No green stick fracture

The star of the show: Thys Smit's exquisite Grande Provence Merlot 2018.

Merlot is a devilishly difficult grape from which to make a single varietal wine in South Africa, but winemaker Thys Smit at Grande Provence in Franschhoek has produced an outstanding example.

Thys unveiled his masterpiece at a beguiling lunch and tasting last Wednesday, at which we got to taste a number of his other wines in the lead-up to the piece de resistance, the Grande Provence Merlot 2018.

We were also fortunate enough to have an exquisite lunch prepared by the ever-humble, but remarkably skilled exec chef, Marvin Robyn, each dish meticulously crafted, and magnificently paired with a Grande Provence wine. Wine and food pairing is deceptively difficult, and the extent of co-operation between winemaker and chef in such circumstances, is usually manifested in the seamlessness of the pairings. What we experienced on Wednesday suggests that Thys and Marvin put in the hard yards in preparation for the event.

But, getting back to the merlot, which, although it is much-loved by South African wine consumers, it is prone to a sometimes stalky greenness on the nose, because of the prevalence of green aroma descriptors called methoxypyrazines (MPs), particularly in cool climate vineyards.

MPs occur in sauvignon blanc as well, arguably the most popular white wine in South Africa, but unless the MPs dominate to the point where the wine is one-dimensional, greenness can be considered a style. In reds, however, a MP-induced green character is considered undesirable.

There is, however, a caveat to the undesirability of greenness in red wine. Whereas stalky is bad, a delicate minty note is just fine.

The most important MP found in grapes and wines is 3-isobutyl- 2-methoxypyrazine (IBMP), of which 95% is located in the grape skins.

A good deal of merlot – along with other Bordeaux red varietals like cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and carmé* ère – tends to find its way into a blend, where the green character is less noticeable.

IBMP is controllable up to a point, but it requires focused canopy management prior to véraison, the onset of ripening. Such intervention entails judicious leaf and lateral shoot removal, thus exposing the bunches to sunlight, which is effectively an IBMP killer.

I first tasted Thys’ merlot last year in October at a lunch at Grande Provence. It wasn’t the star of the show at the time – the focus of the day was Marvin’s summer heritage menu – and Thys apologised for how the merlot presented, since it had only just been bottled, but the notion of bottle-shock aside, it struck a chord with me. The tannins were a trifle tight, and the oak had yet to settle down, but the absence of any stalky greenness said it was a wine to watch.

Fast forward three months, and the wine has settled down beautifully, manifesting the promise it alluded to in October.

Chatting to Thys about the wine after lunch, it unfolds that the grapes are not off the farm. Rather, they are from a high-lying vineyard in the fabled Golden Triangle, an area encompassed by the three points, the first just south west of Die Boord in Stellenbosch, the second on winery Road just south of Raithby, and the third point on the saddle at the southern head of the Blaauwklippen Valley, overlooking Somerset West. Some of the finest Bordeaux style wines – single varietals and blends – come from this terroir. Asked from which farm, Thys gently demurred, but assured me he had secured access to the fruit for a good number of years into the future.

Which is a good thing, because at R170 a bottle, it is a steal, and will no doubt become a firm favourite with merlot-philes.

My sensitivity to pyrazines meant that the elegant minty note on the nose impressed me at the outset, followed by elegant black fruit notes – black cherries chiefly, supported by raspberry whiffs. Subtle tomato leaf, coupled with a hint of cinnamon and chocolate, underpinned by dried citrus peel, rounds out the package.

The acidity is gentle yet mouth-filling with no hint of spikiness, and a question to Thys elicits the intel that no acid was added during vinification, testament to the slower, and therefore, longer ripening time of the fruit, a feature of vineyards at higher and cooler altitudes. The shift in temperature as altitude changes, is about 1ºC for each 100m of altitude gain or loss. Anybody who has hiked to the top of the Helderberg, which is 900m above the main lawn in the Helderberg Nature Reserve, will be well aware of the temperature differential.

The tannins have softened somewhat, now more svelte and finely structured than at first tasting, and finishing with a pleasing dryness. They’ll soften further with time, without, I suspect, becoming slippery.

Thys tells me that he has about 5 000 bottles of the Grande Provence Merlot 2018, so now would be a good time to beat a path to the cellar door, and lay in a stock.