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)

Another Cooler Climate Wonderland – Tasting the Sophisticated Sutherland Reserve Chardonnay 2016…

The Sutherland Reserve Range consists of three premium wines, a Reserve Grenache and a Reserve Petit Verdot, both cultivars not normally associated with Elgin, as well as the Reserve Chardonnay, a variety for which this region has become known as one of South Africa’s leading areas.

“Selecting the Chardonnay for the Reserve Range was a bit of a no-brainer. The cool climate, Tukulu soils and the proximity to the ocean that lies nine kilometres away makes for about as ideal a South African Chardonnay site as one could wish for,” says Gyles Webb.

The grapes for the Sutherland Reserve Range are hand-picked in Elgin and transported to the Thelema winery in Banhoek, Stellenbosch for vinification.

Sutherland Elgin Reserve Chardonnay 2016, 13 Abv.

Aged for 10 months in French oak, there is a mouth wateringly complex bouquet of spicy macerated lemons, boxwood, sweet bergamot zest, brioche and crushed gravel with high toned notes of lime peel and citrus blossom. The palate is super linear and taut with a pronounced steely acidity and serious verve and vigour. A supremely Old World proportioned wine that has masses of classical cool climate restraint and complex nuances of flinty struck match reduction that intermingle with lemon grass, dried thyme and sour green apple bon bons on a racy mineral finish. This is a wonderfully impressive Reserve Chardonnay from Elgin that will appeal to drinkers looking for a more sophisticated, restrained expression of Chardonnay. Drink now or cellar for 3 to 5+ years.

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

Elgin Ridge Winery Resurrects Their Impressive Biodynamic Elgin Chardonnay…

Organic and Demeter Biodynamic certified winery Elgin Ridge produced a 2010 and 2011 unwooded Chardonnay and then ceased production in 2012 when all their Chardonnay juice was redirected into their Method Cap Classique (MCC) bubbly.

However, the wine was finally resurrected in 2016 with a wooded version. The 2017 is due to hit select markets in Spring 2019. Limited to only 1,300 bottles, the wine was aged 10 months in 20% new French barrels.

Elgin Ridge 282 Chardonnay 2017, WO Elgin, 13 Abv.

True to it’s terroir, this wine has Elgin written all over it with a superb crystallinity, purity and brightness. The nose is youthful and primary but already shows lashings of white citrus, green fig, green apple pastille, lemon-lime cordial, smokey minerality and mouth watering vanilla pod spice. The palate is super intense with bracing acidity but also more than sufficient backing yellow grapefruit, pineapple and tart green apple fruit concentration to balance. Still a baby, this wine should blossom into an ultra focused, finely honed cool climate expression of Chardonnay. Really delicious already but will be worth ageing it for 3 to 6+ years.

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

Pinot Passion and Precision Personified – Tasting the New Release Elgin Ridge Biodynamic Pinot Noir 2016…

Organic and biodynamic wine practices have become big business for the wine trade globally over the past few years. But what I really admire about Brian and Marion Smith’s focus at Elgin Ridge in South Africa is not only their unreserved commitment to the philosophy of organic and biodynamic winemaking but also the way they strive to genuinely be respectable and sustainable wine growers, wine makers and wine sellers. It’s certainly not done just in the name of marketing.

Elgin Ridge has had great success with their wines in the UK but latterly even more so in Scandinavia and especially Japan. Tasting their new release Pinot Noir 2016 points straight to varietal purity and precision, two key factors so important when trying to crack complicated connoisseur markets like the UK and Japan.

They may not be the poster boy of Pinot Noir production in South Africa, but rest assured this is one of the most honest, varietally pure and best value Pinot Noir reds you can buy on the market.

Elgin Ridge Pinot Noir 2016, WO Elgin, 13.5 Abv.

This organic naturally fermented Pinot Noir was produced in a very limited 3,440 bottles and was aged for 10 months in French oak barrels. The wine is structured and broody sticking to a serious old world stylistic framework for Pinot Noir. The aromatics are deep and dark with a really savoury baritone black bramble berry expression with a nose loaded with blood and iron, cranberry, incense and waxy red forest berry fruits. The palate shows delicious red fruited Cote de Beaune purity, piquant foresty spice and a dusty, bramble berry complexity. The textural precision and incredible winemaking polish does perhaps mask some of the wines earthy, artisanal charm, but in the end, this wine delivers an astonishing amount of Pinot Noir pleasure at a fantastic price point. So yes Brian and Marion, the biodynamic commitment is rewarding. Drink now to 2026+

Wine Safari Score: 93/100 Greg Sherwood MW

South African Chardonnay On the Cusp of Greatness – Tasting the New Paul Cluver Seven Flags Releases From Elgin…

After the recent Blind Chardonnay Challenge 2018 Results were revealed (Read the write up here… https://gregsherwoodmw.com/2018/06/18/the-great-blind-chardonnay-challenge-2018-new-world-chardonnay-giving-burgundy-a-run-for-its-money/), many questioned why no South African Chardonnay’s made the final line-up. I replied that none scored high enough from the multiple judges in the several preliminary blind selection tasting rounds. But of course, this was not to imply that South Africa does not make exceptional Chardonnay. They do, and in many ways, South African Chardonnay currently sits on the cusp of greatness, just needing to take the final upward quality steps to Valhalla.

Indeed, this belief was reinforced again recently when Andries Burger from Paul Cluver Winery came to visit and show me his latest releases of Paul Cluver’s premium Seven Flags Chardonnay and Pinot Noir range. Some exceptional wines that twinned with an exceptional vintage, really show the potential of these varieties in cooler climate regions of South Africa. Is the work over? Of course not, but the results from the 2017 vintage are very encouraging.

Andries Burger from Paul Cluver

Paul Cluver Seven Flags Chardonnay 2016, Elgin, 13.5 Abv.

Rich opulent toasty lemon nose made from two 31 year old clones of Chardonnay using 100% whole bunch pressing before going straight to barrel for wild yeast fermentation. Around 30% new French oak, there are multiple layers of brûléed lemon peel, lemon pastille, honeydew melon and vanilla pod spice. With only 5-10% malolactic, the wine shows a wonderfully bright, crisp, taut texture with very impressive piquant lemongrass spice, waxy green apple, yellow citrus concentration and a fine generosity and pinpoint salinity on the finish.

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

Paul Cluver Seven Flags Chardonnay 2017, Elgin, 13 Abv.

With slightly more new oak on the 2017 at 35%, this young wine shows a surprising primary fruit driven style with crystalline white citrus, honeydew melon, green apple and white peach purity. But there is also a fine dusty, gravelly minerality emphasising the wines greater restraint, freshness and salinity. A fine core of taut yellow fruits is still very tightly wound. The intense concentration raises its head one more time on the long, complex, linear finish. Very classy and certainly a wine that is more flamboyant in youth but will certainly reward cellaring.

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

Paul Cluver Seven Flags Pinot Noir 2015, Elgin, 13.5 Abv.

A very attractive nose of raspberry confit, red cherry, bramble berry spice with hints of milk chocolate and savoury cured meats. There is great palate power, intensity and fruit focus with earthy meaty red and black fruits, salinity, and piquant foresty brambly wood spice finish. Lovely restrained oak just adding a bit of salt and pepper complexity.

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

Paul Cluver Seven Flags Pinot Noir 2016, Elgin, 13.5 Abv.

Still young and primary, the 2016 initially shows some flinty, spicy reduction, red plum, crushed blackberries and bramble berry hedgerow spice. Includes around 30% whole bunch in the ferment adding sappy, brambly foresty fruit nuances. There is a lot of energy, a super bright acidity and a long, vivacious, dark fruited, linear finish.

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

The Alternative Face of Elgin – Tasting the Shannon Vineyards Wines with Co-Owner Stuart Downes…

Elgin is famous for cool climate expressions of both red and white wines. While most producers are focusing on Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Shannon Vineyards have spent a lot of time and effort fine tuning their Semillon and Merlot, two varieties that have arguably had variable single varietal bottling success in South Africa until more recently. But I think it’s fair to say times have changed and consumers and wine merchants are more sympathetic to these varieties in their different guises.

Brothers Stuart and James Downes are the current owners and their focus has been on producing exceptional fruit from cool mountain hillside vineyards combined with minimal intervention winemaking. Stuart recently passed through London on the way back from the USA and presented his current releases.

Shannon Vineyards Semillon 2015, Elgin, 13.5 Abv.

0.5 Hectares of GD1 Australian Semillon clone with 15 years vine age. Shows real lift, dusty, spicy complexity with cut grass, lemon spice, crushed gravel, rain on dry grey slate petrichor characteristics. Definite herbaceous pyrazine hint but deliciously balanced by bright, creamy, ultra fresh yellow fruits, white citrus and a mouth watering grassy, piquant finish.

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

Shannon Vineyards Sanctuary Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Elgin, 13 Abv

Bright fragrant notes of cut grass, stable straw, pithy yellow citrus, white pepper and crushed gooseberries. Acids are tart, crystalline and bright with spicy green apple, crunchy tart peach and lemon grass notes. Fresh, laser like focus and tension. Great example of cool climate Sauvignon.

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

Shannon Vineyards Rockview Ridge Pinot Noir 2014, Elgin, 13 Abv.

Using 667 & 777 clones, also 115 & 113. Dusty, sappy, spicy, cedary aromatic profile with notes of crushed gravel and subtle smokey charcoal embers. Palate is sleek, elegant, light weight but retains a fleshy red cherry and sappy bramble berry concentration with hints of Asian spices. Quite a subtle feminine style with a complexing white truffle earthiness on the finish.

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

Shannon Vineyards Merlot 2015, Elgin, 14 Abv.

Dark, warming, enticing nose of black damson plums, cut grass, black berry and baking spice herbaceousness with a dusting of milk chocolate gloss. Palate is soft and fruit driven with hints of mint leaf, supple creamy black brambly fruits, cedar spice and an overlay of graphite minerality. Fleshy and plummy, accessible and supple style.

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

Shannon Vineyards Mount Bullet Merlot 2013, Elgin, 14 Abv.

On average 22 months in barrel with a low 3.2 pH. Rich complex blend of 5 Merlot clones, 2 French and 3 Italian. Plush, restrained and very classical profile with black cherry, creamy black plum, cinnamon biscuits and an attractive sappy spice. Beautifully fleshy and sleek textured with incredibly bright cherry acids, black cherry spice, liquorice and a real Italian Tuscan feel. Fine precision, some tension and tautness, finishing with an alluring red cranberry and dusty graphite complexity. A rare distinguished example of one of the Cape’s most difficult grapes to master.

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

Lismore Pinot Noir Growing in Stature ~ Tasting the 2017 Vintage Pre-Release with Samantha O’Keefe…

It was almost a year ago that I tasted Samantha O’Keefe’s first vintage of Pinot Noir. Today I got a sneak preview of the follow up 2017 vintage. For someone who is only two vintages in with this heartbreak grape, the 2017 is a significant step up in both precision, quality and overall construction on the 2016.

Made from a blend of Elgin and Walker Bay fruit, the grapes were fermented in 5000 litre wooden fermenters with gentle pump overs twice a day. The wine was then aged in a mix of older 225L barriques and new 500L barrels for almost 12 months.

Lismore Pinot Noir 2017, WO Western Cape, 13.5 Abv.

Pale translucent ruby red, this new Pinot Noir was bottled in early January 2018 and already shows a nuanced complexity of red bramble berries, strawberry herbal tea, bright crystalline cranberry and cherry stone fruit. Moving from 15% to 30% whole bunch for the 2017, the palate instantly shows a more multi-textural, layered depth, resinous sappy grip, cherry skin spice, red berry flesh and a delicious mouth watering fresh acidity on the finish. The wine already possesses an attractive savoury strata and a beautiful red fruit intensity, suggesting this Pinot is a definite step up on the 2016 at this early point in its development. More confident and self assured in style, the Lismore Pinot Noir is certainly becoming a wine worth following with closer interest over the coming vintages. Drink from 2018 to 2028+.

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