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Maligned and misunderstood

Senator Gary Humphries likes it, former Runners Shop owner Brian Wenn says it's nothing more than low-quality anaesthetic. What to make of merlot? asks Chris Shanahan

A recent string of letters in The Canberra Times reveals mixed perceptions of merlot, Australia's third most planted red wine variety.

Senator Gary Humphries set the ferret running when he wrote, ''In March, through the letters page of The Canberra Times, Ian De Landelles and I agreed on a wager: I bet that the next leadership speculation to hit the national headlines would be about the Labor Party; he, the Liberal Party. At stake is a nice bottle of red. I'm partial to a merlot, please, Ian.''

Former Runners Shop owner Brian Wenn shot back, ''So Gary Humphries (Letters, May 4) is partial to a merlot. Gary, merlot isn't wine. It is a low-quality anaesthetic substance which is sometimes blended in with real red wine like shiraz and cabernet to soften any sharper edges. No one expects you to drink the stuff by itself. I refer you to that great movie Sideways, in which the lead character, a wine connoisseur, profoundly states, 'I'm not drinking merlot'. Quite right!''

Begging to differ, Ross McKay, of Gungahlin, offered, ''I have the greatest respect for Brian Wenn but he has fallen for getting Hollywood mixed up with reality. Some of the greatest wines in the world are merlot-based. Chateau Petrus comes to mind. I'm sure that Mr De Landelles is giving Senator Humphries a bottle of Petrus.''

Conceding defeat to Humphries in another letter, De Landelles added, ''However, given our long-term friendship, I look forward to his invitation to share a glass of merlot with him as we discuss the nation's political future.''

Humphries and De Landelles - cheered on tongue-in-cheek by Petrus-loving McKay - seem happy drinking merlot. Which leaves Wenn (who once called me a drinker with a running problem; so I gave up running) sinking the boot into merlot. He calls on Miles from Sideways for support, summoning the unforgettable lines, ''No, if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f…ing merlot.'' (But he did; and we'll come back to that later).

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More than any other variety, merlot creates confusion. It's perceived variously as bland and sweet, a light and easy drinker, a low-quality anaesthetic for blending with real reds, an elegant and noble blending companion for cabernet sauvignon, or full-bodied and voluptuous, as in Chateau Petrus of Bordeaux.

One thing's for sure in Australia - it's a very important variety, third in volume after shiraz and cabernet. In 2009 (our most recent ''normal'' vintage), Australian vignerons harvested 403,000 tonnes of shiraz, 247,000 tonnes of cabernet sauvignon and 126,000 tonnes of merlot - a country mile ahead of fourth-placed pinot noir on 28,000 tonnes.

With that volume, and spread across so many regions, it's almost inevitable for merlot to assume a number of identities. The style of wine it makes can be determined by climate, vineyard management, grape yields, winemaker preferences or a combination of these factors. For example, wine made from an irrigated, warm-climate, high yielding vineyard might be light, fruity and soft - and the maker might even leave unfermented grape sugar in the wine to fill the mid-palate.

At the other end of the spectrum, a winemaker in a cooler area might restrict yields to produce more concentrated flavour, usually from small berries. We see this, for example, in Capital Wines' Kyeema vineyard, Murrumbateman - where the merlot wine begins life dark and tannic, needing years of bottle ageing. Other good examples of straight merlot are Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley and Parker Coonawarra Estate.

Chateau Petrus remains the model for this style. I've visited the vineyard a couple of times, tasting the impenetrably deep, fragrant, voluptuous young wine, after walking through the dense, wet clay of the vineyard. On one of those occasions, Christian Moueix, whose family has a long association with Petrus, served the marvellous, maturing (still voluptuous) 1982 vintage.

He observed that the Pomerol district (home of Petrus) produced the greatest of all expressions of merlot from its wet clay soils; while the free-draining limestone soils of nearby St Emillion produced more austere wines. In both Pomerol and St Emillion, winemakers pair merlot with cabernet franc. The Petrus vineyard comprises 95 per cent merlot, the rest cabernet franc, Moueix said, but more often than not the wine was straight merlot.

But in Australia, as in France, winemakers generally blend merlot with other varieties. We see this at its best in Margaret River, in particular, and Coonawarra, usually with cabernet sauvignon, but to a lesser extent with petit verdot, cabernet franc and malbec. The truth is, merlot can make stunning wine. Even Miles loved it. He finally quaffed a treasured, much-mentioned Chateau Cheval Blanc 1961 from a paper cup. Did he recognise the blend of merlot and cabernet franc?

Chris Shananan is a wine judge, former liquor retailer and Canberra Times wine writer.

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