Merlot in SA has Stellenbosch roots
Merlot in SA has Stellenbosch roots
By Maryke Roberts
International Merlot Day is annually celebrated on November 7 but Merlot is one of the world’s most popular red wines and its history in South Africa is rooted in Stellenbosch. Merlot is also the red cultivar most consumed domestically, according to statistics from SA Wine Industry Information & Systems (SAWIS).
David van Velden from Overgaauw on the slopes of the Bottelary Hills, the fourth-generation winemaker on the farm, says that South Africa’s Merlot journey began in 1969 in Bordeaux, when his grandfather (also David van Velden) and Frans Malan van Simonsig – great friends – undertook a trip to France. Both Overgaauw and Simonsig are members of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes and also among the country’s first 14 wine estates. Read story here.
Their initial plans were to learn more about Cabernet Sauvignon. They visited several farms in various parts of Bordeaux where Cabernet Sauvignon was planted, but Merlot caught their eye, when they realized it was mostly planted in soil with more clay content – typical Overgaauw terroir.
“On their visit, they often saw the 225 litre barrels (barriques) – something that was strange to them, because at that time they only knew cement tanks and 4 000-litre foudres (large oak barrels).
“At Château Latour they asked about these smaller barrels and the reasons why they are used. The fact that barrels are toasted and that influences the wine during aging, interested them a lot.”
He said they then got permission from the estate’s winemaker to buy their second-hand barrels and bring them to South Africa. “This makes them the first South African winemakers to use barriques. At that time, my grandfather paid a lot of attention to the vineyards, but processed all his grapes himself and sold them in bulk wine to the wholesale trade. With the 1970 harvest, the Latour casks arrived, and he aged Cabernet Sauvignon in those casks and released his own brand the following year.”
David explained that there were no commercial nurseries at the time; each farm had its own small nursery and grafted onto rootstocks, new material from Nietvoorbij themselves.
“Still excited by what they had seen regarding Merlot in Bordeaux, he acquired Merlot vines in 1973, but the vines then showed roll leaf virus symptoms shortly after planting. My grandfather kept going back to Nietvoorbij and asking for virus-free material, also when my father, Braam, joined him in 1974. The “dirty” material on Richter 99 root stock then just keeps growing on the farm, while they waited for better plant material. The answer then came in the form of an Italian clone, MO3, which they then grafted onto the rootstock and planted in 1976.”
The 1979 vintage was Overgaauw’s first Bordeaux blend but at that stage still from the Merlot vineyard with the older clone. In 1982 – one of the best vintages for Stellenbosch – his father, Braam, compared the two different clones in that vintage and the wine from the MO3 looked better than the older material. He decided to bottle his first single cultivar Merlot from this clone, but everyone advised him against it, saying that Merlot is a blend component; it is not bottled on its own, because it will not sell.
“However, he stuck to his decision and the country’s first Merlot was indeed bottled.”
Barely 20 kilometres away on the farm Le Bonheur, another pioneer was at work in the eighties: Mike Woodhead, a qualified soil expert from KwaZulu-Natal, was obsessed with good quality soil and devoted a lot of time and labour to improving the farm’s soil – at a time when few other winegrowers paid much attention to soil.
The estate has some of the oldest Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon plantings in Stellenbosch, which adds to the depth and complexity of these wines. All grapes are harvested by hand and traditional winemaking methods are applied, with a strong French influence. The Merlot block is the only certified old vineyard (vines older than 35 years that form part of the Old Vine Project) in the country.
Merlot is very close to Mike’s heart – while the rest of Stellenbosch focused more on Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon at the time. He planted a block of Merlot in 1984 and this is the main component of the estate’s Stellenbosch Prima, a Bordeaux blend, with Merlot as the largest component.
Today, William Wilkinson, Le Bonheur’s winemaker, still makes the Stellenbosch Prima from that old block with portions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The estate also now bottles a single variety of Merlot that regularly excels in competitions.
The Merlot grape grew in popularity among Cape winegrowers by leaps and bounds over the past 40 years. In 1982, the country had a mere 81hectares of Merlot compared to the more than 5 300 hectares in 2022, says Dawie Botha, chairman of the Merlot Forum. In Stellenbosch a total of 1473,27 hectares of Merlot are planted of the total of red varieties of 7 829,45 hectares in the region.
In a global context, South Africa has 5% of the total Merlot plantings and is only exceeded by France (14%), Chile (6%) and Romania (6%).
“In addition to the increase in Merlot plantings over the past four decades, winemakers are seeing how Merlot expresses the unique geographical identity of the South African wine landscape, giving the variety’s attractive drinkability a true fingerprint of Cape terroir,” says Dawid.
The significant growth in Merlot plantings and consumption, has also necessitated a competition to award the country’s Top 10 producers. David van Velden was the guest speaker at the second prize giving ceremony earlier this year and decided to award a bottle of that first Overgaauw Merlot to the winning farm – Rainbow’s End – who scored the highest points.
Stellenbosch wine farms triumphed in this competition which attracted 69 entries. Four Stellenbosch Wine Routes members are among the Top 10: Bein Merlot 2020, Nilberg Merlot Reserve 2018, Rainbow’s End Merlot 2020 and the Zorgvliet Merlot 2020.
David said: “Competitions like this keep me on my toes to produce the best possible Merlot every year and it’s nice to taste some of the country’s leading Merlots at events like this.
“This competition seeks to create an awareness of the high standard of winemaking and the specific regional identities found in the country’s Merlot offering. The popularity of Merlot is the result of wine lovers experiencing quality when they enjoy this wine, and the competition also wants to celebrate this fact.”
“I learned that the Merlot way forward definitely lies with virus-free vines planted in the ideal location and I am proud to see what quality is currently being produced in South Africa.”
Chairman of the judging panel Matthew Copeland, says Merlot may have been planted over a small area in South Africa, but it is widely enjoyed, and people vote with their wallets. “What we are doing with this competition is long overdue.”