Fascinating Merlots from Bluebridge, Bulgaria

When I visited the Port house of Cálem in autumn 2000 I attended a fascinating tasting of numerous barrel-samples of Cálem’s red table wine, each of which was being aged in different types of barrel: new and old American oak, high and medium-toast French oak, Portuguese oak, etc. It was a great opportunity to be part of this experimental programme, and a remarkable experience to taste the differences in the same wine having been treated in what seemed to be subtly different ways, yet to such profound effect. The different woods and toast levels dramatically changed the character of the wine, and whilst some where definite successes, others were really quite repulsive: the new American barrels in particular totally overpowering the fruit and adding a sickly sweet overlay that was not at all harmonious.

And now you have a chance to try a similar mini-experiment of your very own. For a moderate £11.97 you can assemble three prime Bulgarian Merlots, aged in steel tanks, American oak barrels and French barriques respectively – and not any old barriques; these have come from no less a supplier than Château Lafite. Made by the enterprising Domaine Boyar, Blueridge is the most ambitious wine project ever undertaken in Bulgaria; a brand new $15million dollar state of the art winery with the capacity to produce a staggering 14 million litres of wine per year. These new Merlots are all crafted by an Australian winemaker from premium fruit. The Bin 167 has half a percent more alcohol than the others at 13.5%, and was made in stainless steel vats at cool temperature. The ‘American barrel’ spends six months in new oak, and the ‘Barrique’ spends six months in ex-Lafite barrels.

The only problem at the moment is that each wine is being stocked by a different retailer which makes getting hold of them all more difficult, though I’d expect the excellent everywine.co.uk to carry them all quite soon (it doesn’t list them at time of writing).

Blueridge Bin 617 Merlot – Sainsbury £3.99
Big, plummy, black fruited nose. Deep and chocolaty, this has a little cedary quality and a great weight of bittersweet black fruit. On the palate it is concentrated and savoury, with plenty more black plum and plum skin firmness, full-body and quite fierce tannins at present. This is a big, powerful and resonant wine with lots of serious, dusty, blue/black fruit and good structure. A slight tannic astringency lessened overnight, so I’d decant before serving. Very good.

Blueridge American Barrel Merlot – Waitrose £3.99
Extremely aromatic vanilla-essence and coconut nose; thick, sweet aromas punctuated by a little fruit, but this is all about velvety, creamy, custardy oak. On the palate There’s a real split personality in this wine: the creamy sweetness of the oak is layered on top of big, tannic, dusty black fruit, but I feel something is missing that would bind them together. The overall impression is of a wine that some will love, though for me it is the least successful of the three, lacking harmony and integration, and with a sickly sweetness that doesn’t sit well with fairly astringent elements that poke through in the finish.

Blueridge Merlot Barrique – Budgens £3.99
Nicely fragrant, plummy, blueberry and dark chocolate nose with subtle toastiness and pencil-shaving fragrance. Better after a couple of hours decanting when a really creamy density emerges. Good fruit, plenty of dense blue/black sweet richness, and the big tannins are tempered by the smoothing effect of the mellow French oak and the slightly savoury quality it imparts. Sweetness of oak in the finish, some spice, but stays balanced with a little acidic bite and firm tannins. Very good, and just beats the Bin 617 to be my favourite of the three.