Yesterday a visit to Shannon Vineyards in Elgin for a better understanding of why this operation produces one of the better Merlots around. First a really insightful tour of the vineyards with co-owner and viticulturist James Downes.
Merlot makes up 3ha of the 15.5ha under vine on the property (Downes also farms apples and pears) and five different clones feature, half being French (343, 348) and half Italian (3, 12 and 192). Downes relates that 192 is infamous for producing a “green” character in the end wine but reckons many producers pick it too early – he typically harvest his French clone vineyards 10 days to two weeks before the Italian clone counterparts.
The Merlot is planted on low-vigour soil – sandstone on a clay substructure. This means the canopy doesn’t get too big and the lack of excessive vegetative growth again contributes to less green notes in the end wine. The conventional wisdom is that Merlot is prone to water-stress and hence should be planted on soils with very high clay content which retain water but also cause more pronounced vegetative growth – Elgin’s generally cool climate means less pressure on the vineyard to start and hence a less clay-rich soil suffices.
Downes says in the last 10 days before harvest, he opens up the canopy “little by little” which means the bunches are exposed to “soft heat” rather than getting sun burnt, this again causing any minty character to drop out. “We tend to get really good flavour development rather than any radical changes in the chemical composition of the grape.”
Lastly, Downes believes trellising poles in South Africa tend to be too wide in diameter, making for wires supporting the canopy being too far apart and again the canopy being too big and bushy – bunches on the outside will tend to ripen better than bunches on the inside of the vine causing uneven ripeness. By clipping the trellising wires closer together, a narrower canopy and more even ripeness.
A vertical of the four vintages of Merlot (called Mount Bullet) to date:
Mount Bullet 2007: 17.5/20
Red and black berries plus a dried herb note (so “green” but not as crass as overt mint). Weightless intensity plus lovely freshness. Medium bodied but not at all lean. Wonderfully subtle.
Mount Bullet 2008: 17/20
Slight chocolate note on otherwise shy nose. More full-bodied, more sweet-fruited with soft acidity and smooth tannins. Rated 5 Stars in Platter’s 2011 – a safer, less exciting wine than 2007 for me.
Mount Bullet 2009: 16.5/20
Ripe dark fruit on the nose and palate. Rich and full, quite heavily extracted. Impressive but lacking lightness of touch.
Mount Bullet 2010: 18/20
Very primary. Clean and pure with red and black fruit plus a slight olivaceous quality. Medium bodied with great freshness. Very carefully thought out. Although not nominated for 5 Stars in Platter’s 2013, I’m convinced this is the best vintage to date.