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Wine

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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Best of Member Wine Tastings 2016
Words by Mark Hughes on 17 Jan 2017
In 2016, some fortunate Wine Selectors members had the pleasure of joining our tasting panel to put Hunter Shiraz, Pinot G and Sparkling to the taste test. Hunter Shiraz
The winemakers of the  Hunter Valley  craft a style of  Shiraz  that's unique to the region with its vibrant, fruit-driven appeal. While wineries and experts are on board with this style, we wanted to find out what wine-lovers think. Our guests discovered Shiraz that lived up to the regional reputation for being medium-bodied and savoury, but also found the Hunter could produce excellent fuller styles such as those from The Little Wine Company and  Pepper Tree  . The wine that drew unanimous praise was the  De Iuliis Shiraz 2014  ,which was described as having "beautiful balance with long, spicy, elegant tannins." Overall, our members vowed they'll explore and add more Hunter Shiraz to their collection. Find out more about our  Hunter Valley Shiraz member tasting experience here. Pinot Gris and Grigio
Over the last few years,  Pinot Gris and Grigio  have become very popular white wines, but generally the drinking public don't know the difference between the two, so we invited some members to discuss the difference in styles. In a nutshell, Grigio is the Italian style that's fresh and zesty with a savourycharacter, while the French Gris is richer with more body, stonefruit flavours and some spice. Mainly due to marketing, winemakers in Australia have tended to use the trendier Grigio on the label, even if the wine is more in Gris style, which understandably only adds to the confusion. Fortunately, the big thing to come out of this tasting was the development of winemaking techniques that show that noted producers, at least, are making Grigio and Gris more in line with their European counterparts. Find out more about the  differences between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio we discovered here. Sparkling
Which  Sparkling  is trending this summer? We asked some lucky members:  Traditional, Prosecco or Blanc de Blanc?  The results of this very festive tasting revealed that all three styles are well liked, it was just a matter of what type of occasion our guests were attending that would determine their choice of bubbly. One of our members, Trudi Arnall voiced everyone’s 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. 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 Blanc de Blanc with some age.” Find out more about the results of our tasting  here  or learn more about the  difference between Prosecco and sparkling wines  with our handy infographic and guide. Find out more about becoming a Wine Selectors Member today!
Wine
Following the Prosecco Road - Your Guide to Australian Prosecco
Australian Prosecco   is a vibrant sparkling wine style taking over Australia from the Prosecco Road in Victoria’s King Valley to the Adelaide Hills . Internationally, it is now the world's most popular Sparkling wine, overtaking Champagne in sales. Learn more about its long history, how it’s made and where to find the best Australian Prosecco with this helpful guide and infographic.   Firstly, what is Prosecco? Prosecco is a style of Sparkling wine made from the Glera grape variety. This historic variety is believed to hail from the ancient Slovenian village of Prosek, now part of Italy. There are records of  Julia Augusta drinking wine from the Prosek region as early as 79 AD . But, what we now know as Prosecco hails from the North-east Italian province of Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia near Treviso enshrined in the Prosecco DOC, or the designated production zone. The characteristic ‘fizz’ of Prosecco is classed as either Spumante, the most exuberant, as a more moderate Frizzante or with no fizz at all as a Tranquillo. Prosecco is a late-ripening variety and is harvested once the varietal flavours of white peach, white pear and lemon peak and the acidity has softened. Cool climate and high altitude regions like  King Valley     or the  Adelaide Hills  are well suited to this variety. Prosecco vs Champagne and Sparkling Wines  Apart from featuring different grapes, it’s the way Prosecco is made that plays a large role in the difference between Prosecco,  Champagne  and  Sparkling Wine s . Whereas Champagne is fermented in its bottle using Methode Champenoise, Prosecco is fermented pressurised steel tanks in a process known by much of the world as the “Charmat” method. However, mention the word Charmat to an Italian winemaker and there might be trouble. In Italy, it’s known as the “Martinotti Method”, invented and patented in 1885 by Fedricco Martinotti, seven years before the French winemaker Eugène Charmat filed for his take on the method. The Martinotti method involves conducting the second fermentation in large autoclave steel tanks before clarification and cooling. This forgoes the need for fermentation, riddling and disgorgement inside individual bottles required in the Champagne method. This method is a very efficient process lowering the resources required by the winemaker. However, it shouldn’t be viewed as an inferior process, as it allows for increased control, scale, filtration and the ability to lower the required yeast lees contact during the winemaking process. This is the key difference. Methode Champenoise wines have complex and rich autolytic textures from this process with restrained fruits. Martinotti method Prosecco wines are all about lightness, freshness and fruit, designed to be enjoyed at any occasion. Joy in a bottle. A further, often neglected fact is that  we owe the Bellini cocktail to Prosecco , invented by Giuseppe Cipriani when he combined white peach puree with Prosecco in Harry’s Bar Venice close to the Prosecco DOC, or designated production zone. Dal Zotto brings Prosecco to Australia Victoria’s King Valley can lay claim to planting the first Glera vines in Australia.  The wine history of the King Valley  starts in the 1880s in the regions’ tobacco plantations, established by Chinese settlers seeking new opportunities as the Victorian gold rush stagnated. By the 1940s Italian migrants had arrived to the region working on the tobacco farms. Yet, in the 1960s, the local tobacco industry was starting to decline. Otto Dal Zotto, born in the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOCG region, where Prosecco vines carpet the hillsides, came to Australia in the late 1960s. Like many Italian migrants before him, Otto was drawn to the region to work in the tobacco fields. But, as the work dried up he moved into the region's emerging wine industry planting Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Gradually, the region began to plant classic Italian varieties, expressing the passion of the winemaker’s collective Italian heritage. Then, in 2000 Otto planted the first Glera grapes and the rest, as they say, is history. The Rise of King Valley and the Prosecco Road
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Glera vines are starting to gain momentum in other cool climate regions such as the Adelaide Hills and Yarra Valley. With wineries including Innocent Bystander, Tempus Two and Coriole Vineyards leading the charge. As consumer demand continues to increase for Australian Prosecco this will only continue. Tasting Notes Prosecco is a light, fresh, creamy and fruit focused Sparkling wine.  Tasting Panellist Adam Walls  notes that Prossecco generally presents with a “pale lemon colour and a fine bead collar. Abundant in pear, apple and citrus fruits with creamy soft texture, it’s little wonder that Prosecco is proving to be a favourite with drinkers across the country”. Prosecco Food Pairings
Prosecco is a style that’s wonderful to enjoy on its own as the party’s getting started or with appetisers such as savoury canapes of cured meats or fresh fruit such as  Lyndey Milan’s stuffed figs wrapped in bastourmar . This Italian-style Sparkling is also the perfect match for light seafood or Mediterranean dishes. As the temperature rises it’s ideal with fresh, zesty Asian inspired salads like this  Vietnamese summer salad recipe . Explore more of our  recipe ideas now. Try Prosecco Today At its heart, Prosecco is designed to be enjoyed with friends. This light refreshing style has no pretence, and is made to be served immediately and not saved for a special occasion like Champagne. Instead, all moments are celebrations. With this ethos, it’s little wonder that it’s taking over the world.
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