Expect the Unexpected 11 March 2020

One day a copywriter briefed to produce a pay-off line for the Cape wine industry might try to get away with the old chestnut “expect the unexpected.” He wouldn’t be wrong. A few weeks ago I attended a tasting organised by a distributor handling wines from a number of small to mid-size wineries. There were only a couple of new brands. Most of what was available came from relatively well-known producers. I planned a quick circuit of the room before heading off.

It didn’t turn out like that: most of the wines I sampled were really arresting. Admittedly I was being selective, looking for blends I hadn’t tasted before, cellars whose production had been erratic or irregular, winemakers committed to innovative vinification strategies. From the very first wine – a chenin blanc from a small Paarl property – I realised that this wasn’t going to be an early evening.

Brookdale has had wines in the market since the 2016 vintage. Initially these were made by Duncan Savage, formerly of Cape Point Vineyards. Now Kiara Scott, his protege, is the winemaker. Her 2018 Mason Road unwooded Chenin was the first wine to stop me in my tracks. Mason Road is Brookdale’s second label, and the chenin, which sells for around R100, was misleadingly easy drinking. On closer examination the wine turned out to be far more complex. There’s real intensity of fruit, remarkable clarity and purity, and quite extraordinary persistence. It was difficult to imagine what the 2017 Brookdale Chenin, the more serious offering, could offer to justify its price premium.

As it happens, the moment you taste the Brookdale (which sells for over R200) you know why: it’s richer, denser and more layered. The oaking is evident but it does not overwhelm the fruit. There’s real palate weight, but it comes nuanced and refined. The Mason Road can be quaffed; the Brookdale demands that you take it seriously.

Then there was Matthew van Heerden’s 2016 Chardonnay. In many ways it has the same charms as the Mason Road: real fruit intensity, no obvious dependence on oak, pure and linear. Too many chardonnays are over-worked and overdone. Unfortunately, many of those which aren’t are simply insubstantial – which is not a criticism you could offer of this wine. There’s a world of difference between “pretty but unmemorable” and “surgically precise.” There’s a flinty, concentrated liminess to this wine which is refreshing, but demanding.

Elgin Ridge turned out to be just as surprising. I had never sampled the cellar’s “Chaos” white blend, a marriage of semillon and sauvignon blanc where a number of techniques, including whole bunch and skin contact, had been applied to create a wine with savoury gravitas. It’s striking, and delicious – though at almost R300 for a 500ml bottle, the price is as astonishing as the contents of the bottle.

On the other hand, the cellar’s 2018 Pinot Noir was simply fabulous: fuller and showier than most of the better known examples from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, it is the kind of wine which support’s Elgin’s claim to be the natural heartland of Cape pinot. The fruit has a seductive sweetness about it – more Central Otago than Burgundy – and an appealingly polished mouthfeel.  At under R200 per bottle, it’s an irresistible bargain.

Of course there were also wines which impressed because of their consistency. Two from Vondeling come to mind: the 2018 Babiana, a beautifully composed dry white blend now comprising chenin, viognier, grenache blanc and roussanne, as well as the Rurale Blanc de Blanc. This is a bottle-fermented sparkling wine made in the “ancestrale” style without a sugar addition prior to packaging and shipping.

Stopping off at Beaumont just before leaving I sampled two favourites – the cellar’s Mourvedre 2015 and a pre-release bottle of the 2019 Hope Marguerite. Both exceeded my already high expectations. I shouldn’t be surprised by quality, reliability and real professionalism, but these are rare enough attributes in the world of craft wine.

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