Getting to Know Merlot

Words: Karen Glanfield

Wine Concepts LB 728 x 90I’ve always recommended Merlot as the ideal wine to acclimatise new consumers of red wine. Whether it’s a friend broadening her horizons from white wine, or my dad, leaving the beer and whisky world behind and getting into the wine arena, a Merlot is normally a good place to start. This month we’re getting to know Merlot and the classic Merlot grape that originated from the Bordeaux region of France.

In using a sporting analogy I would usually refer to a Merlot as a cricket player – a wine full of finesse, culture, etiquette, almost gentlemanly rather than some of the more robust characters that are apparent in other red grapes.

Owing to its soft and fruity character and “easy-drinking” status,  the grape has  been crowned  a  favourite by  many enthusiasts,  ensuring a  large following.

Get to know Merlot and the wine’s general characteristics like the red fruits, easy tannins and a soft finish. But there’s more to Merlot than being smooth. When thinking of other descriptions most commonly used to describe a Merlot – Christmas cake comes to mind – yum! A range of fresh flavours such as plums, cherries, blueberries and blackberries mixed with cocoa and black pepper tones often dominate this type of red wine. Merlot is popular as a companion to the very rowdy Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc.

In a Bordeaux-style red blend where the Cabernet’s, which give the backbone, are softened or mellowed a little, the Merlot rounds-off the wine, allowing more structure and definition.

Cool climate Merlot is more structured with a higher presence of tannins and earthy flavours like tobacco and eucalyptus. Warm climate Merlot wine is more fruit-forward and tannin is less prevalent.

3 facts you should know if you’re getting to know Merlot

  • In South Africa, Merlot is the favourite red varietal and has become the largest selling red varietal wine with approximately 13% market share.
  • Merlot in Bordeaux is most famous on the right bank of the Gironde where it is a major component of many of the famous wines of Pomerol and Saint E’million.  The most famous of these wines is the rare, famous and expensive Chateau Petrus.
  • In the USA, Merlot was for a period of time the most fashionable of all red varieties where it was hailed for its soft, round and approachable tannin structure.

A Selection of Great South African Merlot

Boschendal 1685 Merlot

The grapes for Boschendal 1685 Merlot originated from various high-quality vineyard sites around Stellenbosch and Elgin and, when blended, these specific vineyards’ profiles provide the inherent nuances for the character of this wine. The vineyards ranged in age from 6 to 22 years old and were planted on a variety of soils. Shoot thinning, bunch thinning and green harvesting were all done in the vineyards to promote tannin ripeness and maximise the fruit aroma expression.

Boschendal 1685 Merlot grapes were handpicked from the vineyards during March, and all the grapes and bunches were sorted in the vineyard to ensure that no green or unripe berries reached the winery. A further berry sorting was done at the winery just after crushing to ensure that only the most perfect berries reached the fermentation tanks.

WINEMAKER Richard Duckitt
WO Franschhoek
ON THE NOSE Good natural balance between primary fruit aromas.
ON THE PALATE Rich red cherry plum and pronounced ripe mulberry flavours. An elegant cool-climate style of wine with intensity of fruit and length. Good natural balance between primary fruit aromas, colour and structure extraction, rounded and integrated by subtle oak aging from larger 300-litre barrels.
WE LOVE IT WITH Sweet & Sticky Duck Pancakes


sweet-and-sticky-duck-and-vegetable-pancakes |

Thelema Merlot

Thelema is a stunning place to visit; the vineyards sit within the Helshoogte Pass with elevations that range from 370 to 640 meters above sea level. Surrounded by these amazing mountain views and shaded by giant oak trees, its tasting room is the perfect respite on a hot summer day in Stellenbosch.

Winemaker, Rudi Schultz, a born and bred Somerset Western, joined Thelema in December 2000 and has firmly rooted himself at this property, assisting to create a world renowned wine stable – with Thelema owner Gyles Webb in the roll as Cellar Master.

WINEMAKER Rudi Schultz
WO Stellenbosch
ON THE NOSE This newly released Thelema Merlot 2014 shows bright, red fruit and hints of spice on the nose.
ON THE PALATE Concentrated flavours on the palate and soft, polished tannins. Hints of dark chocolate complete this wonderfully balanced wine. The wine will develop well for 6 years from vintage date.
WE LOVE IT WITH Oxtail Tortellini 



Noble Hill Merlot

Noble Hill Merlot is grown on a single vineyard that has produced fantastic wines, vintage after vintage since being planted in 1998. The clay-rich soil on which the vineyard is established has a high gravel content, which facilitates even drainage. The vineyard is a model of even ripening. At Noble Hill they strive for balance between deep, luscious flavours and elegant freshness. Fermented on the skins, the Noble Hill Merlot is gently pressed and left to 225-litre French oak barriques for 18 months. It is racked twice during this period and ultimately bottled with minimal intervention.

WINEMAKER Kristopher Tillery
WO Simonsberg
ON THE NOSE An intense aroma of fruitful ripe plum and a hint of tobacco leaf.
ON THE PALATE Focused with lingering black fruit such as black cherry, dark plum and robust tannins and possesses a full mouth-feel.
WE LOVE IT WITH Springbok Shoulder with Glazed Pumpkin



La Bri Merlot

The crux of the La Bri renaissance began with the 2008 harvest – the first to be crushed in the new, modern 120-tonne cellar on the estate. The terroir in the upper reaches of the valley offers sufficient diversity in the climate and soil.  To this end, the grapes and wine are, where possible, moved by gravity in order to minimise the use of pumps.

The new cellar has unique circular design and boasts a gravity-fed winemaking process. This allows the team to focus on producing limited volumes of superior quality and elegant wines, that people want to drink and enjoy.These aspects, when combined with meticulous vineyard management practices and artisanal winemaking, can produce outstanding wines. These Franschhoek Valley wines are capable of competing with the best wines South Africa has to offer.

WINEMAKER Irene Waller
WO Franschhoek
ON THE NOSE La Bri Merlot has a complex mix of black cherries, nutmeg and cedar oak.
ON THE PALATE A juicy and elegant entry with soft integrated tannins and hints of dried mushrooms.
WE LOVE IT WITH Rib Eye Steak with a Green Peppercorn & Mushroom Sauce



Hartenberg Merlot

Each vineyard was specially selected, and each bunch of grapes were hand-picked early in the morning. The grapes were cold soaked for two days, then the juice inoculated with a French-sourced yeast. The must was fermented and pumped over four times daily, followed by an extended maceration for fourteen days, and a fractional pressing. After settling, the wine was moved to French oak for malolactic fermentation.

WINEMAKER Carl Schultz
WO Stellenbosch
ON THE NOSE Hartenberg Merlot has a melange of aromas that permeate the nose, showing truffles, forest floor, violets, plums and cherry.
ON THE PALATE Medium/full bodied, juicy fruit, wonderful texture, fine grained tannins and a silky finish.
WE LOVE IT WITH Grilled Rib Eye Steak with Béarnaise Sauce 



The Stellenbosch Reserve Kweekskool Merlot

Three Stellenbosch friends, Jean Engelbrecht, Dillie Malherbe and Jannie Durand, set out to create a range of wines that would be an ode to their hometown of Stellenbosch. Each wine in the boutique range is named after a historic site in the town. Prior to becoming the Theological Seminary, the building after which this wine is named, was used for hosting visiting dignitaries, governors and high commissioners, as well as a court of law when trials were heard. Built in 1687, and remodelled over the years to its present form in 1905, the “Kweekskool” was effectively the start of higher education in Stellenbosch when it was inaugurated as the Theological Seminary in 1859.

WINEMAKER Jean Engelbrecht, Dillie Malherbe and Jannie Durand
WO Stellenbosch

This wine is full of beautiful dark berry and dark chocolate aromas, with a wonderful line of cedar and tobacco which makes for a complex and intriguing nose.


The dark berry follows through from the nose in the form of ripe black berry and mulberry flavours. There is a very subtle, yet wonderful hazelnut flavour that works wonders in creating a complex mouthfeel in this elegant yet powerful wine with a long lingering finish.

WE LOVE IT WITH Spaghetti and Meatballs



Eagles’ Nest

Eagles’ Nest, located on the crest of Constantia Nek pass, is nestled at the foot of the awe inspiring Table Mountain. This pristine and boutique family owned vineyard (38-ha in size) has, in recent years, gained a reputation for both its striking beauty and award winning wines.

Uniquely characteristic of its wines is a signature of finesse, derived from the cooler climate conditions its vines are exposed to as a result of its elevation and close proximity to the oceanic body that is False Bay, thus delivering very distinctive wines not found elsewhere in South Africa.

WINEMAKER Stuart Botha
WO Constantia

Eagles’ Nest Merlot has intense dark berry, spicy cherry and cigar box aromas.


A subtle peppery savouriness makes this wine both distinctive and gives testament to its origin on a cool wind swept mountainside. The palate is a satisfying combination of perfectly ripe berry fruit, subtle spice, balanced tannins and a focused and persistent mouthfeel.

WE LOVE IT WITH Slow Roast Shoulder of Lamb



Bosman Bo Vallei Merlot

The Bo-Vallei, which is located on the outskirts of Wellington towards Bain’s Kloof, has been our home for more than two centuries and our legacy of vines and wine is woven into the fabric of its history. This beautiful, small and undiscovered valley is surrounded by the Hawekwa mountains, Limiet mountains and the Groenberg and located some 70 km from Cape Town. With a backdrop of beautiful landscapes, it has a magical atmosphere that will captivate visitors.

WINEMAKER Natasha Williams
WO Wellington

Bosman Bo Vallei Merlot has aromas of rich, fresh berries, plums dark chocolate and a touch of mocha.


A wine packed with red and dark fruit, following through with a persistent finish.

WE LOVE IT WITH Chicken Parmigiana




If you would like to increase your wine knowledge, you should get to know  Red and White BlendsShiraz | Chardonnay | Chenin Blanc | Cabernet Sauvignon

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