When the Myburgh family first purchased the Meerlust Estate in 1756, they could not possibly have predicted that the family would still be making some of the country's most prestigious wine there hundreds of years on (making it by far the longest family-run wine estate in the Cape), or that later generations would transform the landscape of South African wine production altogether. In fact, their estate has also been immortalised in art, painted by one of South Africa's most renowned artists, and in 1987 was declared a national monument.
It was actually a previous German owner who gave the estate its name. Meerlust means a yen for the sea, whether a vague longing from afar or a positive delight in being in, on or near it. A romantic poet might call it Sea Fever. At just 5km from False Bay, the estate's proximity to the ocean plays a huge part in its wine production: the ocean breezes and evening mists keep vineyard temperatures regulated during the hot, dry summers.
Drought-resistant clay and granite soils provide further natural assistance, but during the drier spells drip-irrigation is also used, causing the vines to dig deeper into the soils and resulting in grapes with higher individual character. The brilliant vineyard location and careful management encourage the grapes to ripen slowly, giving them greater complexity.
Until the 1960s, Meerlust participated in traditional South African viticulture, and therefore only grew grapes for sweet white wines. Not only did Meerlust replant their vineyards with much less common varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and pinot noir, they also adopted the almost unheard of approach of plot-by-plot vineyard management to allow the terroir to shine through.
100% of the grapes used are hand-cultivated directly from Meerlust's estate and leased vineyards next door. Meerlust is currently headed by eighth-generation Hannes Myburgh. Hannes studied oenology in Germany and gained experience working on prestigious vineyards, including first-growth Lafite in Bordeaux - a particularly helpful placement, as the terroir has similarities to that of Meerlust's in South Africa.
It was this discovery by Hannes' father Nico that led to the creation of the iconic Meerlust Rubicon. When he visited Bordeaux in the seventies, he realised that while their vineyards and soils were similar, unlike Meerlust their most successful wines were blends, and he took this inspiration back to Meerlust with him.
In 1980, after years of experimentation, he decided the ideal blend was 70% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot, 10% cabernet franc. The Rubicon is so-called because - like Caesar's decision to cross the river of the same name in 49BC - it marked a change in history, and this Bordeaux blend - the first of its kind in South Africa - was certainly a turning-point for South African winemaking.
Sticklers for quality, the Meerlust team has always insisted that Rubicon is only made in the very best years, and so in less favourable vintages (of which there have only been a few) all the wine is declassified to the Meerlust Estate Red. Normally made only from younger and less well-situated vines, this is half the price of its superior sibling (making it great value for money).
The winery is just as steeped in history as the rest of the estate: built in 1776, it was originally the wagon house before being used as the Meerlust cellars, and in 1974 it was refurbished with all the modern machinery needed to remain competitive as well as traditional. Today, the cellars are run by Chris Williams, who first worked for Meerlust in the early nineties and returned as cellarmaster in time for the 2004 vintage, helping them achieve awards year after year.