A FRIEND RECENTLY asked me about a bottle of 1989 Chateau Petrus. Off the top of my head I could tell him it was a 100-pointer, outrageously expensive and particularly rare. It was definitely a deserved inclusion in Wine Spectator magazine's list of wines of the century. I almost forgot to mention that Petrus was made almost entirely from merlot. 'Merlot,' my friend mused. 'I thought all the best reds were cabernet sauvignons.'
How wrong he was. With its soft texture, delightfully plummy fruit and mild tannins, merlot has a huge and ardent following. The 3,000 cases of Petrus made in Bordeaux's Pomerol area each year represent the pinnacle of merlot production. However, within the same commune, other serious contenders to the 'world's best merlot' crown include chateaux Le Pin, Vieux, Certan and L'Eglise-Clinet. St Emilion, down the road, harbours equally classy, merlot-dominated wines. Chateaux Angelus, Ausone and Tertre Roteboeuf are wines not to be sniffed at.
Producers in Australia, Italy, California and Chile are attempting to wrest the merlot crown from Pomerol and St Emilion. In South Australia's Eden Valley, self-proclaimed 'merlot-master' James Irvine has been making his Grand Merlot since 1985. Irvine is fascinated with the varietal and enthusiastically comments: 'Of all the red wines it is the most subtle, the most satisfying.' He has certainly been able to craft a world-class merlot in a region famed for cool-climate riesling.
The 1988 vintage of James Irvine Grand Merlot was judged equal first in Decanter magazine's 'world merlot tasting'. In 1993 Irvine was awarded the only gold medal in 6,300 entries at the prestigious International Wine Challenge. Then, in 1997, the 1992 vintage won the inaugural Swiss Academie du Vin's world's best merlot award. It sold out in Australia within a week. These days, thanks to such past glory and future promise, it is particularly scarce, even at $450 a bottle.
In Italy, the owners of the super-Tuscan Tenuta dell'Ornellaia also produce a blockbuster, 100 per cent merlot called Masseto. The 1999 vintage is probably the best Masseto yet. This is a rich wine with profound depth. The aromas are complex and lingering and mouth-filling tannins hug the palate, indicating an ageing potential of at least 20 years. But would-be buyers of Masseto should join the queue. With fewer than 1,500 cases made each year, its $1,100 price tag appears to be no deterrent to demand.
California and Chile produce mostly early-drinking merlots with luscious plum and currant flavours. In reference to its soft tannins, Californian merlots are often marketed as 'Merlot - cabernet without the pain'.
Further up the coast in Washington, producers are taking their merlot seriously. Most wine experts believe this is an area for aficionados of this varietal to keep their eye on. With a more northerly, cooler climate, Washington versions have an Old World character, with brighter fruit and more structure than their Californian counterparts. Here, demand far outstrips supply.
Chile has decided it has a responsibility to popularise merlot as an affordable, easy-drinking wine. Investment from Miguel Torres, Robert Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson and Mouton Rothschild has filled this wine-making paradise with money and expertise. Low labour costs and minimal pest and disease problems should allow prices to remain low. Some say Chile's best merlot is Casa Lapostolle's Rapel Valley Cuvee Alexandre. At $240, proof is in the price tag.
Irvine, meanwhile, is effusive when describing his favourite varietal: 'I adore its opulent texture, gracefulness and power, succulence, voluptuousness, silkiness and lushness, with its flavours of Chinese tea, black cherry, dark raspberries, violets, liquorice, truffles, fruit pastilles, brambles, tobacco leaf, mulberry and olives.' Yes please, I'd like a bottle of merlot.