Damascene Wines – New Kid on the Block Rocking the Cape Wine Scene…

I first heard about Damascene Wines last year when a few big scores in the local South African home market hit the headlines including a mammoth 97/100 from Winemag.co.za editor Christian Eedes. The young blood behind the venture focusing on producing high quality vinous expressions from unique Cape vineyards is Jean Smit, also known for his work at Boekenhoutskloof as well as a brief spell at Iona some years back.

Damascene Wines is now in the process of securing distribution in several key global markets including the UK for their limited volumes of fine wine, but as Jean was very quick to point out to me, “it is really important that global distribution partners share our attitude and philosophy that is the driving force behind the whole Damascene project.”

With a sell-out Semillon 2018 already in the bag, this white is joined in the range by a fine Pinot Noir, an accomplished Cabernet Franc and an exceptional benchmark Stellenbosch Syrah. Damascene is undoubtedly one of the most exciting new producers to come onto the South African wine seen for some time.

Damascene Semillon 2018, WO Franschhoek, 14 Abv.

The fruit for this vintage was picked from a venerable old vineyard in the Franschhoek valley. Planted in 1942 on alluvial soils of decomposed Table Mountain sandstone, a portion – roughly 15 percent – of the bush vines have naturally mutated into Semillon Gris. Both variants were harvested and co-fermented to add further complexity to the wine. Approximately one-third of the way through fermentation the grape must was transferred to second- and third-fill French oak barriques, for 11 months of sur lie barrel maturation. No lees stirring took place, and the prevention of malolactic fermentation ensured the wine retains its excellent natural acidity. Total production: 707 x 750ml | Bottling date: 8 February 2019 Alc: 14.06%Vol | pH: 3.32 | TA: 5.5 g/L | RS: 3.2 g/L | VA: 0.51 g/L.

Such beautiful subtle aromatics of white citrus, wet chalk and dusty grey slate lead to a fabulously sleek, creamy textured Semillon palate full of glycerol lanolin mouthfeel layered with pithy orange peel zest and tangerine oil complexity. The acids are supple and well integrated with spicy, piquant, mellow yellow fruits. Full, broad, super stony and mineral, this wine is beautifully harmonious, textural and focused! Keep it for 2-3 years before opening and then drink over 5 to 10.

(Wine Safari Score: 93/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Damascene Pinot Noir 2018, WO Elgin, 14.1 Abv.

When David and Genevieve Curl purchased an apple farm in the Elgin valley in 2010, they immediately planted a 3.12-hectare parcel of Pinot Noir on a ridge with ancient of clay-rich Bokkeveld shale. Clones 667 and 777 on rootstock 101-14 were chosen to capitalise on Elgin’s cool climate terroir. Focused on the ultimate goal of crafting small quantities of premium Pinot Noir, the vineyard’s planting density of 6250 vines per hectare encourages stiff competition between the vines, resulting in better flavour and concentration in the fruit. Low disease pressure in the vineyards assisted the desired spontaneous fermentation in the cellar, with only two batches inoculated with a locally isolated yeast strain to fully express the character of the two Pinot Noir clones. To capture the elegance of the fruit, and avoid excessive extraction, the wine spent just 10 days on the skins, with a combination of short pump-overs and punch-downs twice per day. Malolactic fermentation occurred spontaneously in 300- litre French oak barrels, 30% of which were new. The oak barrels were carefully selected from five leading Burgundian coopers, with a range of toasting levels – mostly Light and Blonde. Total production: 3600 x 750ml | Bottling date: 8 February 2019 Alc: 14.1 %Vol| pH: 3.39 | TA: 5.4 g/L | RS: 1.5 g/L | VA: 0.53 g/L.

Rich, character filled nose with plenty of promise. Opening in the glass, the wine reveals hints of mocha and chocolate, cherry liquor, black berries, savoury cured meats, forest floor, freshly tilled earth, black bramble berries with positive green aromatic complexing notes. Warming luxurious inviting style, the palate is obvious and generous with a fine plush glycerol texture, spicy pin point tannins, seductive wild strawberry, kirsch liquor and baking spices, before darker berry fruit nuances take over to carry this wine over the finishing line. 

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Damascene Cabernet Franc 2018, WO Stellenbosch, 12.87 Abv.

Situated on the cooler east-facing slopes of the Bottelary Hills, this trellised vineyard was planted in 2004 with the CF1 clone of Cabernet Franc. On soils of decomposed granite, and at an altitude of 260-metres above sea level, this lowyielding vineyard produces smaller bunches that offer incredible concentration, structure and ripeness at lower sugar levels. Bunches were de-stemmed directly into stainless steel tanks where whole berries were coldsoaked for three days before being inoculated with a carefully selected yeast strain. For optimum extraction pump-overs took place up to three times per day, with fermentation temperatures peaking at 28˚C. Spontaneous malolactic fermentation took place during the 11 months of maturation in a single 1000-litre oak foudre. The wine was racked just once, two weeks prior to bottling. Total production: 1175 x 750ml | Bottling date: 8 February 2019 Alc: 12.87 %Vol| pH: 3.32 | TA: 4.9 g/L | RS: 1.5 g/L | VA: 0.46 g/L.

An inviting aromatic offering shows classic varietal Cabernet Franc perfume, spice and lift. The nose suggests delicious notes of black currant pastille, crushed black cherry, graphite and lead pencil complexity. The palate has a very focused black currant wine gums intensity with subtle vegetal, stemmy cedar spice notes. Despite the impressively low alcohol level, this wine has a beautiful texture and mouthfeel with a lithe elegance, bright acids and a superbly harmonious finish. Incredibly well designed, this wine shows a lot of appeal and will seduce a lot of Cabernet Franc lovers. 

(Wine Safari Score: 94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Damascene Syrah 2018, WO Stellenbosch, 13.4 Abv. 

100% Syrah from Polkadraai and Bottelary Hills, Stellenbosch. While both vineyards are situated higher than 300-metres above sea level, planted with SH9 and SH22B Syrah clones, and with soils dominated by decomposed granite, they each bring their own nuance and complexity to the wine. The vineyard on the Polkadraai Hills was planted on a south-east slope in 1996, and contributes most of the perfume and spice. Structure and fruit intensity comes from a vineyard of low-yielding granitic soils in the Bottelary Hills, a ‘mother unit’ planted on a north-west aspect in 2001. To showcase the impact of site in Stellenbosch Syrah, the harvested fruit was separated into numerous smaller fermentation batches, with whole-cluster fraction of each batch ranging from nil to 100 percent per vessel. Open top fermenters and two 1000-litre oak foudres received a combination of pump-overs and pigéage (punch-downs) two or three times per day. The remaining two 1000-litre oak foudres were treated with the ‘submerged cap’ technique to enhance the body and fruit concentration of the wine.

A unique element in the final blend came from a portion kept as 100% intact whole clusters, that underwent carefully-controlled carbonic fermentation. These were sealed in a stainless steel tank and stored under pressure for 30 days before pressing. Without pump-overs or pigéage during fermentation, this carbonic macerated component contributes enormous purity of fruit and silky tannins to the final blend. All fermentations took place spontaneously with naturally occurring yeast. Malolactic fermentation also occurred spontaneously, with maturation in 1000-litre oak foudres for 11 months. The wine was bottled without fining, to ensure a more complex and authentic expression of Syrah. Total production: 2728 x 750ml | Bottling date: 8 February 2019 Alc: 13.4 %Vol| pH: 3.8 | TA: 5.4 g/L | RS: 1.5 g/L | VA: 0.65 g/L.

Beautiful intensity and perfume, the nose screams classism and aromatic complexity with an open inviting modern allure. This wine turns the volume up but there is no distortion, only purity and then more purity. Herbal and Rhoney, there are wonderful savoury earthy meaty notes loaded with black berry and blue berry fruits, olive tapenade and hints of German-deli smokey, meaty brilliance. The texture is incredibly fine and focused and personifies the ‘Jean Smit’ wine making style that shines right through his entire range of wines. This Syrah hits a special zenith of quality and brilliance that only a select few South Africa wineries manage to achieve. 

(Wine Safari Score: 96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Starting to Reach Its True Noble Stellenbosch Potential…

The Glenelly Estate is a beautiful winery buried in a little corner of the Idas Valley in Stellenbosch. I have been meaning to visit for many years to understand the essence of the winery and their philosophy but somehow always seemed to cross paths with CEO Nicholas Bureau or else their long time winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain at tastings in London.

The property was famously bought in 2003 by Madame May de Lencquesaing of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande fame in Pauillac, Bordeaux, with a vision to transform the property into one of the preeminent fine wine producers in Stellenbosch.

With vineyards planted on near virgin granitic rich soils, Glenelly Estate had the opportunity to map out a varietal path that completely suited the style of wines they were looking to make. There would certainly be none of the red tape and restrictions Madame May had become so use to in Bordeaux. With sizable plantings of Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, Glenelly have all the building blocks for making some impressive wines.

In February 2020, I finally visited the estate for a lengthy tutored tasting with Cellar Master Luke O’Cuinneagain. Nicholas and Luke generously opened an impressive array of older wines to illustrate not only the development of the wines in bottle but also the evolution of the Estate’s winemaking and their ongoing quality improvements. Undoubtedly these are wines made in a more classical, restrained style and the French heritage is undeniable, radiating out of every glass and making all the wines in the range excellent gastronomic friendly expressions.

My conclusions after my tasting remain firmly that the hard yards have been completed and that the best years still lie ahead for this estate and its high quality wines. Glenelly Estate is definitely one to keep a very close eye on in the future.

White Wine Flights:

Glenelly Estate Unwooded Chardonnay 2011, WO Stellenbosch, 13 Abv.

Super complex notes of terpenes, bruised yellow citrus and earthy root veg. Bright crunchy tangy acids make for a delicious mouthful that’s evolving beautifully. Very pleasurable glassful.

(Wine Safari Score: 91/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Unwooded Chardonnay 2012, WO Stellenbosch, 12.5 Abv.

Dusty wet chalk aromatics melt into struck match, bruised peach, papaya and ripe lemon peel. Lush and layered, plenty of leesy quince, honeysuckle, ripe pear purée and a smokey, glycerol finish. Showing a lovely harmony.

(Wine Safari Score: 88/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Unwooded Chardonnay 2019, WO Stellenbosch, 13 Abv.

Youthful and bright, this shows vibrant notes of cream soda, dusty green honeydew melon and dusty crushed limestone. Lovely texture and fleshy mouthfeel, finishing with notes of melon, green apple and subtle minerality. Lovely gourmet wine.

(Wine Safari Score: 89/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Reserve Chardonnay 2012, WO Stellenbosch, 13 Abv.

Like its unoaked sibling, this shows a hit of reduction, dried mint leaf, peppermint and lemongrass. Equally plush and textural, this has a broad glycerol mouthfeel, savoury lemon peel fruit, subtle oak spice and a hint of peppermint crisp on the finish.

(Wine Safari Score: 90/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Chardonnay Grand Vin 2013, WO Stellenbosch, 13 Abv.

Taut and restrained aromatics, this shows plenty of minerality, wet chalk, white citrus and limestone nuances. But the palate blossoms to show abundantly sweet textured flesh, lemon herbs and a vibrant energetic finish with impressive persistence.

(Wine Safari Score: 91/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Chardonnay Reserve 2014, WO Stellenbosch, 12.5 Abv.

Cool and restrained, this displays plenty of stony minerality layered with lemon and herbs, lemon cordial and dried mint leaf. Palate is savoury and fleshy with bruised yellow orchard fruits, ripe papaya and dry fynbos. Concentrated, mouth filling and impressively persistent.

(Wine Safari Score: 90+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Chardonnay Reserve 2015, WO Stellenbosch, 13 Abv.

This nose is expressive and exotic with savoury bruised yellow fruits, melted wax and incense notes. The palate shows sweet herby glycerol weight in a more oxidative frame. The texture is sleek and the balance finely poised with plenty of concentration and tangy acids on the finish.

(Wine Safari Score: 92+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Chardonnay Reserve 2016, WO Stellenbosch, 13 Abv.

This vintage shows hints of ripe lemon and herbs, dry fynbos, honey on white toast and subtle mint leaf complexity. Super focused concentration, bright tangy acids and impressive length, you can see the pedigree potential of this wine. The aromatics are a little reticent but the quality is clearly apparent. Impressive for a hot, dry vintage.

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Chardonnay Reserve 2017, WO Stellenbosch, 13 Abv.

A more steely expression with purity and clarity. Fine notes of lime peel, lemon cordial and wet limestone and lemongrass herbs make for a fresh, vibrant aromatic profile. The hallmark concentration is there with glycerol, textured intensity of lime cordial, green apple and cedar spice on the finish. A lovely mouthful from a good vintage.

(Wine Safari Score: 93/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Chardonnay Reserve 2018, WO Stellenbosch, 13 Abv.

Lifted and expressive with dried fynbos, peppermint tea and herbal spice mixed with bruised white peaches, lemon iced tea and lemongrass herbs. Bright and zippy, this wine shows plenty of overt energy, crystalline citrus pastille fruits and a seamless creamy balance. Delicious expression.

(Wine Safari Score: 92+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Red Wine Flights:

Cabernet Sauvignon driven wines with supporting components of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot laced with a small percentage Syrah a la Claret in the good old days of Bordeaux.

Glenelly Estate Reserve 2013, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv. 15%

Syrah in the mix, this smells and tastes of classic old school Bordeaux with sweet tobacco leaves, herbal spice, tannery leather, cigar box and sweet savoury black currant and black berry intensity with a clear vein of graphite. Creamy and cool fruited, this is plush and textured with earthy black orchard fruits, lead pencil, graphite and a sweet piquant cedary finish. Drink now or cellar for a few more years.

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Reserve 2014, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.

Dark and broody, this wine shows plush opulence with aromatics of coffee beans, black plum, cedar spice and pronounced graphite intensity. Soft and sumptuous, this has plenty of overt early drinking generosity laced with black chocolate and piquant spicy tobacco notes. Ready to go now, but certainly no rush.

(Wine Safari Score: 91/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Lady May 2010, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.

90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot

Rasping dusty chalky aromatics of classic Cabernet Sauvignon, crushed gravel, graphite, tannery leather and grilled herb spice. Super youthful at 10 years old, this wine speaks of pedigree. Polished and finely balanced, this has oodles of old world classicism, spicy cedar, piquant black berry and silky suave focus. Very impressive but will certainly get better with further ageing.

(Wine Safari Score: 93/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Lady May 2013, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.

85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot

Again, plenty of classicism and mineral driven tension, but this lovely wine shows more energy, greater linearity and superb focus. Saline cassis, tart black cherry confit and earthy damson plum complexity shows this is a serious fine wine. Sleek, pure and generous but retaining elegance and restraint, seamless blissful harmony and pin point focus. Beautifully complex and integrated, this is definite Grand Cru Classe quality!

(Wine Safari Score: 94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Estate Lady May 2014, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.

74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 12% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot

Intricate yet generous, this youthful expression shows creme de cassis, violets, peppermint crisp milk chocolate and dark spicy plum. Plush and sweet fruited, the 2014 is forward and showy, revealing the plushness achieved at Glenelly in all of their reds. With its sweet tannins, fleshy glycerol mouthfeel, fruit concentration and bruleed earthy coffee bean finish, this fine wine is ready to go now however, extra tertiary development will only elevate this wine further.

(Wine Safari Score: 92+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Tasting the Suave and Sophisticated Sassicaia 2017 – A Triumph of Terroir and Winemaking Over Vintage Conditions…

It’s become a bit of a tradition to launch the new vintages of the Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia estate in London. This year’s launch took on even greater significance being the highly anticipated successor vintage to the universally praised 100 point Sassicaia 2016. So no pressure then!

These special vineyards that go into the making of Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia cover only around 97 hectares of the total 2.500 hectare DOCG Sassicaia Bolgheri estate. Far from an easy vintage, 2017 has the structure and character to emphasise how incredibly special Tenuta San Guido’s terroir is and also how skilled their winemaking team have become.

Tasting with Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta in London at the Sassicaia launch.

Despite the sustained higher temperatures throughout the growing season and summer together with very little rainfall, the Sassicaia 2017 has retained a remarkable purity, elegance and precision in bottle.

Tenuta San Guido Le Difese 2018, IGT Toscana, 14 Abv.

A fabulous entry level expression that is the only wine in the Sassicaia range that incorporates some indigenous Sangiovese. This year the blend is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with 30% Sangiovese. The nose shows a wonderful, forward, overt fragrance with alluring notes of violets, crushed red cherries, black currant pastille, and salty black damson plums with just the gentlest dusting of vanilla pod spice and bruleed coffee beans. The palate is deliciously mouth watering and fresh, displaying vibrant crunchy acids, intense cranberry, tart red cherry and an all round electric brightness. The palate is medium weight but seamlessly smooth and silky and carries on the tradition of Le Difese’s accessibility twinned with generosity. This is the consummate allrounder that will accompany fine cuisine or suffice as a leisurely evening glass of red on the sofa. Drinking from release, you can expect this wine to show well for 5 to 8 years. 

(Wine Safari Score: 91/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto 2018, IGT Toscana, 13.5 Abv.

A wine first created in 2000, this IGT blend has always stuck to a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon blended with 40% Merlot. Initially a little bit reticent on the nose, reminds one that this wine is a serous creation in its own right. Often said to show at its peak after around 10 years, there are many examples that drink well after 15 or 20 years such is its pedigree. The aromatics show less overt fruit intensity but a greater array of dark, broody black berry, sweet dusty tobacco and mineral graphite notes. On the palate there is superb attention to detail, impressive focus and a seamless, elegant finesse. The acids are well integrated and the fruit opulence plush but classically balanced. Light on its feet, this sleek, silky Guidalberto caresses the mouth gently and finishes with beautifully textured elegance and powder fine tannin grip. A very harmonious creation with plenty of star quality. Drink now and over the next 8 to 10+ years.

(Wine Safari Score: 93+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2017, DOCG Bolgheri Sassicaia, 14 Abv. 

Bottle in January 2020, this 2017 blend is made up of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and also 15% Cabernet Franc from vines of which 60% to 70% are 20 years or older on the same site up the mountain near the Castello where the original plantings where made in 1942. Using around 33% new French oak again, the 2017 vintage yielded around 200,000 bottles or around -15% less than the 2016 vintage. On the nose, the aromatics speak of a warmer, riper vintage with pronounced notes of black currants, spiced black plums and black orchard fruits. The palate is plush and opulent with all the telltale Sassicaia finesse and elegance coming to the fore. If anything, the tannins are sweeter, softer and flesher than the more masculine 2016 expression. Suave and sophisticated, this 2017 imposes its own character from the start and leads with plenty of dried rosemary and thyme herb complexity, silky cassis intensity and a soft, winter fruit compote finish with a dusting of botanical herbs. But textural harmony, seamless balance and fruit purity remain at the core of this wine’s essence. Another stunning wine delivered. Drink this from release and comfortably over the next 15 to 20 years.

(Wine Safari Score: 95+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia is distributed to the UK trade by Armit Wines.

Release price for the 2017 is circa +35% up on the 2016 at around £850-£875 IB per 6.

The Fine Wine Safari’s Top 10 Most Memorable South African Red Wines of 2019…

What a great year of fine wine it has been yet again. I am in such a fortunate position to be able to no only taste the greatest wines of the world in a regular basis here in London and on my travels, but also taste the finest wines produced in South Africa on a regular basis while retaining a very measured, objective outlook in terms of where they really fit in the pecking order of international fine wine.

For my red top 10 selection, I have not merely selected my highest scoring wines of the year as that would be a little bit predictable, but I have selected wines that I found not only outstanding in quality terms but also memorable and thrilling to drink.

Also, I’d like to offer a special thanks to all the producers, many of them who are very good friends, that have offered me their time for my regular visits, tastings and importantly, lots of joyous eating and drinking together. Your hospitality is never taken for granted and greatly appreciated!

Happy New Year 2019. I believe 2020 is going to be an exceptional year of success.

Top 10 Reds (in no particular order):

Naude Family Wines Old Vine Series Oupa Willem 2018 – 96/100 GSMW

MR de Compostella Red Blend 2017- 98/100 GSMW

Vilafonte Series C Red Blend 2017 – 96+/100 GSMW

Mullineux and Leeu Family Wines Iron Syrah 2017 – 97/100 GSMW

Raats Family Eden Single Vineyard High Density Cabernet Franc 2017 – 98/100 GSMW

Thelema Rabelais Red Blend 2015 – 96+/100 GSMW

Savage Red Blend 2017 – 96/100 GSMW

Kanonkop Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 – 97/100 GSMW

Porseleinberg Syrah 2017 – 97/100 GSMW

Creation Emma Pinot Noir 2018 – 96/100 GSMW

A Vintage of Elegant Intensity and Quality Elevates Vilafonte Series C 2017 To Must Have Vintage Status…

While I received a sample of the 2017 Series C to taste a number of weeks ago, I had already heard rumours via the grape vine that the Vilafonte Series C 2016 had won the best red blend at the Six Nations Trophy competition. But of course I knew the incredible quality Vilafonte had achieved with their Series C 2016, having reviewed it way back in October 2018, would be an incredibly hard act to follow. Such was the quality focus at this precision viticulture winery that even the second wine, Seriously Old Dirt 2016 has become something of a collectable commodity in Europe of late.

 

But after the incredibly dry and hot 2016, the 2017 harvest presented an abundant crop of sterling quality. Yields rose by fifty-seven percent, despite the fourth year in a sequence of below-average rainfall for the Western Cape Province. This follows Vilafonte’s smallest per-hectare crop (2016) and moves back to long-term average yields. Welcome post-harvest rains in the preceding year before leaf fall, coupled with well-timed nutrient applications, allowed the vines to build up reserves before going into winter dormancy.

Winter rains in 2016 approached normal levels, but fell below average in late winter to spring. Bud-break in the spring was very even, with rapid shoot growth which ceased well before bloom, allowing excellent fruit-set. Weather leading up to harvest was warm and fair – perfect ripening conditions according to owner Mike Ratcliffe. Harvest commenced on the 6th of February with a few short pauses, and concluded on the 1st of March2017.

 

Mike Ratcliffe states that “at time of blending, varietal components were very expressive, showing a classical elegance rather than an intensity and power”. Aged for 22 months in 70% new French oak barrique, with the balance in older French oak barriques, the Series C 2017 consists of Cabernet Sauvignon (57%), Merlot (21%), Cabernet Franc (13%) and Malbec (9%) with a total of 46 barrels being produced.

 

Vilafonte Series C 2017, WO Paarl, 14.5 Abv.

After the drought of 2016, all producers can honestly admit to being amazed by the quality both the white and red wines realised in 2017. But for Vilafonte, the pressure would have been incrementally higher after defying the vintage odds in 2016 to produced arguably the finest South African red blend of the vintage with their Series C 2016. But great vintages are all about taking the opportunities nature presents and Vilafonte seems to have been equally ready to make the most of this exceptional vintage. The Series C 2017 certainly displays an incredibly deep, dark broody garnet-purple colour with imposing extract and concentration. On the nose, this youthful release is a little closed to begin with but opens up in the glass offering alluring notes of incense, sweet vanilla pod, caramelised cashew nuts, black berry reduction, juniper berry and dusty, graphite tinged black chocolate exoticism. The palate is velvety and supple with a most generous, multi-layered mouthfeel of blueberry, black cherries, saline cassis and a charcoal tinged buttered brown toasty finish. Where the 2015 release showed a more masculine power, the 2017 is the personification of intensity with elegance, finesse and grace. A producer can wait decades to realise a vintage like this that possesses this degree of poise, intensity and weightless concentration combined with a decadently fruited complexity and composure. A spellbinding new release from Vilafonte. Indulge yourself by drinking a few bottles in its youth, however the 2017 is certainly worthy of over a decade or more of cellaring to realise its full potential.

(Wine Safari Score: 96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Tasting a Complete MR de Compostella Vertical From 2004 to 2017 in London With Bruwer Raats…

Bruwer Raats is a larger than life character making larger than life wines from both his Raats Family Winery in Stellenbosch as well as for his cult wine label MR de Compostella at which he is partnered by the accomplished Zulu winemaker Mzokona Mvemve. While riding high on the instant success of memorable early wines like his maiden 2001 Raats Family Wines Cabernet Franc, Bruwer entered into the collaborative project of MR de Compostella and finally released the maiden vintage 2004 back in 2006.

 

Guided by a lofty and ambitious philosophy of achieving the very best final quality blend through extremely ruthless barrel selection and an over riding obsession with consistency of quality vintage after vintage before any uniformity of blend percentages, what was developed was an incredibly fine wine with breath taking complexity and depth as well as notable age ability. All the blends so far, excluding the declassified 2010, have made use of all five Bordeaux red varieties namely Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot… and normally in descending percentages similar to this order with alcohol levels of between 14 and 14.5 Abv.

 

As part of London fine wine merchant Handford Wines’ 30th Anniversary celebrations, Bruwer Raats was recently in London to present the first ever full vertical of MR de Compostella reds covering 13 vintages from 2004 through to the current release 2017. The flight also included the only ever declassified vintage, the 2010, which was used to create a second wine under the name of Red Jasper. Named after Bruwer’s father, the ‘Jasper’ red Bordeaux blend is now in its seventh vintage and the current release 2017 has also been highly lauded by critics becoming a distinguished red wine in its own right.

 

One of the most outstanding features of this impressive cult wine is undoubtedly its age ability, so much so that much of the past stocks sold and exported around the world still reside in collectors’ cellars globally. Having the opportunity to taste effectively 14 vintages back to back is almost certainly a once in a life time affair for most people but also a crucially important exercise to reveal and document the ongoing evolution of these great wines. While I tasted and made notes for all the wines, the focus centred more around appreciating the wines stylistically and evaluating where how well they were evolving rather than placing them in a scored hierarchy.

 

MR de Compostella Vertical 2004 to 2017:

MR de Compostella 2004, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 94+/100 GSMW)

33% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot, 17% Malbec, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon and 16% Merlot

An incredibly dense, dark, youthful wine that obviously has benefitted from being made in one of the best red wine vintages in several decades at the time. Full and broad, the wine retains freshness, complexity, creamy dense dark fruits and a long vital finish. Tannins are starting to resolve but certainly this wine has another 20+ years ahead of it. Very impressive debut.

 

MR de Compostella 2005, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 94/100 GSMW)

33% Cabernet Franc, 17% Petit Verdot, 17% Malbec, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Merlot

From a warm dry vintage, the 2005s were perhaps lauded more highly across the industry under the halo of another very fine vintage in the northern hemisphere and Bordeaux in particular. While many are maturing and losing a bit of lustre, this 2005 certainly shines, retaining a sleek structure, sweet ripe black brambly fruits and plenty of youthful elegance and freshness. Drinking well now but will certainly cellar for 10+ more years easily.

MR de Compostella 2006, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 95+/100 GSMW)

26% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot, 8% Malbec, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Merlot

From another block buster vintage, 2006 was good for whites and reds and this wine really is shining at the moment. Dense, concentrated but weightlessly intense, this wine has lovely mineral tannins, a full, sleek silky mouthfeel and a general aura of distinguished elegance. Certainly no rush here at all. Lovely wine.

MR de Compostella 2007, 14 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 93+/100 GSMW)

32% Cabernet Franc, 16% Petit Verdot, 20% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Merlot

From a cool, difficult year that had heat spikes at harvest time. Wines generally were leafy and packed full of pyrazines and while this wine has a lovely complex leafy, sappy berry fruit base, the green herbal notes melt into the black fruit and with 10 years of age, this wine is starting to resemble a classic, fragrant, complex French Bordeaux more and more by the day. Super expressive aromatics, sleek creamy black and red berry fruits and a long, fine grained finish with plenty of acidity to preserve it further. Not the most iconic MR but certainly drinking very very well at the moment.

MR de Compostella 2008, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 96/100 GSMW)

37.5% Cabernet Franc, 7.5% Petit Verdot, 10% Malbec, 37.5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7.5% Merlot

Ooh, the 2008. The vintage that put MR on the map with the chunky 96pt score from Neal Martin writing for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. While the wines had never scored less than 93, this moved the wine into a new league, a new ball game… and made global collectors sit up and take serious notice. Like a purring Rolls Royce engine… I think MR has been described before… and this 2008 while certainly not as rich, showy and opulent as some vintages, displays an incredible focus, sleek graphite tannin structure, intensity of black saline fruit and the most old world Bordeaux Grand Cru Classe elegance and linearity. Wow! While currently in a more understated phase of evolution than some of the other vintages, it’s definitely a wine built for the long haul. A true collectable classic.

MR de Compostella 2009, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 95+/100 GSMW)

25% Cabernet Franc, 12.5% Petit Verdot, 25% Malbec, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12.5% Merlot

Another highly lauded red wine vintage across the industry in SA, this wine is in a more muscular, dense, power packed mould with rich layers of earthy black fruits, tannery leather, sweet baking herbs and a lovely sheen of cedary spice. Full bodied and broad shouldered, this will be an interesting wine to follow into the future. Drinking well now after a little decant.

Raats Red Jasper 2010, 14 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 91+/100 GSMW)

80% Cabernet Franc, 7.5% Petit Verdot, 5% Malbec, 7.5% Cabernet Sauvignon

Bruwer has always been very clear about the standards expected from his wines to make the MR blend. First and foremost, they need to be as good or better that the preceding vintage’s components. While I was a little critical of him at the time for not bottling a 2010, tasting this wine shows why he didn’t. Delicious and totally impressive now with 7 years of age, the wine simply does not have the same length, power or concentration experienced on other MR vintages. Beautifully elegant, packed full of cedary, earthy black bramble berry fruits, the tannins are very sleek and soft and the finish a touch short. But still a pleasure to drink nonetheless.

MR de Compostella 2011, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 95/100 GSMW)

52% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot, 20% Malbec, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Merlot

Showing a little bit of earthy, savoury, coffee bean, leathery evolution on the nose, the palate is still taut and vital with savoury red and black berry fruits, a fine line of acidity and a long finish of graphite and mineral dust. Perhaps a bit shut down now but another one to watch into the future.

MR de Compostella 2012, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 96+/100 GSMW)

28% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot, 21% Malbec, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot

Never shy and always a real charmer, the 2012 does what it says on the tin and then a whole lot more. Rich, cool, dark fruited opulent nose full of blueberry, vanilla pod, black currant and cassis leaf. So sumptuous, generous in fruit and utterly charming while retaining a distinguished air of quality. Always been a lovely wine and I suspect there is not a lot of it around now as it is such a seductive wine that’s hard to resist drinking in its youth. Drink now or bury in your cellar for another 10+ years.

MR de Compostella 2013, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 97/100 GSMW)

41% Cabernet Franc, 9% Petit Verdot, 17% Malbec, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Merlot

A vintage that did not stand out on paper but in the vertical flight was one of the most impressive wines. With a dusty nose full of wet stone minerality, the aromatics speak of a cooler vintage style laced with graphite, dried straw, baking herbs and pithy black berry fruits. The palate is where the wine takes off like a rocket and really shines. Woven together very tightly, the intensity and vibrant saline black berry intensity combined with tart crunchy acids make this wine stand out from the rest at the moment. So elegant and persistent on the finish, this is the real deal. A super classy wine drinking well now but with many years ahead of it still.

MR de Compostella 2014, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 95+/100 GSMW)

45% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot, 17% Malbec, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon and 16% Merlot

Like the 2012, the 2014 has always been moulded an opulent and generous style with creamy overt black and blue berry fruits, sweet vanilla spices and a rich, layered, textured palate that just keeps on giving. Probably a vintage that won’t shut down, so if you enjoy youthful opulence, this is the one for you.

 

Tasting in the private room at London restaurant High Timber owned by Neleen Strauss and Gary Jordan.

MR de Compostella 2015, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 97/100 GSMW)

40% Cabernet Franc, 11% Petit Verdot, 4% Malbec, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon and 13% Merlot

The 2015 is genuinely a compelling wine with a classic nose more reminiscent of a fine, opulent Cru Classe Pauillac. There are beautiful perfumed notes of assorted purple flowers and fresh violets that melt away to reveal ripe, intense notes of crème de cassis, blueberry crumble, cherry kirsch liquor and damson plum. More structured and intense than its riper, plumper predecessor 2014, the 2015 delivers more intensity with tannic restraint and brooding classical depth. Bit of a block buster but also shutting down a bit now. A wine for 30 to 40 years surely.

MR de Compostella 2016, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 96/100 GSMW)

17% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot, 12% Malbec, 63% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Merlot

A warm, dry vintage that is reflected in the lower than usual Cabernet Franc and the higher Cabernet Sauvignon portion from a cooler vineyard close to the sea in False Bay. Rich, plush and ultra opulent and expressive but also perfumed and lifted with violets, sweet lavender and sleek polished oak melting into classic Cabernet cassis and saline black berry opulence. Lovely precision and focus but is also sufficiently taut and textured. A wonderfully luxurious style of MR.

MR de Compostella 2017, 14.5 Abv.

(Wine Safari Score: 98/100 GSMW)

43% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot, 10% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Merlot

The nose chimes with the beautiful aromatics of the black Cabernet fruits, both Franc and Sauvignon. Superbly bright and lifted, this classy wine reveals attractive perfumed notes of cherry blossom, violets, lilacs and fresh rose petals underpinned by seductive chocolate coated red cherries and crème de cassis. On the palate the wine is medium bodied but very refined and elegant balancing intensity of fruit and flavour with textural harmony and finesse. Super fine and minerally tightly focused, this is a wine for the long haul but which can also be drunk in its youth due to its bright freshness and creamy elegant length. Is this the best MR to date? I think so… but only time will tell.

Meerlust Rubicon 2016 – Slow and Steady Outlook Assures Another Great Vintage…

Meerlust Estate has been the pride of the Myburgh family since 1756. Today, the dedication to quality winemaking continues under the guidance of 8th generation, Hannes Myburgh. Cellar Master, Chris Williams has worked on the estate since 1995 and has been in charge of winemaking since 2004.

 

The Cabernet Sauvignon is grown on low yielding, predominantly biotite partially decomposed granite gravel topsoil rich in quartz and feldspar to a depth of approximately 600mm with a loamy clay subsoil. The Merlot vineyards are planted on more clay rich, yet well drained soils to ensure moisture retention and availability to the vines roots right through the summer. There are considerable deposits of iron-rich Laterite in the Merlot vineyards which accentuates the fruit definition and mineral profile of the wine.

The Cabernet Franc Vineyard is situated on very well drained, stony Vilafontes soil with approximately 20% clay which is ideal for this variety.The Petit Verdot is on Oakleaf 3 soils on a northerly aspect to ensure full phenolic ripeness. The 2016 growing season was unusually cool but quite dry, presenting unique problems of fruit set and ripening. Irrigation was used strategically even on the mature vineyards to ensure slow ripening and proper flavour and tannin development. The Merlot and the Cabernets were extensively suckered from early in the season, and during veraison ‘vendage vert’ was applied extensively to ensure an evenly ripe crop.

 

Meerlust Rubicon 2016, WO Stellenbosch, 14 Abv.

The Rubicon component parts were transferred to barrel early for malolactic fermentation in 55% new Nevers French oak, 25% second fill barrels and the remaining 20% in older French oak barrels. The final blend of the 2016 is indicative of the vintage and its impact on the estate’s vineyards with 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, the lowest in Rubicon history, with 28% Merlot, exhibiting this varieties great expression in the unusual 2016 vintage, 20% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. The wine was barrel aged for 16 months before bottling. Having tasted this wine a few weeks after bottling in 2018 at the winery, it has certainly settled down beautifully and first impressions suggest further ageing in bottle will only be beneficial. It is pure, bright and generous with sweet notes of plump ripe black plums, sweet cherry tobacco, sappy sandalwood, graphite and cedar spice. The palate is still a touch taut on the entry but quickly fans out onto the mid-palate with sappy sweet black plum fruits from the high percentage of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Thoroughly honest in style, generous and approachable, this wine is both vibrantly fresh and charmingly drinkable now on release with impressively integrated creamy oak. A wine that recognizes its vintage limitations but still succeeds in delivering a wonderfully delicious and gregarious Bordeaux blend expression. Drink now until 2028+.

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)