Merlot got itself a bad name as a varietal back in the 90s, when the grape gained popularity in the USA with California’s mass producers flooding the market with cheap, easy-drinking and totally uninteresting Merlots.
It became known as the red for people who are new to reds, the upfront fruit and soft tannins that typify the wines being so appealing to the uninitiated.
Merlot, however, as any wine connoisseur knows, is a very serious grape, used in Bordeaux to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon in the production of some of the world’s greatest wines. And although rarely used as a varietal even today in France, the grape produces some very serious varietals elsewhere in warmer climes.
Here in Portugal, one of the first growers to plant Merlot was the Neves family in the Bairrada region, initially to sell grapes on to other producers for blending. But a visit to their vineyards in the 90s by the highly respected Bordeaux consultant Michel Rolland revealed that the Merlot grape was particularly well suited to the Bairrada and was doing especially well at the Neves vineyard.
This revelation led the family to set about starting their own winery where, since 2009, they have been the only producer in the country totally dedicated to the Merlot grape.
I noticed their wine on special promotion at Apolónia supermarket last weekend when the 2012 non-reserva (unoaked) version was on offer at €6.99 as wine of the week (usually priced at €9.95). I picked up a bottle along with a bottle of the 2010 Reserva at €17.95. Both wines fit the profile of typical Merlot varietals being easy-drinking reds with well-rounded tannins and lots of fruit on the nose.
The less expensive non-reserva is medium-bodied and quite fresh in the mouth whilst the reserva, made from the quinta’s best grapes, is an altogether more complex and sophisticated Merlot that justifies the price tag.
The wine is aged for 12 months in French oak before a further year of bottle ageing and this 2010, which still has legs for further bottle ageing, is drinking beautifully. The oak is well integrated with notes of tobacco and pepper on the nose, marrying with jammy plum and berry fruit. In the mouth it is rich and smooth with good acidity and nice long finish.
By PATRICK STUART [email protected]