Tim James: Some second-label Bordeaux-style reds
By Tim James, 23 January 2024
There are those who tend to avoid red wine in our hot summers. I’m not one of them, though there certainly is a higher proportion of white wine and beer sloshing around me than usual, while more of the reds I drink are, I suppose, of the lighter, less tannic kind that respond well to a degree of coldness. Obviously, the idea of “room temperature” for reds now is laughable, unless you happen to have American-style air-conditioning – so don’t feel shy, if a shoddy restaurant offers you a bottle of red at ambient temperature, to ask for an ice-bucket to cool it down; when it comes to a light cinsault for example, they should offer it to you pretty cold.
This last week in Cape Town has been particularly suited to icy beer, but I’d decided to bring out a few local Bordeaux-style red blends, and did so, well cooled – them, if not me. A pair of smart producers, with a first and a second label from each.
The idea of the “second label” has been most associated with Bordeaux. In the good old days when there were vintages that varied greatly in quality, it was manifestly a good idea to have somewhere to put the lesser wine while maintaining the lofty standard, if possible, of the grand vin. A few of the most prestigious chateaus (Latour and Marguarx) now even have third labels. Having different varieties which might perform differently in a particular vintage was another element to the strategy, of course.
With the price of the highest levels of Bordeaux being so absurdly high, the top second labels now also achieve commensurate prices, and there are second labels from even modest producers. It’s clear that, while the second labels are still useful repositories for younger vines or less ideally situated ones for the grand producers, it’s mostly a simpler question of marketing and selling the stuff as best you can.
The strategy in the Cape (and the New World generally), where few wineries specialise in a single wine – and where vintage variation was not as marked as it was in Europe up to recent decades – has inevitably been different. Where the blend was the red with most prestige, as was generally the case here, the “second” wines tended to be the mono-varietals – from cabernet sauvignon and merlot particularly. (Thelema was unusual in that its blend, Rabelais, only arrived comparatively recently to leapfrog the cab and merlot in price.)
More recently, stimulated by the upsurge in wine prices, the movement of some producers has been in the other direction. Instead of the Bordeaux idea of bringing out more of a second label in poorer vintages, there’s increasingly the concept of bringing out a pricey super-first-label in particularly propitious years – take Delaire Graff Laurence Graff Reserve and Tokara Telos for example. In that way, closer to traditions of top-flight Spain and Italy than Bordeaux.
Meerlust has been an interesting case. They used to be typical in having their Bordeaux-style blend, Rubicon, at their summit, with varietal cab and merlot in attendance, as it were. But they were virtually unique in South Africa in just occasionally, in vintages they deemed not up to their high standard, downgrading (“declassifying” in European terms) Rubicon to, simply, Meerlust Red. A few years ago, they decided to offer both, making Red their first genuine “second label’, to Rubicon. It seemed a good idea to try them together.
A much more established first/second label pairing comes from Buitenverwachting, with Christine and Meifort. I thought they’d offer a useful comparison.
Both Meerlusts are 2020. They have much in common, unsurprisingly, with a modern ripe plushness, but more restraint than many Stellenbosch such blends – they declare 14% alc, and the oaking is subtle, showing more in the cedary tannins of Rubicon; there’s no wish to impose. The Red has a bigger proportion of merlot and is certainly rather more sweet-fruited, less intense and less structured. Rubicon is quite firmly built, though easy-going and polished enough to be happily drinkable in youth. It’s often the case with Bordeaux that it’s really a good idea to drink a second label while waiting for the grand vin to mature and thus justify its price – and, frankly, to become enjoyable. There’s an element of that here: at about R550, Rubicon is twice the price of Red, but it’s not just a question of drinking the Red now and waiting for Rubicon to lose that edge of youthful rawness – because, in fact, Rubicon is already so approachable and is already a much more complex and interesting and complete wine.
I suspect that sort of difference marks what is going to be a continuing strategy at Meerlust. With Buitenverwachting considerations are a bit different. Current release of Christine is 2016, so you’re getting the benefit of more maturity than is usually the case, which helps especially with a big wine like this. In fact the 2016 is much less ripe, bold and blockbusterish than was the 2015 – and than the top Buitenverwachting reds usually are. I like it very much. There’s more savoury character than Rubicon – which is so much younger, of course, but I think the tobacco, cedar and dried herbal note are always more present, and part of the complexity. It is also a touch drier-finishing than many – most – of the Stellenbosch cab-based wines, including the two Meerlusts tasted here. But I must stress that the 2016 is lighter than usual and, for me, all the better for it. It’s the same sort of price as the Meerlust and, given the softening of the tannins and an increase in complextity that has come with those extra four years, it comes across as a particularly good buy.
Good buy is undoubtedly the epithet for Meifort (the 2020 tasted), which stands, for me, alongside Kanonkop Kadette Cabernet Sauvignon as perhaps the best value around in Cape cab-based wines. R160 from the farm, a bit more retail. Very drinkable now, though more structured and a touch darker and deeper than Meerlust Red, drier and more complex. At 14.5% alcohol the highest of this quartet, but it is not at all too big and bold. A model second label.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.
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