Merlot in Australia: maligned or misunderstood? Or, Sir, can you spare a clone?


Introduction

Australia’s increasingly long history with the vitis vinifera, now into its third century, means that the process of matching grape varieties to suitable regional terroirs is well underway and for some regions may even be largely complete. There is however a grape variety that has mostly eluded discussions of quality Australian wine, regardless of the region that it has been planted in. That grape variety is the merlot. Merlot is of course one of the great varieties of Bordeaux and arguably has its pinnacle of expression in Pomerol. Given the quality ambitions of many Australian producers, the relative underperformance of merlot in Australia has always struck me as something of an anomaly that is worthy of further thought and attention.

So what is wrong then with Australian merlot? Like all good stories, we have an alleged culprit. Locally the finger generally has been pointed at the merlot clones available in Australia, mostly sourced from California. However, my take on the matter is a slightly different one. While some of the dominant merlot clones available do present some challenges, my observation is that the alleged culprit may in fact have been hitherto unfairly put in the dock. The reasons for this require some elaboration, but in short, careful viticulture and viniculture, seasonal chance, producer intent to make (and consumer demand for) a fine wine made from merlot appear to matter more to the quality of Australian merlot, than the choice of merlot clone. But let me explain.

A potted history of merlot in Australia

Merlot’s history in Australia is in fact a relatively recent one. While it is officially reported to have been planted as early as 1923, it appears not to have graced many commercial radars until 1980, when leading Australian wine writer James Halliday reported that 68 tonnes of merlot had been crushed. In 2009, this figure had grown to almost 127,000 tonnes, making it Australia’s third largest red grape variety crushed, after shiraz (syrah) and cabernet sauvignon. If nothing else, it is a rate of increase worthy of a nurseryman’s dream. Yet even in 2011, James Halliday wondered aloud “who is drinking it?”

Which naturally or unnaturally enough depending upon whether you obsess about wine or not, brings us to the matter of merlot and its clones. A clone, of course, according to Jancis Robinson MW’s wine bible, The Oxford Companion to Wine, is a single vine or a population of vines all derived from vegetative propagation from cuttings or buds from a single mother vine by deliberate selection. If the “mother vine” has unsatisfactory characteristics, it thus follows that clones of that vine too generally will underperform.

In terms of the clones of merlot available in Australia, there were nine referred to in a comprehensive study by Phil Nicholas of the South Australian Research and Development Institute in 2006. While their names bear a closer resemblance to airport departure gates than is perhaps comfortable, it is useful to identify them, because so much of the debate on the alleged underperformance of Australian merlot has centred on them. The clones are the RVC13, the Q45-15, the D3V14, the D3V5, the D3V7, the FPS06 (aka the “6R”), the FPS08 (aka the “8R”), the FPS18 and the SAVII02. Six of these nine clones originate from California (one originally from Argentina), with the remainder from Australia, Canada
(originally from Italy) and Italy itself. Interestingly, no clones from Bordeaux appear on this list, a fact I will return to shortly.

Down with the D3V14?

The most maligned of the merlot clones has also been the most popularly planted - the D3V14. Its popularity is attested to by Nick Dry, viticulturalist at the Yalumba Nursery in South Australia, who remarks that this is the only merlot clone planted in Australia in large volumes. The D3V14 was imported into Australia from UC Davis in California in 1965. The criticisms of the clone have come from varying sources, but the principal objections appear to be its lack of French origin, the existence of many very average merlot based wines in Australia, and some apparent difficulty in achieving balanced grapes in the vineyard. Are these criticisms of merit? In my opinion, perhaps not. The first two points appear unable to survive sensible scrutiny - that a grape clone is from California or that bad merlot exists, does not prove of itself that the clone is unsatisfactory.

The latter point is perhaps however of more justifiable interest. According to Yalumba, the D3V14 produces vines that have low shoot vigour, high fruit to leaf ratios (which can delay ripening), are very sensitive to yield and are susceptible to dry soil conditions. The practical result of this is that the clone is moderately “high maintenance” (or “sooky” as I read in one presentation) requiring shoot and fruit thinning to reduce yield, and push shoot growth, in order to create a balanced vine. Anecdotal evidence referred to by Nick suggests that there is also a fine balance to be sought between achieving tannin ripeness without overripe or simplistic fruit flavours and picking too early and garnering unattractive green characters in the wine.

With these facts to hand then, it would seem that planted in the wrong place, or in the wrong hands, the D3V14 merlot clone used widely in Australia is more than capable of underachieving. The risk of overcropping and the importance of picking at optimal ripeness, however, is in fairness probably not a problem unique to the D3V14 or the merlot grape in particular. It is a common lament where quality wine is absent. So, perhaps then the clone isn’t the entire story. But, let us test this notion. And who better than to ask than some of Australia’s leading merlot producers, Irvine Wines, Henschke and the up and coming boutique winery, Blue Poles?

James Irvine of Irvine Wines in the Barossa Valley produces a number of merlot based wines, including their very well regarded “Grand Merlot”. The Grand Merlot not surprisingly includes a majority of grapes from the D3V14 clone. James rails against the suggestion that the D3V14 clone is problematic and notes that while Australian merlot clearly can underperform, this is probably more a combination of a lack of attention in the vineyard (with grapes not being picked at the optimum time or yield), the young age of many of Australia’s merlot vines and inattentive winemaking not being specific to producing good merlot. That is, Irvine mostly identifies problems other than with the clone itself. The strong wine show record of Irvine Wines Grand Merlot is led as evidence in point. My observation is that the evidence seems persuasive.

Mark Gifford of new wine producer Blue Poles comments similarly. His Blue Poles vineyard in the Margaret River has predominantly the D3V14 clone planted, with a chance of a portion of the D3V7 based on field observations. Mark shares the views of James Irvine, remarking that the excuses for new clones are rather banal and show more about the approach to merlot and the wine it produces than the clone itself. Pointed reference is made to merlot being considered only a “filler” by a large majority of Australia’s wine making fraternity, with many being made from barrels left over from cabernet sauvignon and merlot blends. Market reasons are also suggested as a cause of merlot’s  underperformance, with wineries happily meeting the demand for fat, soft and uncomplicated merlot (an applied example being the Yellow Tail phenomenon) which results in sales, rather than perhaps critical acclaim. Mark also raises the interesting point that in tasting numerous different merlot clones in Bordeaux, it became apparent to him that soils and location created the biggest difference in wine as well as cropping and pruning methodology, rather than any particular clone in use. In Mark’s words:

“So combined, you have a variety that is over-cropped, picked too early or too late, made in a generic style and our solution? Get better clones”.

On this analysis, pinning Australia’s underperformance with the merlot grape on the choice of clone appears somewhat naive at best, and cynical at worst.

Finally, I got in touch with Prue Henschke from legendary winery Henschke. Henschke have a collection of merlot vines - the most widely planted being not surprisingly the D3V14. However, they also have a fulsome clonal collection including the D3V5, D3V7, Q45-15, 6R and 8R. Prue’s observations, I think, are particularly noteworthy given her scientific background in botany and plant physiology. In this regard, Prue observed to me that she does not see a great deal of difference between the merlot clones, beyond them all setting poorly on their own roots which gives some yield control. Instead, season seems to the biggest influence on quality for Henschke. Nonetheless, Prue indicates that Henschke are looking to plant the French 191 clone (discussed below) in their Eden Valley vineyard as early as 2013.

What about the other clones?

While predominant, the D3V14 clone is of course certainly not the only merlot clone in Australia. Thus, for good order, it seems necessary to have a look at the others. Two clones that have attracted some recent interest are the Q45-15 and the 8R. The former was sourced from Canada in 1990 and has its origins in Italy. The 8R was sourced from UC Davis in California in 1991 and has Argentinian origins. According to Nick Dry of the Yalumba Nursery, the Q45-15 is said to produce higher shoot vigour and lower fruit to leaf ratios resulting in better balance relative to the D3V14. It also has lower berry and bunch weights and is earlier ripening than the D3V14 and thus has been met with favour. The 8R according to Yalumba analytically tends to produce moderate yields, yet is the earliest ripening. Similar to the Q45-15, it produces vines with higher shoot vigour and a lower fruit to shoot ratio than the D3V14. However, as pointed out by James Irvine, both the Q45-15 and 8R clones remain relatively new, and so the results are still coming in.

Older clones that have also found their way in Australian vineyards include the D3V5 and the D3V7, both imported from UC Davis in California in 1971 and 1976 respectively. Here James Irvine observes that the D3V5 has similarities to the D3V14, while the D3V7 develops good flavours at a much lower baumé. The Irvines plan to bring out the D3V7 clone as a varietal wine in 2012, which possibly will be a local first, as well as a vote of confidence in another older Californian sourced clone.

What about French clones?

It is difficult to conclude a discussion of fine merlot, without consideration of Chateau Petrus - arguably merlot’s finest, and certainly its most famous, expression. What quality minded producer would not wish to have one eye on its raw ingredients? While there is probably some truth in Mark Gifford’s observation that the “the new world obsession with clones is seen as mad by the Bordelaise”, nonetheless, I think there is some romance in the topic and so it attracts inevitable interest. For an illustration, consider the story told by James Halliday of a tasting with Hugh Johnson of a 1915 vintage of a Yeringberg cabernet from the Yarra Valley. Its stunning resemblance to Chateau Lafite was noted. That Yeringberg’s famous nineteenth century Victorian vineyards were planted with cuttings from Chateau Lafite, a revelation.

Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that efforts to bring French merlot clones to Australia have been afoot, and two have recently reached Australian shores. These are the ENTAV- INRA(R) No 181 and the ENTAV-INRA(R) No 343, both of which originate from the Gironde. Although named perhaps to more closely resemble a gastrointestinal disorder than a grape vine, the former clone is said to be a lower yielding clone that is highly regarded in France, and one of the most propagated in Europe. The latter clone is also highly regarded in France, with moderate yields and sufficient tannins to suit aging. Further specifics as to actual origin of the vines seem unavailable. Australian quarantine restrictions and airport security I suspect would deter more ambitious winemakers with visions of secateurs packed into their luggage.

Nick Dry expects that these new French clones will quickly become preferred clones, and given that Henschke would already appear to be on board, he may well be right. Whether that leads to quality improvements in Australian merlot though is perhaps a different question, although it obviously will be interesting to see whether it does. To my mind, if the above analysis is correct, we may see quality improvements if only because wineries planting the new French clones might be more desirous of making fine wine.

Conclusion

My conclusion is perhaps a rather simple one - it seems to me that the underperformance of merlot on Australian soil and the attribution of fault to poor merlot clones is perhaps somewhat akin to a lousy worker blaming his tools. Good results with Australian merlot appear possible and it may just require more fastidious care, and desire, to produce fine wine from the grape. If more such quality minded producers emerge, regardless of the clone, one gets the sense that merlot’s time in the sun in Australia may come sooner than expected.

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3 comments:

  1. Thank you for this piece: detailed, fascinating and informative. I think that a tiny minority of consumers in Australia have had the opportunity to taste a good merlot from Bordeaux and dont realise how opulent yet powerful they can be. I agree that with some passion and probably better clones then the only way for Oz merlot is upwards from here.

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  2. What about the fact that Irvine even said in an issue of Australian Viticulture back in the late 90s that Merlot seems to do better on rootstock, and that on it's own roots it's prone to poor set and hen and chicken? Sounds like he's changed his tune. Interesting that most Merlot in Oz is on its own roots, while in Bordeaux it's pretty much all grafted...

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  3. Craig - thank you kindly & I suspect that you are right.

    Marcello - interesting - I haven't explored so far this interaction. Yet, rootstocks can impact vigour and fruit set and interact differently with the soil's properties, so these should be considered too, and possibly not just for merlot. Perhaps SA and WA are the outliers here (cf. Bordeaux or frankly even a lot of Victoria) because not planting on rootstocks remains a serious option. Sounds like a further post :)

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