PLAISIR DE MERLE
Wednesday 20 March 2019
There are wine estates that one frequently passes en route to or from others but never visits. Plaisir de Merle, on a straight section of the R45 between the N1 and Franschhoek, is one of those. Today, I was determined to put that right and so I stopped for tasting as I left Leopard’s Leap and Paserene wine farms on my return to Cape Town. The entrance, with gold gryphon perched high beside, is easy to see from a distance. A gryphon is a mythical beast, half lion and half eagle, and said to guard treasures. It is believed to have the strength of a lion and the vision of an eagle.
Formalities over at the gate, I passed a departing Franschhoek tram bus on the road to the Tasting Room that passed through the extensive vineyards. Many turns later, all well-signposted, I stopped in a small shady car park. I walked past the magnificent old Manor House that dates back to 1764, with its whitewashed walls, thatched roof, heritage green framed windows and large Dutch gable to the Tasting Room. The vista of the Simonsberg Mountains, vines on their lower slopes, beyond the lawn and herbaceous border was superb. Plaisir de Merle is worth visiting for the views and the magnificent historic buildings alone.
The Tasting Centre is in a long building that was built in 1823 and used to be an old barn. It has a vast length and is beautifully decorated. Carpets cover much of the old terracotta flooring whilst armchairs, antique furniture and tables set with tasting glasses fill the room. Fesizwa was my tasting host. She told me her name means ‘a dream come true’ as she explained the tasting options. They essentially come down to a choice between 4 wines from the Plaisir de Merle Range (R65) or 4 wines from the Limited Release Range (R155). There were pairing options too, including a Fudge Pairing (R95). There is no restaurant at Plaisir de Merle (catering for conferences and weddings is separately arranged) but a cheese platter is available. I order a platter to go with my selection of 4 of the 7 wines from the Plaisir de Merle Range.
I chose 2 white wines, with their distinct olive green labels bearing the gold gryphon, together with 2 red wines which had a similar label in maroon. The Petit Plaisir White was a blend of 4 white varieties (see below). The wine, served straight from the fridge was too cold to pick out much of the aromas. I was able to warm the glass in my hand after which I picked out strong vanilla notes together with those of citrus and tropical fruits. Fesizwa did not know the proportions of each cultivar, unsurprisingly so since the website does not yet list the wine, but I could smell the contribution of each variety. This was a fresh, summer wine with a clean and refreshing palate.
The Chardonnay, aged for 9 months in French oak as for the white blend, showed a similar character with prominent stewed apple, lime and vanilla notes and a pleasant smooth, creamy texture on the palate. The balance was good and the acidity was just enough to hold on for a modest finish. The wine was good value for money at R140.
The Cheese Platter arrived which, though pricey for one person (R170), contained a well presented selection of 5 cheeses, 2 kinds of bread, tomatoes, figs, olives, tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Outside and beneath the tall trees in front of the building, sat the many tram guests who came and went on their tight hourly schedule.
The property is huge with 400 hectares (out of 974 hectares) under vine to make it one of the largest wine farms in the Western Cape. All the major cultivars are grown on the fertile, well-drained, weathered granite soils of the surrounding mountains. Some 80% of the wines produced are red with Merlot, my next wine, being one of them. The wine was fuller bodied, deeper ruby red in colour, and contained more black than red fruit aromas than I expected for a Merlot. I could have mistaken it for a Cabernet Sauvignon but for the characteristic smooth texture tannins and sweetness on the palate.
My favourite wine of the tasting was the Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine had distinct and unusual aromas of coffee and dark chocolate on the nose ahead of those of many dark fruits, including mulberry. The palate showed a good smoothness and structure for its youth (2014 vintage) and was well balanced.
After, and at Fesizwa’s suggestion, I looked inside the Manor House with its elegant interior, yellow wood doors and furniture that is used for accommodation for up to 8 guests (4 bedrooms). The Plaisir de Merle tasting was short and sweet. There were only of 4 wines to sample, which no doubt suits the tram guests, but I was left wanting a little more. The Limited Release tasting cost 3 times as much, also for 4 wines, which is probably prohibitive for most guests.
I would much have liked to have heard about the extensive history of the magnificent estate and the historic buildings but none was offered. That was a pity and a missed opportunity given the fascinating story told on the website. Perhaps the staffs are so used to serving the tram guests, who have no time beyond a taster of 4 wines before they need depart, that they do not think that the other guests might be interested. The wines are made by Niel Bester who has been the winemaker since 1993. I was surprised, given his length of tenure, at the inconsistency of the wine quality. Two of the wines – the Chardonnay and the Cabernet Sauvignon – were very promising but the white blend and the Merlot were average by comparison.
The combination of a tasting of just 4 wines, their varied quality, and the lack of any mention of the extensive history left me frustrated and wanting more. I felt too that Plaisir de Merle, which means the ‘pleasure of the blackbird’, had so much more to offer. Much of the information above, for example, has come from my research on the website and elsewhere and not from the tasting. For these reasons, I feel able only to award 3.5/5 for the tasting Experience and for the Wines. The gryphon guarded the treasure too closely. The ‘plaisir’ should have been more.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2018 Plaisir de Merle Petit Plaisir White (Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Alvarinho) – R110
2018 Plaisir de Merle Chardonnay – R140
2016 Plaisir de Merle Merlot – R230
2014 Plaisir de Merle Cabernet Sauvignon – R230 FAVOURITE WINE