Where is the love?

It was the kind of picture or visual artistry which could have featured in the recent Trevor Noah/South Africa Tourism promo. Towering rugged mountains, trellised vines resplendent in springtime green garb in orderly rows, growing vigorously after exceptional winter rains, a sunny day with blue skies – and groups of happy, chatting and laughing people arranged at various tables in a spectacular architect-designed tasting room in the Banghoek outside Stellenbosch. The only thing missing was the witty or humorous little twist in the tail, wryly observed by Noah.

Among the groups at Rainbow’s End on that arbitrary Thursday afternoon were two Swedes, visiting South Africa for the first time. “It is JUST so beautiful! We cannot believe how amazing it all is – and it’s not just the scenery, but the people, the food and especially the wines,” they said.

While Rainbow’s End has crafted a fine reputation for the quality of its Cabernets, both Sauvignon and Franc, it was the Merlot which elicited the most positive response. Which should not have been surprising as this producer was the top performer at the second annual Hallo Merlot Top 10 competition held in June.

Chairman of the Merlot Forum, Dawie Botha pointed out at the competition awards that Merlot was the top-selling single varietal in the country. “The missing link in the country’s Merlot offerings has been the lack of a competition to assess the state of the wines made from this variety as well as to recognise the top producers,” he said. The second staging of the Merlot Top 10 competition not only displayed the terroir diversity of the country’s top producers but also their collective commitment to improving quality. (Five of the Top 10 were from Stellenbosch, the rest from Durbanville, Wellington, Agter-Paarl, Voor Paardeberg and Franschhoek – so broadly spread, terroir wise.)

“With local wine drinkers buying more Merlot than any other single red variety, this competition aims to create an awareness of the high standard of winemaking and the specific regional identities found in the country’s Merlot,” he said.

So why is there this disconnect? Consumers love Merlot, but the general consensus among critics and even producers is that Merlot is seldom the first grape or wine that they will “haal uit en wys” (haul out and display)? There remains this abiding perception that Merlot doesn’t stand toe-to-toe with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz or Pinotage. While many South African producers grow Merlot, it’s planted more as a component for Bordeaux-style blends than it is for a stand-alone wine.

Botha’s comment about the lack of competition had me reviewing the categories over the past 40 years of the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year competition. He’s right. Pinotage, bubbly, red blends and Chardonnay have all featured four times, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Shiraz three times – the same as for sweet or fortified wines. Pinot Noir and Merlot languish, having only had their time in the limelight twice each – in 42 years! (It’s worth noting that the laureates were Jean Daneel in 1992 for the Buitenverwachting Reserve Merlot 1991 and Hartenberg’s Carl Schultz claimed bragging rights for the 2004 Merlot in 2005.)

At the time of winning, Schultz paid tribute to their Italian viticultural consultant for his input. One of the innovations introduced was water stress monitoring as Merlot is a fickle and temperamental vine. It can’t have too much water because it then goes crazy, growing vegetatively. Not enough water and it stresses, producing green flavours or methoxypyrazine notes. Speak to any grower and they’ll tell you that Merlot needs to be grown in soils with a clay component because of its water retaining capabilities.

It something that James Downes of Elgin’s Shannon Vineyards concurs with. “Everyone talks about Pinot Noir being the heartbreak grape of Burgundy, but Merlot is essentially its Bordeaux equivalent,” said Downes – and he believes that viticulturally, it should be treated as such. And with Shannon having been recognised by the Platter Guide’s ultimate 5-star rating in 2011, 2017, 2018 and also recognised as the category winner in the 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 editions of the book, he knows what he’s talking about!

His advice is to ripen it in third-gear rather than fifth – and at a meeting of the Merlot Forum some years ago he used the analogy of cooking it “low and slow”.

Maybe that’s the way that Merlot is going to grow its critical acclaim, in a low-key but inexorable manner.

Fiona McDonald