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Celebrating the best characteristics of Merlot

Did you know that November 7th is International Merlot Day? Let’s take a closer look and get to know this noble varietal.

Merlot was first noted in 1784 in Bordeaux, France, and inherits its name from a local black bird called Merlau, that had an affinity for eating the delicious ripe berries. The parents of Merlot took a long time to decipher. Since the late 1990s it was known, through DNA studies, that Cabernet Franc was one parent. However, it was only in 2009 that the second parent was identified as a previously unidentified varietal that had been growing on the façade of a few village buildings in France. This vine had been locally called Madeleina as its fruit’s ripening coincided with the July 22nd celebration of Mary Magdalene. The vine has now officially been recorded as Magdeleine Noire des Charentes.

Merlot inherited the best characteristics from its parents, such as the dark blue berries with thin skins from Cabernet Franc, and larger berries in lose bunches that ripen early from Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. These characteristics enable this noble varietal to create deep coloured wines that are full bodied with red berries, plums and chocolate on the nose and palate, and soft pleasant tannins.

Merlot is most famous for its role in Bordeaux wines being one of the five key red varietals along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Surprisingly, Merlot is the most grown varietal in Bordeaux at around 63% and not Cabernet Sauvignon as one might expect. Any combination of these varietals blended creates what is known around the world as a Bordeaux Blend with the majority from Bordeaux being led by either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. The vine has an affinity for growing in cooler climates and ferrous soils, but with modern clones and viticulture practices, it is grown around the world in all sorts of terroirs.

Merlot arrived in South Africa in the 1920s, and production only really gained traction in the 1990s. The wine estate Overgaauw is credited for having created the first single varietal Merlot wine in South Africa from the 1982 vintage. In 1979 there was only one hectare of Merlot in South Africa and in 2020 it has grown to 5 387 ha, making it the 8th most planted varietal.

Ken Forrester’s Reserve Pat’s Garden was a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and seeing as the Merlot portion of the blend was more than 85%, it was labelled as a single varietal, in line with SA labelling regulations. However, for the 2018 vintage, Ken Forrester embarked on an exploration in blending four of the Bordeaux varietals, 76% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot. The vineyard was influenced by the cool south-easterly winds that moderated the summer heat and ensured ripeness. The bunches were hand harvested in individual parcels, as is our philosophy, and were selected for their quality to get the ripest possible, balanced wine.

The result is an excellent Bordeaux inspired blend that offers a deep ruby hue with hints of purple, it is fruit forward on the nose and palate with red berries, plums with a hint of cassis, mint and vanilla. The gentle oak wooding adds to the soft rounded tannins and mouth feel of this accessible early drinking wine. The 2018 Pat’s Garden Reserve is the perfect accompaniment to hearty meat dishes, grills and especially roast lamb. With Merlot Day falling on Sunday the 7th of November this year, this is the perfect wine for a family Sunday roast.