot’s fortunes have been improving worldwide over the last few decades as plantings have expanded into new territory. Chile has been at the forefront and has built a large export market for easy-sipping Merlot.

In the Old World, Merlot has been replacing other more mediocre varieties in vineyards across the European continent. Its international appeal and reputation for friendly wine has supported vast new plantings in places like France’s south-west as the French hit back after the inroads New World wineries have made in their traditional markets. French wine drinkers possibly don’t know Merlot by name very well, but they like it and so do their international customers.

American consumers have an idea what to expect from Merlot – softness, maybe a little sweetness, easy drinking. New Zealanders are also familiar with Merlot’s easy manners and the variety has traditionally sparred with Pinot Noir as the red of choice for Kiwis. In recent times, NZ Pinot has been ascendant, but Merlot is still in the mix. Generally, Australians are much less Merlot-aware.

No mention of Merlot can be made without referring to the cult American movie Sideways. In the USA, Merlot is the second most popular red wine grape after Cabernet Sauvignon, mainly due to vast quantities of soft, low tannin reds that appeal to wine novices. In Sideways, made in 2004, wine tragic and wine snob Miles rails loudly against Merlot. “If anybody orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f…ing Merlot,” he declares, and his comments contributed to a drop in Merlot sales in the USA, the UK, and probably Australia. Merlot has recovered, but I suspect a slightly negative perception lingers, helped by Merlot’s lack of a distinct varietal identity in the minds of many consumers.

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Taste expectations

So to discover what makes Merlot tick, we recently gathered together a panel of eight keen Merlot fans from the ranks of Wine Selectors Members for a tasting dinner at Melbourne’s Papa Goose restaurant. Joining them were Selector publisher, Paul Diamond and yours truly. Sixteen wines from across Australia were served masked in brackets of four. South Australia was represented by seven wines from a diversity of regions, with the emphasis on somewhat cooler places like the Adelaide Hills, Eden Valley and Limestone Coast/Coonawarra regions. Victorian wines included examples from the Yarra Valley, the Pyrenees and the warm vineyards of Rutherglen, while New South Wales and Western Australia presented a cross-section of vineyard sources.

As we sat down to taste, we made a quick survey of what the Members looked for in Merlot.

“I like Merlot because it’s not too heavy,” said Wine Selectors Member, Darren Dean, “It’s soft, easy to drink, sweet and smooth.”

Fellow Member Ingrid Fraser agreed. “They are soft, complete wines, plump and lovely,” she said.

Paul looked for, “consistency of mouthfeel, smooth texture, seamlessness.”

Softness and smoothness were terms most tasters used to describe Merlot’s general appeal. Were these characteristics reinforced as the dinner progressed and the group came to terms with the wines served?

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Paired to perfection

Matching food and wine is much discussed in the gastronomic world. Carefully constructed dishes, devised with a particular type of wine in mind, can offer experiences that transcend the simple idea of eating and drinking.

When we consider food-friendly wines, the softer, lighter, lower tannin drops offer more food compatibilities than bigger, tougher wines. Thus, Pinot Noir, or softer, cool climate style Shiraz, works well where the big bruisers fall short. On this basis, Merlot should excel as a food wine, and as the dinner progressed, the pairings proved harmonious.

This was due to Papa Goose chef Neale White’s intuitive ability to create Merlot-compatible dishes to complement the wines.

The four course menu began with a superb dish that echoed Merlot’s charm. Cured and smoked duck breast was accompanied by beetroot, raspberry and red sorrel, all flavours that dovetailed superbly with the first bracket of wines.

Gnocchi with king oyster mushroom, tarragon and amaretti cream pointed up the depths of the following group of four wines, with rich flavours and textures woven through aromatic ones.

Eyebrows were raised when we saw that the porterhouse with red wine sauce was coming with caraway coleslaw – caraway can be formidable – but the dish’s subtlety actually drew out some of the foresty, herbal notes in the wines, making the sum of the parts far more than the individual inputs.

Cheese can be problematic with a lot of wines, but the mild, mature Pynegana Cheddar, served to finish dinner, had fruity accompaniments of chutney, quince paste and muscatels to temper it. Merlot stood up to the entire menu, confirming its delicious suitability at the table.

The dinner confirmed in everybody’s eyes that Australian Merlot does indeed have its own distinct personality, and that it deserves to be centre stage alongside better-known brethren like Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot should be on everybody’s shopping list.

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Magic Mediterranean - Vermentino
Words by Daniel Honan on 15 Oct 2017
The Italian varietal Vermentino is winning fans for its wonderfully refreshing characters and textural mouthfeel making it the drink for this summer. You heard it here first – Vermentino is the new white! There are fewer wines around that are as sexy to say, taste as good, and are perfect paired with a spread of fresh seafood on a summer’s afternoon. In fact, drinking a glass of Vermentino is like going on a Mediterranean holiday. Indeed, Vermentino hails from the type of places where warm sun and cool sea breezes, cellar doors and summer afternoons are in abundance. Just off the coasts of Italy and France are the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, which lie (almost) in the middle of the Mediterranean, split between the Balearic and Tyrrhenian Seas. Here you’ll find a melting pot of different soils (limestone, granite, sandstone and clay) and climates (maritime and continental) mixed together to provide the perfect growing conditions for this unique grape variety. Aussie Vermentino Just like its home in the Med, here in Australia, Vermentino seems especially at home near the coast, in regions like McLaren Vale , Margaret River , even the Hunter Valley . Yet, this grape variety is also finding favour, and flavour, in other places a little further from the shore, such as King Valley , the Barossa , and the Riverland wine region around Mildura. Inland wine growers, Chalmers, have been pioneering alternative varietals for over 15 years. The family first planted Vermentino back in 2000, and were one of the first wineries in Australia to make wine from the variety. 

“Vermentino was one of our first flagship wines,” says Kim Chalmers. “It’s a variety that loves warm summers and sunshine, which is perfect for our Australian conditions. Its big bunches and juicy berries make it quite resistant to long heat waves. We’ve had a lot of success growing Vermentino at our vineyards in both Heathcote and Mildura.”

- Kim Chalmers, Chalmers Wines, Riverland
That is the great thing we’ve discovered about this (and other) Italian varietals recently trialled across the many wine regions of Australia - their adaptability. If you speak to a European producer of Vermentino, they’ll probably tell you that the grapes must be grown in close proximity to the sea, so that they can possess and express their inherently unique and refreshing sea-spray aroma and flavour. “Our experience growing Vermentino would suggest otherwise,” counters Kim. “We’ve only ever grown the variety very inland, and yet we still get that delicious sea-salt, briny character in all of our wines made from the variety. I think the closeness to the ocean rumour might be an old wives tale.” Key characters
The unique textural and sensual characteristics of Vermentino are what make this variety such a delicious alternative to your typical tipple of, say, Sauvignon Blanc , or Pinot Gris . The dominant aromas and flavours expressed by the grape include juicy lemons and limes, fleshy grapefruit, crunchy green apples and crushed almonds. Sometimes, you may notice the briny scent of ocean-spray drifting over fresh jasmine. At other times, you might smell a hint of beeswax and musk, or taste fresh tropical fruits, crispy pear, with a touch of salt. This all depends, of course, on where the grapes are grown, when they’re picked, and what the winemaker’s intent is when making Vermentino into wine. If the grapes are picked early you will, typically, note freshness and citrus, with bright, crunchy acids. If the grapes are allowed to ripen and are picked a bit later, you get a fleshier, juicier, more tropical style of wine. “The thing about Vermentino is it’s a very late picked varietal, for example, in the Hunter they pick it after Shiraz,” says winemaker David Hook, who has been specialising in Italian varietals for 30 years. “Some go for that lighter, crunchier style, which is picked earlier and is great for everyday drinking. But in Orange, where I source my Vermentino, I like to wait as long as I can to pick it as it gives a bigger, richer style that really highlights the varietal characters and the texture is ramped up.” Phil Ryan, co-Chairman of the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel , echoes David’s preference for the fuller, riper style of Vermentino, saying that it offers so much more for the drinker. “The riper style of Vermentino offers far more complexity and intrigue to the wine,” says Phil. “It also allows those delicious stonefruit characteristics to come to the fore and plays to one of its major appeals, which is its texture.” Vermentino’s textual qualities (the way the wine feels in the mouth when you drink it) also boosts its food matching ability and is one of the reasons why this varietal stands out from the rest of the wine crowd.

Vermentino always goes down well by the glass, here. We’ll often get people sitting at the bar snacking on a bowl of salty, crispy white bait. Personally, I love it matched to a plate of grilled blue mackerel with fresh tomato, olives and chilli.

- Stuart Knox, , Owner and sommelier of Fix St James, in Sydney.
For renowned Vermentino producer Joe Grilli from Primo Estate in McLaren Vale, the big attraction of Vermentino is the combination of freshness and texture. “Our Vermentino has aromas of fresh melon fruits, then some intriguing almond notes, followed by the slightest touch of citrus to finish,” says Joe. “What makes Vermentino so delicious is when all these facets are wrapped up in a lighter bodied wine with still enough texture to really satisfy the tastebuds.” In fashion There is no doubt Vermentino is one of the hottest whites around. Its increasing popularity in wines bars and restaurants around the country is reflected in its growing success at wine shows, particularly the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, held each year in Mildura. Organiser, Kim Chalmers says that Vermentino is one of the most popular wines of the show. “It’s massive,” says Kim. “We’ve had a Vermentino class since 2008 and for a number of years only a handful of wineries entered wines into that class. Within five years, the numbers have boomed. Last year there were 93 entries, and now the class has split into two separate classes: one for the lighter and fresher styles, and one for the more fuller bodied, richer styles.” There’s even a third style to be found in Australia, these days. It’s said that the name Vermentino derives from the Italian word, ‘fermento’, which relates to the fizzy characters of the young wine and this might have inspired Fowles Wine, from the Strathbogie Ranges, to make a fun, sparkling style of Vermentino. “I’m a huge fan of the tangy lemon and light florals of Vermentino and thought it might be fun to see those characters sparkle,” says Matt Fowles. “We make our sparkling Vermentino in a Prosecco style, and, I must say, I’ve been surprised just how well it’s been received!” The tasting For this tasting, over 50 Vermentinos were submitted to the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel . For a wine considered to still be an ‘emerging’ varietal, the pass rate was impressively high with around 75% scoring a medal. The top 20 wines were hotly contested and, as expected, the spread of regions was vast with multiple entries from the Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale and Barossa, as well as Riverland, which doesn’t often get much kudos in wine shows, but is proving to be a real contender with Italian varietals. The styles were varied, which is to be expected, given all the variables, but the underlying characters remained true – delicious stonefruit flavours balanced with freshness and texture with subtle sea salt notes and energetic acidity. You just have to find the particular nuances that appeal to you. Yep, Vermentino is here. Whether enjoying a warm afternoon with a sumptuous spread of seafood or sitting in a cosy bar planning a potential Mediterranean sojourn, pairing your activity with a glass of your favourite Vermentino seems like the perfect thing to do. The Standout Vermentino from the Tasting Trentham The Family Vermentino 2016 (Murray Darling) Chalmers Vermentino 2016 (Heathcote) Stone Dwellers Limited Release Vermentino 2015 (Strathbogie Ranges) Lovable Rogue The Italian Jobs Vermentino 2016 (Hunter Valley) Parish Hill Vermentino 2016 (Adelaide Hills) Seppeltsfield Cellar Door Collection Vermentino 2017 (Barossa) Tulloch Cellar Door Release Vermentino 2017 (Orange) Chalk Hill Wines Vermentino 2016 (McLaren Vale) Saddler’s Vermentino 2015 (Barossa) Alejandro Vermentino 2016 (Riverland) Alternatus Vermentino 2016 (Mclaren vale) David Hook Central Ranges Vermentino 2016 (Orange) First Creek Vermentino 2016 (Hunter Valley) La Maschera Vermentino 2015 (Barossa)
Wine
World's Best Rieslings
Words by Trent Mannell on 14 Feb 2017
Wine Selectors tasting Panelist Trent Mannell was asked to be judge at the 17th Canberra International Riesling Challenge, and he liked what he saw. Someone recently asked me what I thought the big trends in wine will be in 2017. And while I believe alternative varietals will continue to gain momentum I feel that an old favourite, Riesling   , will rise again to become one of the most popular wines on the market. I’ve come to this conclusion after a stint as Panel Chair judge at the 17th Canberra International Riesling Challenge, where I was blown away by the quality, variety and consistency of Rieslings from around the world, and equally by the Australian examples, which are right there in the top echelon. Given the fact that most international wine tastings of this nature are held in Europe, the UK or America, it is a coup that we have a tasting of this kind in our own backyard. Nearly all of the credit for this has to go to winemaker Ken Helm from Helm Wines in the  Canberra District  . Ken is about as knowledgeable and passionate about Riesling as anyone I know and we’ve had many a long conversation about the many nuances of this wonderful varietal while sipping some wonderful examples from Ken’s winery in Murrumbatmen. The thing about Riesling is it is so versatile – by controlling when it is picked and how much sugar is in the grape, it can be made in almost any style from dry and citrusy to sweet and syrupy. All have their place and appeal and all were on show at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. JUDGING RIESLING ROYALTY The 2017 event featured an outstanding collection of wines from eight countries with record numbers. Record entries (512) as well as the hughest participation from Austria and Australia and the largest number of entries from Germany and the USA since 2009, and in a strong sign of the quality on show, a record number of medals awarded. There were 85 Gold Medals, 112 Silver Medals and 168 Bronze Medals – a medal strike rate of 72%; this is up from 65% in 2015. Gold Medals represented 17% of entries - a record for the Challenge, clearly a reflection of the outstanding 2015 and 2016 vintages in the Southern Hemisphere and some fine winegrowing and winemaking skills. “It is indeed an exciting time for Riesling across the world,” Ken said at the Challenge. Like me, he reckons that there is an increased appetite for Riesling and once these award-winning wines hit the market they’ll be greeted with much joy. For the record Austrailan wines excelled. The Best Wine of the 2016 Challenge was Ferngrove Wines from the Frankland River region in WA for their  Ferngrove  Off-Dry Riesling Limited Release 2016  . The best dry Riesling went to  Adelaide Hills  winery Bird in Hand for their  Bird in Hand Riesling 2016  , made from pristine  Clare Valley  fruit, while the Best Museum Riesling was awarded to the Robert Stein Riesling 2009 from Mudgee. A VERSATILE VARIETY The fact that three different regions around Australia is tip of the hat to the versatility of the varietal to shine in different conditions and a testament to the heightened professionalism and attention to detail by winemakers and viticulturists. Germany’s Weingut Georg Müller Stiftung - 2015 Hattenheimer Hassel Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese picked up two awards – the Best Sweet Riesling and the Best European Riesling, while the Mount Majura Vineyard Riesling 2016, scored for Best Riesling from the Canberra District. For all the results visit www.rieslingchallenge.com And can I give me thanks and gratitude to Ken, who is stepping down as Chair of the CIRC after 17 years at the helm. If it were not for his tireless work in instigating and perpetuating this Challenge we wouldn’t be talking about these Rieslings now, and you wouldn’t be ready to taste them. Cheers Ken, here’s to our next glass of off-dry and our chat on your creaky verandah.
Wine
A Time to Sparkle: Member Tasting
Words by Mark Hughes on 15 Mar 2016
Which Sparkling for which occasion? We asked some Wine Selectors Members: Traditional, Prosecco or Blanc de Blanc? With the festive season in full swing, you are going to want to have a handy stash of Sparkling on hand to make sure you have the absolutely perfect drink to toast any occasion. After all, fun, fizz and Happy New Year/Hooray for Holidays/Cheers to that etc… go together. Traditionally, that meant finding a good Sparkling wine and by that I mean the exquisite Champagne blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and often, but not always, Pinot Meunier. Sometimes, you’d be looking for a smart Blanc de Blanc, that is, a Sparkling made entirely from white grapes (bearing in mind that Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier mentioned above, are both red grapes. Of course, you knew that, but I’m just explaining it for those who don’t). Blanc de Blancs are most often made from Chardonnay, but in Australia you’ll also find impressive examples made from Semillon, Riesling or whatever white varietal winemakers have lots of and want to use to add a Sparkling offering to their cellar door range. Recently, though, there has been a sassy new lady on the scene – Prosecco . Commonly explained as the Italian version of Champagne, Prosecco has become the top-selling Sparkling wine in Europe, and it is trending that way here. It is easy to see why. It is generally cheaper than Champagne, lower in alcohol at around 12%, and has a lighter bubble, so it is a bit easier to drink and it has a stronger fruit profile so it is a versatile food match. Well heeled (or should that be perfectly palated) critics say that Prosecco is a bit simple and lacks the complexity of Sparking wine. Which is true, strictly speaking. One of the main reasons for this is the way Prosecco is made. Stick with me here as I’m going to give you a bit of background data followed by some technical details, so pay attention. Prosecco is made from the Prosecco grape, although outside of Italy you should refer to the varietal as ‘glera’ because the Italians successful petitioned to have the name protected, much the way Champagne can only be called Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region in France. However, the Prosecco law only covers Europe, so Australian winemakers can still go about their merry way making Prosecco from Prosecco and calling it Prosecco, at least for now. The method used to make Prosecco is the reason it is generally cheaper and less complex than Sparkling. Unlike Champagne, which undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle (commonly known as the Method Champenoise – once again, you knew that), Prosecco undergoes fermentation in a tank and is bottled under pressure. The Italians call this process Metodo Martinotti, crediting an Italian winemaker called Federico Martinotti with developing and patenting the method. The French call it the Charmat method after French winemaker Eugene Charmat, who further developed Martinotti’s method and secured a new patent. All of this matters very little when you have a glass in your hand and you just want to say, “Here’s to us!” as one does at festive occasions. So to find out who prefers what, we organised one of our infamous Members’ Tastings. Find out more about Australian Prosecco in this article A Festive Feeel
Usually, our Members’ Tastings are fun but also somewhat serious occasions, but seeing as we wanted to see what best to drink for festivities, we decided to make it much more of a party atmosphere. Seven Wine Selectors Members joined Tasting Panellists Adam Walls and Nicole Gow and all were in rarified company with special guest, Sparkling wine guru Ed Carr, winemaker at the mutli-award winning House of Arras, lending his knowledge on all things bubbly. Naturally, the evening started with a glass of bubbles and some delicious canapés in the boutique vineyard adjacent to the Wine Selectors headquarters in Newcastle. Then they got down to the business of tasting. A Prosecco bracket was followed by a Sparkling wine bracket and a Blanc de Blanc bracket. The results were as diverse as the palates around the tasting. Robin Farmer said he was very much in the Italian camp. “I actually enjoyed the Prosecco,” he said. “It seemed to be a little more easy drinking, less bubbles, a bit more to my taste.” Laura Egginton agreed, saying the Proseccos were “deliciously light and easy to drink.” However, once she tried the traditional bracket, she had a Sparkling awakening, describing “flavours that lingered with much more body.” Chantelle Staines agreed with Laura, describing the traditional set as “fresh and the easiest to drink.” On the other side of the equation, Jen Carter, Oonagh Farmer, Louisa Brown and Trudi Arnall said they preferred the Blanc de Blanc. Louisa summed it up when she described the Blanc de Blancs as showing, “more flavour and more depth of character” and being, “more aspiring.” This was perhaps a little unfair given that some of the B de Bs were aged, and with age comes complexity. What does it all mean? The results of the tasting went like this. Everyone generally liked the Prosecco bracket, some more than others, but overall everyone enjoyed them. When they tasted their way through the Traditional Sparkling bracket, everyone enjoyed those too, the majority more than the Prosecco bracket. And once again, you guessed it, everyone liked the Blanc de Blanc bracket, with at least four of the seven guests (and all of the experts) nominating these wines as the highlights of the night. The discussions after the tasting, held over a second serving of canapés with some lounge music in the background, revealed some interesting conclusions. It seems that all the wines were great, it was just a matter of what sort of occasion you were attending that would determine your bubbly of choice. Trudi voiced everyone’s collective thoughts when she said, “If I was to turn up for an afternoon BBQ with the kids in the pool, a Prosecco would be great. But if I was going to a dinner party, I’d go with the traditional Sparkling, and if I really wanted to impress, I’d go with a Sparkling or a Blanc de Blanc with some age.” And with that we all nodded in agreement. It was a sentiment to which we could all toast. And we did. Cheers!
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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