Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wine Tasting & Vineyard Tour at Meerlust Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa

Sept. 29, 2012 - After breakfast, we spent an hour shopping in downtown Stellenbosch. This is a charming town with historic buildings, tree-lined streets, and fun shops. It is a great place for tourists, and is also home to the famous Stellenbosch University.

Next we drove to Meerlust Wine Estates near the town of Stellenbosch. Here over fifty palm trees line the driveway as you entered the gates and approach the historic Cape Dutch Architecture of the winery (see photo). Even the rain that spattered our windshield could not dampen our spirits as we passed the vineyards and a large pond on the right with over fifty different birds and a magnificent black and white South African Fish Eagle posed on a tree branch.

Chris Williams, Meerlust winemaker and MW candidate, welcomed us as we alighted from our vans and ushered us into the barrel room where a long table with white tables clothes and wine glasses was set for twenty people (see photo).

Brief History of Meerlust

As we settled into our seats, Chris provided a quick overview of the history of Meerlust, which is one of the oldest and most historic wineries in South Africa, established in 1692. The name “Meerlust” means “Pleasure of the Sea,” which is an apt name because it is located 3.5 kilometers from False Bay, which is part of the Atlantic Ocean. Meerlust comprises 400 hectares, of which 110 are planted to vineyards. It bottles, on average, 50,000 cases of 100% estate wines annually. Grape varieties include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cab franc on the warmer valley floor, and chardonnay and pinot noir in the cooler climate and higher elevation (1000 meters) of the hills. These higher points are also accosted by the “Cape Doctor” - the southeast wind that sweeps across this part of Africa – effectively cooling these vineyards further.

Chris informed us that in 1756 the estate was purchased by the family of the current owner, Hannes Myburgh. Hannes is the 8th generation to manage the estate, and is apparently a shy reclusive person whom we did not meet, but apparently cooked our complete lunch and brought it into the barrel room, hidden behind a base cap, and then departed. When Chris told us this, it just made me want to meet Hans even more!

Through most of its history, Meerlust was known for producing sweet white wines, which were popular at the time, and also used as a medicine for sailors to combat scurvy. However, in the 1960’s, on his Gap year (a year which many Europeans, South Africans, Australians, and New Zealanders have between high school and university in which they travel the world), Hans went to Bordeaux and Burgundy and fell in love with their wines. He returned to the estate and tried to convince his father to switch to dry reds, but when he refused, Hans purchased the farm and replanted the vineyards.

In 1974 the winery was one of the first in South Africa to modernize with stainless steel tanks and cooling systems. From 1975 – 1980, they began to establish their reputation as a high quality producer of cabernet sauvignon. Then in 1980 they introduced Rubicon – a Bordeaux blend – which has become their flagship. (Interestingly they have recently come to a collegial co-marketing agreement with Rubicon Estates in Napa Valley, owned by Francis Ford Coppola. Both wineries are allowed to use the name “Rubicon” when selling on the international market but must also include the winery estate name on the label.)

Tasting of Six Meerlust Estate Wines

Christ poured six wines from the estate, and then kindly gave us some quiet time to taste and evaluate them. Then we reviewed each wine as a group. The line-up included:

• 2010 Meerlust Chardonnay
• 2011 Meerlust Pinot Noir
• 2009 Meerlust Merlot
• 2009 Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon
• 2007 Meerlust Rubicon
• 2005 Meerlust Rubicon

Of these my favorite was the 2005 Meerlust Rubicon, which was amazingly fresh for its age with ripe red berries, herbs, and cassis. This followed through on the palate with spice, pepper, big tannins, high acid, and a very long finish. Chris said it was 70% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot, and 10% cabernet franc with two years aging on 70% new French oak and 2 years in bottle. In general Rubicon is designed to be aged 7 to 8 years before opening. Interestingly the 2007 was not nearly as fresh, and instead had a stewed earthy note with big chalky tannins, which Chris explained was due to a cooler vintage, whereas 2005 was quite warm.

Excellent Lunch at Meerlust

After the tasting huge platters of sliced beef with white mustard sauce appeared on a banquet table, along with loaves of freshly baked bread, butter, vegetables and rice. For dessert we had Slow Cooked Poached Pears and Cambrinie – a local cheese that is a combination of brie and camembert. We enjoyed this feast with the Rubicon and other wines from the tasting.

A Walk in the Vineyards

Fortunately by the time we finished lunch the rain had abated and we were able to walk a short way from the cellar to a near-by cabernet sauvignon vineyard. Chris said it was planted in 1994, and the vines showed their age with thick shaggy trunks and spur-pruned cordons spread bi-laterally along a VSP trellis system. The spacing was 1 meter by 2.5 meters and the soil an alluvial deposit called Dundee soil. Chris said it was quite fertile and produced vigor in the vines, which required much thinning of shoots, leaves and clusters to control. The vines are irrigated as they only receive 500 – 600 ml of rain each year. The farming method is luttee raisonee, though Chris said he is pushing toward all organic practices. Indeed the vineyard had a healthy cover crop of wheat that they will disk in soon, with further plans to use organic fertilizer.

Fair Trade Practices at Meerlust

Though not Fair Trade certified, Chris reported that Meerlust has adopted many of the practices, which include providing support for schooling, health insurance, housing, and other social services for the workers on the estate. Meerlust currently has 35 families, many who have been with them for 8 centuries. Each family is provided a house on the property free of rent, as well as basic healthcare, and subsidized utilities and schooling.

They have recently started a new trust company with two other wineries called Meerlust Logistics, which handles packaging and shipping for all wines. The workers are trained to manage and operate the company, and so far it is working very smoothly and is already profitable.

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