Merlot, one of the world’s most difficult cultivars to grow has a home among nine other cultivars at Creation on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge.

When it comes to growing good grapes, location is everything – ‘wine is grown not made’ the saying goes! Our farm is blessed with a stable, cool climate due to the proximity to the sea; it furthermore has clay-rich soils while a variety of undulating hills provide different aspects for planting. In harnessing these ideal conditions cellarmaster Jean-Claude Martin, an accomplished viticulturist in his own right, obtained valuable local advice from viticultural consultant Johan Pienaar. Also on hand was his father-in-law, Walter Finlayson, who had established many a vineyard in his time. This resulted in establishing one of the first virus-free mother blocks used for sourcing material to improve the quality of vineyards throughout South Africa.

JC Martin and his daughter Emma inspecting the Merlot vineyards.

The unique attributes of the site collectively work together to influence the growth of the vine and development of the fruit – this is known as terroir and it is one of the most important variables determining quality in wine growing. The 40 hectares of virgin land on the Hemel en Aarde Ridge in Walker Bay are ideal for cultivating a variety of wine grapes, including the fickle Merlot. Let’s take a look at some of the most important influences when growing Merlot:

Firstly there’s the macro-climate which has a great influence on the suitability of this cultivar to our terroir. Our Merlot is planted at an altitude of around 292 m above sea level on the rolling foothills of Babylon Toren Mountain, some 8 km from the Atlantic Ocean. The soil type is clay-loam derived from Bokkeveld shale as the parent material. The farm has a night index of 12 degrees less than the day-time temperature and thus enjoys a unique diurnal variation between warm days at around 23° C and cool nights.

Cooling Atlantic breezes blowing in over the Cape Fold Mountains contribute to ideal slow ripening.

Of equal importance is the meso-climate. Our Merlot is planted on south-eastern slopes in soils such as Pinedene, Tukulu and Oakleaf which are of a medium to high potential. The top soil with a depth of 40 to 60 cm has a good organic content with a sub-soil rich in clay to provide adequate water retention and a stress-free environment. Merlot does not like water stress and this means good tannin structure.

The mature, healthy vines yield grapes of superior quality.

Last but not least is the micro-climate, i.e. the influence of climatic conditions within the vine. The row direction of our Merlot vines is north-east, south-west, which is appropriate for our cool climate area since it allows in morning and afternoon sun. To further enhance sunlight penetration and at the same time allow ventilation, side shoots and leaves are cut away. We have two Merlot clones planted: 348 and 346. The yields are relatively low at around 5 tons per hectare.

The Merlot vineyard producing new shoots in spring.

All these influences combine with Jean-Claude’s intimate knowledge of each vineyard row’s specific requirements. Add to this his ability to judge phenolic ripeness through organoleptic tasting plus his expertise in the cellar and you have a great recipe for success!  

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