2004-An unusual but excellent vintage at Meerlust Estate

Tuesday, 13 July, 2004
Chris Williams
Ask any winemaker or viticulturist about the 2004 vintage so far and the most likely comment will be that it has been unusual.

The grapes edged toward ripeness very slowly and some varieties ripened at totally different times than they have in the past. This is also true at Meerlust, but dedication and hard work from our vineyard team under viticulturist Roelie Joubert has yielded amazingly good quality grapes.
It has certainly been a much cooler season than we have been used to (so much for global warming!) which allowed the grapes to ripen slowly and fully. The nights were downright chilly and this diurnal difference in day and night temperature is critical for sensitive varieties like Pinot Noir and Cabernet franc. Absolutely no water stress is in evidence, even late in the season meant that the vines were able to produce all the sugars, tannins and flavours that we want in the grapes. Moderate day temperatures meant that those compounds were trans-located and locked into the berries, ready for picking.

The key to quality grapes this year has been crop control. Roelie Joebert (Meerlust viticulturist) passed through the vineyards 5 times, removing any bunch or berry that didn't meet his particularly high standards, as a former table grape farmer. We reduced our entire crop by about 40% allowing the vine to concentrate its efforts on the remaining grapes to ripen them to perfection.

The Pinot Noir came in on schedule in early February and I was amazed at the beautiful red cherry fruit and musky flavours in the berries. The wine is in barrel now and we have something really special in our Pinot this year.

We picked our Chardonnay in pristine condition a little later than usual and the flavours in the wine after fermentation are amazing. Plenty of lime, greengauge, lemon grass as well as tropical fruit. The cool nights have given us a wine with delicious fresh apple and pear fruit flavours as well as a high malic acid content. The later-picked Chardonnay has delicious honey and golden delicious flavours in barrel and I feel that our Chardonnay this year is going to be quite tight and taught but still with lovely ripe passion fruit and melon characteristics.

Unusually we picked most of the Cabernet Sauvignon before the Merlot, but this has more to do with our superior clones of Cabernet than the weather. However, first indications show wines bursting with fruit tempered by sublimely silky ripe tannin. Some of the lots are huge, brooding wines with all the masculinity and elegance needed in our Cabernet for the Rubicon blend.

Merlot looks like it will be the variety of the season. I am very excited about the delicious ripe plum and mulberry fruit as well as that velvety opulence which I love and think should be the hallmark of great Merlot. The wines have completed malolactic fermentation in barrel and the wine that is emerging will be a real brooding, dark beauty with ripe, velvety tannins.

With Merlot it was a waiting game. Holding tight until the succulent flavours had developed and picking at just the right time. I learned to do this with Michel Rolland in Pomerol, when everyone else was panicking and picking too early, we kicked back and went out for lunch. It was a gamble, but it has paid off. Our clay rich soils dosed the vines roots with minute amounts of water and the Merlot was not at all stressed when the pickers came along.

The same can be said about the Cabernet Franc. The cooler, moister vintage has allowed us to ripen  the Cab franc but retain the taughtness and haunting perfume that this variety can give. This will obviously be part of our Rubicon blend this year and the quality of this vintage Cab Franc may mean we use more of it in the final assemblage than in other years.

So, a pretty ideal vintage so far with no major upsets in the vineyard or cellar. The wines still have a long way to go until adulthood, but at this early stage I am delighted by what we have.

Chris Williams
Cellar Master
Meerlust Estate