These notes accompany a in-depth feature on South Africa 2010. For profiles of all 30 estates visited please see Regional report: South Africa 2010.
Ataraxia’s vineyards lie at 450 metres above sea level, and close to the cooling influence of the ocean. “It was 25c yesterday in Cape Town,” says winemaker Kevin Grant (below), “but only 22c at out farm.” That relatively small but crucial difference is one secret to Ataraxia’s very refined wines, but so are the variety of soil types, which allow him to make wines he describes as being “the expression of ancient soils”.
Grant says he spends an enormous amount of time sourcing fruit from specific vineyards – vineyards that are special because of altitude, Ataraxia’s own vineyards are composed of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as these are the grapes that suit their soils. Sauvignon Blanc is sourced from contract farmers. “We are a beer drinking, relatively unsophisticated market,” says Grant, which he says explains the appeal of Sauvignon Blanc: “it appeals because it is fresh, crisp and undemanding. “Unfortunately to meet that demand a lot of Sauvignon has been planted where it does not belong.” That, he says, forces winemakers to harvest early in hot climates to retain freshness, and the wines do not last. “The motto is ‘drink young’,” he says, “but we don’t necessarily believe that: our 2007 is drinking beautifully now.” Indeed, the Ataraxia Sauvignon Blanc seemns mineral driven, which Grant says is all down to the soils and climates from which he has sourced the grapes. “You can drink a bottle, not just a glass,” he says.
Warming to his theme, Grant moves on to Chardonnay. “Its future in this country has got to be focused on cooler styles, not the big nickerbocker glory fruit salad. We need to understand the personalities of our vineyards, ferment them separately and really understand what they give us. There’s no point putting a vineyard that gives a very delicate, floral Chardonnay and sticking it in high toast oak.” For his ‘Serentity’ blend, Grant refuses to name the four varieties in the mix. When people try to guess what varieties are in the blend he counters, “hold on, you are not tasting four wines, you are tasting one”. He thinks this need to identify the components is partly about confidence: “I’d like people to just taste the wine and make their mind up if they like it without being prompted by assuming whether they like or dislike the grapes.” What he does confirm is that the varieties change vintage by vintage – there were three varieties last year, seven varieties the year before.
2009 Sauvignon Blanc
All Elgin fruit as 2009 was a year of fires in Hemel-en-Aarde, so fruit not available. The wine spends five months in tank post-fermentation, with lees stirring. Very mineral, with no herbaceous aromas, but a citrus peel and gentle gooseberry and melon fruit. On the palate a lovely lime and lemon quality, a gentle ruby grapefruit character and plenty of tight, steely acidity. Intelligent stuff in a reserved style. 90/100. £11 Around 3,600 cases made.
100% barrel fermented, each barrel inoculated with yeast. “There is a small amount of spontaneous ferment that happens, but it is not predictable and is microbiologically dangerous in this climate”. Nine months in oak, 33% new, in uncooled barrel room that gets up to around 27c. Spontaneous malolactic, which Grant “doesn’t push if it doesn’t want to happen.” Lovely creamy cashew nose, with the nutty and very gently cappiccino oak marrying in to melon and orchard fruits. The palate has a big richness and weight. There’s a lemon and orange fruit at the core of this that gives lots of finesse. Tight and mineral in the finish, the wood definitely subdued by the fruit and acidity. Should last. 93/100. £18. Around 2,600 cases
Twelve months in barriques, 40% new. A Syrah based blend (I got that much out of Kevin Grant). Quite a delicate, spice and pepper nose. There’s a tightness about the fruit too, with some nice black berries. On the palate a real firmess at the core of this, a beautiful edge of cherry and plum skins, with nicely spicy notes and a firm core of something gravelly. Very fine. 92/100. Around 2000 cases.
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It’s a game-winning score at Scrabble, but if you think the name of the estate is a mouthful, wait until you see a lable, where iconoclast winemaker Bartho Eksteen (below) has insisted in using only Afrikaans. His logic, however, is impeccable: “Nobody has a problem with the top estates in France or Italy using their native language on the lablel.”
Eksteen and his business partners started HermanusPietersfontein in 2005 with a small cellar, but 2006 was the first vintage made in their winery on the outskirts of the town of Hermanus. The farm is remote – at the end of a 20 kilometre gravel road – so a visitor centre and winery that was more accessible has grown to become a foodie tourist attraction in its own right. Apart from a tasting room, there’s a food and wine market in the winery courtyard every Saturday where people come and sit under the umbrellas eating breakfasts, oysters, cheeses, homemade preserves and tasting local wines. “We can have 1000 people through on a Saturday,” says Eksteen. Hermanus Pieters was a Dutch teacher in the area, who started a sheep farm and discovered a spring where he would camp. In 1855 the town of was named Hermanus Pieter Fontein after him, and later shortened to Hermanus, so Eksteen’s label is a hommage to the town’s original name.
They have 64 hectares under vine. “I am a Sauvignon Blanc Freak,” says Eksteen, and that is the focus of the farm, with Rhône blends and some Bordeaux blends too. The company now has two farms, one owned and one leased, with different soils that suit the different varieties.
Die Bartho 2009
71% Sauvignon Blanc with 20% Semillon (five months in new and 2nd fill French oak), 9% Nouvelle. Fascinating nose, with big, grassy, punchy passionfruit and elderflower character and some creamy, lemon rind qualities with Granny Smith notes. The palate has delightful weight on the palate, with lovely citrus freshness, but also a waxy, mouth-coating weight. There’s a lovely zestiness to this, the grassy cut still there adding a vitality and new-mown freshness. 91/100. From next year the whole blend will go back into a foudre to marry together.
Die Martha 2006
A blend of fruit, mostly from Elgin and Walker Bay, dominated by 90% Shiraz with 8% Mourvedre and 2% Viognier. 20 months in new and second fill French oak. Lovely nose, tinged with coffee and spicy clove and herbal, thyme notes. Black cherries and a plummy quality, and plenty of oak here, but quite a balanced, cool style. The palate has very nice ripe cherry flavours, the oak very spicy and tannins very grippy, even a touch dry. It is not quite leathery, but has a fairly forceful, spicy finish where the quality and depth of fruit just about holds its own. Could be improved by a touch less oak I feel. 91/100.
Die Arnoldus 2006
A blend of around half Cabernet Sauvignon with smaller amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, and a small percentage of Petit Verdot. 24 months in new and second fill French oak. Unusual nose in some ways, with a slightly resinous, almost olive-like note quality that is fascinating but unexpected quality of oak I think. That quality comes through on the palate. Nice palate, with lots of smooth chocolaty fruit and lovely tannins. Long and delicious. 91/100.
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Newton Johnson is producing some of the most impressive wines of the region, all from its own domaine vineyards which are virus free and planted on virgin land. Winemaker Gordon Newton Johnson (pictured with his wife and assistant, Nadia) explained their farming philosophy: “We employ lots of biological controls,” he says, “including introducing populations of ladybirds and parasitic wasps to keep down virus and disease-carrying pests.” This means there is minimum requirement to spray insecticides in the vineyards: “The ladybugs do a better job of getting under foliage and cleaning things up than spraying ever could.”
Gordon’s father Dave Johnson and mother Felicity (née ‘Newton’) entered the wine business in the 70s, and whilst the family lavishes love and attention on Newton Johnson, they are significant players in the Cape, also part-owners of the giant “First Cape” brand. Newton Johnson is a very different proposition to the supermarket level First Cape however, importing barrels directly from a small coopers in Burgundy and practising high-density planting on their 18 hectare vineyard. A mix of soils across two sites – one north-facing and one south-facing – includes variable concentrations and depths of decomposed granite, quartz, and clay. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay remain the bedrocks of the small portfolio, but now Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Mourvèdre too. Bush-vine Grenache has recently been planted on very stony soils “It looks just like Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” says Gordon.
Newton Johnson “D” Chardonnay 2007
First bottling of estate fruit (D for Domaine). Quite a heavy, complex nose, with some vegetal but figgy notes. Nicely apply fruit with honey. Creamy and nicely buttery and cabbagey (in a Burgundian way) but not at all blowsy, with lovely acids and length. 90/100.
Newton Johnson “D” Pinot Noir 2008
From a single estate vineyard. Light, soft, oxidative colour. Beautifully soft, fudge and chocolaty nose with plenty of spice and a little gamy edge. Soft pulpy fruit adds to a mellow picture. The palate has a delicious harmony, with a soft red fruit and spice palate, good tannins and juicy cherry acidity the lengthens and freshens the finish. Delicate and a very beautiful. 93/100.
Newton Johnson Syrah Mourvèdre 2007
A blend of the three Hemel-en-Aarde appellations . Much more delicate, more subdued nose., but then pepper and spice is more apparent, and on the palate there’s no lack of fruit but a stylish, refined wine with lovely smoothness to the tannins. 91/100.
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Though Creation say their story is “as old as the hills,” in fact this is a new, boutique operation on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge that is for now off the beaten track along a dirt road that rises through increasingly cooler temperatures. Vineyards were planted here in 2003, with virus-free stock on virgin land. Winemaker JC Martin (right) says he has planted “A lot of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, a bit less Chardonnay,” though there is also some Semillon and, for red wines, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Grenache.
In fact Creation’s story leads back to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where winemaker JC and viticulturist Christoph Kaser met and first dreamed up the idea of making wines in the Cape. Creation wines does have a funky, welcoming tasting room and cafe, so a visit is well worth the trek, but then so are the wines which at this stage show real promise without competing with the Hemel-en-Aarde’s best. On this tasting, the cool conditions of the Ridge make their plantings of Bordeaux varieties somewhat ambitious in my opinion. During tasting, I questioned their decision to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in particular: “We strongly believe in Merlot for this region,” says JC, “and despite being a very popular cultivar, South Africa has almost no Merlot. I admit Cabernet is challenging, but maybe we need the vineyards to age to get the best from the variety.”
Creation Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Five clones of Sauvignon from estate vineyards with a touch of Semillon. Nice passionfruit notes, with a certain salty minerality and some leafy lime and lemon notes. Nice complexity on the palate, with lots of crowd-pleasing punch and verve. 88/100
Creation Chardonnay 2009
20% Vosges oak, 100% malolactic and no acid added. Only very gentle oak adding a little nutty edge, though not a fantastically aromatic nose. Nicely buttery and orange palate, with a strong mineral streak of acidity. Seems like a wine that needs to come together a little, but has very good components. 89/100
Creation Pinot Noir 2009
Picked fully ripe, but still has minerality and acidity. Lovely fragrance here, with floral notes and just a little hint of truffly earthiness over the spicy red fruit. The palate has a definite freshness and cut, with plenty of red fruit acidity and the spice coming through, giving this a firm finish, touched with liquorice and gravelly minerality. 90/100.
Creation Syrah Grenache 2008
14.5% alcohol, 12 months in barrels, 25% new. About 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache. Picked fully ripe, but still had to remove some acidity. Chocolaty and ripe, with a rounded cherryish and blackcurrant fruit and some charry oak notes. A big wine, huge and chocolaty, with the big espresso and thick, glossy black fruit New World character. Huge, but balanced and delicious of its style. 89/100.
Creation Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Petit Verdot 2008
A little touch of earthiness and a herbal background note, but nicely ashy and graphite qualities. The palate has a juiciness and nice supple roundness, maybe the sweet fruit butting against the tannin and oak a little, but should gain a little more integration and harmony in time. 89/100.
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I have visited Peter Finlayson before and met this pioneering presence of the Walker Bay area several times. He is a wonderfully laconic character who can appear quite sombre and perhaps a little too serious until his face cracks into a beaming smile. Peter was the first winemaker in the area, as winemaker for Hamilton Russell through the 1980s. He started Bouchard Finlayson in 1992 though today the company is owned by the same group that owns Red Carnation hotels in the UK and the Cape. Peter regrets to diversification of the region into Syrah and other varieties “we had the opportunity to become the Martinborough of South Africa,” he says, and it is clear that Pinot Noir is where his heart lies. “Sauvignon Blanc is our biggest selling wine,” he says with a shrug, “even though we are not really known as an Sauvignon producer. Fifty per cent of our grapes are Pinot Noir – but that produces only 15% of our wine.”
He believes strongly that Pinot will only perform in perfect conditions, and that yields need to be very low. “It’s a white wine variety that only produces reds under special conditions,” he half-jokes, indicating the delicate handling and respect he feels the variety deserves.
Bouchard-Finlayson Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Estate grown. Nice style this, with a gentle herbaceous quality and zesty lemon fruit. Some passionfruit in the background. The palate has a nice little pear drop character, with lots of racy fruit and zing, hints of tropicality melding with that lemon rind waxiness and a bit of bite. 89/100. £10.99
Bouchard-Finlayson Crocodile’s Lair Chardonnay 2008
From a contracted vineyard Peter has made the wine from since 1992. Kaimansgaat. Vineyards at 700 metres above sea level “like a Swiss mountain” from un-irrigated vines. A touch of apple, melon and almost creamy almond fruit. Nice little background of tangerine. On the palate the lemony precision of the fruit is lovely, with quite a full, textural palate and fine balance. Tight and very youthful, and again will benefit from a few months in barrel just to soften the tannins. 91/100.
Bouchard-Finlayson Pinot Noir 2009
Barrels from a very small cooper in Nuits St Georges who only makes 20 barrels per day. Very expressive black cherry fruit, delightful spice and a lovely fragrant quality of oak, with clove and Sandalwood and lots of delicate floral nuances. Lovely softness here on the palate, with the wood a little obvious at this stage, just a tiny hint of resinous quality, but that is merely youth. The firm, but charming black fruit, smooth tannins and juicy acidity adding up to a beautiful wine. Give this two to three years. 92/100. £25.00
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Founder Tim Hamilton Russell pioneered the Walker Bay, purchasing a virgin, 170 hectare property in 1975 after an exhaustive search to find a southerly location with a genuinely cool climate where he could grow Pinot Noir in particular. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first release, from the estate now owned and run by Tim’s son, Anthony Hamilton Russell. A shrewd businessman who seems to be constantly ‘on message’, Anthony stresses that Hemel-en-Aarde is an Area, not a Valley, the more recently planted Upper and Ridge appellations being carefully and diplomatically included at all times in his conversation. “The appellations are all maritime climates,” he says, “with a huge variety of soils – lighter soils in the Upper Valley, with the soils in the Valley and Ridge appellations with higher shale and high clay content.” Having originally put Walker Bay on the wine map, I ask if the new appellations might be a confusing move for consumers. “Walker Bay is a big area – as big as Stellenbosch – and we hope these three newer appellations will eventually mean something to the consumer.”
In the winery, Anthony is experimenting with the clay amphora similar to those seen in some other properties on this trip, his lined with clay from the property. They use natural yeasts found in the vineyard too, having identified and selected the most appropriate, and he cites early research on soils carried out in 1994 as important to the finesse of his wines today, with 16 different types of soil identified, the clay soils being “Very Burgundy-like.”
Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2008
A mix of blond barrels with no toast, through to medium toast. Beautifully Burgundian nose, with some fragrant notes to the nutty melon and apple fruit and a little mineral character. The palate has a lovely mouth-feel too, with a nicely sour lemon and apple quality. Very nice balanced wine with great length. 91/100.
Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2009
Very young, with quite a closed nose, but nice fragrance coming through with similar characters to the 2008. The Palate too has a lovely orangy burst of intense fruit and a lovely nuttiness in the finish. This has great promise and perhaps for me an even more shimmering quality that could see it nudge ahead in time. 91-92/100.
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2007
30% new wood. 10 parcels of Pinot, several different clones. Beautifully delicate colour. Anthony says is in a dumb period and will re-emerge with gamy characters. Nice cherry and savoury briar notes, but yes, quite subtle. The palate is lovely, with really nice fruit that is fleshy but not soft, with a real backbone of tannin and good acidity. 92/100.
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2008
Challenging vintage. Very low yields and declassified a lot of wine. More chocolate and brighter, more plump cherry and plum fruit. The oak seems more upfront, with char and toast. The fruit is very juicy and deliciously constrained by firm tannins and black plum tartness to the acidity. 92/100.
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2009
Fairly buoyant spice and cherry fruit, with graphite hints and plenty of clove like spice. The palate has a really firm edge at present. The char of the tight-grained oak, the liquoricy grip of the tannins and tight acidity adding a very firm, juicy character to this young wine. Promising. 91-92/100.
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“I will never add Viognier to my Shiraz,” says Niels Verburg (right, sandwiched between Kathy Jordan of Jordan Estate and Yvonne Le Riche of Le Riche Wines). Niels is a giant of a man, and the epitome of a ‘Luddite’ – short on BlackBerries and Ipods, big on ideas and wrestling something special from his Walker Bay vines. He warms to his theme: “Viognier always dominates too much and gets more and more obvious as the primary fruit of the Shiraz takes a back seat.” Indeed, Shiraz is the sole focus here, with a production that runs to little more than 20,000 hand-numbered bottles. Niels’ single-mindedness is shown by a decreased production from 24,000 bottles in 2005 to only 21,000 in 2006, as wine was sold off as “not good enough for Luddite.”
Niels started by buying all of his fruit, but now uses around 25% of grapes from his own farm, “but we will hopefully have 100% estate wine from 2012,” he tells me. He farms “close to organic,” in this dry region and is excited by his programme of ploughing the fynbos he uses as a cover crop back into the soil. “It will definitely affect the aromas and flavours in the wine,” he says with conviction. “There’s a particularly curry bush fynbos that is undeniably in the vineyard, and apparent in the wine.” He uses around 25% new oak, and then a range of older barrels, mostly French with some Hungarian and a few American barrels. “I’m obsessed with Shiraz. When I was younger I had no taste for beer, but I loved wine and grew up with favourite Shirazes, like those from Hartenberg.” He worked for seven years with Beaumont, whilst also travelling all over the Cape to find the best site for his Shiraz dream, finally settling on Walker Bay where he was the first to plant the variety.
Luddite Shiraz 2005
Very floral nose, hugely aromatic. Lots of lift and spice, bold red fruits. The palate has lots of creamy, soft fruit, but that spice, pepper and those firmer cherryish flavours really come through. It has layers of complexity, with cedar and spice, and really nice tannins adding a smooth, creamy but firm edge. Acidity is fresh, and the finish is long and balanced. 93/100. £19.99 – £24.99.
Luddite Shiraz 2006
Slightly more foursquare, with a more obvious layering of spice and Sandalwood, and more peppery and meaty notes coming through here. The palate has a more density than the 2005, at least at this stage, and there’s a sense of bigger, sweeter, more voluptuous wine here. Plenty of dry extract, but the sweetness is lovely. Bigger and quite different in many ways to the 2005, but a another lovely wine. 93/100.
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