Any producer intent on building an ultra-premium wine brand can’t afford to ignore the US. It’s the world’s biggest wine market and relatively price insensitive at the top end.
“Whether by design or good luck, we’ve made a phenomenal Merlot from the get-go and though we currently sell next to nothing in the US, it’s definitely an interesting market,” says Stuart Downes, co-owner of Shannon Vineyards in Elgin before a comparative tasting which saw the Shannon Mount Bullet next to some big-name US examples of the variety ($50 a bottle and up).
First a flight of six wines from the 2011 vintage, tasted blind. My notes and scores as follows:
1. Shannon Mount Bullet 2011 – Elgin
100% Merlot. Dark fruit, oyster shell and pencil shavings on the nose. Rich but balanced with layers of flavour, fresh acidity and fine tannins. Good length. By far the best showing of this wine since I first tasted it about a year ago.
2. Shafer 2011 – Napa Valley
75% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot. Floral fragrance, spice and chocolate on the nose. Sweet and succulent on the palate with moderate acidity and well-managed oak. A very polished wine.
3. Ridge Estate 2011 – Santa Cruz Mountains
100% Merlot. 19.5 months in 100% American oak, 41% new. Dark fruit and attractive oak spice on the nose. Full bodied with bright acidity and really grippy tannins. A bit awkward.
4. Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard 2011 – Napa Valley
87% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc. Red and black fruit and a hint of spice on a generally shy nose. Rich but rather heavily extracted, drying on the finish.
5. Jordan 2011 – Stellenbosch
100% Merlot. Included as something of a foil for the Shannon. Red fruit and a tea leaf top note on the palate. Medium bodied with well-judged oak – appealing but straightforward.
6. Duckhorn 2011
83% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2.5% Petit Verdot, 2.5% Malbec and 2% Cabernet Franc. Provides an overwhelming impression of raisined/dead fruit. Soft tannins with an unpleasant warmth on the finish.
Some general observations: The Shannon Mount Bullet prevailed because of its restraint whereas the US wines were made to impress. Question for Shannon Vineyards management? Do you change your style in order to have more traction in the US or do you stick to your guns and concentrate on other markets (a third of production currently gets sold in Japan)?
Other wines of note during the evening:
Petrolo Galatrona Merlot 2007 – Tuscany
Red and black fruit, dried herbs and cigar box. Medium bodied with lovely fine tannins – admirably understated but difficult to understand the huge international acclaim it attracts (regularly scored 95+). Score: 90/100.
Shannon Mount Bullet 2007
Red and black fruit, attractive oak aromas and an entirely pleasant herbal whiff. Good fruit concentration, fresh acidity and fine tannins – well balanced and long. In remarkably good nick for its age and wine of the night.
Mayacas Merlot 2008 – Napa Valley
100% Merlot. Red currant and some forest floor. Medium bodied with fresh acidity and lovely ripe tannins. Plenty of interest here and nowhere near as overbearing as the other Napa wines.
Leonetti Merlot 2012 – Walla Walla Valley, Washington
85% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5.5% Cabernet Franc, 1.5% Petit Verdot. Red and black fruit. Rich and broad with soft acidity. Clarity and detail lacking – hugely disappointing for a wine approaching $100 a bottle retail.