Let’s face it. Merlot has not been considered a “cool” wine in recent years. It became a synonym for generic, uninspired red, fueled largely by oceans of cheap merlot from California, France and beyond. But all the while, there was — and is — great merlot to be found.
New Zealand is not the first place that comes to mind when I think about the grape. After all, isn’t New Zealand all about racy sauvignon blanc and, increasingly, pinot noir, two varieties that thrive in the mostly cool Kiwi climate?
Well, based on a recent discovery, New Zealand merlot may be one of the real sleepers among Southern Hemisphere wines. The evidence of this comes from the Craggy Range Winery in the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand’s North Island.
The wine is the 2004 Te Kahu (pronounced tay KAH-hoo), which, in the native Maori language means “the cloak” and refers to the way the mist hangs over the mountaintops. The grapes come entirely from Craggy Range’s vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district of Hawke’s Bay. Why not simply call it merlot? Perhaps someone thought that giving it a name would help it sell better than calling it merlot. The $25 wine also happens to be a blend — 77 percent merlot, 11 percent cabernet sauvignon, six percent malbec and six percent cabernet franc, which gives it fragrance and softness.
The winery, which goes back just 10 years or so, purchased its 250-acre parcel in the Gimblett Gravels district with an eye toward growing these so-called Bordeaux varieties, which, to fully ripen, need the warmer growing conditions that this particular area offers (the winery describes them as similar to those of the Napa Valley).
In style, Te Kahu is more Napa than Bordeaux, with its forward, opulent fruit, though perhaps not quite as “big” as a typical Napa wine. Notes of plum, black cherry and spice are framed by an ample tannic structure and balanced by bright acidity (the tannins, you’ll recall, are the remnants of the skins and other solid parts of the grapes and give the wine its structure and ability to age). This all combines in a densely packed, complex yet uplifting merlot. But with alcohol at about 14 percent, it is not over the top.
Te Kahu is typical of merlot in that it is a bit softer than cabernet sauvignon and ready to drink sooner, although this one has nice depth with the addition of cabernet sauvignon and other varieties and will age gracefully for a number of years. It’s a breath of fresh air and shows why the much-maligned merlot will shine in the hands of the right winemaker and why it deserves a fresh taste. The importer is Kobrand Corporation, New York.
Edward Deitch's wine column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at EdwardDeitch@hotmail.com.
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