Cellar Stories: Geoff Merrill’s Pursuit of Authenticity in Australian Winemaking

Cellar Stories: Geoff Merrill’s Pursuit of Authenticity in Australian Winemaking

In a modern winemaking world of endless shows, medals and trophies, there probably isn’t an award more coveted by Australian winemakers than the Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy . First awarded in 1962, the award is made at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show each year and honours the memory of the late Jimmy Watson – the owner and founder of the iconic wine bar on Carlton’s famous Lygon Street. It’s a trophy that has been won by some of the biggest names of the domestic industry including the larger than life, Geoff Merrill. And like his peers, it’s an award he’d love nothing more than to win again. But that seems unlikely, he laments, as the rules for the award almost preclude his style of wine from being eligible in the first place.

You see, the Jimmy Watson, or “the Jimmy”, as it’s often called, is awarded to the best young red wine of the show – a wine that must be no more than two years old and which, the rules decree, 250 dozen finished bottles must be held at the time of delivery. But for a winemaker who believes in the importance of maturing red wines both in the barrel and the bottle, it’s almost impossible to produce wines that would fit the eligibility criteria. But when I caught up with Geoff recently in Adelaide to share a glass (or three) of red with him, he seemed content to rack the proverbial cue with his 2005 win and focus on making balanced and age-worthy wines that offer something for every palate.

Ask Geoff about his Geoff Merrill Wines 2004 Reserve Shiraz that took out the top gong in 2005 and he quips that it was really one of three. Tongue-in-cheek, Merrill says that he can “kind of” claim another two Jimmies, as he made a Coonawarra Show Series Cabernet that scored 56.5 points and was awarded the “top” red wine in show, only for the Jimmy to be awarded to another wine that scored 56 points. He muses that the second fish that got away was in 1988, when he made the Jimmy winning wine for Hardys where he had been a consultant red wine adviser, and previously the chief red winemaker, only to have left by the time of the show and he missed out on the kudos!  But at least he’s able to joke about it now.

The Geoff Merrill story starts back in 1980 when Merrill and business partner, Trevor Stratton, started their first wine venture. There were a few partnerships over the years, but since 2007, Merrill has been the sole owner of his eponymous winery and he’s focused on producing wines made from fruit sourced from his vineyards across the Coonawarra and McLaren Vale regions. Unsurprisingly, it’s the reds that were the star of the side when I recently worked through samples of ten of his wines from different vintages. The 2019 Reserve Chardonnay ($45) is pretty special, and the Henley Shiraz ($170) a superb example of aged shiraz, but it was the cabernet that really stood out as offering exceptional quality at every price point.

The entry level cabernet in the Geoff Merrill Wines range is the 2015 G&W Cabernet at $30.  It offers enormous value for money as waves of cassis and dark plums hit the front palate, before cedar and mocha coffee characters are wrapped in a herbaceous swaddle through the long and tannin laced conclusion.

But if you can part with a few more shekels, the 2015 Reserve Cabernet is exceptionally good value at $50 a bottle. To be honest, it’s at least as good as other cabernet that sell at well over $100 a bottle. The Reserve Cabernet is made after winemaker, Scott Heidrich, and Geoff undertake blind sampling of the Coonawarra and McLaren Vale barrels to select only the best of the best to use in the premium cabernet blend. Once blended, the wine spends more time resting in new and seasoned American and French oak hogsheads before finally being bottled. Given the cost of holding wines for such a long period of time, there aren’t many wineries that are as patient as Merrill, but, as he says, “ releasing aged wines is our point of difference as it means that they’re ready to drink when we release them. It’s obviously much better for the consumer”.

The pinnacle cabernet for Merrill’s range is the Parham Cabernet Sauvignon – a wine named after Geoff’s grandfather who lived to the ripe old age of 102. Dark and brooding in the glass, the quality of the 2016 vintage of the premium drop is evident from the first sniff as the ripe red and blue fruits make their powerful presence known. Once on the palate, blueberries, ripe cherries and blackcurrants invite olives and mint to the dance just moments before the sweetness of American oak reveals itself on the conclusion, where tannoids battle ripe fruit for supremacy. Presence, persistence and power. Wow!

In a consumer-focused world, it’s refreshing to see some of the true characters of the Australian wine industry make wines that are true to their vision and passion rather than chase the trophies and accolades that make their stocks sell out. Geoff Merrill might have collected his last Jimmy, but he sure is winning plenty of admiration for the admirable way he pursues his craft.


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