Refreshing to see that Michael Fridjhon’s contention in The Weekender that “the results of the annual WINE Magazine Lexus Shiraz Challenge reveal, a greater sense of coherence is beginning to emerge” is being challenged on the Grape website. Questions of a coherent style for SA Shiraz can hardly be answered at a competition in which over 80% of second round contestants got there by dint of being declared “seeded players” – presumably at least partly on the basis of performance at the Trophy Wine Show, a competition co-owned by Mike. On the contrary if you look at the judges’ scores, with chairman Mike negatively correlated with the result. But my main objection is to the whole concept of seeded players which makes a mockery of vintage variation and change of winemakers, a point I tried to make in a Sunday Times story on Meerlust that is being deliberately misrepresented in some anoraque circles.
When the Cape’s grandest first growth Meerlust was threatening Franschhoek Hans-come-lately Meerrust with legal action over its homophonic (at least for Japanese) brand name, UK wine writer Malcolm Gluck joked that Meerlust should change its moniker to “uitgelate hormone estate” – rampant hormone estate. Of course the name Meerlust had nothing to do with hormones, but rather the pleasures of the sea, a mere four Km from the historic manor house (or five, according to a well-known wine guide).
Yet with gifted young winegrower Chris Williams now firmly in control, the Meerlust flagship Bordeaux blend Rubicon does have something rampant about it. The last Rubicon made by Giorgio Dalla Cia was the seamless 2001 that trousered every trophy in sight including the mega gravitas Pichon Lalande Trophy for best Bordeaux blend at the International Wine & Spirit competition in London and was rated 27th best wine in the world for 2006 by Wine Enthusiast magazine. 2002 was declassified into Meerlust Red, a welcome admission of vintage variation that cost owner Hannes Myburgh a cool million according to informed urban legend.
The recently released 2004 vintage Rubicon is pure Chris: ripe, vibrant fruit along with “fresh acidity and linear, satin tannins” as the elegant little information booklet that accompanies a bottle, informs. A very fine wine indeed, but not a Giorgio Meerlust. If ever there was any doubt about terroir being a SCAM – the influence of Soil, Climate, Aspect (of vineyard) and Man – these two wines confirm that the greatest of these, to paraphrase St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, is Man.
First off, there is a definite textural difference: the 2001 has “vibrant grainy tannins” (Platter 2006) while the 2004 has the aforementioned “linear, satin tannins.” The Meerlust website talks of “an earthy minerality” in 2001 along with “cigar box, red earth and hints of minerality” whereas the 2004 focuses on fruit descriptors.
This shift of emphasis from minerals to fruit is no doubt helped along by a change of recipe: the 2001 is a 70:15:15 blend of Cabernet Sauvigon:Merlot:Cabernet Franc while in 2004 the ratios switch to 63:27:12. By almost doubling the Merlot contribution, Chris is certainly turning up the volume on plums and approachability. Not a bad thing to do as I’ve always thought Merlot was Meerlust’s strongest suit.
One obvious difference is an increase of 1% in alcohol level from 2001 to 2004 but perhaps the biggest chemical difference between the two wines is a more than 10% increase in pH from a remarkably low 3.4 in 2001 to a high 3.8 in 2004. The main tasteable difference between these two wines is an increased “tightness” and energy in the 2001. Higher levels of total acidity (6.1 g/l as opposed to 5.6 g/l in 2004) indicate that the 2001 will likely make older bones than its successor.
While vintage variation is one of the things that sets the fermented fruit of the vine in a class of its own when it comes to choosing something to drink, the intention of the winegrower is a powerful factor that should never be underestimated as this tale of two wines confirms. Rubicon lovers will be watching successive vintages with great interest.