Damascene’s Current 2020 Red and White Releases Reviewed and Rated…

Damascene is the super exciting South African winery partnership between top talent Jean Smit, previously the winemaker at Boekenhoutskloof, and David Curl, the former owner of Bordeaux’s Chateau Gaby. The maiden Damascene bottlings were only in 2017 but already the winery has, since then, established itself as one of the most exciting new producers on the Cape fine wine landscape.

While the new 2021 vintages have just been released to great acclaim in South Africa, the 2020 vintages are the current releases on the UK market and in May 2020, I caught up with Jean Smit in London to taste through his exciting range of whites and reds.

Tasting with Jean earlier this year in London.

As Jean explained, the idea of Damascene’s wines was to represent the different regional identities of the South African winelands with grapes being sourced from across the Cape. The wines are made in a well-equipped cellar on David Curl’s Elgin apple farm, which also supplies the Pinot Noir for the Moya Meaker label.

Damascene Semillon 2020, WO Franschhoek, 13.5% Abv.

Sourced from two old vine vineyards plss as noted in 1962 and 1942, this wine was fermented and aged on lees in 1000 litre Austrian foudre and offers up beautifully bright, fragrant, piercing aromatics of white citrus, white blossom, lemon and lime peel, a hint of sea breeze salinity (from the 1962 vineyard) and kelp nuances. Taught and concentrated with a fine glycerol texture, lemon grass, lemon butter, white citrus, tangy green apple and a hint of lanolin on the finish. Delicious and crystalline. A very impressive expression of Old Vine Semillon.

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

Damascene Chenin Blanc 2020, WO Stellenbosch, 13.5% Abv.

Sourced from three blocks on the crest of the Bottlary Hills. Granite (5% on skins), Greywacke and Shale soils which give acidity & lemon lime notes. Rich, savoury and yellow fruited, with lots of honey suckle, ginger, white blossom and dusty mineral spice. Aged 11 months in old oak barrels. The wine shows bruised yellow peach and yellow plum that follows to a palate loaded with tangerine, Seville oranges and honey on warm toast. Lovely complexity, flinty minerality, tart acids and impressive depth of flavour. Wow!

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

Moya Meaker Pinot Noir 2020, WO Elgin, 13.5% Abv.

10 barrels (300 litre light toast) using 777 & 667 Pinot Noir clones. No stems and 11 months ageing. Reveals a lovely rose petal, black cherry and bramble berry perfume with hints of pink musk. Texture is pure and sleek, beautifully polished and focused with pomegranate, blood orange, hints of cured meats and complexing wood smoke notes. Pinpoint focus and precision with really bright acids and textural elegance.

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

Damascene Cabernet Franc 2020, WO Stellenbosch, 13.5% Abv.

Aged 11 months in 1000 litre Austrian foudre. The terroir is based on poor granite soils in the Bottlary Hills. The nose shows sweet red and black berry fruit, bouquet garnier, potpourri, fennel, dusty granite, sweet cedar and grilled herbs. The palate is pure and elegant with a salivating fresh acidity supported by a fine line of tannin grip but all exceptionally well balanced. A really delicious expression of Franc!

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

Damascene Syrah 2019, WO Stellenbosch, 12.5% Abv.

75% of whole bunches used with no submerged cap. 2/3 Karibib fruit (lending pepper & perfume), 1/3 Bottlary (north facing for extra tannins). Boasts sweet dark red and black berry fruits, potpourri, musk perfume and a savoury cured meats complexity. Beautifully pure and elegant with red berry concentration, great textural finesse and soft integrated acids. Wonderful harmony and pedigree. This is something very special indeed.

(Wine Safari Score: 97/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Damascene Syrah 2020, WO Swartland, 13% Abv.

75% whole bunches used then aged in 2000 litre foudre from vines grown on brown schist soils. Aromatics are dark and broody with incense, waxy crayon, earthy black berry, black plum, lavender and wild bramble berry notes. The palate shows plenty of power, depth and concentration with focused mineral tannins, plenty of broody savoury black and blue berry fruits with a hint of black olive tapenade. Very Northern Rhone like in character and also quite individual. Another cracking wine.

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

Damascene Syrah 2020, WO Cederberg, 13.5% Abv.

Made using 45% whole bunches (on average), from one block at 940m above sea level. Shows classic Cederberg Shiraz aromatics of blue and black berry fruits, blue berry crumble, grey slate minerality and sweet vanilla pod dust. Palate is full and round with dense, sweet creamy tannins, cinamon spice, tart underlying acids and a taut linear structure. Lovely depth, fruit intensity and balance showing the true purity offered by Syrah from high elevation vineyards.

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

Damascene Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5% Abv.

Grapes mainly from Vlottenburg vineyards grown on koffee klip and granite soils (graphite notes) and Helderberg and Bottlary Hills (cranberry notes). Aged 12 months in 80% new 225 litre oak barriques, second year in 1000 litre Austrian foudre. Lovely sweet cedar, wet tobacco, tannery leather and a mix of red and black berry fruits and grilled herbs. Rich, plush and creamy with cassis, blueberry, musk, red cherry and creamy tannins with bright mouth-watering acids. Very impressive expression of Stellenbosch Cabernet!

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

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)