Meerlust Rubicon celebrates 30 vintages

Friday, 12 November, 2010
Meerlust Wine Estate
'Alea iacta est (the die is cast)!' These were the immortal words attributed to Roman army commander Julius Caesar as he committed his troops to crossing the Rubicon River and advance upon Rome to wrest sole control over the ancient city from the senate and its ruling triumvirate of consuls in 49BC.
In much the same way as the soldier who would be emperor led Rome into its golden age, so did the late Nico Myburgh, Meerlust's seventh-generation owner and vintner from the 1950s to the 1980s, commit his pioneering vision of a Cape version of the classic Bordeaux red blend to bottle in 1980.

Launched on the local wine market in 1984, the aptly named Rubicon ushered in, not only a significant, internationally recognised new style of wine in South Africa, but one that was to become a benchmark of local red wine quality. It was one of only three such blends made at the time: Overgaauw and Welgemeend were the other two pioneers. Rubicon itself was headed for iconic status, revered here and worldwide for its consistent, understated elegance and refinement. As a product of a family and farm with deep roots in the history of Cape wine, it was then, and remains today, the embodiment of the rich cultural heritage of South Africa's 350-year-old wine industry.

Today, three decades after that first brave bottling, as spring green brightens the landmark avenue of Nico's oak and palm trees leading to the graciously restored, three-centuries-old (circa 1693) Cape Dutch homestead, and the vines begin to bud in readiness for next year's harvest, the 30th vintage of Meerlust Rubicon has been assembled, as per tradition, from the farm's finest barrels of 2010 cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. And, for the first time, a dash of another classic Bordeaux blending ingredient has been added: petit verdot.

Although the 2010 Meerlust Rubicon has been consigned to barrel for another year to allow the components to achieve complete harmony of expression and depth of complexity, and is earmarked for release only in 2014 - in line with Meerlust's trademark four-year pre-release nurturing period - the assemblage of the 30th vintage is cause for celebration. So, too, does it call for reflection on the journey of this epoch-making wine.

The blend partners of the Rubicon 2010 have been rigorously assessed and skilfully melded by the newest generation Meerlust team: Nico's son Hannes, who took over stewardship of the family farm upon his father's untimely passing in 1988, and his winemaker Chris Williams, seamless successor in 2004 to legendary Meerlust vintner Italian Giorgio Dalla Cia, who ushered those early Rubicons into bottle.

The birth of Meerlust Rubicon in 1980 occurred against a backdrop of political events in South Africa almost as tumultuous as those of Ancient Rome. The battle of long-oppressed black South Africans to be allowed their full democratic rights as citizens had been taken to the streets with protest marches, riots and urban bombings answered with increasingly draconian government controls. The result was international economic sanctions against South Africa, which affected the local wine industry as much as any other sector by limiting growth and marketing opportunities.

But Nico Myburgh had long since committed himself to his vision of making a premium red blend after travelling in France in 1967 and visiting some of the most renowned Bordeaux estates. He noted the similarity with Meerlust in the Eerste River Valley in terroir (river valley flatland and rises, close proximity to the sea, decomposed granite over clay) and the success of blending classic red varieties to make a premium wine (red blends were then thought second-rate in South Africa where single-varietal bottlings were the norm).

He duly added Bordeaux standards Merlot and Cabernet franc to the Cabernet Sauvignon (and Pinot noir) already established on the farm, producing his maiden wine (a Cabernet Sauvignon) under the Meerlust label in 1975. It was the first under the farm's name in 186 years; grapes had previously gone to a co-op. The wine won regional and national awards, as did the Cabernet Franc and Merlot in 1978, huge encouragement for the vintner's eventual personal 'Rubicon crossing' in 1980 (a watershed year when Meerlust dominated the South African Championship Wine Show and Myburgh and Dalla Cia were lauded as champion winemaker and champion private wine producer respectively).

Meerlust Rubicon 1980 caused a similar sensation upon its release in 1984, judged champion red wine at the SA Championship Wine Show. Subsequent vintages continued to earn acclaim....except for the 1985, when Nico and Giorgio exhibited their rare courage and commitment to the highest quality by electing not to bottle it under the Rubicon label, but as 'Meerlust Red' instead. Hannes Myburgh maintained this high standard by doing the same with the 1990 and 2002 vintages.

As the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994 saw the country welcomed back into the international fold, connoisseurs the world over became even more familiar with Meerlust Rubicon. The farm's 300th anniversary in 1993 was celebrated, in part, with Meerlust wines' debut in the United States, by which time it was listed in top London establishments (Sir Terence Conran's Quaglinos and Pont de la Tour, and Aspinalls). Today Rubicon, together with its select classic single-varietal stablemates Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are found in over 30 markets, from New York to Beijing.

The first decade of the new millennium has seen Meerlust Rubicon 2001 listed as No 27 in the Top 100 wines for 2006 by American publication Wine Enthusiast and winning the Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande trophy for best red blend at the 2006 International Wine & Spirit Competition in London. The Meerlust Rubicon 2004 was awarded 90 points by another leading American publication Wine Spectator in 2008 and voted best New World red in equally prestigious UK drinks magazine Decanter in 2009.

Classicism and respect for tradition has always been at the core of Meerlust and its wines. Hence the 'renaissance' of the farm, started by Nico Myburgh and his wife Jean in 1960 with the restoration of the historic manor house and planting of new vineyards on the 400ha property (110ha under vine), is in fact an ongoing labour of love. In the new millennium, under the steady hands of Hannes Myburgh and his winemaker Chris Williams, this has extended to buying back original farmland; constant but gradual vine renewal; re-siting of varieties based on soil surveys and satellite mapping; the installation of a gravity-fed system within the confines of the venerable old cellar; fine-tuning picking times for optimum fruit ripeness; tweaking the label design...

But the heart of Meerlust and the Rubicon remains unchanged, beating strong and sure, appealing to both connoisseur appreciating the understatement of classicism or novice seeking reassurance in consistency. The current custodians concur. The enduring appeal lies in what Hannes Myburgh calls 'a magic about Meerlust that rubs off on people'. Chris Williams says simply: 'Meerlust has got soul.'

To view images from the tasting of 30 years of Rubicon held at Meerlust on 5 Nov 2010 - please click HERE