Why the are like U2 Albums
Fame, Familiarity & a touch of Ferris Bueller
This bottle of wine got me thinking. Whether discussing aging irish rockers or Stellenbosch stalwart Meerlust Estate, the verdict is the same. Amidst circles of the painfully cool and calculatedly jaded, it is common place to treat them both as cannon fodder for a barrage of snide remarks, and subsequently write them off as irrelevant artefacts of a bygone political era.
Of course, every now and then, they garner an accolade, and the fashion police are forced to reluctantly tip the cap, but are sure to restore the sardonic status quo as quickly as possible.
Most recently, it was the Rubicon 2015 that was impossible to ignore. The lever by which the veil of disdain was compulsorily lifted. Between @GregSherwood’s 97-point plaudit, and winemaker Chris Williams claim of “best vintage ever”, there was indeed some reluctant applause. But while that may be the wine that everyone is talking about, it was this 1999 Chardonnay that gave me pause.|
The Familiarity Fallacy
With just short of 20 years on this Chardonnay, it presented as pure silk. Palate was laden with exquisitely preserved stewed apples, and burnt citrus marmalade. Cutting through the core was an enormously elegant caramelised lime zest acidity, and temporally-induced signs of decay were as absent as Ferris Bueller on his day off. The finish carried tasteful use of toasted oak, and the aforementioned citrus preserve lingered on the tail longer than than a coldsore on a Corinthian cortisan.
This was a vivid sensory reminder that Meerlust have been producing masterful wines for decades (the first Rubicon was released in 1980) and the brand is about as close to iconic as South African wines can get. Yet, it would seem, amongst folk who know that they know, that this is not even worth mentioning.
It’s as if we’re bored of Meerlust.
Which is weird, considering that the rest of the world can’t shower enough accolades on this estate. The Rubicon has won the Internationally renowned Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande trophy for best red blend; it was listed in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 red wines – twice – and Decanter Magazine voted it “Best New World Red”. Now that’s no one-hit wonder, by any stretch of the imagination. On top of this, in 2007, Hannes Myburgh was enrolled into the Vinitaly’s Roll of Honour in Verona, Italy. Now, one might be tempted to ask, “Okay, Han, why are you getting your utility belt in a bunch?” Everyone knows that a prophet is not without honour, except in his home town?”
Well, perhaps the frustration is due to the fact that, at every wine gathering I attend, wine exporters and marketers bemoan how South African wines are misunderstood and undervalued, and how much work must be done in order to shift the perception at the top end of South African wine. BUT… on the local front, when we are confronted by wines that have a genuinely developed international following, we almost resent their success. We are certainly always the last to sing their praises, and even when we do, it is, at best, in the form of an unthinking reproduction of a press release written by a reluctant intern. I need to work through a few more glasses before I get my head around that one.
More questions than answers
So why the disdain? At what point does the success of a producer (and subsequent growth of the business) begin to translate into a disqualification in the mind of the critic? The Rubicon is arguably one of our most internationally-lauded bottlings, and the 2015 I mentioned earlier has been described as “on par with the very best Cru Classe wines produced in Bordeaux… at a fraction of the price”, yet very little is said about it locally. Perhaps the fact that Greg Sherwood is based abroad, gives him the necessary critical distance to recognise the merit, and give credit to a wine that not only delivers incredible quality, but does so in decent quantities too. And (not that this should be a factor) Meerlust do all this at a price that is comparatively cheap as chips, when laid alongside the Mullineuxs, Ken Forresters, and VillaFontés of the world. At the start of this article, I said that the 1999 Chardonnay got me thinking. I didn’t say that it gave me answers. So to any of you who made it this far through my ramblings, I’d greatly value your insight into why we tend to (rather illogically) begin to cast suspicion onto a producer as they become more established?