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Meerlust's Rubicon: A South African Icon
By Michael Apstein
Oct 9, 2018
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“He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” quipped Hannes Myburgh, the 8th generation of the family that owns Meerlust, in response to a potential conflict with Francis Ford Coppola over names.  Coppola and his wife own the legendary Napa Valley Winery, Inglenook, whose flagship red wine is also labeled Rubicon.  As if the allusion to Coppola’s Godfather wasn’t enough, he added with a chuckle, “Plus, I didn’t want to wake up with a horse’s head in my bed.”

Michael Franz, my friend and colleague here at WRO, convincingly explained in a recent column that, “South Africa has now clearly joined the ranks of the world’s very best wine producing countries.” While I agree with that assessment of South African wines in general, to be fair, Meerlust’s Rubicon has always been one of the world’s very best red wines.  And a fabulous value as well--the 2014, the current vintage, lists for a nationwide average of $33, according to Wine-Searcher.com.  I base my assessment of Rubicon on an almost two-decade experience with the wine: A visit to Meerlust in 2000, a meeting and tasting with Myburgh in Boston in 2009, and a recent vertical tasting of Rubicon with him in New York.

Meerlust’s Rubicon, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux blend, combines the best of both worlds:  The elegance and breeding of the Old World and the fleshy fruitiness of the New.  What’s particularly impressive is how they have maintained their style over the decades and not been seduced into believing that bigger is better.  The newer vintages have remained graceful, delivering restrained black and red fruit flavors intertwined with savory, non-fruit elements.  This stylistic consistency is all the more distinctive because it has persisted despite the new winemaker, Chris Williams, who took over for Giorgio Dalla Cia, Rubicon’s co-founder along with Nico Myburgh, Hannes’s father, and stayed for 23 years.  Similar to other world-class Cabernet-based wines, Meerlust’s Rubicon takes at least a decade to blossom and then continues to evolve for another decade or so, in my experience.

Although the Myburgh family purchased the farm, as South Africans refer to their estates, from Meerlust’s founder, German immigrant Henning Huising, in 1756, the focus on grapes for wine dates to the 1960s when Nico planted Cabernet Sauvignon.   Located just south of Stellenbosch and only 3 miles from False Bay and the Antarctica-influenced currents of the Indian Ocean beyond, Hannes Myburgh notes that their vineyards are considerably cooler than those further inland.  He attributes the alluring bouquet of Rubicon to what he calls, “this natural air conditioning” because aromatics are not, as he puts it, “boiled off.”  Certainly, I find an underlying freshness and vivacity characteristic of all the vintages I’ve tasted over the years.

A trip to France in 1967 inspired Nico to make a Bordeaux blend because he was struck by the similarities in climate, maritime influences, and soil between that region and his own.  He had already planted Cabernet Sauvignon at Meerlust, and in the 1970s, added Merlot and Cabernet Franc in 1974, making him one of the first to introduce Bordeaux varieties to South Africa in a meaningful way, according to Hannes.  Dalla Cia, a talented winemaker, joined the team in 1978 and started working on the blend.  Though 1978 was a fine vintage, Nico and Giorgio felt it was not up to snuff for their first release. The 1979 vintage was ruined by rain, which meant the 1980, which they released in 1983 and started the tradition of holding the wine back in bottle, was Rubicon’s first. Hannes emphasizes that his father, Nico, and Giorgio made the perfect team--Nico was a great farmer and Giorgio a great winemaker.  The idea of a blended wine at that time in South Africa was unheard of--“a pioneering event”--and met with great skepticism, according to Hannes and gave rise to the name, Rubicon, or no turning back.

Working only with estate-grown grapes, Rubicon is usually a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (70%) and equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  The variation of soil types on the roughly 300 acres of vineyards is ideal for a Bordeaux blend.  Merlot and Cabernet Franc are well-suited to the clay from an alluvial deposit, while Cabernet Sauvignon likes the granite gravel washed down from the nearby mountains. Starting with the 2008 vintage, Rubicon contains a little Petit Verdot.  All the grapes are grown on the estate and hand-harvested separately.  Fermentation occurs in stainless steel vats using both indigenous and commercial yeast before aging in a combination of new and older French oak barrels.

Rubicon, Meerlust’s flagship, is their focus and comprises about half of their 33,000-case total annual production.  What grapes do not make the cut for Rubicon, will be bottled as Meerlust Merlot, which also contains a bit of Cabernet Franc, or Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon.  Rubicon is not produced every year.  In some vintages, such as 1985, 1990, 2002, and 2011, it is all declassified and sold, only in South Africa, as Meerlust Red.

My recent vertical tasting of Rubicon, the 1991, 2001, 2010, 2005, 2014 and 2015 vintage, with Myburgh tells the wine’s story succinctly. 

The cedar-y 1991, made by Dalla Cia was, perhaps, just a touch past its prime.  Graceful and long, with plenty of vivacity, it was still a pleasure to drink (90 points).

The 2001, also made by Dalla Cia, was spectacular (96).   Though more full-bodied and powerful that its decade-older brother, it nonetheless retained elegance and balance.  The savory, “not just fruit” character shined and became more apparent as it sat in the glass.  It confirmed for me that 10 to 20-years of age was just right for Rubicon.

The 2005, made by Williams, who had worked with Dalla Cia for years and was his protégé, was the ripest of this line up and maybe just a touch over-ripe.  Perhaps this resulted from the new winemaker trying for more extraction and power.  Even the tannins were ever so slightly more coarse than usual.  Interestingly, I had the same impression of the wine when I tasted it in 2009.  Still, it’s an exercise in counting angels on the head of a pin.  I’d be delighted to drink it with a steak tonight (90).

Williams dialed it back with the 2010.  It had Beethoven-like gusto but all the notes were clear and precise, with impeccable balance between the savory and fruity elements.  The flavors exploded on the palate without a trace of heaviness.  The tannins were, characteristically, very fine, lending beautiful structure without even a hint of aggressiveness (95).

The 2014, currently on the market, is a wonderful youthful wine (93). Balanced and fresh, it has the Rubicon hallmark of gracefulness, which makes it accessible and enjoyable now.

Williams and his team will release the majestic 2015 shortly.  It’s just a slightly larger version of the 2014, still balanced and elegant, but with a bit more of everything--fruitiness, a savory leafiness, and engaging aromatics (95).

In summary, Rubicon has a Bordeaux-like complexity and refinement.  Even in the young versions, the tannins are very fine.  The balance of the young wines--the 2014 and 2015--means they, like all great wines, are a delight to drink now, even though they have not reached their peak.  These are not the “powerhouse” kind of New World Cabernet-based wines, yet they pack plenty of oomph.  They wow you with their grace and elegance.  Oh, and let me remind you of the price--$33 for the 2014!

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E-mail me your thoughts about South African wines in general or Meerlust in specific at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

October 10, 2018