When was the last time you had an Australian merlot that pushed your button?
I came across one that not only aroused my merlot curiosity; it triggered just about every pleasure and sensory neuron in my wandering olfactories and aesthetic and had me reaching for my tasting notebook.
The wine, Arelwood La Bratta 2007, was profoundly complex and powerful, yet elegant with an intriguing savory sauvage element, in an un-Australian way, I had mentally shortlisted it for my annual retrospective, Must-Have Wines of the Lunar Year, and the ‘Best Australian Red Wine’. Indeed, having tried the wine several times now, my first impression is cemented.
Merlot is a tough ask at the best of times. Think Miles Raymond in the film Sideways, denigrating merlot throughout the film, “No, if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing merlot!”
Ironically, Miles’s most prized bottle of wine, which he drinks out of a Styrofoam cup in a moment of depression in the movie, is 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, a blend of cabernet franc and merlot.
Never mind that this film caused merlot sales to plummet globally, the insult to injury was the whole gag was a complete faux pas. As most wine enthusiasts know, Cheval Blanc is in fact a cabernet franc dominate blend with merlot, and is somewhat atypical in the region of St. Emilion where a higher percentage of merlot is more usual.
Actually the marketing travesty here is the complete misrepresentation of cabernet franc which seems to be predestined for wine consumers’ no-man’s-land, and even the exalted realms of St. Emilion are dwarfed by the left-bank communes and the unassailable cabernet sauvignon.
On the other hand, merlot, or more specifically the Bordeaux commune of Pomerol, has attained a cult status with prices soaring to stratospheric levels, with wines such as Château Petrus, Le Pin and Château Lafleur now way beyond the reach of the average wine enthusiast. Most of us closet merlot drinkers consider Pomerol the spiritual home of merlot and worship the stuff whenever someone is generous enough to liberate a bottle from their cellar – with us.
Italy also has its merlot hierarchy with wines like Tua Rita Redigaffi and Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia Masseto pushing the boundaries of wine sensibility, although there is a good amount of reasonably priced merlot blends of merit in various region of Italy, enough so to tag Italy as a merlot focal point.
Mind you, the purists like Andrew Jefford and me wonder why an international variety like merlot was ever introduced, particularly in Tuscany, where it has really done more to adulterate the wonderful purity and personality of sangiovese.
I’m wondering if it was the name La Bratta and the vineyards propaganda that had me stylistically in Italy, or was it actually the wine itself, with its briary, wildness and bit of pleasant grubbiness that you don’t often see in squeaky-clean Australian wines.
It does look sort of Italian to me, if I were blind tasted perhaps, and if it seems like a backhanded compliment, it’s not meant to be and I am sure those who enjoy Italian wines will know where I am coming from.
More Italianesque also comes from the owner, Gary Gosatti, with the inspiration to name this wine after the Northern Italian village where his mother was born and where her father and grandfather were winemakers, coopers and coffin makers – their day job!
Arlewood already enjoys a solid reputation for their cabernet sauvignon and equally semillon and sauvignon blanc whites, paragons of the Margaret River region, Western Australia. It is a region tempered by cool sea breezes off the Indian Ocean and naturally nourished by the purest rainfall carried on the prevailing winds from Antarctica, imparting naturally high acidities and good tension – the essence of Margaret River wines.
Arlewood La Bratta is actually a blend of 60 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 percent malbec, which could be seen as rather eclectic although does have an semblance with Bordeaux, although the percentage of malbec higher than what would used these days.
So, how does one arrive at Australian Red Wine of the Year? Well, clearly it’s subjective however; absorb this more objective view, ‘Vive la différence!’ or more aptly Vive la differenza.
The Australian’s are fighting an uphill battle on the marketing/image front with the large, commercial wineries have done an impressive job at promoting ordinariness and pedestrian wines.
This balance-sheet driven campaign comes at the cost of the hundreds of small, artisan winegrowers in Australia who make wonderfully diverse wines from a multitude of climates and terroirs, indeed in some of the oldest, complex soils on this earth.
This extraordinary diversity is lost amongst the international consumer with the misinformation and notion that Australian wines suffer from a ‘sameness’ and that sunshine and warm vintages are an annual perpetuity. You might want to take a trip down to Margaret River and going surfing with some of the winemakers to get an idea of how ‘cool’ it is there.
There is equally an misunderstand of the multiplicity of grape varieties grown in Australia, and it’s not all shiraz and chardonnay; nothwithstanding the brilliant shiraz wines that are produced all over the country, the marketing recalcitrant in me often favors the obscure, or even the underdog, so to speak.
It is ironic that the underdog is the small Australian producer, as this is where the wines of the greatest character and quality are made and representative of Australia, and surely need a fairer showing on world wine stage.
So, there you go. Do your palate a favor and track this wine down, a discovery of a brilliant tiny winery in the deepest south of Terra Australis that will give you enormous drinking pleasure and do justice to the Australian wine cause. Ah, and I can also highly recommend pairing it with a huge slab Wagyu Rump from Margaret River, see http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/produce/roast-wagyu-beef/
My tasting note Arlewood La Bratta 2007
Mesmerizing bouquet of smoky-charcoal, meaty-sirloin-steak on the BBQ, roast beetroot, compote of dark black berry fruits, dense sweet cassis and rose petal, with a background of classic Margaret River tobacco leaf, a little liquorice, earthy black peat with a dollop of down-on-the-farm chook shed in the nicest possible way. Breaths out with intriguing dried timbers and tea leaf, building to a seriously complex bouquet. Dark and intense blackberry and blackcurrant surges across the palate with bitter dark chocolate twist, enveloping these powerful flavours, as deep and concentrated as the bouquet suggests, and briary and brooding although the fruit becoming perkier as it breaths out with a wonderful purity, as the wine evolved in the glass you can see the charcoal and chocolate oak structure will mesh with more bottle age but most importantly there is vibrant acidity and this gives this substantial wine sufficient elegance and vitality – the mother of all merlots and a deeply complex and satisfying wine that does Australia proud.
Bravo to winemaker Bill Crappsley, proprietor Gary Gosatti and the indefatigable Arlewood ambassador Terry Chellappah. Despite miniscule production, you will find Arlewood wines popping up all over the planet; visit their website to track down a distributor www.arlewood.com.au
If you are a closet merlot drinker, look for these other Australian outstanding merlots and blends: Frankland Estate Olmo’s Reward, www.franklandestate.com.au and Protero Merlot www.proterowines.com.au