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Coldstream Hills Merlot 1997
Situated in the cool and beautiful Yarra Valley, about one hour's drive east of Melbourne, its steep, close-planted vineyards have become a signature of the region. So too have its wines (most notably Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs) which reflect a climate cooler than Bordeaux and a little warmer than Burgundy.
France too provides all the oak barriques (1500, but increasing year by year) and no small amount of inspiration for the winemaking team of James Halliday and, Paul Lapsley.
The wines are quite literally, hand made, mainly using small open fermenters (of three to four tonnes capacity) for the red wines, while the white wines are barrel fermented. Notwithstanding the increasing production, there has been and will be no significant change in the winemaking techniques or philosophies inherent to Coldstream Hills.
These techniques are directed to making wines, which are characterised by elegance and finesse, by silky supple texture, length of flavour, subtle oak and the ability to develop extra dimensions of complexity with bottle age. These are not weighty, extractive, tannic or alchoholic styles, however impressive well made examples of these may be.
As the most important area of wine production in Victoria today, the Yarra Valley is most popular for its Pinot noir and Chardonnay, which account for over half of vineyard acreage. A gentle, rolling and rural region alongside the Margaret River, the Yarra Valley has a cool maritime with a lengthy growing season, perfect for these cool-climate varieties.
The warmer, Lower Yarra Valley in the north has sandy loam soils and produces a plush and fruity Pinot noir. The cooler, higher-elevation Upper Yarra Valley in the south has the soils composed of younger, red basalt and produces more angular and mineral-driven Pinot noir.
Yarra Valley Chardonnay is among the best in Australia. The modern style is stony and flinty rather than fat and tropical. Malolactic fermentation is rare, but while barrel fermentation is common, barrel maturation is restrained to preserve the floral aromatics and fresh citrus flavors for which this area’s Chardonnay is so appreciated. The best Yarra Valley Chardonnays display brilliant acidity, leesy characteristics, sweet citrus, stone fruit and flavors of ginger and spice.
An easy-going red variety with generous fruit and a supple texture, Merlot’s subtle tannins make it perfect for early drinking and allow it to pair with a wide range of foods. One simply needs to look to Bordeaux to understand Merlot's status as a noble variety. On the region’s Right Bank, it dominates in blends with Cabernet Franc, and on the Left Bank, it plays a supporting role to (and helps soften) Cabernet Sauvignon—in both cases resulting in some of the longest-lived and highest-quality wines in the world. They are often emulated elsewhere in Bordeaux-style blends, particularly in California’s Napa Valley, where Merlot also frequently shines on its own.
In the Glass
Merlot is known for its soft, silky texture and approachable flavors of ripe plum, red and black cherry, and raspberry. In a cool climate, you may find earthier notes alongside dried herbs, tobacco, and tar, while Merlot from warmer regions is generally more straightforward and fruit-focused.
Lamb with Merlot is an ideal match—the sweetness of the meat picks up on the sweet fruit flavors of the wine to create a harmonious balance. Merlot’s gentle tannins allow for a hint of spice and its medium weight and bright acidity permit the possibilities of simple pizza or pasta with red sauce—overall, an extremely versatile food wine.
Since the release of the 2004 film Sideways, Merlot's repuation has taken a big hit, and more than a decade later has yet to fully recover, though it is on its way. What many viewers didn't realize was that as much as Miles derided the variety, the prized wine of his collection—a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc—is made from a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.