The delights of mellow Merlot

The spicy plummy notes of six versions of the noble Merlot grape wafted through the air at Abacus recently as the intrepid Jacques Scott/Journal team explored all its fruity nuances. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull reports.

Merlot has received a bit of a bad rap in recent years with Pinot Noir taking over as the red grape of choice among those so-called ‘in the know’ wine lovers. Because of its flexibility as an excellent wine for blending, it has also played second fiddle to its heavy weight Bordeaux partner Cabernet Sauvignon, as, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, Merlot is one of the primary grapes in Bordeaux wine where it is the most widely planted grape; however Merlot can produce the most magnificent and pricey wines imaginable, (such as Chateau Petrus, recognised as the world’s most expensive wine which is 95 per cent Merlot/5 per cent Cabernet Franc). The trick is to source your wines carefully and know your palate.
 
To this end the usual blind tasting crew of Jacques Scott’s Lee Royle, Paul McLaughlin and Sergio Serrano and yours truly teamed up for a blind tasting to discern the exciting dimensions that winemakers can give to the Merlot grape.
 
Wines enjoyed in our blind tasting session (in no particular order were as follows:

  • 2007 Cavit Merlot, Trentino, Italy CI$14.99
  • Grgich Hills Estate 2005, Napa Valley, California CI$46.99
  • Lindemans Reserve Limestone Coast 2005, Australia CI$16.99
  • Barefoot Merlot, California CI$8.99
  • Montes Alpha 2006, Colchagua Valley, Chile CI$19.95
  • 2007 Baron Philippe de Rothschild, France CI$13.99

Tasters were presented with an array of tempting Abacus appetisers by our highly professional waitress, Jess, who seemed to accommodate every need before we knew we needed it! The iconic oxtail spring rolls and the duck and mushroom quesadillas did an ample job in whetting appetites for the task ahead.
 
First off was a heady, high alcohol wine full of lovely fruity plum notes on the notes intermingling with cocoa and tea notes on the palate.
 
“This wine is from the New World,” confirms Lee confidently. “You just have to inhale to feel the alcohol’s strength on the nose.”
 
Taking a sip he says that the wine is “fully extracted” meaning every ounce of the fruit’s flavour have been carefully taken from the grape producing a highly enjoyable and drinkable wine. This first wine also enjoyed a lengthy finish and a nice tannin structure that would eventually make it all the tasters’ top choice.
 
“Number one is definitely number one!” confirms Paul.
 
All tasters correctly identified this wine as the Grgich Hills Estate from the Napa Valley, a wine that had been matured in oak for 18 months to produce a full body and which will only improve with age.
 
Next on the agenda was another heavyweight which pulled no punches in terms of intensity. This was a deep ruby red wine with a noseful of berries, leather and black cherries complemented by a palate that displayed hints of pepper and tobacco. High on alcohol again, this wine was also “fully extracted” according to Lee and leant towards the New World once more. Three out of the four tasters correctly identified this as the Montes Alpha from Chile’s Colchagua Valley, another full bodied wine with great aging potential.
 
After another palate-exciting episode of dishes, which included a superb filet of beef stroganoff with delicious parmesan encrusted papadelle and a New York strip magnificently enhanced with a mango chutney demi glaze, the third wine was poured. This time the wine had everyone scratching their heads to ascertain its source. Only Sergio Serrano correctly identified the wine’s cherry and plum fruit aromas melding with tart cherry and oaky notes as the Lindemans reserve Limestone Coast from Australia.
 
Further Abacus dishes helped tasters on their journey, including a plate of chicken medallions in a lychee-laced red curry sauce, which went surprisingly well with the spicy notes in the wines, and a pork special which was served alongside delicious mashed yams and a grilled Granny Smith apple side.
 
Number four was another brain teaser which again was only correctly guessed by Sergio. This time the wine’s lighter style, red fruit aroma and soft round tannins belonged to the Cavit from Italy’s Trentino region.
 
A light fruit-filled wine was then poured as our fifth wine, full of red cherries, plums, chocolate and mild tannins and only yours truly identified this as the Barefoot Merlot from California, a purple-hued, well-priced wine that went well with the red meats on the table.
 
Our final wine displayed cherries and other red fruit such as raspberries on the palate without over powering the nose or the palate, and was tinged with spicy nuances and silky tannins that again had the tasters slightly baffled. Both Sergio and Paul correctly identified this wine as the Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
 
Another whirlwind wine tour completed, tasters all agreed that the Merlot blind tasting had been a highly instructional exercise in discovering the nuances of this most noble of grapes.

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Expert server Jess

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