Mike Kloak and Colleen Miller’s Mérite label was founded after the considerable success they had growing contract fruit on their vineyard in Wrattonbully. In particular, it was their achievements with merlot that inspired them to make their own wine. That grape has had a chequered history in this country, but the wines under their label are shifting the conversation, with a quartet of new clones producing complex, flavourful wines at relatively low alcohol levels, rather than the bruising wines that we have become used to. Kloak runs his vineyard with respect to the natural environment, planting vines around trees rather than removing them and encouraging biodiversity of flora, fauna and beneficial insects.
“Our vineyard, in the Wrattonbully wine region, with its terra rossa soils over limestone and with a maritime climate, is perfectly suited to the classic red varieties originating from Bordeaux, like cabernet sauvignon and merlot,” says owner and viticulturist Mike Kloak. “We stick to what are proven performers for our soils and climate and that grape buyers come looking for, but we innovated by planting newer clones of some of those classic red varieties because we thought that if the newer clones grew better, then we could create some of the best grapes in the country.”
The first vines were planted in 2000, with cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, malbec and merlot now occupying 45 hectares of the site. That planting had grown by 18 hectares in 2006 with the support of a long-term grape contract. It was an unusual proposition to contract with the vines not yet planted, and even more so for the grape required: merlot. Somewhat unfashionable and hardly in great demand, merlot was also hamstrung by the nature of the vine material.
“Our vineyard, in the Wrattonbully wine region, with its terra rossa soils over limestone and with a maritime climate, is perfectly suited to the classic red varieties originating from Bordeaux, like cabernet sauvignon and merlot.”
“We decided we didn’t want to upset the food supply of the bats, or the balance of the food chain for other existing animals on the site who were there before us. So, we committed to viticultural practices to support that, like reducing sprays to promote beneficial insects like the three native beehives in our redgum trees and providing shelter for insects, birds and animals by not cutting down trees, instead planting the vines around them. Our new clone merlot parcel has 15 trees in it.”
The available merlot clone for a long time, and the one responsible for virtually all the Australian plantings is one that is suited to producing a lot of fruit, rather than quality and characterful fruit. “We had already been growing the same D clone merlot to a high enough standard for a wine company to offer us this contract,” says Kloak. “But we’d been frustrated with the clone’s limitations. We thought that if we’re going to plant 18 more hectares of merlot on some of our best soils, then we felt a responsibility to do it right or not do it at all.”
Indeed, the attitude of local growers to planting merlot on terra rossa soil was one of incredulity. “That we put them on beautiful terra rossa over limestone soils, which were being reserved for cabernet sauvignon plantings in that era, while merlot plantings were being ripped out, was even wilder for our peers to comprehend,” says Kloak. “But we had our reasons to believe we would be able to create something nobody else could.”
Kloak sourced a new set of clones, working with revered viticulturist Nigel Blieschke to ensure they were established properly. Those clones all have French origins, but one was sourced from Italy and one from Argentina, with the other two directly from France. Importantly, they were planted onto a mix of own roots and low-vigour rootstocks. They could have grafted onto existing vines that were not performing as well, but Kloak was intent on the best possible result. “Grafting onto D clone Merlot is a quicker and cheaper path, which is great for accountants and marketing departments, but we were driven to produce the best possible result in the glass, so we did it from scratch,” he says.
“After several years, the vines matured and winemakers who buy our fruit would comment on the quality and how different our merlot was.”
The clones were also separated, with their own irrigation control, as it was thought they would respond differently given that they had adapted to conditions in France, Italy and Argentina. Experiments were also conducted in two-row sections, with different pruning, canopy nutrition, irrigation and crop load management being trialled to find the ideal balance for each clone.
“After several years, the vines matured and winemakers who buy our fruit would comment on the quality and how different our merlot was,” says Kloak. “Notably, the flowering and set were more even, and the vigour was reduced. With the D clone, the flowering at one end of the row could be up to a week later that flowering at the other end, or flowering within one vine could be several days apart from the bunches at the crown to bunches at the ends. It is also more vulnerable to shatter [berries not developing due to flower loss or lack of pollination] and millerandage [small and large berries in the same bunch] more often.”
There was a significant improvement in physiological (the grape tannin in skins and seeds) ripeness, too. The berries were smaller, with a better skin to juice ratio and the seeds were brown and crunchy at lower ripeness, in the low 13s, which was where the best flavours were produced. Eliminating this greenness while retaining fresh flavours and improving the tannin profile while retaining natural acidity was an ideal result. Unsurprisingly, the contract for those grapes became a sought after one when it expired, but Kloak had other plans, with the Mérite label launched.
“We heard the words ‘finally’ and ‘crazy’ a lot the first few years,” says Kloak. “’Crazy’ from people on the wine production side, like winemakers, other winery owners and grape buyers, for starting a wine label with a merlot, and ‘finally’ when we poured our merlot from people like sommeliers, wine buyers and the general public who had been waiting for it.”
Kloak sums up his vineyard philosophy as: “Play to its strengths but with a contrarian streak and experiment, experiment, experiment.” This approach also led him to plant new clones of malbec, direct from Argentina, with the same process of experimentation employed on the merlot. He has also adopted an intuitive approach to farming.
“At dusk what we thought were giant moths flapped and feasted over our heads, but one day, one landed on me, and we were shocked to realise they were actually miniature insect-eating bats with a torso the size of a thumb,” says Kloak. “Later, we learned they were a critically endangered species of microbats, called South Bent-wing bats, that emerged each night from the World Heritage listed Naracoorte Caves a few kilometres away.”
Kloak says that discovery, along with identifying a large Wedge-tailed Eagle’s nest in a tree amongst the merlot vines, was a lightbulb moment for how he wanted to tend the land. “We decided we didn’t want to upset the food supply of the bats, or the balance of the food chain for other existing animals on the site who were there before us,” he says. “So, we committed to viticultural practices to support that, like reducing sprays to promote beneficial insects like the three native beehives in our redgum trees and providing shelter for insects, birds and animals by not cutting down trees, instead planting the vines around them. Our new clone merlot parcel has 15 trees in it.”
Insectary flora has been planted and ‘hotels’ established beside the vines to attract beneficial insects like ladybirds, lacewings, dragonflies and predatory wasps. Bat boxes were also placed around the vineyard as shelter for wayward bats. “Our son decorated them with Batman logos,” says Kloak. “We also protect the habitat of other animals that live or seasonally visit to maintain the existing food chain, like ant-eating echidna, snail-eating lizards, ibis, and predators like magpies and kookaburras, as well as birds of prey that hunt larger meat like brown snakes.”
The approach has seen midrow swards established to increase biodiversity and microbial activity in the soil, as well as improve soil structure. Mulch is sustainably produced onsite from surrounding paddocks and spread under vine in rows with shallower soils for moisture retention and to increase organic matter, which improves water retention, which is especially important in drought years.
“We feel we are just getting started,” says Kloak. “We are only a handful of vintages in, and we have a few new wines in the pipeline to surprise people with what else these clones can do. By making wine in separate clonal batches, we can identify different attributes in the wine. One clone creates a deep ruby red coloured wine, another a darker aubergine-skin colour, one is full of red and blue fruits, another black fruits and dried herbs, another produces exceptionally high-quality tannins.”
Kloak says that their favourite quote was from a French-trained Melbourne sommelier who tasted the flagship merlot and asked: “Tell me, why do Australians make merlot Barossa style? This is the way it’s supposed to be.” The answer, Kloak says is due to the limitations of the Californian clone, but it is not doubt also linked to his hard work and bent for experimentation. “The exciting part is that Australian Merlot doesn’t need to only be that way anymore. It doesn’t need to be monochromatic. There can now be variety in flavours and style to explore with these newer clones.”