I’m up to 52 varietal wines of different grapes, hoping to get to 100. While I’m expecting it to become increasingly difficult as I’ve picked most of the low hanging fruit, there are certainly still some more obvious grapes that I’ve neglected, at least as varietals (wines made from a single type of grape). So while I think it’s going to be tricky finding a bottle of 100% Crouchen Blanc, there are some wines I’ve as yet only had as part of a blend that are readily found on their own. This is such a wine, the Voyager Estate Margaret River VOC Merlot 2007.
Merlot is a classic grape of Bordeaux and certainly not unfamiliar to readers of this blog. It was the primary grape of the two wines of Pomerol I’ve covered, Le Carillon de Rouget and Château la Croix du Casse. It was also a contributing grape in the red Bordeaux blends of Saint-Julien, Margaret River and California. It is a good partner to Cabernet Sauvignon, in that it ripens earlier and more reliably, while bringing lush fruit and a smooth texture to a blend without the astringency. It also works best in wet soils, particularly ferrous clay, as opposed to Cabernet Sauvignon’s preference for well drained gravel or limestone. As a result, it is grown throughout the world, anywhere that produces a red Bordeaux blend, though its home is still France where it is one of the three most planted red grapes.
So why has it taken over 100 wines for me to hit upon a Merlot varietal? Is it because it’s typically found only as part of a blend, and therefore extraordinarily rare as a varietal? Well, not exactly.
I don’t know how true this is around the world, but certainly around here Merlot has fallen out of fashion. The winery where I’ve worked the last few vintages produces a Merlot, and while it’s a lovely wine with fantastic savoury characters, it’s hard to sell. The film Sideways is always mentioned as having kicked off the trend, but for me I really don’t know when to drink it. If (in very broad strokes) Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are big wines and Pinot Noir and Gamay are lighter wines, Merlot is meant to be somewhere in the middle. So when I have beef or lamb I look to big reds and with pork or duck I reach for a light red, but I just need more training as to when I should look to Merlot.
For better or worse (and I personally think worse), what people drink is driven by fashion, and fashion has moved on to other wines. See Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris/Grigio for details. The thing is, the Merlots people were drinking a decade or two ago are as good as ever, and people still pay incredibly high prices for the finest of them such as Château Pétrus and Château Le Pin. So while it’s not the top grape at the moment, it is still being made into top wines.
I recently covered Margaret River in Western Australia when I wrote about Moss Wood, so I don’t have a whole lot to add at the moment. Instead let me tell you about Voyager Estate, though nearly everything is from secondary sources as their website is down for a redesign. I do have two personal recollections from a visit there some years ago before I started taking notes. First, the building that houses their cellar door made me think I was back in South Africa – it’s a beautiful example of Cape Dutch architecture. Second, the flag outside it made me think I was in Canberra – apparently it’s the second largest national flag in Australia.
The business was founded by Michael Wright, who purchased what had been Freycinet Estate in 1991. The vineyard had been established in 1978, though under Wright it was expanded greatly with a large infusion of funding. They’re broadly employing organic and minimal intervention practices though it’s unclear if they’ve applied for any certification. They have a range of classic grapes planted, including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Shiraz. This wine is from their VOC line, after the Dutch East India Company - Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Old Dutch.
In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, medium plus ruby colour, more like blood red to be honest. On the nose it’s clean, with medium plus intensity, a developing character, with notes of plum, raspberry and sweet spice. It’s a very fruity nose, but richly so. On the palate it’s dry, with plum, blueberries, and sweet spice coming through. It has medium plus acid, medium body, medium alcohol, medium tight tannins, medium plus intensity, and medium length.
I’m happy to rate this wine as good, but it did leave me wanting something more. I described the nose as developing, but I can’t put my finger on what makes it that other than the date on the label. It’s fruity and fun, easy to drink, but not really showing any secondary characters, and so it’s a bit simple. I think this needs more time to go from being a young wine (at five years old?) to something more interesting. It’s certainly well made – the acidity and tannins should keep it in good stead for another five to ten years at which point it could be a much more complex drop.