Tate Modern, 24th January 2018
On 24th January 2018 it was Maison Marques et Domaines Annual Portfolio Tasting. This year the tasting was held on the 6th floor of the Tate Modern. I was very glad to be able to attend this year was as I had managed to book a space to attend the Meerlust Rubicon Masterclass, a vertical tasting of this iconic South African wine hosted by eighth generation owner of Meerlust, Hannes Myburgh.
Meerlust Estate has a long and prestigious history stretching back to 1693 when it was founded by a German immigrant named Henning Huising. The Myburgh family have owned the estate since 1756. The name Meerlust translates as “”pleasure of the sea” and the old manor house is situated on a granite outcrop only 5 km from False Bay. In the warmer summer months the vineyards are refreshed by the cooling ocean breezes and evening mists which roll in from the coast. Hannes describes this as “a giant air conditioner” which acts to keep the vineyards cool thus allowing a slow ripening of the grapes producing richer aromas and concentrated varietal flavours. As well growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet France and Petit Verdot for the Meerlust Rubicon, this also allows them to produce great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The first Cabernet Sauvigon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines at Meerlust were planted by Hannes’ father, Nico, in 1974 after he had visited Bordeaux and noted the similarities between the climates and soils (decomposed granite and clay) of Bordeaux and the Eerste River Valley. The first commercially released vintage of Meerlust Rubicon was the 1980 vintage, launched in 1983. A few years previous, in 1978, Nico had made a proto-Rubicon blend and had given some of it away to friends and colleagues. Some bottles were discovered in the The Tabernacle at Distell in July 2017. The Tabernacle is the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery cellars where they house their collection of rare wines. It is this 1978 pre-commercial Rubicon that lays claim to being the first Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvigon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend to be made in South Africa. That 1978 vintage was three way blend of equal proportions of each grape variety.
There have only ever been two winemakers of Meerlust Rubicon. The first was Giorgio Dalla Cia who, along with Nico, spent several years working on and developing the classic blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. In doing do, they had created a new style of South African wine from which there was no turning back – they had “crossed the Rubicon”. The second, and current, winemaker is Chris Williams who took over from Giorgio in 2004 (he had worked as assistant winemaker from 1995 to 2000) and has also gained international experience working with Michel Rolland. Under Hannes and Chris some Petit Verdot was added to the Rubicon blend beginning with the 2008 vintage.
Meerlust Rubicon is available from Fareham Wine Cellar in Bottles and Magnums.
Wines tasted: 1986, 1991, 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015
Rubicon 1986 – 1986 was a great vintage in the Cape and this is a classic vintage of early Rubicon. 70% Cabernet Sauvigon, 20% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, 70% aged in new French oak. Reddish brown colour with orange hints. The nose is dominated by mature red fruits with hints of smokiness, cured meats, raspberry and hints of spice. Medium to full on the palate with mature red fruits. Complex and gamey with good acidity and length. Although clearly in the tertiary stage of its development, still quite lively.
Rubicon 1991 – One of the stand out vintages of the 1990s. 66% Cabernet Sauvigon, 22% Merlot and 12% Cabernet Franc, aged for 18 months in Nevers oak barrels. Dark red brown colour. Hints of dark fruit aromas, cedar and coffee on the nose – the Cabernet Sauvignon is dominant. Full and rich on the palate with flavours of dark fruits, prunes, raisin and a hint of spicy liquorice. Soft and silky, yet dense, complex and concentrated. Balanced acidity and very good length.
Rubicon 2001 – One of Giorgio’s last vintages. 70% Cabernet Sauvigon, 15% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, aged in Nevers oak barrels for 24 months. Won the Pichon Longueville Trophy in 2006. Dark ruby colour, a touch of brown around the rim. The nose is packed with dark fruit, cassis and smoky aromas with some farmyard-y notes. The palate demonstrates more dark fruits, cherry and mocha character. It is supple but there is still a grip in the tannins and a pleasing dryness. Really good acidity and very good length. Fresh.
Rubicon 2005 – Chris Williams’ second vintage. 69% Cabernet Sauvigon, 15% Merlot and 16% Cabernet Franc, aged 24 months in French oak barrels (75% new Nevers oak, 25% second fill Nevers and Alliers oak). Hannes describes the 2005 as an “exceptional vintage”, on a par with the 1991 and the 2015. Good dark ruby red colour. The nose has aromas of dark fruit, cassis, black cherries with a hint of cedar as well as mocha notes. The palate has more rich and dark fruit character, it is opulent with good, grippy tannins. Great length and very good acidity.
Rubicon 2010 – Ideal climatic conditions with good winter rains. Another classic vintage. 62% Cabernet Sauvigon, 24% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, aged 21 months in French oak barrels (60% new Nevers oak, 40% second fill Nevers and Alliers oak). Dark red / purple colour. The nose has dark fruit notes with lifted red fruit notes, red plums, hints of violet and spicy, cedar nuances. The palate is full and balanced with plenty of rich dark fruit character. Very rounded and balanced with good freshness. Not quite as grippy as the 2005.
Rubicon 2015 – Pre-release sample, bottled November 2017. 61% Cabernet Sauvigon, 23% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot, aged 17 months in French oak barrels. Chris Williams counts this, along with the 2009, as his two favourite Rubicons so far, describing it as this stage in its development as “brooding and aloof”. Youthful, dark ruby red / purple colour. Lots of red fruit aromas with cedar-y, vanilla, oak notes. The palate is full, rich and concentrated. There are dark fruit fruit flavours, mocha and savoury notes. Grippy tannins and very fresh acidity. A powerful wine.
A very interesting exercise and a privilege to try these fantastic older vintages. Across the range I was struck by the freshness and good acidity in all of the wines. The mellow, softer, mature fruits of the older wines give way to darker fruit and coffee / chocolate naunces in the younger wines. The 2010, the first vintage we tried with Petit Verdot in the blend, has definite floral / violet notes that I always associate with Petit Verdot. My favourite wine was probably the 2001, a good balance of maturity and grip. This was also a good reminder of the fact that there really is no substitute for age. In an ideal world it we would be drinking Meerlust Rubicon at 15+ years old, I urge you to find some room in your cellar now!