Meerlust: There can only be One

Patat barked. And as Dachshunds do, his three fellow canines joined in to create a merry cacophony of yaps, these being of the “welcome to Meerlust” kind. The six other dogs who make up the bevy of hounds, larger and some less purer of breed than the Dachsies, were taking it easy, lounging on the sofas, armchairs and blankets spread through the various atmospheric rooms – moodily lit – that make up the splendid Meerlust manor house.

The interior can be described as one of cluttered elegance, with class, taste and sophistication edging through the seeming casual disorder. Here, there is some living going on. But more importantly, there has been some living been going on for a long time.

Founded in 1693 by one Henning Huising, since 1756 the Meerlust living has been done by the Myburgh’s. Current proprietor, Hannes, is 8th generation and has been present and a part of the era which has seen Meerlust become one of South Africa’s few true iconic wine brands.

For despite the history and generations, the first Meerlust wine was only bottled in 1975, this year thus being the label’s 40th anniversary which by European terms is but one turn of a corkscrew as far as legacy and provenance is concerned.

Hannes Myburgh, Meerlust proprietor.
Hannes Myburgh, Meerlust proprietor.

The strength of the brand, one of the Cape’s leaders in proving South Africa is capable of premium quality and premier status of the international kind, shows that contrary to the politically correct re-drafters of the country’s vinous history, the industry did not only begin in the 1990’s. Like the other South African powerhouse, Kanonkop, Meerlust has been showing its mettle and creating its legend since the early 1980’s.

Along with Kanonkop, Constantia and Pinotage, Meerlust is arguably the best-known South African name in the wine world.

During last week’s media gathering to celebrate the 40th milestone, the Meerlust team showed how a brand such as this is successfully worked, which would have come as a bit of a surprise to those showy wine PR firms who are of late crawling like nematodes between the vineyards.

Less is more. A walk around the Compagniesdrift bottling, labelling and storage facility owned by the Myburgh Trust and their farm workers. A glass of Chardonnay on the manor house lawn. Winemaker Chris Williams running through a brief, no-frills tasting in a dining room that looked like something out of a Merchant-Ivory movie. And lunch in the kitchen. Pots big enough to bathe baby whales in were filled with rice, golden caramelized soet-patats and a slow-cooked mutton stew. Help yourself, and devil take the hindmost.

A plate of real food.
A plate of real food.

Not an organic springbok fillet towered on lemon-grass mash and covered in jus in sight.

And as the dogs got miffed at not being part of the action, they’d usurp an empty chair to join the crowd. Marketing manager Eddie Turner cut the bread while Hannes steamed the espressos. When Meerlust decided to publish a book a few years back, the title “300 Years of Hospitality” said it all.

Off course, a great brand is just as dependent on wine quality as provenance, image and reputation, and here Meerlust comfortably stakes it claim as a producer of supremely polished reds expressing sense of place, earth and careful craftsmanship.

For the tasting the Estate’s maiden Cabernet Sauvignon 1975 made a turn to rapturous applause as to how well the wine had “stood up”. Showing the slightly honeyed taste older South African Cabernets develop, the wine was perky and eager with red fruit, clove and potpourri, as well as being enticingly light and flirtatious on the palate.

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A 1987 Rubicon, Meerlust’s renowned and pioneering Bordeaux-style red blend, was sturdy and in supreme health, but without airs or verve. These were left to the 1991 vintages.

The Cabernet Sauvignon 1991 was my red wine of the day (loved the Meerlust Chardonnay). Some 24 years on, this Cabernet comes galloping along, all swashbuckling class and pedigree. Granitic soils, shallow and meagre, prevent the wine from donning the cloak of brooding power and dense flavours found in the Cabernets out Simonsberg way. Here the 1991 showed refinement and concentration spread out among layers of prune, sagebrush and sour-cherry, with a lovely racing, refreshing length. If I believed in wine scores, mine would break the bank.

With its Merlot and Cabernet Franc components in addition to the Cabernet Sauvignon, Meerlust Rubicon 1991 was a touch broader of shoulder and fuller of chest than the single variety Cabernet Sauvignon. But the pronounced perfume and juiciness served to sex-up a wine of utmost enjoyment.

From the comet 2009 vintage, Chris presented both Cabernet Sauvignon and Rubicon. These were tasted at the end of the line-up, showing how conducive Meerlust’s reds are to bottle-aging.

Supremely approachable with depth and gravitas, having them next to the 1991’s made you paint a mind’s-eye sketch of what they would look like in a decade. And the picture was pretty.

In the kitchen at parties.
In the kitchen at parties.

But as is, the Cabernet Sauvigon 2009 is enchantingly assertive with grippy notes of cedar, fallen blackcurrant and mace thundering to the fore. The wine lies supple and energetically in the mouth, with an aftertaste lasting longer than a kiss from an Italian call-girl who has just had a plate of linguine puttanesca.

The Rubicon 2009, now with Petit Verdot added to the blend, is an enormously gratifying wine. The Cabernet’s testosterone-fuelled authority is offset by a bunch of violets and a touch of that salt-infused Dutch liquorice, layers of evocative flavours making its drinking dream-like and shudderingly life-affirming.

It’s great for a South African to know that we’ve always had Meerlust. And even better, we always will.

Emile Joubert

 

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