Meerlust the Magnificent

This piece of writing first appeared in Afrikaans in Die Burger newspaper. This is a translation.

When William Shakespeare inquired, “What’s in a name?” he spoke of roses, certainly not of wine. For a man of the Bard’s indisputable genius must have known that in the realm of wine, a name means a great deal, if not everything.

The great names in the world of wine cause the heart to race at their mere mention. Body temperatures rise, and conversation turns towards awe and authority, respect and enchantment, evoking places where the magical gifts of the vine have been elevated to heavenly heights. These are the names of places whose wines command respect, authority, and prestige: France boasts many such names – Romanée-Conti, Mouton-Rothschild, and Bollinger, to name but a few. Spain’s Vega-Sicilia and Italy’s Sassicaia achieve the same, as does California’s Harlen.

And in South Africa, it is Meerlust, a name that anyone with an interest in Cape wines can link to excellence, one of the first South African wine names to be recognised by connoisseurs in Europe, America, and the Far East.

A name worth its weight in wine is one that has withstood the test of time, a feat that Meerlust has accomplished twice over, having existed at the southwestern gateway to Stellenbosch since 1693. The estate was discovered, created, and named by Henning Huising, who called the land Meerlust, meaning “the pleasure of the sea,” as the nearest False Bay breaker crashes a mere five kilometres from the manor’s front door.

However, the family history of Meerlust is dominated by the Myburgh family, who acquired the estate in 1756 and have owned it unremittingly ever since. Hannes, the current owner, is the eighth generation Myburgh, making the names Myburgh and Meerlust the most illustrious ‘M’ names in South African wine.

Although its long and colourful history greatly contributed to the estate’s iconic wine status, the name Meerlust has graced wine labels for only 49 years. The first bottle bearing the Meerlust label – a Cabernet Sauvignon from 1975 – was the brainchild of Nico Myburgh, Hannes’ father, who was the driving force behind establishing the Meerlust brand and moving the estate from supplying bulk wine to larger cellars to producing premium estate wines.

The first Meerlust wine had barely been bottled when Nico Myburgh began pondering how to immortalise the twin names – Meerlust and Myburgh – in wine terms with a third name that would etch his estate into the annals of Cape wine history. That name was Rubicon.

Together with his then winemaker, the Italian Giorgio Dalla Cia, Nico brought his love for the Bordeaux wine region to Meerlust and decided to recreate it in his own backyard. This involved crafting a Bordeaux blend, combining three of the five Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc – into a single wine. The only other estate engaged in a similar endeavour was Welgemeend in Paarl, which produced its blend in 1979.

When Nico and Giorgio’s new Bordeaux creation appeared on the market in 1984 – the 1980 vintage under the name Rubicon – the South African wine industry entered a new chapter. The historic and revered name, bestowed by Nico’s friend and Afrikaans poet Dirk Opperman, refers to the river Julius Caesar crossed in 49 BC on his way to invade Rome, knowing there would be no turning back.

The other part of the success, of course, is the continuous and meticulous adherence to the vision that led to the creation of Rubicon: namely, a quality wine that reflects Meerlust’s terroir and geographical location with the same passion, spirit, and soul that have sustained the estate’s name and place in the heart for centuries.

As with all good wines, location and address are everything, and during a recent visit to Meerlust’s 80 hectares of vineyards, it was once again evident how extraordinary this part of Stellenbosch is – so unique that the area, along with its neighbour Vergenoegd Löw estate, has yet to be given a ward name by the Stellenbosch wine authorities.

Here at Meerlust, the Atlantic Ocean is a mere five kilometers away, creating a maritime climate that exposes the vineyards to the fierce southeasterly winds in summer and the full brunt of the north-westerlies in winter. There are no slopes, peaks, or shelter: the vineyards stand between roughly 10 meters above sea level, with the highest point being the 120-meter granite hill just beyond Compagniesdrift. The soil diversity here is enough to make a geologist weak at the knees – and not just geologists. Wim Truter, who took over as the third head winemaker in Meerlust’s estate-wine history in 2020, clearly possesses many talents. But when it comes to the role of soil types in the vineyard’s final product, this aspect of Wim’s interest can be described as fanatical.

In blending the Rubicon wine, the main components – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – are sourced from a tapestry of each variety’s vineyards spread across the Meerlust estate. These include those standing on Greywacke sandstone, the more alluvial beds along the Eerste River, granitic soils near the hills, and the low-lying clay-shale areas.

As demonstrated during the visit, each soil type contributes its own dimension to the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot growing in these soils. At Meerlust, wine is not so much made in the vineyard as it is made from the vineyard. After each Rubicon component is harvested and aged separately for a few months in French oak, Wim, Hannes, and the rest of the team sit like conductors, tasting the more than 40 vineyard batches to decide which ones are worthy of being bottled under the Rubicon name.

The chosen blend – mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot playing supporting roles – is then returned to the barrel for further aging, allowing the selected elements to marry and fulfil each year’s Rubicon union.

“It’s not about a Rubicon style,” says Wim. “It’s simply about taking the best of what each vineyard has delivered each year and using it for the wine.”

Certainly, there are other wines at Meerlust: the Cabernet Sauvignon that started it all, a Merlot, in my opinion the best single-varietal Merlot in the country; the earthy, robust, and rounded Pinot Noir, and that lovely, lively, citrusy Chardonnay.

But Meerlust’s prestige and the authority it commands as South Africa’s premier wine estate rest on the Rubicon, an undeniable proof that Cape wines can achieve the highest international standards.

Wim Truter, the cellarmaster.

There is an indefinable and mysterious element that enables good wines to age, and a 20-year-old Rubicon proves that this trait is present at Meerlust. The 2004 Rubicon tasted under Wim’s guidance is as fresh, lively, and energetic as Gerda Steyn at the end of another Comrades Marathon. Shining notes of black fruit with an airy pine-needle scent, and a charming, meaty hint of saltiness bestowed by the years in the bottle.

Jump to Rubicon 2017, one of the Cape’s standout vintages, and the tannic muscles are bold and insistent, with shades of blackberries, mulberry, and cigar box spelling “classic” with a capital “C.” I’d even throw in an “R” for regal.

And the current 2021 vintage, a wine whose best years still lie ahead, is nonetheless fully drinkable with its crunch of ripe cherry and an exotic cocoa note lingering from its time in wood.

Every rose may have its own name, but there is only one Rubicon.

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One thought on “Meerlust the Magnificent

  1. Uitstaande artikel en geskiedkundige kommentaar in konteks en uitrol van al die bydraende kompomente, faktore en rolspelers al die pad van Oom Nico en Giorgio se dae af, Emile…

    Wel gedaan!
    Hannes en Wim sal hierdie relaas geniet en opreg waardeer, is man oortuigd van…
    En die hele plaas, Landgoed daartoe beskore ook.

    Jy doen goeie werk, baie dankie.


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