Tasting Panel – Merlot

, from Issue #79. July 16, 2018
Tasting Panel – Merlot

"Merlot’s a bit of a bore on its own – it really needs friends,” moaned a winemaking friend of ours a few years back when we first decided to highlight merlot in this magazine. We felt that was a tad unfair.

What my friend really meant was that we should open the tasting up to include all those wines where merlot was the hero, but also had tasty sidekicks in the blend.

So, we dusted off the good glassware, corralled a cracking team of judges and got down to the task of deciding whether merlot needed to be bolstered by its Bordeaux brothers, or was still capable of creating magic on its own. Of the 26 wines awarded silver medals or higher, 61.5 per cent contained at least 80 per cent merlot in the mix, and there was a healthy spread of silvers and golds across the three most recent harvests, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Hawke’s Bay turned down the opportunity to name itself ‘Merlot Country’ some years ago, but with 88 per cent of all silver medal and above wines hailing from this hot red region – and 100 per cent of our gold medal winners calling Hawke’s Bay home –maybe they should reconsider that.

Our results show merlot is definitely in its happy place right now, and consumers have easy access to fantastic quality and value. It was great to see the usual suspects such as Church Road, Sacred Hill, Clearview and the Villa Maria stable delivering such consistently high quality across multiple vintages and quality tiers according to judge Jane Boyle. “This reflects the ongoing commitment that these producers make, both in the vineyard and in the winery, and when you see the current high standard of New Zealand Bordeaux-style reds it’s hard to believe that it really wasn’t that long ago that we were struggling to find our niche with these varieties,” she adds.

“When we get it right, we can proudly hold our heads up high on the international stage, helped of course by some stellar vintages.” It wasn’t 100 per cent rosy though. Some of the lesser examples were a little clumsy in terms of oak-handling and some were slightly too grubby and barnyardy to be enjoyed.

Regardless, it’s time for merlot to have that long-awaited image overhaul. “What is it about the name merlot?” asks Renee Dale, our associate judge. “It only costs $128 to change your name legally – can we do that to merlot? Like me, merlot loves to party with friends and while traditional blends provide more intrigue to me, it was great to see some straight merlots stepping up to the spotlight.”

When we asked judge James Rowan to reflect on this tasting, he was listening to Weezer cover Toto’s Rosanna, which may explain his comment. “I like a textural, supple wine. I want to be drawn along a path, teased and taunted, not experience an abrupt burst. The New Zealand palate actually desires subtle fullness and texture and that’s what Bordeaux styles offer”.

While merlot has never quite reached the same lofty heights of popularity here as pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, its quality has never waned and the attention to detail in the vineyard and winery has never lost the attention of winemakers according to Cameron Douglas MS. “This was well evidenced at this tasting, with the better wines showing the perfume, fruit ripeness and weight expected of merlot. The wines needing merlot as a lead showed how much of a role it plays when it comes to elegance, softness and charm,” he adds.

“Merlot, when ripe and lush, can soak up more oak than other red varieties and it’s one of the unsung heroes when it comes to food pairing as well. Every cellar needs a dozen merlot bottles.”

And with that, here are our Top 12…

Top Merlots of the tasting

1. Church Road
McDonald Series Hawke’s Bay Merlot 2015 ($29.95) – TOP WINE OF THE TASTING
★★★★★ Gold Medal

All judges commented on how intensely juicy, aromatic and long on flavour this was. “Buckets of berries and spice,” said Yvonne. James and Cameron agreed, detailing ripe fruit, bold cocoa characters and a vanilla and espresso core. “Power, muscles, dark and sexy,” noted Jane. It’s a complex, deeply concentrated wine at the top of its game.

1. Sacred Hill
Special Selection Hawke’s Bay Brokenstone 2015 ($42.99) – TOP WINE OF THE TASTING
★★★★★ Gold Medal

With beautiful fullness, balance and serious weight and concentration, James felt the wine still retained amazing balance and poise. Tiny additions of syrah, malbec, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc have added crazy-good complexity. Jane added it was lush and seductive.

2. Villa Maria
Reserve Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay Merlot 2015 ($44)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

Very pretty florals and very fruit-driven, this wine “is dark, broody and packed with berries, spice and chocolate notes,” according to James. Cameron commented on its deft use of oak, delicious depth and well-balanced tannins, whereas Yvonne couldn’t contain herself “OMG! An incredibly lovely wine to drink!”

3. Clearview Estate
Cape Kidnappers Hawke’s Bay Merlot 2016 ($22)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

Jane noted that it was a delicately smoky, dark crimson, full-bodied style, while Yvonne enjoyed its black cherry and beautifully layered berry fruits. “It has loads of spice, stunning aromatics and elegant persistence of flavour,” commented James.

4. Clearview Estate
Enigma Hawke’s Bay Merlot Malbec Cabernet Franc 2016 ($55)
★★★★½ Silver Medal

Enigma by name and nature, this icon exudes sweaty leather and suede, chewy, charcoal-like tannins and a lick of liquorice according to Renee. “Dark, inky, floral and very pretty,” added Jane, “it’s a lovely, expressive, very composed wine”. Both Cameron and James commented on its smart use of oak, balance, structure and drive.

5. Askerne
Reserve Hawke’s Bay Merlot Cabernet Franc Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec 2016 ($31.90)
★★★★½ Silver Medal

An incredibly complex, exotic smorgasbord of spices and red berry and cherry characters. “It’s vibrant and full-bodied, and shows lovely earthiness and warmth, yet it’s also very supple and layered,” noted Jane, while James agreed it was deftly made and balanced, “with fine tannin structure showing sensitive wine making”

6. Pukeora Estate
Ruahine Range The Benches 2013 ($25)
★★★★½ Silver Medal 

This hearty, merlot-based blend impressed Renee with its raspberry and blueberry aromatics, juicy palate and balanced oak. “I really liked its fireside nose,” added Jane.

7. Clearview Estate
Enigma Hawke’s Bay Merlot Cabernet Franc Malbec 2015 ($55)

★★★★ Silver Medal
Having two successive vintages of the same wine in our list is unheard of, so huge congrats to the Clearview team. “I love the sweet florals, red apple and red berries,” announced Yvonne, “it’s exotic and intoxicating on the nose and palate – a very sexy wine.”

8. Esk Valley
Gimblett Gravels Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec 2016 ($19.99)
★★★★ Silver Medal

“Nicely weighted and balanced to drink,” said Cameron, while both Jane and Yvonne were impressed with its herbal and floral-forward aromas and warm, spicy layers of flavour.

9. Poderi Crisci
Merlot Waiheke Island Riserva 2013 ($52)
★★★★ Silver Medal

Maturing nicely indeed, this 100% merlot impressed our judges with its lifted, berry-centric and floral aromas and lush, savoury tones in the mouth.

10. Villa Maria
Cellar Selection Hawke’s Bay Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($19.99)
★★★★ Silver Medal

“It’s a very complete wine,” said Jane, “firm and succulent to sip. Cameron agreed, adding he enjoyed the hints of red apple and its masculine, toasty tannins.

11. Wairau River Wines
Marlborough Merlot 2017 ($18.99)
★★★★ Silver Medal

“I love the notes of steak, iron and eucalypt,” said Renee, while Yvonne was taken with its pretty colour and chocolate, cherry and berry burst upfront. A southern star.


Look for the Dish Tasting Panel selection sticker, which can be worn by our top wines. 

With thanks to Janet Blackman from the Professional Wine Studies Department and the AUT School of Hospitality and Tourism. For more on the programmes in hospitality, food and beverage, and hotel management, visit aut.ac.nz. Water kindly supplied by Antipodes and glasses by Spiegelau.