Over fifty Australian Merlots divided into three price groups and the identities of the wines on offer not disclosed. That was the setup for “Merlot Mayhem”, an event that was organised by Divine Magazine to try to decide if the anti-Merlot movement that seems to be occurring among the media and general public has any merit.

If you are in Melbourne or Canberra and are going to attend the event in those cities, I would suggest stopping here, to maintain the blind nature of the tasting. Otherwise, read on for tasting notes and the conclusions reached from the tasting!

The tasting notes:

These comments and scores are from during the tasting, prior to discovering the identities of the wines being tasted.

Under $20

Garlands Merlot 2002 – Good fruit purity with a touch of oak supporting. Some soft tannins evident. Held back by a lack of complexity and varietal characters. Rating: 86 – RRP: $18AU
Preece Merlot 2003 – Pleasant aroma profile and some decent structure. No real excitement value though. Rating: 84 – RRP: $15AU
Irvine Springhill Merlot 2004 – Blackcurrant and plummy fruits on the nose and palate. To be consumed soon before the fruit fades and nothing is left. Rating: 82 – RRP: $18AU
Ferngrove Vineyards Merlot 2003 – A bit of vanillin oak but not a whole lot else. Rating: 80 – RRP: $18AU
Pepper Tree Merlot 2001 – Simply too sweet which bottle age has not mellowed. Rating: 79 – RRP: $18AU
Moondah Brook Merlot 2003 – A distinct lack of complexity. Overtly sweet with a abrupt finish. Rating: 78 – RRP: $13AU
Nobilo Merlot 2003 – Very light in colour. Bland and watery. Rating: 76 – RRP: $13AU

$20 – $35

Hungerford Hill Orange Merlot 2003 – A savoury, complex palate. Excellent balance and tannin structure. Drinking well now, but I suspect will improve with 3-5 years aging. Rating: 92 – RRP: $28AU
Starvedog Lane Merlot 2001 – Well liked. Good depth of color. Cinnamon and chocolaty oak aromas and flavours. Smooth, lengthy finish. Rating: 91 – RRP: $28AU
Tatacilla McLarenVale Merlot 2002 – A good example of not overdoing the oak treatment with the fruit permitted to show its class. Good balance and structure. Rating: 91 – RRP: $23AU
Rosemount Orange Vineyard Merlot 2000 – Powerful nose with blackcurrant and cherry. Good balance and length. Rating: 90 – RRP: $27AU
Higher Plane Merlot 2003 – Very easy to enjoy. Lacks some complexity, but is smooth and easy to drink. Rating: 90 – RRP: $29AU
Hamilton Lot 148 Merlot 2002 – An interesting, spicy palate. Rating: 90 – RRP: $20AU
Happs 3 Hills Merlot 2003 – An elegant expression of the variety. Rating: 89 – RRP: $35AU
Fontys Pool Merlot 2003 – Excellent balance between fruit and oak. Should drink well for the next 2-3 years. Rating: 89 – RRP: $20AU
Brand’s Special Release 2001 – Medium ruby-red in color. Good structure and balance. Ready to drink now. Rating: 89 – RRP: $32AU
McWilliams Barwang Special Release Merlot 2001 – Good flavour on the palate with some spice. Lacks varietal definition though, this may as well be a generic medium bodied red. Rating: 88 – RRP: $32AU
Osborns Merlot 2001 – Light in color, but a good flavour profile showing pepper, mulberry and raspberry. Rating: 88 – RRP: $21AU
Evelyn County Estate Black Paddock Merlot 2002 – An appealing cherry and plum nose, but a finish that pulled up short. Rating: 88 – RRP: $30AU
Penley Estate Merlot 2002 – Smooth and easy to drink, but lacking anything of real interest. Rating: 87 – RRP: $31AU
Hanging Rock Grailane Merlot 2001 – Could be better if it weren’t for strong eucalyptus notes on the palate. Rating: 87 – RRP: $27AU
Smithbrook Yilgarn 2001 – Some troubling acid on the finish which dragged this down. Otherwise showed good “Merlosity”. Rating: 87 – RRP: $35AU
Brindabella Hills 2003 – Medium-bodied and aromas of cherries and blackcurrants. Not bad, but nothing special. Rating: 87 – RRP: $20AU
Pepper Tree Reserve Coonawarra Merlot 2003 – Probably had the biggest nose of the class. Medium-full bodied, but a touch of acid throws things out of balance. Rating: 87 – RRP: $30AU
Grey Sands Merlot 2001 – Reasonable complexity, but spoilt by a green edge to the finish. Rating: 86 – RRP: $30AU
Irvine Merlot Brut Sparkling NV – The only sparkling wine at the show. Had a bit of a kick adding some interest to the finish. Rating: 86 – RRP: $26AU
Uleybury Reserve Merlot 2002 – The fruit was overshadowed by a liquorice taste. May be better with a bit of time in bottle. Rating: 86 – RRP: $35AU
Smithbrook Merlot 2001 – Not doing enough to rise above the competition. A decent length, but definitely middle of the range. Rating: 86 – RRP: $24AU
Evans and Tate Margaret River Merlot 2000 – Overpowering oak totally swallowing the fruit. I don’t think this is going to come back into balance. Rating: 85 – RRP: $30AU
Schild Estate Merlot 2003 – Once again, suffering from a sweet characteristic. Would show much better with a bit of balance. Rating: 85 – RRP: $24AU
Bests Kindred Spirits Merlot 2001 – Eucalyptus dominating the nose, but easing back on the palate to reveal some good fruit flavours. Rating: 85 – RRP: $20AU
Geoff Hardy K1 Vineyard Merlot 2002 – Too much sweetness on the palate. Rating: 84 – RRP: $28AU
Capel Vale Merlot 2002 – Strong scent of VA that wouldn’t blow off after multiple tastings. Rating: 81 – RRP: $22AU
Houghton Pemberton Merlot 2001 – Deep crimson in color, aromas of liquorice and strong oak. However there was an off putting taste on the palate that I couldn’t nail down. Rating: 81 – RRP: $28AU
Leconfield Merlot 2003 – Overly sweet and lacking balance. Rating: 80 – RRP: $29AU
Sedona Estate Merlot 2003 – Too much eucalyptus showing through. Rating: 80 – RRP: $21AU
Penley Estate Merlot 2004 – Green, stalky, unpleasant. Rating: 78 – RRP: $31AU
Mount Avoca Merlot 2001 – Brown tinged in colour. An off putting herbaceous nose. Both bottles on offer showed the same characteristics. Unpalatable. Rating: 75 – RRP: $20AU

Over $35

Tatachilla Clarendon Merlot 2000 – Superb structure and balance. Earthy tones on the palate. Drink now. Rating: 94 – RRP: $42AU
Pepper Tree Grand Reserve Merlot 1998 – Fantastically complex, dense palate. Seamless integration of oak. Seems to be at, or nearing its peak, drink soon. Rating: 94 – RRP: $70AU
Henschke Abbott’s Prayer 2001 – Well structured and shows some excellent varietal Merlot characteristics. Good length. This is still developing and will get better with some age. Rating: 93 – RRP: $59AU
Capel Vale Howecroft Merlot 2002 – I’ve written down “Very well liked”. Not a big palate, but a satisfying one. Plenty of spice to keep things interesting. Rating: 93 – RRP: $50AU
Petaluma Coonawarra Merlot 2001 – Rating: Quite a savoury palate. Good Merlot characteristics. Tannins are currently a bit astringent, but I suspect they may soften with time. 91 – RRP: $56AU
Hollick Neilson’s Block 2001 – A good balance between fruit and oak but lacks the “wow” factor. Rating: 90 – RRP: $45AU
Plantagenet Rocky Horror Vineyard Merlot 2001 – Good length. Quite full bodied compared to some of the others in this group. Rating: 89 – RRP: $38AU
Pepper Tree Grand Reserve Merlot 2000 – Heavy use of oak dominating this wine. Shows poorly against the rest of this class. Rating: 88 – RRP: $50AU
Woodside Valley Estate Merlot 2001 – An interesting nose but somewhat more subdued on the palate. Noticed a touch of green on the finish. Rating: 87 – RRP: $45AU
Haan Merlot Prestige 2002 – Good, easy drinking wine, but outclassed by the surrounding bottles. Rating: 87 – RRP: $50AU
Howard Park Merlot 2003 – Good fruit purity, but lacking some balance. I don’t think this will age too well. Rating: 87 – RRP: $50AU
Parker Estate Merlot 2001 – Too much oak and a strong dash of VA on the nose. Rating: 85 – RRP: $40AU

Conclusions: Australian Merlot is at a crossroads. There are too many producers that are either producing middle of the road wines or wines that suffer from too much oak or too much sweetness. At the price points that these wines are at, they really need to be doing better. Considering that for $15 you will find a decent Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon, the anti-Merlot brigade may actually have a point. A couple of wines did impress, but in a tasting of over 50 of our major producers of a varietal Merlot, and with a fair number of wines in the premium range of $30+ one would expect to have a better strike rate than I did tonight.

I haven’t given up on Australian Merlot, there are surely some gems out there, the trouble is picking out the good from the bad. For a good example the Smidge Adelaide Hills Merlot I reviewed here is super value at under $25. I’d also like to try some more New Zealand Merlots, the ones I have tried so far have been excellent, hopefully they have better consistency than what I saw at this tasting.

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. I haven’t drunk a Merlot in ages but Esk Valley or Te Awa were always excellent. As a child we lived just out of Pemberton and went swimming at Fonty’s Pool, which from memory, was a part of the river. With all the great wines coming from there I think our next visit to WA (later this year) will have to include Pemberton. On our visit to Sydney and Gold Coast this month I’ll be searching out some of your recommendations.

  2. Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for your recommendations. I’m mostly building up my stocks of NZ wines through auction, since the retail prices for the quality NZ wines are quite simply ridiculous from what I’ve seen. So I am in some part restricted to what the marketplace has on offer. I’d love to visit some of the wine areas of NZ, but I don’t know how I’d manage to restrict myself to only bringing a couple of bottles back.

    Are you going to head up to the Hunter Valley while in Sydney? Truth be told, the area now seems to have more focus on tourism than wine, but there are some cellar doors that are still well worth a visit if you pick and choose carefully.

  3. Have been to the Hunter twice in the last couple of years. Once on conference as guests of McGuigans and what a wonderful and memorable trip that was! BM sure knows how to entertain. A meal at his home had three (undisclosed)wines served with each course and then he would select someone to comment on each grouping throughout the dinner.

    This visit is more a catching up with Sydney friends trip, so won’t include the Hunter on this visit.

    We are very lucky in NZ and that we can bring in 6 bottles of wine plus our spirits allowance. Or 18 bottles of wine if no spirits. Yeay for screwcaps, as it is a huge dissapointment to bring home a corked wine and be unable to get the bottle replaced.

  4. Thanks for the reviews. I have a problem with over-ripeness, excess alcohol and that horrible vanilla-coconut from new American Oak; it completely kills the fruit. However I must say that Australian Merlot is head over heels NZ. As a Chilean, I cannot understand how NZ under-ripe reds are sold at those ridiculous prices. Esk Valley is nice but the taste cuts short due to very young vines. Te Awa’s Merlot is bitter and thin. I’m starting to move to Italian and Spanish wines for real reds these days. Now with NZ Pinot Noirs … now you’re talking!

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