Meerlust: Never a Bad Year

The bunches were black and purple and looking good when the grapes stopped ripening. Harvest 2019 had kicked-off agreeably in the Cape winelands. Mornings were warm and dry and golden as the breeze blew gently from the south-east, the days breaching into warm blue masses of African summer air. Here, the harvesting commenced with optimism and ripples of expectation, the major concerns being how the past four-years of drought were going to affect the quality of the juice seeping out of the fleshy grapes, the seeping becoming a torrent as the crusher pressed and the juice began to run.

And then it all changed. The air took on a crisp morning chill, and daytime temperature-readings nudged 25 degrees Celsius but wanted to go no further. The red wine grapes, awaiting their removal from the vines by sharp, glistening secateurs, stopped ripening and just hung there, listless and still. Also, the heavens opened, rain curtaining from clouds low and grey. Worrying the winemakers. Because it was only mid-February, and there were Cabernet and Merlot and Cabernet Franc to ripen and to be picked. The cellars and the barrels were waiting, wanting. As they always do at this time of year.

These red grapes were picked, eventually, although a level of un-robust ripening was all that could be achieved. And now, with the first 2019 red wines appearing on market, there is talk of the austere and un-expressive nature of these offerings. The result of that curve-ball the weather gods flung during the harvest of 2019 where the sun lay low, its power eluding the grapes so wishing to draw the light in and feast on the solar rays until they shimmered with energy.

Meerlust Estate in Stellenbosch, one of the Cape’s unquestionable icons, announced the character of 2019 in visceral fashion by refraining from the making of the Meerlust Rubicon Bordeaux-style blend in that troubled cool year.

Instead, a Meerlust Red 2019 is offered due to the inability of that year’s grapes to achieve the commanding presence and graceful power a wine requires before it is suited in the claret bottle and dons that familiar black Rubicon label.

The official memo from Meerlust is that the cold conditions which set in in mid-February coupled with bursts of rain all the way through to March led to the late ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot not reaching full maturity. This resulted in slightly lower alcohols, and lighter wines with lower extract – “very approachable in youth but not the intensity required for Rubicon”.

The Red 2019 is Cabernet Sauvignon dominant (43%) with 31% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot.

Less new-oaking was deployed than with the Rubicon, with each variety spending eight to nine months in barrel, after which the blend was composed before returning the wine to barrel for another eight months to settle as a unified whole.

As is my wont, I did not get to this official memo before approaching the Meerlust Red 2019. I simply opened the bottle, decanted and left for 30 mins, and leapt into the wonderful world of wine which Meerlust unfailingly offers me.

The wine is shy on the nose, but not without presence. Beneath the gentle aroma of dry oak and pressed grape skins a fine thread of Provence herbs and violet awakens the senses, teasing and attracting and evoking curiousity and expectation. To the mouth, and the wine’s attack is about as formidable and imposing as a string of Austrian folk-dancers taking-on a crowd of Liverpool football thugs. The initial taste is one of calm, measured and unhysterical. Yet commanding and attention-grabbing in its civility and politeness.

A big pull through to the mid-palate, and there is no doubt about it that this is a class act. The calm beauty of the Cabernet Sauvignon component is something to which many New World Cabernet producers aspire, a refinement this variety achieves in St Estèphe particularly. The passive beauty is enhanced by some red fruit sappiness, thanks to the Merlot component, while Madame Cabernet Franc props up the whole thing with a crafted stage of pine-needle and slight pencil-shaving.

The Meerlust Red 2019 is not a wine for comparisons to fruit markets and unpicked berry-orchards. This is a brilliant example of a whole wine, honed and toned by the ethos of excellence sought by those behind Meerlust, and ethos that has been passed onto the vineyard where the DNA of Meerlust’s human-capital and the legacy of centuries has joined nature to provide something quite special and quite beautiful. Of which one will never get quite used to. No matter what the year holds.

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