David 8 May 2014
I was interested to read in the latest 2010 study from the University of Adelaide that merlot was thesecond most widely planted variety in the world. 10 years before, in 1990, it had been in 4th place and 20 years before it sat at 7th. I would never have guessed. By the way, cabernet got the top gong in 2010.
While merlot is grown throughout the world, its home is France. Here it’s the most widely planted red grape, with plantings of approximately 290,000 acres. You’ll find the best examples in the appellations ofSaint Émilion and Pomerol, referred to as the Right Bank of Bordeaux.
In Italy merlot comes in at number 4, with approximately 70,000 acres. There are a small number of excellent examples here, described by Jancis Robinson as ‘seriously ambitious merlot.’
Merlot grapes are a beautiful bluey colour, tend to be very vigorous and ripen earlier than cabernet. They have thinner skin, fewer tannins and lower acid, and the best examples are usually found in clay soil.The variety is known for being soft, smooth and plummy. No wonder it’s so popular.
Merlot’s traditional strength though has been its ability to blend with other red varieties, most notably cabernet. You may have heard people cheekily refer to cabernet as a doughnut, alluding to a hole in the middle of its taste structure and blending is seen to fill this hole. The mid-palate weight and plump, lush fruitiness of merlot fleshes out and softens the highly structured, more austere characteristics of cabernet sauvignon. This blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot is the basis of red Bordeaux, complimented by contributions from cab franc, petite verdot and malbec.
The greatest examples of merlot are said to be Château Petrus and Le Pin. Both are from Pomerol, ridiculously expensive and highly sought after by collectors, Russian oligarchs and Chinese billionaires alike.
The key to merlot is finding quality. At its best merlot produces wines that are opulently rich, intense, succulent and plummy. At the other end of the spectrum, the over-cropped stuff is dilute, bland and ordinary. No doubt this was the protagonist’s experience in the wine-centric comedy Sideways (2004). Miles loathes the variety and his humorous outburst (caution: swearing) single-handedly shot down merlot sales in both the US and UK. The irony is that late in the movie he drinks his most treasured wine… a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc from Saint Émilion, which is 60% cab franc and 40% merlot.
Below are three merlots (straight and blends) from the same vintage, that showcase this variety. One is from a traditional producer on the right bank of Bordeaux, the other two are from a stellar modern producer in central Italy. All are great styles.
1. Château La Vieille Cure 2009 (75% merlot, 22% cab franc, 3% cab sauv)
Situated in the appellation of Fronsac, just west of Pomerol, this estate appeared on maps as early as 1780. A tranquil landscape, as Robert Parker notes “it’s among the region’s most aesthetically pleasing, situated on rolling hills overlooking the Dordogne River.”
Interestingly, from the latter half of the 18th century, the wines of Fronsac along with neighbouring Canon-Fronsac, were better known than the wines of Pomerol. But easier access by wine merchants to the Pomerol area meant that by the mid-19th century Fronsac had fallen into obscurity and has only begun to re-emerge in the last 30 years.
Despite this estate’s long history, it was only in 1986 that it came to prominence. A couple of US investment bankers (Colin Ferenbach and Peter Sachs) recognised the potential of the single 50-acre site, with its sunny aspect, perfect drainage and all-important clay and limestone soil. They purchased the property and a serious, no expense spared makeover ensued, with sections of the vineyard being replanted, as well as building a new winery complete with the latest equipment.
Importantly, this transformation was overseen by acclaimed consultant Michel Rolland. Author Andrew Jefford devotes a section in his book ‘The New France’ to Rolland, describing him as ‘not simply the most influential winemaking consultant in Bordeaux, he has become the world’s foremost shaper of wines.’ These days Chateau La Vieille Cure is regarded as one of the top estates in the appellation.
2009 is regarded as a brilliant vintage. Robert Parker says: “unquestionably the greatest Bordeaux vintage I have ever tasted. May well go down as the single greatest vintage ever produced in Bordeaux since records have been kept.” Wine Spectator gave right bank Bordeaux (Pomerol, St Emilion) a score of 96/100, noting specifically “don’t overlook Fronsac.” Unfortunately for many, 2009 was also a memorable vintage because it signalled the point at which well-known Bordeaux became unaffordable.
I really like this wine - it shows what good blending is all about - seamless integration of the best attributes of each variety. The wine itself is a rich dark red colour with a slight brickiness around the edge. The overriding impression is one of softness and richness from the merlot, but just the right amount of grip and structure from the cab franc and cab sauv. It makes you realise this is not simply a merlot… it’s a structured Bordeaux. You’ll find flavours of dark fruit, violets and chocolate - and perhaps a hint of sarsaparilla. It’s smooth and dense, but I just keep coming back to that lovely balance of velvety softness and firm, but fine tannin structure. This is what makes it so irresistible.
Here’s another glowing note from Mr P: “The 2009 is a charming, sexy, dense ruby/purple-colored offering displaying lots of ripe Merlot fruit intermixed with hints of charcoal, black raspberries, black currants, lead pencil shavings and truffles. This full-bodied, pure, nicely textured and layered Fronsac is a sleeper of the vintage that considerably over-performs for its modest price. Drink it over the next 15+ years. This is obvious great value!” 93 points. Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate.
This wine has so much going for it - great vintage, top chateaux in an emerging appellation, progressive and deep pocketed owners! I just wish I had more of it to sell.
I can offer it for $55 a bottle (limited). SOLD OUT - Check availability
Falesco was founded in 1979 by brothers Riccardo and Renzo Cotarella - a real dynamic duo. Riccardo is regarded as one of Italy’s best known winemaking consultants and Renzo is the wine director of none other than Antinori, Italian powerhouse and producer of Tignanello, a world famous wine.
The Falesco winery was initially located in Montefiascone, about 120 km north of Rome, on the shores of scenic Lake Bolsena. In 1999, as the estate continued to acquire new vineyards, a new winery was established at Montecchio about 50km south of historic Perugia. Nowdays the sprawling estate of several hundred acres straddles Latium (Lazio) and Umbria in central Italy. It is still run by the two brothers as well as Renzo’s daughter Dominga.
When founded, the estate aimed to preserve or re-establish local ancient indigenous vineyards and varieties, most notably the white grape Roscetto. The first wine they produced was Est, Est, Est, a white blend that included Roscetto, which is now recognised as one the best value white wines around. There’s a great story to the slightly absurd name, which involves a 12th century German priest - some of you might recall I offered it in the past.
Then in 1990 Falesco turned its attention to red wine and breaking with tradition, decided to go with merlot and use state of the art winemaking technology. 1995 saw the first vintage of Montiano, an outstanding 100% merlot sourced from a single vineyard and only produced in good years. The wine has been praised by Wine Spectator and Robert Parker alike. Gambero Rosso, the Italian authority on Italian wine has awarded the wine its coveted ‘tres bicchero’ (3 glasses) on 10 out of its 12 releases since 1995 (it was not made in 1996 or 2002). This is an extraordinary achievement!
These days Falesco produces many wines, but their reputation rests on top-end cult reds like their flagship Montiano, which has become an iconic and highly sought after wine in both the Italian and international wine scenes.
Falesco seems to have been able to combine a passion for preserving history with outward looking innovation. It is a dynamic company that has achieved worldwide acclaim.
2. Falesco Montiano 2009 (100% merlot)
The fruit for this wine comes from Latium and undergoes extremely rigorous grape selection. The wine sees the best of modern winemaking including 12 months in oak.
This is a wonderful wine, probably a little exotic or unusual to Italians but Australian drinkers will know and like the style. It’s a dark plummy colour, more purple than the Bordeaux above and on the nose and palate there’s an abundance of aromatic, concentrated sweet ripe fruit. It’s smooooth, soft and simply delicious. Italian wines are usually built on mouth wrenching tannins and acidity but here you’ll find fine tannins and a plushness that Italian wines don’t usually know. There’s sour cherry, musk and coconut, and as if to remind you that it's Italian, you’ll find liquorice and aniseed. I found the wine pure, modern and generous, and if you can muster the restraint to let it open up, you’ll be rewarded with even more of that persistent velvety smoothness. Yum.
“Riccardo Cotarella's 2009 Merlot Montiano is the clear highlight in this set of new releases. Mocha, espresso, sweet spices and plums flesh out beautifully in the glass. There is an element of floral lift and freshness that is highly intriguing. The balance of fruit, structure and oak is striking. Textured, harmonious and inviting, the Montiano is absolutely gorgeous today. Anticipated maturity: 2013-2019.”
Antonio Galonni, Wine Advocate #205 Feb 2013. 92 points.
3 Glasses - Gambero Rosso 2012
Super 3 Stars – 97/100 Points, I Vini di Veronelli Wine Guide 2012
I can offer it for $110 a bottle. SOLD OUT - Check availability
3. Falesco Trentanni Merlot 2009 (50% merlot, 50% sangiovese)
I had to offer this wine as well because I think it’s great drinking for a wine under $40. The fruit comes from Umbria and is 50% merlot and 50% sangiovese. Trent’anni translates to ‘30 years’ in Italian and the wine was produced for the first time in 2009 as a celebration of 30 years since the foundation of Falesco in 1979.
It’s crimson in colour with a bricky edge to it. It changes as it opens up in the glass. While I’m sure it’s considered international in style by Italians, it still has a more savoury and acidic profile than similar Aussie wines and this makes it good with food. It’s leaner than the flagship Montiano (as you’d expect) but there’s still that familiar softness from the merlot. You’ll find dark fruit, and even a little bit of pepper and spice. It confounded me (in a good way) as I let it open up and saw more of the red fruit and tannins coming through care of the sangiovese. Then it changed back to the softness and generosity of the merlot. This multi-dimensional aspect of the blend is what grabbed me. Let it open up in your glass and enjoy the change too!
2 Glasses - Gambero Rosso 2012
94/100 Points - I Vini di Veronelli Wine Guide 2012
I can offer it for $39 a bottle. SOLD OUT - Check availability