May 25, 2018
On the Vine: Make it Merlot
Big, bold, flavourful—B.C.’s most popular red comes of age
By John Schreiner
The rising star among Okanagan reds is Pinot Noir. It would be tragic, however, if consumers started ignoring Merlot, the most widely planted grape variety in the region. It produces full-flavoured wines that are far better than they were just five years ago.
The master of Merlot is Australian-trained Phil McGahan at CheckMate Wines. Many regard his $85 Merlots as benchmarks that, since his first vintage in 2013, have raised the bar for Okanagan Merlot. “When I came to the Okanagan in 2012, the area was ready to take the next step,” he says.
Merlot accounts for 16 per cent of the Okanagan’s wine grapes, double that of Pinot Noir. If there seem to be fewer varietal Merlots than Pinots, it is because versatile Merlot also anchors many fine red blends.
“There was not much Merlot planted until the 1990s,” says McGahan. “A lot of the vineyards I source from were planted around 1996,’97. Once the vines have aged, they consistently produce better fruit.” Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, for example, planted in the early 1990s; Tinhorn’s Merlot, always reliable, has improved noticeably with vine age and the hiring of a skilled Australian viticulturist in 2008.
“There was a lot of pioneering work done in vineyards,” says McGahan. “Now, you have the next generation of winemakers coming through who are building on what was done. And there are a lot of people coming in with fresh ideas.” He is one of them. He leaves Merlot fermenting on the skins two to three times longer than other winemakers to extract flavour. He then ages the wine about 21 months in the very best French oak barrels and more than a year in bottle before release.
As many as 100 B.C. Merlots are released each year. They merit exploring to discover distinctive styles and expressions of terroir. “There are raspberry notes in there that I have never come across in Merlot,” says winemaker Scott Robinson at Naramata Bench’s Little Engine Wines.” His powerhouse wines exemplify today’s Okanagan Merlots.
Three to try
CheckMate Black Rook Merlot 2013 ($85)
The fruit is from the Black Sage Bench. This wine is bold, even brooding, with aromas of blackberry and anise. The palate delivers flavours of blueberry, black cherry, spice and vanilla, with a lingering finish. 96/100
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Reserve Merlot 2014 ($26.99)
A dark and concentrated wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels. It begins with aromas of cassis, black cherry and fig. That is echoed on the palate, along with notes of vanilla and dark chocolate. The firm structure will support aging. 92/100
Upper Bench Estate Merlot 2014 ($33)
This is a wonderfully concentrated wine, with aromas and flavours of cassis and black cherry. The long ripe tannins make for a big, bold, but accessible wine. 92/100