What a Whopper! Meerlust Pinot Noir

South Africa’s venture into the making of Pinot Noir did not get a good rap from the judges at this year’s Trophy Wine Show, arguably the strictest in the ever-growing South African wine competition circuit. No, results for Michael Fridjhon’s annual show are not out yet, but last week at the feedback session, agreement that Cape Pinot Noir appears to be a work in progress seemed unanimous.

Not that failing to claim a gold gong at this competition is a calamity – of the 645 entries, only some 5% secured a gold medal, which is about the annual average for the Trophy Show. And when it came to judges’ commenting on the wines entered, the Pinot Noir category was given a brief diss. Narina Cloete, Blaauwklippen winemaker who judged this sector said the wines lacked the reflection of a suitable site. Michael himself alluded to the fact that many regaled Cape Pinot Noir marques were not entering competitions – punters paying R500 and north for a bottle of Pinot Noir were apt to be less supportive of said wine should it fail to meet expectations by not roping any bling in shows entered.

Despite not having a cooking clue as to what a gold medal Pinot Noir – or any other wine, for that matter – looks like, it is a cultivar I enjoy, believing that like rugby matches and pizza, even sub-standard Pinot Noirs are better than not having any in all. My promiscuous drinking of the royal Burgundian red recently had me charmed by the 2022 Pinot Noir from Meerlust Estate in Stellenbosch, one of the few Stellenbosch farms to venture into Pinot Noir and one underscoring the fact that the appellation is actually able of making wines with a distinctive edge from this cultivar.

Look, cool climate Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde it ain’t, despite the Meerlust patch in what is known as Stellenbosch South is markedly cooler than Simonsberg, Helderberg and Polkadraai. This Pinot Noir does not have any red floral perfume or flirtatiously leaping berry-fruit, but what it lacks in these departments it makes-up for in structure, a reverberating crunch of black fruit and sheer polished presence on the palate.

Aromas are meaty, bloody and feral with a slight grasp of forest-floor, just enough to make the cultivar sign its initials. The wine is plush in the mouth, hitting the senses secure and true with sour cherry, dried fig and mulberry, tannins being sinewy, long and rippling. Burgundy-acolytes will be referencing northern parts of that region, the Meerlust showing a density and power perfected by Gevrey-Chambertin as opposed to the more expansively decorative offerings from lower down Musigny way. I just think it is great show by one of Stellenbosch’s leading producers, more known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rubicon Bordeaux-style red blend, to comfortably also offer a class Pinot Noir in its arsenal.

Of course, there is also the only Meerlust white wine, namely Chardonnay, and the wine from vintage 2022 shows a lovable fragility that makes you want to stroke the bottle’s head before pouring the next glass. There is a crispness to the wine that is alert and tantalising, as well as accurate expression of varietal character in the specks of sage-butter, Seville orange rind and lemon curd. Pronounced as they are, these flavours are stitched together in a fine, detailed tapestry displaying grace and light rather than resounding and stern depth. Good, and prettily so.  

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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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The Majestic Eternal Classics

Last time I looked, the offering of South African wines was running to over 8 000 different units varying in prices, styles and types of packaging. That is a hell of a lot of wine diversity in a country only making 4% of the world’s wine, but this also gives one an idea of the plethora of wine brands available to the local consumer.

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Cross the Rubicon, and Never Turn Back

Because it is greater than that, true art is immune to the voice of the critic. Here South Africa has one red wine that transcends ratings, stars and the court of self-important opinion: Meerlust Rubicon.

Together with Vin de Constance, Rubicon is South Africa’s most valuable wine brand and if any sort of respect for national heritage still existed, both would deserve protected status. Their brows exceed the height of any new wave, they command a presence and gravitas sterner, more decisive than the noisiest hip alternative gaggle and its sycophantic hordes.

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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.

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Road to the Old Frontier

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Despite the centuries of blue-blooded Cape wineland culture resonating from its splendid buildings and vineyards, there is something wild and sparse about Meerlust that intrigues me. As if the entrance gate next to the dam is a frontier post, beckoning those who have crossed wild, unwelcoming terrain from Cape Town and is now about to take the first steps into the amicable palm of Stellenbosch’s wine region.

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The Cult of Grim Pasta Eating in Stellenbosch

It is appropriate for one of Stellenbosch’s finest eateries to be situated in the down-town area, Lower Dorp Street way: for up in the town’s more gentrified quarters the inhabitants are far too busy dealing with their Banting diet-induced constipation and protein-fuelled halitosis to appreciate the wonders of a restaurant called Asta. For Asta is about pasta, pasta and more pasta with a bit of pizza thrown in for those who like their carbs crispy, flaky and cheesy.

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Make a Merlot out of It

South African Merlot gets a lot of bad press, mainly because of some fourth-hand message alluding to the grape’s greenness and inability to ripen properly in this neck of the woods. Someone mentioned this somewhere, it sounded quotable and opinionated, so after having gone viral the skewed assumption has been taken as gospel. It is, of course, not worth the Chinese iPhone knock-off it was mentioned on.

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Stellenbosch’s One Grape Question

Stellenbosch is, and always will be, the greatest red wine producing region in South Africa. Why? Same reason that Hawaii has great pipeline, Germans make good cars and Chelsea will win the Champions League: because God intended it that way.

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Over the Edge, into Greatness

David Finlayson looking Edgy.....

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in new plantings, new wines, new styles. Juicy drops concocted from a medley of Rh?+¦???+¦?+¦????ne varietals. Hearty, solid Portuguese-styled reds. The odd experiment with Sangiovese and co-Italian variety Nebbiola.

Yes, the South African wine industry is free from its over-regulated shackles of yesteryear, leaving farmers to plant what they want, where they want. Okay, so it takes a call to Duimpie Bayly at the Wine and Spirits Board, but what the heck. Want to plant Gr?+¦???+¦?+¦???+æneveltliner on the Heads at Knysna or Nero d’Avola on the Cape Flats, go for it.

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