Saturday 6 May 2017
The Ataraxia vineyard sits high up in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The distinctive wine lounge, built to look like a white chapel in the vernacular architectural style of the Overberg, sits high too. Its elevated position beneath the Babylonstoren mountain range makes for a spectacular setting.
The ‘chapel’ was easily visible from the R320 as I headed south from Creation Wines. The proximity was deceptive as the approach drive wended its way though forest and vineyard. The vines, with their autumn colours, nestled in blocks surrounded by mature trees to make for an equally beautiful and intimate setting. A day in the Valley to taste the Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Finlayson and Creation Wines gave plenty of time to appreciate that Hemel-en-Aarde is Afrikaans for ‘Heaven and Earth’.
My relaxation amid the natural beauty – Ataraxia aptly is Greek for “a serene state of mind, free from worry and preoccupation” – was jolted when I entered the Wine Lounge. It was not the beauty of the interior design with its white walls, high vaulted ceiling, modern art by Tay Dall, gentle music and comfortable seating that jarred. It was that I had assumed tasting was open until 5pm (as at Creation) whereas it closed at 4pm. Fortunately, there were 4 wines only for tasting (R35) otherwise it would have been much too much of a rush to enjoy.
The first 2 white wines were poured as I learned of the purist and individual philosophy of the co-owner, Kevin Grant. The wines had already proved themselves, having won their share of awards and gained outstanding Platter ratings. It was time now solely to focus on creating wines with finesse, balance and depth. You will not, for example, find any wines listed in the 2017 edition of the Platter’s Guide. The vineyard is listed but there are no wines rated.
High acidity, crispness and brightness of minerality are bywords for the style of the Sauvignon Blanc and wooded Chardonnay. I may have mistaken the flintiness for acidity in my scoring notes as I sensed that each wine clearly took the characteristics of the soil in which the vines were planted. It is rare, in my experience as a wine enthusiast so far, to pick out these subtle elements in South African wines (French ones, yes) and testament to the expressive and reflective skill of the winemaker. I would have liked longer to have savoured each glass but, alas, time today was not on my side.
I would have bought the Chardonnay, my favourite wine of the tasting, but I had already bought bottles from Hamilton Russell which happened, exceptionally, to have scored a perfect 20/20 in my evaluation (and for the second time only since starting the Wine Society).
The single variety Pinot Noir, just the 3rd release as the 2014 vintage has sold out, showed similar phenolic astringency, bordering on bitterness, as the white wines. It was a beautiful, shiny deep pink to pale ruby colour and darker in appearance than most. The aromas on the nose were forwards, a mix of redcurrant, raspberry and cranberry with acetone. The Tasting Note says it is “always wanting to ask a question of the drinker, rather than striving to be a statement wine”. That it did.
Last, the fruity yet tarty, tannin-rich Serenity blend showed complex red cherry, red plum, cassis and redcurrant aromas on the nose. In a separate quote, Kevin Grant refers to stylistic expression. “Blends are an expression of ‘where from’ rather than ‘what from’”, he writes. Cleverly, albeit incestuously, the Serenity blends wines from the Pinotage grape family – Pinotage, Pinot Noir and Cinsault – in which earthiness and the terroir origins are evident.
Ataraxia was founded in 2004. It is, like the neighbouring vineyards of Creation and Bouchard Finlayson, a young farm. The 47 hectare property, formerly the also aptly named Skyfields Farm, has 12 hectares under vine (with plans soon to double in size). No fewer than 14 soil types are formed from deposits of sandstone, granite and shale to provide a unique terroir. These soil types have determined the grape cultivars and on which predominantly South-facing slopes they are grown.
I am grateful to have been able to reflect on my tasting at Ataraxia before writing as I feel better placed to interpret what Kevin Grant seeks to achieve. I now understand what he means when stating that the wine-maker’s mission is to “get our dirt into the bottle with minimum intervention”.
Serenity – without worry or preoccupation – to ask questions of the drinker has been achieved. Mission accomplished!
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Sauvignon Blanc – R115
2016 Chardonnay – R250 FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Pinot Noir – R285
2015 Serenity (50% Pinotage, 25% Pinot Noir, 25% Cinsault) – R185