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Rustenberg John X Merriman vertical with Adi Badenhorst

I visited Rustenberg back in December 2005, when I met with winemaker Adi Badenhorst (above) Ė you can read the report elsewhere. I was genuinely impressed: the wines were really good, and for all his blokeishness, dudery and joking, Adiís quite a serious person who knows his stuff. He was in London in May 2007 to show off a vertical of John X Merriman, a pivot in the Rustenberg portfolio thatís made in reasonable quantities, is affordable (GB retail is £9.99, agency is Seckfords and itís stocked by Waitrose among others) and ageworthy.

Rustenberg is a large (1200 hectares) old estate in the heart of the Stellenbosch region dating back to the 17th century. It began bottling on the estate in 1892, so it has the distinction of being the Cape estate with the longest bottling history. There are wines in the cellar from the 1950s which still taste good.

Adiís background is farming. His father was a farmer at Groot Constantia, and also worked at Buitenverwachting. Adi went to the University of Stellenbosch where he failed to get a degree, so instead he turned to farming vegetables and parrots. Then he went to Elsenberg college where he got his diploma in enology. He got a job in Groote Post, and then in 1999 started at Rustenberg.

ĎThe longer you stay at a place the more you realize that you have to do less, and concentrate on understanding the vinesí, says Adi. ĎIt takes 10 years to understand an estate and see whatís going on.í His assertion is that itís only experience with different vintages that allows a winemaker to observe whatís happening in the vineyard and then use this information to shape the winemaking approach.

Winemaking at Rustenberg is uncomplicated and quite natural in its approach. Yeast isnít added, and sulfur dioxide is only added once the malolactic fermentation has finished. Adi tried prefermentation maceration and didnít really like it, so now he uses a post-ferment maceration, tasting all the time to see when the right time is to press. Heís not worried by low acids in particular batches, because he can balance things out at blending.

Interestingly, he tried sorting grapes using a triage table beginning with the 2002 vintage, but then decided to abandon it. Doing comparisons of the wines made with sorting grapes and without showed Adi that the resulting wines look better immediately after theyíve been made, but then a short while later he prefers the wines made from unsorted grapes.

He blends early, after malolactic. The John X Merriman is a blend of some 60Ė70 components, because each lot is processed separately: most of the vineyards are picked 2 or 3 times, and then the press fractions are dealt with differently. The wine is egg white fined and bottled without filtration.

1999Ė2001 were Merlot dominated; 2002/3 were Cabernet dominated and 2004/5 were Merlot dominated again. Itís an impressive line-up of wines, and all the more so considering that these are quite affordable.

Rustenberg John X Merriman 1999
64% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc. A warm vintage that was highly rated: high yields but good concentration and structure. Quite rich, dark and tarry with a subtle herby edge. Itís smooth and dark and classy. The palate is smooth and spicy with a nice earthy edge to the dark fruits. Developing nicely with good structure. Very good/excellent 89/100

Rustenberg John X Merriman 2000
A very difficult vintage affected by fires: they had to be very selective with the harvest. Quite smooth and dark on the nose which leads to a soft, spicy open palate with a subtle green spicy finish. This is mature now and drinking quite nicely. Very good+ 86/100

Rustenberg John X Merriman 2001
Ardi says this is a beautiful wine and that heís always loved this vintage. I think itís the best of the bunch. Sweet blackcurrant fruit nose with a faint gravelly edge. Lovely weight on the palate which is dense and spicy, with good structure. Thereís gravelliness adding freshness and balance to the dense fruit. Very good/excellent 92/100

Rustenberg John X Merriman 2002
A tricky vintage that was affected by some rain. Quite tannic and dry, with the fruit having receded a bit. Lots of spice and a hint of sweetness. Nicely savoury: quite tasty, but probably not a long liver. Very good+ 87/100

Rustenberg John X Merriman 2003
Regarded by many in South Africa as a really great vintage. Sweet, dark, smooth black fruits nose. Lovely concentration on the palate. This is quite a fresh, well defined style with a subtle chalky minerally edge to it. Nice earthy finish. Very good/excellent 90/100

Rustenberg John X Merriman 2004
Lovely earthy spicy structure. Itís quite a tight wine with some chalky, gravelly spiciness countering the smooth blackcurrant fruit. Really nice with big structure. Very good/excellent 91/100

Rustenberg John X Merriman 2005
Bottled in January, but not released at the time of the tasting. This shows concentrated, smooth, ripe fruit with a nice dark spicy structure. Ripe with some chalky minerality: almost lush. A nice forward style, with just a hint of greenness that works in the context of this wine. Very good+ 88/100  

Wines tasted May 2007

See also: south african wines, visit to rustenberg

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