Roelie Joubert manages the vineyards at the Meerlust estate. “Ask Roelie’s wife,” said winemaker Chris Williams with something like complacency, “who Roelie loves more – his kids or the vines.” Instead, I asked Joubert himself at the recent launch of the latest Meerlust vintages. He looked undecided for a moment. Then he said thoughtfully: “It’s true.” (That’s Roelie among his beloved wines in the pic below.)
Meerlust has just about everything else going for it these days, as well as Joubert’s devoted green fingers. Times are hard for everyone but Meerlust is thriving. Its image and reputation remain high – and the quality of the wine has caught up with Meerlust’s reputation and is pushing it higher still. After a decade of dullness and even decline, it was the best thing possible when Williams, who’d been assistant winemaker at Meerlust a few years previously, arrived as cellarmaster in 2004.
Williams freshened things up generally, took a rather more modern approach to the famous Meerlust Rubicon and the Merlot, reintroduced the Cabernet Sauvignon and dragged both the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir from being also-rans to somewhere near the front of the Cape pack.
Importantly so, for if Meerlust didn’t exist Cape wine would have to invent it. This is one of the Cape’s grandest, oldest properties – and the longest-established family winery here, in the hands of the Myburghs since 1756. Eighth-generation Hannes Myburgh is the current occupant of the fine old house, one of few such Cape Dutch manor houses on winefarms to be lived in and loved rather than treated as a museum.
In the latest Meerlust releases there’s not a dud – and it should be mentioned at the outset that they taste even better for this being an estate with a genuine concern for the wellbeing of its workers. The Meerlust Foundation seems to be serious, substantially funded and well staffed. Its programmes primarily focus on the children of the 30 families living on the farm. More farms like this and the recent damning Human Rights Watch report would have lost its sting.
Of the new wines, perhaps the Chardonnay 2009 is my favourite and it’s certainly the best from Meerlust. A long way from the old oaky style, this is steely dry, nervy and elegant, with subtle flavours and beautifully absorbed wood. No hurry to drink it, if you can resist temptation.
The Pinot Noir 2010 is gently fragrant, with freshening acidity and a gentle tug of tannin supporting the sweet fruit. Of the Bordeaux varietals, the Merlot 2008 is predictably the least impressive, though more than decent. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is much more so. Seductively fruity without sacrificing suave elegance, it is already appealing, but balance and plenty of succulent ripe tannin assure a good future and it should develop more complexity.
The Rubicon 2007, which blends those two varieties with cabernet franc, has already moved towards maturity but has a way to go. It nicely sums up Williams’s combination of classicism and modernity, with ripe, sweetish fruit as well as a serious, savoury vinosity and a fresh, firm infrastructure. At approaching R300, it is pricey (no Meerlust wine is cheap) but in the scale of top Cape reds by no means exorbitant.
Meanwhile, my thoughts are with Roelie Joubert’s children. I hope his wife is bringing them up as well as he’s doing with his beloved vines and that they deliver equally good results.
First published in Mail & Guardian, 21-27 October 2011