Rare Meerlust Red promises drinking pleasure

Friday, 3 May, 2013
Meerlust Estate
Respected 18th -century Cape wine estate Meerlust in Stellenbosch has once again honoured its commitment to self-imposed exacting standards of quality in winemaking by declassifying its world-renowned flagship Bordeaux-style blend Rubicon from the 2011 vintage.
This heralds the rare release of its Meerlust Red 2011 in its stead, the first re-appearance of this much-loved, similarly styled blend since the 2002 vintage.
What makes this release especially unusual though, is that, unlike its predecessors (including the 1990 and 1985), and in variance to the Meerlust Rubicon (which celebrated three decades with the 2010 vintage next up for release in 2015), Meerlust Red 2011 is Merlot-based rather than Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated. This came as a result of the Meerlust duo of eighth-generation owner Hannes Myburgh and his cellarmaster Chris Williams deciding also not to bottle the Merlot from the 2011 vintage.
This released more of the farm’s Merlot for use in the Meerlust Red, making for a new-look combination of Merlot (52%), Cabernet Sauvignon (33%), Cabernet Franc (10%) and Petit Verdot (5%). By comparison, the previous Meerlust Red from the 2002 vintage was a blend of 70 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 per cent Merlot and 10 per cent Cabernet Franc.
Showing great prescience and an intimate knowledge of Meerlust, its vineyards and its wines honed over more than a decade in the historic cellar (as cellarmaster since 2004 and assistant before that), Williams says weather vagaries in 2010 leading up to the vintage posted early warning signs of potential changes to Meerlust’s usual line-up of classic reds.
‘The 2010 winter was not particularly cold, depriving the vines of that deep dormancy required for complete re-charging and leading to uneven bud break in spring. The weather remained variable during the 2011 ripening season, resulting in tannins not ripening equally across the spectrum of vineyards and varieties. This especially affected the Merlot (and to a lesser extent the Cabernet).’
All the vineyards were green-harvested (removal of un-ripened fruit) during veraison (initial ripening) to reduce yield and increase flavour concentration, tannin ripeness and fruit definition.
‘We made a conscious decision not to over-extract to avoid the chances of harsh tannins and wines that would be perhaps a little too austere. So we got slightly less fruit weight and, already then, realised that the components may not give us the density of fruit and solid tannin structure we want for our Rubicon. Balance is the key and we made a judgement call that 2011 would be a lighter, more delicate vintage and decided to treat it as such.’
This was borne out after each variety spent about eight to nine months in barrel: a combination of 55% new wood, the rest seasoned (compared with about 70% new wood usually used for the Rubicon). After blending and further barrel-ageing (for about seven to eight months), the finished wine was eventually bottled as the Meerlust Red 2011.
Williams describes the wine as still having the complexity and structure to provide pleasure after 12 to 15 years in bottle, ‘even though the older vintages – the ’90 and the ’85 – have surprised with their longevity. But the big positive with this wine, in style as well as with its greater Merlot content especially, is that it’s softer and already approachable.’
Another point of difference is the dash of Petit Verdot. This classic Bordeaux variety first made its appearance in Meerlust Rubicon in the 2008 vintage. ‘It brings coherence to the 2011 Meerlust Red, a lovely floral aroma and fresh acidity; a brightness!’
Despite the climactic challenges of the 2010/11 season, Williams was able to ‘vinify enough fine Cabernet to meet our rigorous selection criteria for a single-varietal bottling’. This is in keeping with the practice followed as far back as the ‘70s and ‘80s, when this family farm’s previous denizen Nico Myburgh chose not to release a 1985, 1979 or 1977. The Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon was officially re-launched from the 2009 vintage (after small quantities were made in 2004 and 2005) after a hiatus from 1993, when it was reserved entirely as the foundation for the Rubicon until new plantings came on-stream and performed sufficiently well to once again enable a single-varietal release.
Meerlust Pinot Noir and Meerlust Chardonnay make up the portfolio of this venerable Cape wine farm still following the tradition of the original South African ‘estate’ concept formulated in the early 1970s by confining itself to working only with grapes grown on the property. The wine will be available from all leading specialist wine shops throughout the country.