Red contentment at Meerlust

There’s much earnest – and even some rhapsodic – talk about tasting soil and climate in wine, but can you discern happiness? Mark Solms, the eminent neuroscientist and psychoanalyst owner of Solms Delta estate in Franschhoek thinks so. He believes that the state of contentment of all who work in vineyard and cellar is somehow an expressive part of the origin of any wine.

It should be true (sadly, it could help explain more dreadful wines than good ones). Solms Delta itself will prove a good test, but it was a recent visit to Meerlust that reminded me of the Solms thesis.

meerlustMeerlust is, of course, one of the most illustrious old Stellenbosch estates; it’s been in the Myburgh family since 1757 and retains the character of a prosperous farm, the lovely manor house a lived-in home rather than a museum. More than that; it does seem to be a happier place than many in the winelands. The concern for the estate’s social fabric derives from the watchful lordship of the house’s current occupant, the charming Hannes Myburgh. Meanwhile, Roelie Joubert’s assiduity in the vineyards, and the clever, subtle revolution in the cellar since Chris Williams took over a decade ago ensure that Meerlust’s high reputation is better earned now than ever before.

My visit involved an impressive display of integrity on Meerlust’s part, the launch of Meerlust Red 2011. As in 2002 and 1996, there will be no bottling of that vintage of the Estate flagship, Rubicon. It was a difficult year for the vines, and the team judged that the quality fell short of the usual mark. Rather strange, though – a great many Stellenbosch and other producers had a lot more trouble with the 2010 vintage and were pleased with 2011, the reverse of the case at Meerlust.

Meerlust Red 2011Instead the wine, which is normally held back for four years, has been released now under this occasional name. At around R150, half the price of the current Rubicon, Meerlust Red is a good buy. It’s a lighter, delicious but by no means trivial wine, ageworthy but eminently drinkable already thanks to merlot predominating, rather than the usual stern cabernet sauvignon. There was a lot of merlot available, as there will also be no standalone Merlot from 2011 either. So there’s presumably rather a lot of Meerlust Red bottled, as it’s more or less replacing two wines. (This was probably an expensive decision – I can’t imagine the accountant is much pleased by the scruples of Myburgh, Williams et al.)

The troublesome nature of 2011 for Meerlust’s red-wine vineyards is perhaps also manifest in the Pinot Noir from that vintage, which is currently available. Pinot is not Stellenbosch’s strongest suit, though Meerlust’s version has improved greatly in recent years and is at the top of that heap; but this one, though varietally true and enjoyable, is leaner than usual, its bright red fruit somehow tight-lipped and ungenerous.

Strangely, much the same could be said more emphatically for the current Merlot, despite it being of the stunning 2009 vintage. It’s a touch dour and bony, lacking the flesh that is characteristic of nicely ripe merlot.

Greater testimony to the quality of that year comes from the Cabernet Sauvignon, also currently available. Cab is Meerlust’s great strength. I recently had the rare privilege of sampling the maiden 1975 – at nearly 40 years old a marvel of proud resistance to time.

This 2009 is also very fine, with a savoury, more-ish succulence, the subtly sweet-fruit flavours beautifully supported on a structure of just the right degree of rigour. It is certainly drinkable now, but really deserves to be kept another half-dozen years to acquire complexity and achieve a greater level of harmony. (Whether it’ll keep 40 years without turning up its winey little toes, I wouldn’t bet – not that it would be sensible of me to try waiting for it: the wine is undoubtedly going to at retain at least some semblance of vitality for much longer than I will.)

But now, I think I’d dare say that I rate the 2009 cab possibly a shade higher than the current 2008 Rubicon – although that is also an impressive, ageworthy wine, drinking well now if also destined to a better future in a good few years (if not nearly as many as the Cab, I’d guess). Rather drink Meerlust Red 2011 now if you haven’t got older vintages and you want a Meerlust on your table (always a good idea). When Rubicon 2009 is released later this year, that is going to be something truly excellent.

And don’t forget the Chardonnay, the only Meerlust white. The 2010 is supple and lovely, and Chris Williams thinks his 2011 even better. As with all the Meerlust wines, that grain of happiness will do it no harm at all.

From Mail & Guardian, 18-24 May, but this is a slightly lengthened version

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