The long-haired, flamboyant Australian winemaker, known to Adelaide taxi drivers for his resemblance to the cricketer Merv Hughes, was Sainsbury's inspired choice for the new wines it wanted to make in co-operation with Gruppo Italiano Vini, the Italian wine giant. Last week Mr Merrill took the wraps off his first Italian wines and presented them for tasting to the suits from Sainsbury's.
Sainsbury's was under no obligation to buy if the wines were not up to scratch - but there would be expensive egg on faces if it did not. For some time the firm had been looking for an Italian partner with which to make a series of value-for-money wines. Mark Kermode, its buyer of Italian wines, was brought up in Italy. 'Even after three years of visiting people, I still had the feeling they were paying lip-service and not really listening,' he said.
Last year he met Emilio Pedron, GIV's thoughtful managing director, who happened to have been looking for a suitable British partner. GIV is Italy's largest wine company. It makes 6 million cases of wine via a network of wineries stretching from Frascati near Rome to the Alps.
Mr Pedron says: 'There is a new argument raging in Italy. Do we stick to tradition or find a new way? I have been convinced for some while that the style of Italian wines needs to adapt to international tastes in order to sell. The international style requires more colour, body, fruit and flavour. As a big company, we can do both styles.'
When Angela Muir, a British Master of Wine, blended three 1992 whites for GIV last year, Sainsbury's was 'knocked out'.
'We saw the potential for something much bigger, but we wanted to get closer to the source,' says Simon Blower of Sainsbury's. 'We didn't want just chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc from Italy made by an Australian winemaker. We wanted the best of local styles, too.'
Impressed by Mr Merrill's independent approach and his grasp of both red and white wines, the firm also felt he looked sufficiently terrifying to put the fear of God into any recalcitrant Italian winemaker.
Mr Merrill's experience of Italian wines was limited. In July, he arrived in Italy on a fact-finding tour and was staggered by the sameness of the whites. 'I couldn't find a single differentiating factor - the common denominator is the excessive use of the trebbiano grape.' It was only when he flew north and tasted chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, grapes he was familiar with, that he began to feel enthusiastic. He drew the line at soave and valpolicella, but accepted that he would have to make some bigger-volume items - frascati, orvieto and bianco di custoza - for the 100,000-case project to pay its way.
Before returning from Australia to do the harvest in September, he specified the styles he wanted to make and ordered the oak barrels, yeasts and enzymes he would need for his winemaking recipes. GIV arranged for a young agronomist from Milan University, Paola Cavagnari, to act as interpreter. Soon it became clear that Mr Merrill had to spell out every step, right through to the finished product.
'When you're working in someone else's kitchen, you have to have a certain amount of respect for their methods. With some of the winemakers, the co-operation was terrific. With others, there were people who would say 'it's too hard' or 'we've never done it this way, it won't work'. You had to cajole, hold their hand, kiss their arse, and, as a last resort, get out the big guns and threaten them with the boss.
'What I was trying to do was be completely free of oxygen in all my procedures. We also de-stemmed everything, which they don't necessarily do in Italy, because I didn't want those coarse, stalky tannins. Straight from the press we did a gentle pressing, and the juices were cooled down, then allowed to warm up naturally.
'Concentrate (illegal in Australia) was added where necessary, and we used yeasts which I use all the time in Australia. At between 12 and 18 Celsius, to retain the natural aromas of the wine, the fermentation temperature was lower than they are used to in Italy.'
By the third week of September, the harvests were starting in Frascati, then in Orvieto. 'Buffalo Bill', as the Italians began to call him, became a blur on the Italian landscape: 'In one 24-hour period I drove 1,600 kilometres.' In the last week of September, it began to pour with rain, dashing hopes for a spectacular harvest, especially with the later-ripening cabernet sauvignon and high-altitude chardonnay.
Rain or no, a big problem was lack of say over the raw materials: 'There's no such thing as 'let's go and test the vineyard' like I do at home, and pick the riper stuff first. It just comes in. There's no proper selection process in the vineyard or control over the grape grower.'
Mr Merrill became convinced he could produce distinctive wines from native varieties. 'I think we've done it with teroldego, grechetto, fernanda and trebbiano. But in future I'd like to be able to isolate vineyards to do the job better. I want to get the co-operation of a few grape growers like we did with the sauvignon blanc - which came from GIV's vineyards - and say, 'This is not ripe, let's keep it going'.'
For Mr Merrill, satisfaction came on seeing Emilio Pedron's face when he tasted the wines before the Sainsbury's visit. Mr Pedron liked the sauvignon blanc so much he was secretly hoping Sainsbury's would reject it. Said Mr Merrill: 'I think he realised that it had not all been a waste of time or money on GIV's part, and that, despite the weather conditions, I had made wines that were different.'
Mr Pedron's satisfaction with the results was confirmed when Simon Blower announced, immediately after the tasting, that he, too, was delighted and would buy all the wine that Mr Merrill had made. Even at this unfinished stage, the wines seemed good. With some of the native varieties, especially the teroldego, the grechetto, and even one tank of trebbiano, the Merrill hallmark - a combination of delicacy with body and fruit flavour - was there.
Despite the rain, the cabernet and chardonnay, too, showed immediate character and polish, and look set for success when they hit Sainsbury's shelves next year.
Of the three GIV whites at Sainsbury's, the lively, fruity Bianco di Custoza GIV, pounds 3.49, and the subtly oaked Chardonnay delle Tre Venezie, pounds 3.59, are remarkably good value.
New arrivals from Geoff Merrill's Australian winery in McLaren Vale: 1992 Mount Hurtle Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 4.95, Sainsbury's; and a full-bodied, fruity rose in Mount Hurtle 1993 Grenache Rose, pounds 4.95, Sainsbury's, pounds 4.99, Oddbins; and the succulent, spicy 1992 Mount Hurtle Grenache Shiraz, pounds 3.99 Oddbins, pounds 3.95 Sainsbury's. His deftly oaked 1992 Mount Hurtle Chardonnay, pounds 4.99, is available at Oddbins.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content