Friday, 19 October 2012

A Syrah in sheep’s clothing, by Martin Wheatley

It seems like a very, very long time since I pulled the cork, poured the wine, sat back and tasted..... enjoyed, complimented then enjoyed some more..... South African wine.

I remember the emergence of estate wines from the Cape hitting our shelves back in the early 1990s. The country, freed from exile and the shackles of apartheid, excited the consumer with a breadth of tantalisingly different wines. “They’re old World wines but in a new World Style. Kind of 50/50” I can hear myself saying back in Lay & Wheeler’s long since closed central Colchester shop. Since those days my focus on South African wines has blurred rather, as the intricacies of Bordeaux, Burgundy and other more immediate wine regions of Europe have obstructed my view. I am very pleased to say that my appreciation and respect for South African wines has been recently rekindled. My mojo is back in the building and it’s been talking about Shiraz (but not the gloopy kind ubiquitously found in other corners of the New World)!

Hartenberg Estate harks from Stellenbosch. The name alone conjuring up images of mountain landscapes and lush green vineyards basking in the warm summer sunshine. Winemaker, Carl Schultz, visited the Bancroft offices this week and took the opportunity to explain a little more about Hartenberg. Enthusiastic and driven, he helped to paint an intimate portrait of what makes both he and Hartenberg Estate tick. How, what, where and when.... No stone was left unturned and my appreciation was founded for a man who is doing everything he can possibly do to produce the very finest wines possible. The experience was quite humbling and completely unexpected. The wines were, well... outstanding. Not really a word I use that often, yet in this context it almost feels like I am being a touch unreasonable- the fruit quality, balance and winemaking application on show being unequalled in this taster’s experience of South African wines. Shiraz is the variety for which Hartenberg has become famous, and it is Shiraz which played the strongest hand in our tasting.

We started out by opening the 2007 Estate Shiraz. A lifted nose of spicy, brambly fruit gave way to full, sweet and ripe fruit flavours and a hint of white pepper. Great freshness is what set this wine apart from so many Aussie efforts. This was very much Syrah in build and less so the perceived interpretation of new world Shiraz. Stylistically it had weightlessness on the palate which was to follow through the two further cuvees made at the estate. This was not cough medicine-like or porty, it was light on its feet, fresh and very gourmand in composition. I was already rather impressed!

Next up was the soon to be iconic “Stork” Shiraz. A single vineyard release, which has only this month been awarded the prestigious Best Shiraz in the World at the Syrah Du Monde. Though extremely well built with a rich, pepper and spice nose and palate, there was a core of real elegance. This wine, though big, has its feet on the ground, exceptional balance and an assured future. Black cherry, fresh crushed redcurrant juice and vanilla... It was disarming in its overall femininity and elegance on the palate. Almost a total contradiction, its personality and gravitas reminded me of the 2000 Opus One I had tasted earlier on in the week. The 2008 Stork has been crafted in a Mouton-Rothschild mould and to those lucky enough to have tasted this noble First Growth, you will know exactly how difficult, nay impossible this style is to mimic. Simply out of this world....

Gravel Hill Vineyard

Still to come was the flagship release “Gravel Hill Shiraz”, a single vineyard release from stony soils. Until recently the only way to acquire this rare wine (a mere 350 cases are made each vintage) was to purchase through the Cape Winemaker’s Guild auction, which is held yearly in South Africa. We tasted the current 2007 vintage and were again introduced to a beguiling, contradiction of a wine which must register as one of the most complete New World Shiraz I have ever tasted. This really did remind me of 2003 Hermitage, a vintage of extreme heat in the Northern Rhone, yet one which produced some immortal and uniquely endowed wines. Gravel Hill has this richness but again, a delicacy and freshness to balance these concentrated flavours. More tannic than the Stork, it will be a keeper for several decades and unlike many a New World Shiraz, will continue to develop throughout its evolution.

Written by Martin Wheatley, Fine Wine Sales

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