When looking through the results of the 2007 Royal Easter Wine Awards it was rather a surprise to find there were no gold medals awarded in the Merlot class, although 11 wines picked up silver. But the class that's headed 'Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot Predominant blends' had four Merlot predominant blends that were awarded gold. So does Merlot excel as a blending component rather than as a stand-alone varietal?
When you think about it, that's what it was used for when it first became popular in New Zealand. We were Cabernet Sauvignon proponents after all. Cabernet had been here forever and when Merlot was introduced in the late 1970's and early 1980's, it was most commonly used as a blending component. It made such a difference to the austere, tannic and often mouth puckering Cabernet Sauvignon wines that we were making back then. Wine labelled Cabernet Merlot became so popular over the next decade that to naive wine drinkers (like I was at the time) it could easily have been the name of a grape. Then I went on a wine course and learnt about blends. I learnt that when it came to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Merlot, the latter was the odd one out.
Blended wines do have complexity, structure and richness. It stands to reason, after all the great wines from the famous vineyards in the Medoc on the left bank of Bordeaux, are all blends. Take a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon will impart structure, tannins and acidity, Cabernet Franc will impart fragrance, fruitiness and length while Merlot adds softness, fleshy sweetness and mid palate richness. How often did I hear that Merlot filled 'the hole' in Cabernet Sauvignon.
The complexity, the structure, the richness are all components in Alluviale, a new wine from Mark Blake, an American with a passion for Bordeaux and Californian wines as well as a passion for the outdoors. On one on his trips down under, he came to the conclusion that the Gimblett Gravels region in Hawkes Bay would be the ideal place to pursue his vinous passion to make a great Bordeaux-styled red.
Alluviale Gimblett Road Hawkes Bay Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc 2005 really does have a positive impact on all the senses. It's deep and dark in colour, an inky black red with purple highlights. Seductive on the nose with smoky vanillin oak, cassis, blackberry, dried herbs, violets and hints of leather and tar, there's sweet oak in the palate with cherries, chocolate and a dark, earthy, savoury undercurrent.
Plums, blackberries, spice and mint emerge from the depth and the texture is like thick, lush, velvet with a silken slick finish to the tannin's caress. There's a touch of pepper too, to add a little zing as the concentrated plum and cassis flavours well up . A very satisfying and beautifully balanced mouthful of wine on the fuller side of medium in its weight.
It's lovely on its own but it's melt in the mouth with a soft cheddar and a very fine accompaniment to a rare cooked fillet steak and pan fried, juicy sliced mushrooms.
Made from a blend of 43% Merlot, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon and 154% Cabernet Franc grown in Gimblett Road, the wine spent 19 months in 90% new and 10% one year old French oak barriques. It has 13.5% alcohol by volume and is sealed with a screwcap. It costs about $27. For stockists dial up the Alluvial website - www.alluviale.com.
The Blake Family first bought land in Gimblett Road in 2000. That 9.8 hectare block was part of the renowned Irongate Vineyard. A small strip of land was added in 2002 and a third parcel of 6.9 hectares of land was bought in 2003.
Alluviale is Mark Blake's second label. It's smartly packaged with a graphic of the river bed, an aerial view of the braided river channels of the Ngaruroro River than follows its course alongside the Gimblett Gravels vineyards.
You can find out more about the primary label, Blake Family Vineyard, and the vineyard operation at www.bfvwine.com.
© Sue Courtney
2 Apr 2007