April 15, 2012

Merlot can be brilliant

What a wine! Thirteen years old, still vibrant with life. This week’s most stunning experience came from a South African wine, bought and put in the cellar many years ago. Then forgotten, until this week.

A quick web search made me a bit nervous. It was not unlikely that its best days already had passed. Better open it and face the harsh reality. 

Magnificent! That is the right word to describe the Steenberg Merlot 1999. It met me with a hue of brick. Overwhelmingly rich, with layers of flavour sensations. The nose delightfully mature and complex, just slightly smoky with hints of sweet roots. The sensational explosion came in the palate. A rich concentrated, spicy blend of laurels, root vegetables, raisins and well integrated oak. Great body. Balanced with velvet tannins, moderate alcohol and very good length. And after a little while the minty notes evolved together with some sweet raisins. 

Isn’t it time for a revival of the Merlot? This Steenberg confirmed my belief in the grape’s maturing potential. It also showed the ability to make great Merlot in South Africa. A Morgenhof Merlot Reserve 1998 some time ago gave the same impression, even if this wine from Steenberg was well ahead of its competition. 

Steenberg is one of the reputable South African wine farms dating back to the seventeenth century. Unusual is that the farm was founded by a woman. Catharina Ras came from Lübeck to South Africa already in 1662. In 1682 she was allowed to lease some land in Constantia from Simon van der Stel, a lease that was converted to ownership in 1688. Catharina was also known for her bad luck with husbands, the fatality rate was so to say high and she was married five times. But that is another story. 

Steenberg is today owned by Graham Beck. The 62 ha Constantia vineyards include plantings of Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz and Nebbiolo. The latter a rare guest in the South African vineyards, which in the hands of the winemaker JD Pretorius is transformed into a beautiful, well-structured wine with the typical nose of leaves in decay and a substantial load of tannins. 

Unfortunately, I have not tasted any newer vintages of their Merlot. But now I have a great reason to find a bottle. Hopefully, a sip of it will convince me to put some into the cellar and, in ten years’ time or so, give me another stunning experience.

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