Nico Myburgh: Meneer of Meerlust

The first wines under the Meerlust label, Cabernet Sauvignon 1975, resulted from the vision of the late Nico Myburgh, 7th generation Myburgh on this Stellenbosch estate. Fritz Joubert, a retired journalist, remembers a remarkable pioneer who helped lay the foundations for the modern success of the Cape wine industry.

For wine-lovers of my generation the name Nico Myburgh will immediately herald an association with Meerlust Estate and its legendary Rubicon wine. Those who were fortunate to know him will, however, remember the nature of the man who, as its seventh generation Myburgh-owner, created the Meerlust brand that has become a global icon. The pride of South African wine.

One could describe Nico as a true man in full, an enigmatic personality and a farmer with a broad range of interests, as well as someone who could come to the fore with the irreverent and unexpected. Myself and my family got to know him intimately when in 1979 we found ourselves living on Meerlust for a few months. On the move from Cape Town to Paarl, our new Boland home was not yet ready and here Nico graciously stepped-in and offered to “put us up” for the required period.

Actually, this was probably due to my wife Maureen, who was at that time editor of the Wynboer magazine, today known as Wineland. Nico attracted women like honey does bees, and Maureen was one of his favourites.

Nico Myburgh

In any event, we had the privilege of staying in the Jonkershuis on Meerlust. And upon arriving on the farm after a day’s work in my Cape Town office the inevitable was to enjoy a few glasses of wine with Nico and his wife Eileen. This was always red wine – Nico did not have much time for white.

The bottles Nico opened usually came from the Meerlust cellar itself, unlabelled. One of these unlabelled wines that stood out for me was a Carignan, a deep-red, robust wine that Nico truly enjoyed in social circumstances. It never saw the market, however – Nico probably handed it out too generously and loved too much of it himself.

Only later would I discover the origins of Carignan on Meerlust. Eileen had smuggled some vine-cuttings from Argentina, inspired by Nico who was not the kind to subscribe to the conservative wine industry conventions of the time. Cinsault was at the time one of the most planted varieties at the Cape, but a cultivar for which Nico showed no interest.

For he was a man for Cabernet Sauvignon and had a vision to create blended wine of the type he had gotten to know in Bordeaux. Merlot, however, was non-existent at the Cape, so Nico had some Merlot shoots clipped in Bordeaux with the help of the legendary Danish viticulturist Vinding Diers and the contraband was ferreted to Meerlust with the help of a pilot friend.

Thus, more smuggled vines passing the KWV control board – Chardonnay was not the only illicit variety commuting through dark channels between France and South Africa.

On Meerlust the French Merlot vines were, under instruction of the legendary viticulturist Desiderius Pongrácz, placed in frozen storage until the nodes were ready for propagating.

Pongrácz, who at the time was involved at the Bergkelder, was the true inspiration behind a Meerlust Bordeaux blend. The making of the wine by Meerlust’s winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia was one thing – finding a suitable name for it was another. Here Nico turned to the great Afrikaans poet and academic Dirk Opperman. In a sort of “Eureka” moment, Opperman said “Rubicon”, and so the mythical river had been crossed, so to speak.

One thing I remember about Nico was his directness and ability to sum-up a person immediately. Either he liked you, or he did not. As illustration he liked to tell a story of the self-deprecating kind.

On a tour with Wynboer to Argentina Nico found himself on the pampas where the gaucho cowboys were working the cattle with horses. There was also an opportunity for the many tourists to themselves get onto horseback. While Nico and another Wynboer guest were standing around a man came trotting by on his horse. Nico nudged his companion, pointing to the rider.

“Het jy al ‘n drol op ‘n perd gesien (Have you ever seen a shit on a horse before?)” Nico asked his pal in Afrikaans. The rider stopped and looked down at Nico, replying in perfect Afrikaans: “Het jy al ’n kont op die grond gesien? (And you, have you ever seen a cunt on the ground?).”

Unbeknown to the Wynboer-group, another South African party was also touring the farm……

I remember Nico’s fascination with baboons. And they unleashed all levels of havoc on the seaside farm he had at Potberg on the south Cape coast – Nico was an extraordinary, committed and accomplished angler. But the chaos caused by the baboons disrupted his joy of angling and being at the sea, and he unsuccessfully deployed scarecrows, rubber-snakes and any sort of primate-repelling gadget to keep the apes out of his house.

One day Nico opened the door to the Potberg house and saw that the baboons had, once again, been inside and made their usual mess. But there was something different about this troop’s particular visit: the apes had, genuinely, gotten hold of a pack of playing cards and had set-up a game before being disturbed by the master of the house. “There, on the dining-room table four hands of poker had been dealt by the baboons,” Nico told me. “But you know, one of the bastards must have been cheating because there was a hand that held five bloody aces.”

I am not going to doubt Nico’s eye for detail in the telling of the above story as he was meticulous and a true perfectionist, which could border on the cantankerous. One day myself, Nico and my youngest son Fritz were having lunch on Meerlust before heading off for a week-end’s fishing at Potberg. Fritz was seated next to Nico as the mutton and vegetables were being enjoyed, and Nico saw the kid was struggling to get his peas onto his fork.

“No son,” Nico reprimanded Fritz, “not like that. Here on Meerlust we eat our peas this way,” he said, illustrating how the peas were to be eaten from the back of the fork and not scooped with the bottom-end.

The experts will have one believe good wine is made in the vineyard. But looking at where Meerlust is today, a brand glowing with provenance and legacy in tandem with the quality of its fine wines, I believe the souls of the people behind such wines play as vital a role as any in their success. Of this, Nico Myburgh is a fine example.

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4 thoughts on “Nico Myburgh: Meneer of Meerlust

  1. My ma (1924 -2017) was verloof aan Nico. Toe ontmoet sy my pa en die res is geskiedenis. Daai plaas kon myne gewees het!😄

  2. Lieflike artikel, Emile en Fritz! DJ Opperman is my seun se oupagrootjie aan sy biologiese pa se kant. Hy soek kommissie vir die Rubicon idee. In wyn. Wat ek sal “bestuur” vir hom. 🙂

    1. Dankie Kwis. Ons kan ook vir Francis-Ford Coppola betrek, wat ook die Rubicon het. Eindelose moontlikhede….mooi bly.

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