Just the other day, an acquaintance was reminiscing about the Rubicon and the good old days, and in 1992 explained how this wine and a lodge in Mpumalanga had ticked all the right boxes and his son was conceived!
A special afternoon
The anticipation and excitement of our wine club on that weekend afternoon was infectious: we had all gathered to listen to Chris Williams, the winemaker at Meerlust since 2004, who had come up to Johannesburg to talk us through 20 vintages of this icon Bordeaux blend in South Africa.
Chris left Meerlust some three months later, after 16 years, to continue with his own endeavours, and Wim Truter will be the new, from 1 May 2020, and third winemaker since the first release of its wines. The 2020 vintage will be managed by Altus Treunicht, Williams and Truter available to assist (see Meerlust website).
The planning of this event had started a year earlier, at a fundraiser, where a close friend had to auction off these bottles and Mary-Lyn and I had decided that this would be a worthy once-in-a-lifetime treat for all wine club members. Our close friend sat enjoying these wines, with us…. And explained how the 1987 Rubicon was connected to bitter-sweet occasions in his life.
What I learnt that afternoon, is that a vertical is without a doubt a storyteller of the farm, the wine, the family behind the brand, the winemaker and the future.
In the beginning…
The Myburgh family have owned Meerlust since 1757, the farm was established in the late 1600s. The family Coat of Arms on the bottle has the words “God is my strong tower”, words of strength echoing with Hannes Myburgh in the 8th generation. It was Nico, his father, who thought outside the box, was well-travelled, a maverick, who knew his wines, and had seen the similarities of Bordeaux and Meerlust. Family disagreements took Nico to Rhodesia, and finally on his return he bought the farm from his father and started replanting Bordeaux varieties ie. Cabernet Sauvignon, later also Merlot and Cabernet Franc, followed by Pinot Noir. The cellar and manor house were renovated. In 1975 the first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon came onto the market, and Chris explained that the quality was great. 1975 to 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon was made. Giorgio dalla Cia joined Meerlust in 1978, and the two started working on a “proto-Rubicon”, a wine that was just called “the blend” in those days. Experience has shown that Cabernet Sauvignon from those years and the blend still seem “very much alive”.
A “Q&A with Hannes Myburgh” can be found on wine.co.za, from 2018, with more details about the name and his vision.
Chris made it clear, that for him it was always about “Sustain, maintain and build the brand Meerlust every day”!
Why a Bordeaux blend?
The site of the Meerlust winery has similarities to Bordeaux. It is some 5-6 km from the sea, although the Atlantic in Bordeaux is clearly a different factor to the more Mediterranean temperatures of Stellenbosch. Bordeaux lies within the French region Aquitaine, a word with Latin roots meaning “well-watered place”, referring to the sedimentary nature, gravel terraces, interspersed with sand, silt, clay, and some limestone. Meerlust soils are decomposed granite, some clay subsoils. Temperature variations are not so extreme in SA. Most important is the drainage, which is excellent, and in hotter periods, the vine roots still have access to moisture.
The main objective was to create a blend: in 1980 the first Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc blend, Rubicon, was commercialised. Giorgio liked the classical composition of 70% Cab S, 20% Merlot and 10% Cab F and this was continued over many years.
Today Rubicon is still mostly Cab S based (up to 72% in some vintages, but in 2016 it was the lowest at 49%!). Platter’s 2020 gives the now selling Rubicon 2016 a 4.5/5 stars.
Chris explained, referring to the vintages we tasted: In the 80s the vineyards were still relatively young, and “quite healthy”. In the 90s there were cooler years and some of the vintages did not produce the fine notes/ the concentration the team was looking for, due also to the leafroll virus. 91, 95, 98 were warmer good vintages.
Finally, Nico’s vision was always ….that you could produce the best blend every year, as you can adjust all 3 varieties, which come from more than 20 different vineyard lots.
The vision of the “Bordeaux blend” is still very important, although Chris said that in the past 15 years the work went into creating a “South African blend in its own right”, which just happens to be made of the Bordeaux varieties!
Other Bordeaux Blends
South Africa has many Bordeaux-style blends, some of the well-known ones being Kanonkop Paul Sauer, MR de Compostella, Rustenberg Peter Barlow, Tokara Director’s Reserve, Springfield Work of Time, Vilafonte Series C, Thelema Rabelais…..and …Yonder Hill Inanda and Nicola, Eikendal Classique, Cavalli Warlord, Dombeya Fenix, Overgaauw Tria Corda, Fleur du Cap Laszlo etc., just to mention a few. In the new Platter’s 2020 there are 23 Highly Recommended and 7 “Five Stars” Cape Bordeaux blends.
Rubicon, the Icon!
Maiden vintage: 1980, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon dominated, with Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Since 2008 Petit Verdot became part of this blend.
About 120000 bottles are produced per year (according to a Q&A with Hannes Myburgh in 2018)
Hannes Myburgh commented that the price of the first Rubicon, in 1980, was well below R10/per bottle. Today the wine costs: R379 in Tin, per bottle(@normangoodfellows); USD29.99 (for the 2015 in the USA); £25.92 (for the 2016 in the UK) and in other European countries between €32 and €38 per bottle.
The Rubicon has won many awards, some mentioned in the tasting below.
1985, 1990, 2002, 2011 no Rubicon was made, but a “Red”. This wine has a specific market overseas and is no longer sold here. At this tasting, we had one of those bottles: a 1985 labelled as Rubicon, (which was then taken off the market and released as a Red), which Hennie had taken from his private cellar.
The Rubicon in the tasting cellar at Meerlust is the 2016, right now. It is a lighter wine of smooth dark fruit, still needing time in the bottle. The 2017 vintage is “in the making and looks promising”!
THE Tasting of 20 vintages:
The first flight was 1981, 82, 82, 84, “85”, 86: All wines had 12-12.5% alc/vol.
We started with the 1981. What were you doing, and how old were you when this wine was bottled? Some of the younger members of our club were still too young to drink wine!
Tasting notes were vague for the first 2 vintages; 1983 the Platter’s says the wine was made without Cab F.; the 1984 was 70% Cab S, 20% Merlot, 10% Cab F; the 1986 tasting note reads “well matured ready to drink”.
Most of us liked the 1986, then 1984 and 1985 (85 did not show the “gravitas” of the other vintages). We did notice a change from the 1982 to 1983 (which Chris explained as a move from the large foudres to small French oak with some older foudres)
In the 80’s the Bergkelder was influential in making wines, filtering, and fining to improve the quality of SA wines, and many wineries, also Meerlust, brought its wines there.
The second flight was 1987, 88, 89, 91, 92, 93: All wines at 12.5% alc//vol
Brief notes: The 1987 was lean, concentrated; 1988 (a poor vintage) was lighter in colour and reductive, the 1989 was a great vintage and this bottle showed somewhat; no 1990 (as this was a RED), 1991 a very good year with lots of sediment, but good fruit.
The 1987 is difficult to find on the market, and Meerlust bought back some of these wines, 10 years ago, from a collector. This brought on the question, what these wines would cost today? The last auction through Strauss & Co., showed that Meerlust is once again, one of the best performers on the auction: wines went for the allocated price, or even higher. Chris explained: There is no formula to buy old wines…except the “work of time amortized backwards”- these wines could probably sell like the current top Bordeaux vintages.
The tasting notes
The 1988 has a detailed tasting note ending with “A classic claret, Meerlust Rubicon 1988 is a well-balanced wine, with smooth yet firm tannins which give structure and depth, a promise of longevity”, “Made on the wine estate, marketed countrywide and internationally by the Bergkelder”.
The 1989 and 1991 show that Cabernet Sauvignon went to 60%, 66% respectively, Merlot was between 25-22%, and Cabernet Franc increased to 15%, then 12%. The 1992 tasting note is general, 1993 shows the % are back to 70% Cab S, 20% Merlot, 10% Cab F.
The blending of the varieties is of importance, and all varieties are vinified separately, and kept 6-7 months, then blended, around September/October, and put into barrel.
The group liked 87, 91, 92. Until 1987, Nico’s name was on the bottle. After his death, Hannes, the 8th generation Myburgh, took over and his name was put on the bottle. The 1989 is a great vintage, but the bottle we had did not show as well as the others, and Chris reminded us, that there are never great wines, but there are “great bottles”!
The third flight: 1994, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99
A lot of the vineyards were replanted in the 90s. The wines of the 90s, esp. from 1994 onwards, tasted “young, fresher”. Since the early 90s acid was added to a lot of the vintages. The Total Acidity (TA) in the final wines were 6.0g/l and higher. Today TA is lower at approx. 5.5g/l. From 1995 the wines are over 12.5% alc/vol and from 1998 alc/vol goes up to 13%. The most surprising bottle, as of a “mediocre” vintage, but showing the best balance, and harmony, was the 1999.
The tasting notes vary greatly in the category describing “ageing potential”:
94 “drink within one year”; 95 “can still be kept until 2010” and was rated 90/100 points by Wine Spectator (refer to Platter’s 2001); 96 “up to 15 years provided the wine has been stored in ideal cellar conditions” and the comment in our group, is that this has been the “most drinkable wine over many years”; 97 “can drink now, but can keep till 2009”; 98 “can keep till 2015” and received 4 stars in Decanter in 2005; 99 “can be kept until 2014 in ideal cellar conditions”. The 99 and 98 vintages are mentioned continuously in the Platter’s 2003, 2004, 2005. The truth is that in a vertical tasting one can see the positive connections and negative traits, and still a lot of the wines offer pleasurable drinking! As Chris put it:
“Wine is a moving target, always evolving”.
The last flight: 2000, 2001, 2005: between 13-14% alc/vol
This flight showed young wines, with tannic structure, needing vigorous decanting. Wines all had sediment, and Chris explained that they were not filtering, but fining. 2000 showed massive sediment, 2001 was liked by our group and showed most NW-style-ripeness, many liked the 2005.
Since 2002 the wines are made and bottled exclusively on the estate, although 2002 was a RED vintage, so no Rubicon.
In the Platter’s 2004 reference is made that Giorgio (GDC) and Hannes are ‘currently enjoying the 82, and 84’.
Chris took over from Giorgio in Jan 2004. Wines mature up to 4 years in the Meerlust cellar before released. The big goal, as has been in the past, is to “concentrate that sense of place!”
The Platter’s 2007 reads that the 2001 received the Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Trophy for the Best International Red Blend at the IWSC 2006.
The blend 70/20/10 is not that specific anymore, in fact the 2016 only shows 49% Cab S.
Commenting on what vintages Chris enjoys: the 2009 and the 2015! He suggests that one should look at 2000 and 2001 now, for drinking. 2005 can still mature. He says, the 2016 is drinkable now, but will get better, and true enjoyment starts at 10 years from now, it can age at least 25 years.
Meerlust’s other wines (tasted in November 2019 in the winery’s tasting room)
Chardonnay 2018, only joined the commercial wine portfolio in 1995, and this wine has some rich lemony fruit, subtle oak (40% new Allier French oak); will age well, only 12.9% alc.
Merlot 2016, third most planted variety, after Cab S and Cab F; has 10% CabF and 5% Petit Verdot. Dark chocolate with cedar, showing lovely depth, and long ageing potential.
Pinot Noir 2017, lighter style, showing red cherry fruit, musk, mushrooms and a lasting finesse,
12.4% alc. Next vintages were going to be from the new clones. The Platter’s 2020 refers to the next vintage 2018.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, 14.3%, nose and palate shows rich plums, prunes, cedar, a full balanced wine, complex finish, needing time, yet already showing its beauty now. R345,- a bottle; Since 1975 the first Cabernet Sauvignon was bottled and commercialised.
Rubicon 2016 can be enjoyed from now, a blend of 49% CabS, 28% Merlot, 20% Cab F and 3% Petit Verdot, at 13.9% alc., is a charming modern wine. Ageing Potential according to the tasting note, says 15-30 years, provided the wine is stored in ideal cellar conditions.
What did we learn?
“Time and tide waits for no man”! What you have in your wine cellar, for drinking “one day”- create the moment with meticulous care!... And refer to the last sentence!
A vertical of wines is an amazing experience through the history of an estate and often through the country’s wine industry.
“Wine” is a moving target, and there are some “great” bottles! Meerlust Rubicon gave us many great bottles that afternoon, and our investment had been worth it!
“Collect precious moments, don’t collect things!”