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01.28.2013

Hawkes Bay Merlot: Worth the Effort?

blind_merlot.jpgContinuing my coverage of my time spent last week in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, we come to the opportunity to contemplate the most widely planted grape in the region, and what it may offer. Of the slightly more than 11,800 vineyard acres in the Hawkes Bay, more than 2500 are planted to Merlot.

Merlot has long featured in the region's Bordeaux-style blends, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and occasionally Petite Verdot. In most wines, just as in the Bordeaux regions of Pomerol and St. Emilion, it is the dominant player rather than Cabernet Sauvignon. And, as one might expect, in addition to being a major component in blended wines, it also gets made into a varietal wine with some regularity. In fact, according to one commentator, the single largest selling red wine by volume from New Zealand is the Oyster Bay Merlot, grown in Hawkes Bay.

Despite, the clear popularity of the grape and the wines made from it among the masses, a question has arisen of late that seemed to underscore the blind tasting of 25 of the region's Merlot bottlings that Hawkes Bay Winegrowers arranged for a group of visiting journalists last week.

To put it bluntly, many in the region are wondering if they should rip up a lot of their Merlot and plant Syrah instead. Apparently they've been told to do that explicitly by UK critic Oz Clarke. As Hawkes Bay Syrahs continue to garner significant critical acclaim (both from Clarke and others) despite relatively very few plantings of that grape, the question has become a bit more pointed.

In fact, just prior to this blind tasting, the region hosted a (very funny) debate on the question of which is the future of Hawkes Bay, Bordeaux blends or Syrah. Leaving aside my thoughts on that particular contest for a future post, the question of just how well Merlot serves the interest of the region was in our minds as we tasted through these wines.

And what is my answer to that question? Well, if it were to be based entirely on these wines below, I would say that Merlot may be easy to ripen, but that is a very different thing than making a compelling wine. I found most of these wines to be lackluster. All but a few were clearly competently made, and sound from a winemaking perspective, but most lacked personality, energy, and distinctiveness.

It's worth noting that it was a warm day, and these wines were not served at the ideal temperature. Had they been, I'm sure they would have shown better as a group, but not enough to revise my thoughts on them significantly.

Of course, the question of Merlot's value to the region cannot and should not be answered in the context of this tasting. I've had too many brilliant Bordeaux-style blends from the region to even contemplate the suggestion that Merlot should be discounted as a major grape for the region, let alone ripped up and replaced.

Having said that, these wines may show, however, that most producers may be better served by reserving it for blended wines rather than varietal bottlings.

Here are my tasting notes, made from a blind tasting of the following wines. We were told only that they were Merlot. Most are unavailable in the U.S., with one exception.

TASTING NOTES:

2010 Mills Reef Elspeth Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of bright cherry and plum fruit. In the mouth juicy plum and cherry fruit dance lively on the palate thanks to excellent acidity. The tannins have a light touch, behind which lurks serious muscle that emerges on the finish. Earthy notes along with wet wood linger in the finish. Excellent. Score: around 9. Cost: $35.

2009 Church Road Cuve Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of rich black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth muscular tannins grasp firmly around flavors of black cherry and plum. Good acidity keeps the fruit bright, but the tannins also seem to usher in darker earthy and woody qualities that lend depth to the wine. Broad shouldered and powerful, this is a serious wine, that is seriously tasty. Score: around 9. Cost: $24.

2010 Trinity Hill HB Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and plum. In the mouth, plum and cedar dance nicely on the palate with firm tannins and notes of dried herbs through the finish. Good acidity and brightness. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30.

2010 Mills Reef Reserve Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry, plum and a hint of struck match. In the mouth juicy plummy cedar and cherry flavors have a nice brightness to them thanks to excellent acidity. The tannins are restrained but firm and give the wine nice support and complexity. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20.

2009 Mills Reef Elspeth Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of juicy cherry and plum fruit. In the mouth cherry and tobacco and plum flavors have a nice brightness and roundness. Tacky tannins grip the edges of the tongue, as an herbal note lingers in the finish. Excellent acidity and a very nice overall complexion. Tasty. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35.

2009 Craggy Range Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and tobacco. In the mouth, plummy, cherry flavors have a nice roundness to them, while strong but supple tannins provide skeletal support for the wine. Good acidity and some earthier notes round out a very complete package. Needs a few years to fully blossom, but when it does it will be very good. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40.

2007 Kidnappers Cliffs Ariki Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dark chocolate and cool mint. In the mouth juicy flavors of cherry and plum have a nice roundness but underneath that supple fruit is a structure of robust tannin. Excellent acidity and good balance, with a unique character thanks to the minty start. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2010 Alluviale Merlot Blend, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of green bell pepper, cherry, tobacco and wet dirt. In the mouth, bright cherry and earth flavors have a greenish herbal tinge that is quite pleasant, and a cool mineral acidity that makes this wine quite drinkable. Good acid, supple tannin, and long finish. Excellent. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2010 Villa Maria Reserve Gimblett Gravels Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of deep cherry and cassis fruit. In the mouth, rich flavors of black cherry and cassis have a light sweetness to them along with cherry and cedary notes. Supple but firm tannins line the mouth with a nice powdery quality to them. This wine is big and rich and lacks a few savory notes that would make it more complex, but it is a crowd pleaser of a wine for sure. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40.

2009 Lime Rock Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium ruby in color with some bricking, this wine smells of cherry and leather and plum and cedar. In the mouth, cedar and cherry flavors have a high toned quality to them, with good acidity and faint tannins. Tastes a bit older. Creamy texture. Some heat on the finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $18.

2011 Babich Wines Winemakers Reserve Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cedar and cherry. In the mouth, somewhat innocuous flavors of cherry and oak mix with earthier notes. The oak isn't egregious, and thanks to good acidity, this wine ends up being refreshing, but the tannins are quite tight and need relaxing. Score: between 8 and 8.5.

2009 Villa Maria Gimblett Gravels Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright black cherry fruit, clean and pure. In the mouth somewhat minty notes of new oak meld with cherry and plum, but leave the mouth slightly dry and vacant in the back palate, in part due to tannins that seem driven by wood, and are hard to scrape off the teeth. Score: between 8 and 8.5.

2009 Elephant Hill Elephant Hill Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in the glass headed towards ruby, this wine smells of cola and plum with notes of chocolate and cedar. In the mouth faint, supple tannins wrap around leathery flavors of cherry and cola and sandalwood. The fruit is somewhat dried, with notes of herbal and dusty quality. Score: between 8 and 8.5.

2011 Cypress Wines Cypress Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and plum. In the mouth cherry and black cherry flavors have a nice woody earthy quality, wrapped as they are in woody tannins. Earthy notes with hints of dried herbs linger in the finish. Score: around 8.

2011 Te Awanga Estate Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and tobacco. In the mouth stiffer, drying tannins wrap around a core of cherry and plum with notes of cedar and new oak. The oak has dried this wine a bit, making it slightly stiff and angular. Score: around 8.

2008 Sacred Hill Brokenstone Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet vanilla and cherry. In the mouth drying tannins are the primary sensory quality of the wine followed by red fruit that would be pretty if the moisture hadn't been sucked out of it. Stiff tannins, good acidity. Score: between 7.5 and 8.

2009 Unison Vineyard Reserve Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of new oak, tobacco and cherry. In the mouth flavors of new oak hang heavy over bright cherry fruit and somewhat obscure the juiciness of the wine. Good acidity keeps the fruit bright, but what's the point when the oak is so overdone? Score: around 7.5.

2007 Sacred Hill Brokenstone Merlot, Hawkes Bay
A cloudy dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry fruit and cedar wood. In the mouth slightly drying tannins strongly grip flavors of cherry and plum as notes of sandalwood, green herbs and earth embrace the palate. Good acidity, but the tannins are a bit strong. Score: around 7.5.

2012 Crossroads Milestone Series Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of burnt match heads and plummy fruit. In the mouth the sulfurous character persists along with its cherry and plummy fruit. Aggressive tannins take over mid-way through the wine's journey across the palate, and manhandle the wine's profile into unbalance by the time its flavors of leather and wood leave the mouth. Score: between 7 and 7.5.

2010 Ngatarawa Wines Stables Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a sulfury nose with cherry and cedar. In the mouth, cherry and cedar fruit are enveloped in a cloud of powdery, mouth-coating tannins that also lend a velvety quality to the wine. The texture is good but the wine is a bit stinky for my taste. Score: between 7 and 7.5.

2010 Sileni Estate The Triangle Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet pruney cherry and plum fruits. In the mouth, pruney cherry and plum fruit has a dried character, as do the tannins that leave the palate dry and chalky. Cocoa powder lingers in the finish. Score: between 7 and 7.5.

2007 Pask Winery Declaration Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of prunes and raisins and chocolate. In the mouth the dominant flavor is new oak, and the tannins that come with it suck the mouth dry of moisture, leaving a vanilla and dried cherry quality that doesn't endear itself to the palate. Score: around 7.

2009 Ngatarawa Stables Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of slightly stinky struck match and red fruit. In the mouth red fruit mixes with cedar and tangy citrusy notes, as well as light tannins. An odd wine that seems awkward at this point in its life. Will it gain balance? Not clear. Score: between 6.5 and 7.

2006 Sacred Hill Brokenstone Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and plum. In the mouth cocoa powder and espresso notes seem driven by wood, and the fruit underneath has a hard time shining through. Especially as the tannins suck all the moisture from your mouth and leave you feeling like you just licked a chalkboard eraser. Brutal. Score: between 6.5 and 7.

2011 Mission Estate Reserve Merlot, Hawkes Bay
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of egg yolk and dried cherry. In the mouth the fruit is slightly sour and angular, with stiff tannins and odd character. Not a great wine. Score: around 6.5.

Comments (4)

Alfonso wrote:
01.29.13 at 1:18 PM

I remember tasting Hawkes Bay Pinot Noir over there in 1991 - Man was it dreadful (we switched to beer). So it looks like they are still looking for their grape. Not sure Syrah will be the answer though, as the world seems to be awash in both inexpensive and premium Syrah wines

Greg wrote:
01.29.13 at 4:51 PM

The wineshow system encourages this sort of blandness. I am not a wine judge but had a chance to taste as an associate(non scoring) judge at a regional wine show in Australia, on the merlot table. I gave high scores to wines that were distinctive and interesting, but the official judges scored them low, preferring wines that were technically very good but uninteresting to me.

Daniel Hennessy wrote:
02.05.13 at 3:22 PM

Please help me calibrate myself to your rating system. Half of these wines were rated 8.5 or higher. So does an 8.5 Vinography rating justify discontinuing Merlot-varietal wines entirely in favor of blends? Talk about grade inflation!

Alder wrote:
02.11.13 at 8:18 PM

Dan,

Thanks for your question on my rating system. To calibrate, you can assume my "around 8.5" equates to a range of scores between 82 and 86 points on the hundred point scale.

There are some fine Merlots made in Hawke's Bay, but very few of them are anywhere near as good as the blends that they often also go into.

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