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MICHAEL GREEN’S WINE NOTES #161 (article first published : 2006-10-29)

Merlot, one of the classic red wine grapes of Bordeaux, France, has proliferated in South Africa in recent times. Fifteen years ago twelve Cape wines were labelled as merlot. Today there are more than 300. And these are single cultivar wines, as distinct from the many red blends which contain merlot (it is a component of the celebrated Bordeaux blend: cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc).

In South Africa’s total wine production merlot still lies well behind cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and pinotage among the red varieties, but its popularity is steadily increasing. The words generally used to describe merlot are soft, gentle, mellow, fruity, fragrant, and this is why it is often used in blending to tone down the more aggressive character typical of some cabernet sauvignons.

On its own merlot makes a lovely wine and this was very clear at a recent gathering of our private tasting group when Alf Sudheim presented six top-rated South African merlots. The wines were all graded five to four stars in John Platter’s wine guide, and all but two of them were very expensive. We were mildly gratified when, in the blind tasting, we gave first place on our score-cards to the most expensive of them all: the Thelema 2004 Merlot Reserve, which costs about R195 a bottle from the estate.

Thelema Mountain Vineyards, at the top of the Helshoogte pass, above Stellenbosch, is a cellar which is renowned for the quality of its wines, reds and whites, and this particular merlot is one of its star turns, a rich, luxurious wine with concentrated blackcurrant flavours and a long, lingering dry finish. Yet another feather in the much-decorated cap of the cellar’s co-owner and winemaker, Natal born and educated Gyles Webb.

Second place went to the Steenberg Merlot 2000, from a cellar at Constantia that has established a big reputation over the past ten years. This wine is velvety, with a slight and very attractive underlying sweetness, and with hints of blueberry and mint in the flavour. Like all the other merlots presented in the tasting, it was matured in French oak barrels. Price R100.

Just behind this came the other four wines, with virtually no difference in the scoring. They were:

Another Thelema wine, the “straight” non-Reserve merlot of 2004, ruby-coloured, creamy, and the prediction is that it should be at its best by 2010. About R175 from Thelema.

Havana Hills Du Plessis 1999, from a fairly new cellar at Philadelphia, north of Cape Town, near Malmesbury. Named after the owner, Kobus du Plessis. Plum flavours, dry and elegant. About R100.

Morgenhof 2000, from a well-known estate at Stellenbosch, another big wine that should be at its best in four or five years’ time. R63.

And Villiera Merlot 2004, from an estate at Stellenbosch which has been owned for twenty years by the Grier family and which is known for offering good wines at good prices. Plum flavours again, and a touch of mint. A fine wine and, at about R45 a bottle, the best value of all, in my opinion. – Michael Green




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