Taking over as head winemaker at one of South Africa’s most iconic estates is challenging enough, but reinvigorating a brand with such a legacy takes skill, patience, tact and a lot of knowledge. As News editor Joanna Goodman discovered, Chris Williams, one of the Cape’s leading young winemakers, was just the man for the job.
The Meerlust Estate, ten miles south of Stellenbosch and just three miles from the sea, is wonderfully situated and enjoys a long-held reputation for producing wines of world-class quality. It was founded in 1693 and is currently in the safe hands of Hannes Myburgh whose family bought the estate in 1757. Hannes, himself a qualified winemaker, provides guidance and works closely with the winemaking team (he will be talking to members about his wines later this month at a tutored tasting in London). The wines, notably the top cuvée Rubicon, are probably the Cape’s best known and have earned a dedicated following around the world but particularly at home in South Africa. When long-standing head winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia decided to retire in 2004, Hannes was keen to get Chris Williams on board.
Chris was an obvious choice as, after graduating from Elsenburg College in Stellenbosch, he did his apprenticeship at Meerlust, working alongside Dalla Cia for six years. ‘I learned a lot from Giorgio when I was his assistant but I could also see that changes needed to be made. Everything has to change and new energy and new ideas are a good thing so long as they are tempered by reflection.’ When Chris came back to the estate in 2004 (after working in Europe alongside, among others, Michel Rolland and developing his own wine, The Foundry, at home), he knew that he had to make the big changes in the first year. It would be much harder to persuade the accountants in particular to make some of the more radical changes later on.
The first year was about re-establishing Meerlust as a great producer with a big push over the following four years to modernise the wines by reviewing the processes in vineyard and cellar. The goal was to make them more vineyard-based. ‘We had to reinvigorate the brand for a younger population,’ Chris explained. ‘We made a conscious effort to become more open, encouraging visitors to the estate and introducing cellar-door sales.’ In order to concentrate on what they do best and play to the strengths of the vineyards, they decided to discontinue some wines.
What changes did he make to the wines to appeal to a younger generation? And when it came to their flagship wine, Rubicon, wasn’t there a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? ‘Younger drinkers like a more youthful tasting wine and we haven’t turned off older drinkers who are happy to cellar their wines,’ Chris explained. ‘We have worked hard to produce a wine that is soundly traditional but with more generosity of fruit.’
One of the ways they have achieved this is to use a mobile bottling line rather than bottling off-site, giving them more control over what happens to the wines.
But Chris is most excited about the work that has taken place in the vineyards which will be of more long-term benefit. ‘I looked at the whole estate and grubbed up vines that were in the wrong place and those with viruses.’ Pinot noir was the easiest to deal with. They only have a few sites and as it’s such a sensitive variety it’s quick to show which changes work and which don’t – ‘the canary in the coalmine’ as Chris calls it. Though the estate is blessed with a variety of different soil types, limestone is not among them, so Chris had to content himself with replanting pinot in cooler sites.
Happily cabernet and merlot were largely in the right place. The decision was also taken to plant petit verdot on northfacing slopes. Chris says the good natural acidity of this variety will bring freshness to the Rubicon blend in which it is included from the 2008 vintage.
‘I also split up existing blocks of grapes and divided them into parcels. I’d noticed from working on the estate previously, for example, that there was a lot of variation in one of our blocks of cabernet.’ By using satellite technology and a GIS company (Geographic Information Systems) which mapped things like the colour of the leaves at different points in the day, combined with hands-on knowledge of the land, vines were identified that behaved differently within the plots. ‘It’s easy to get all this information,’ Chris pointed out, ‘but making a rational decision based on the data takes a long time.’
Dividing up the vineyards this way gave the winemaking team a lot more parcels to play with, allowing the blends to be fine-tuned in a way they hadn’t been before. ‘It made the process more complex but the improvements in quality were exponential,’ Chris told us.
New technologies have complemented generations of handed-down knowledge in other ways too. Because Meerlust is so close to the ocean, the weather is a lot more varied than in other parts of the Cape and although analysis of the weather is more scientific these days, predictions of heatwaves being much more accurate, for example, there is no substitute for local knowledge: ‘The Myburgh family goes back generations, they have information on the weather built up over hundreds of years and Hannes knows that if the wind is coming in from a certain direction it means rain; you can’t beat that kind of instinct.’
And it’s thanks to the vision of Hannes’ father that Meerlust has the portfolio of grapes that it does. He foresaw the demand for red wines and realised that Meerlust, with its climate (similar to that of great years in Bordeaux), was suitable for cabernet sauvignon. Before the 1960s, grapes were predominantly white and were sold out of the estate for production elsewhere. Meerlust’s name was made by the cabernet vines planted in the ’60s and ’70s. By the ’80s unfortunately many were virus-affected and had to be pulled out. ‘Luckily the older vines have been protected’ Chris said, ‘but we have had to be really careful. I’m looking forward to the next ten to fifteen years when the big changes we have made will really pay dividends.’
And what of that other great visionary, Michel Rolland with whom Chris worked in Bordeaux? ‘I realised that a lot of what Michel does wouldn’t work in South Africa, but I learned a lot about his philosophy, that wine should be about enjoyment. Also, many of the principles he advocates are applicable to my work here, in particular the goal of producing wines with a generosity of fruit and with a silkiness of tannin that bear the hallmark of where they come from.’