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Mastering Merlot

Mastering Merlot
by Charles Williams, Winemaker

If one takes a closer look at the cultivar Merlot, it is easy to see why it has such a big “Love me or hate me” following around the world.

Merlot is a cultivar that is easily cultivated, has a medium to higher growth potential and can be a generous bearer of fruit. The wine from this cultivar is very versatile ranging from simple easy to drink cultivar wines, moderately structured and compelling blending components, all the way through to intensely concentrated and complex premium wines.

This characteristic has led many a producer establishing vast areas of Merlot, most of the time on inferior terroirs (giving preference to perceived superior cultivars on better areas). Personally it is my opinion that Merlot is, as a site specific wine, as for instance, Pinot Noir and that if it is cultivated and grown in the perfect spot, it can be the king of grapes, prime examples being the wines of Chateau Petrus and Chateau Le Pin, the most exclusive (and expensive) examples of Bordeaux wines in the world, featuring only Merlot.

Merlot is a cultivar that delivers superior quality on aspects with moderate temperatures. The soils should be deep, with enough clay content to maintain sufficient soil water. This is very important, as Merlot is a cultivar that delivers exquisite grapes and wines under conditions of Restraint, but can easily deliver inferior wines in conditions of Stress. The variety also has very narrow margins for these perfect conditions of restraint and as such should always be front of mind during the growing season.

At De Toren we left no stone unturned to find the perfect areas for our Merlot. It is cultivated on a South facing aspect with a 180 Degree view of the False Bay Ocean, only 15 Kilometres from the site and it is planted on deep red clay soils. Another innovation that we took was to not plant the vines in the traditional manner (mainly focusing on how it would ease mechanization on the slope) but to take the direction of the predominant sea breeze and solar path of the sun into account as well to find the perfect row direction. For us that meant planting the rows NE-SW, the constant sea breeze coming from the South West. This allows cold air from the ocean to flow through our vineyard constantly cooling them. This has such a big influence on the quality of these grapes that we even named the blend that these grapes will form the core of: “De Toren Z”. Z referring to “Zepher”, the god of the West Wind in ancient Greek mythology.

When cultivating Merlot, it is very important to subject the berries and bunches to sufficient diffuse as well as direct sunlight, making sure that the Metoxipirazenes (green pepper compound) can be metabolized. This compound is also one of the big reasons for the tremendous amount of critique that Merlot get. Even present in only small amounts it can totally overpower the delicate red fruit premium Merlots showcase and can render the wine green and one dimensional.

Another important reason to increase the infiltration of sunlight into the canopy and onto the bunches is to stimulate phenolic accumulation, as well as the polymerization of these phenols to create well integrated, rounded, but structured and complex wines.

Over the past 10 years our understanding of Merlot has vastly improved! Not only in where we planted it, but also how we cultivate and vinify it. We truly believe that Merlot is not only a blending partner, but a star on its own, as such for the 10 year anniversary of De Toren Z, our Right bank, Merlot dominated blend we decided to bottle, for the first time ever at De Toren, a premium single variety: Merlot (only 1750 bottles) , showcasing the quality of this amazing Grape.

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