Intriguing and Confusing – An Enigmatic Experience
Thursday 26 January 2017
Uitsig, or more correctly Constantia Uitsig, was one of the last Constantia Valley wine estates I visited for tasting for the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society. There’s no special reason other than I have been here several times before. Even so, I never knew that ‘uitsig’ was afrikaans for ‘view’.
The 60 hectare estate (32 hectares under vine) is the lowest of those in the Constantia Valley. It has rich fertile coarse Clovelly sandy soils that are ideal for white grape varieties such as Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
I passed the new building works to park in the shade beside the Open Door Restaurant. The new facilities, opened in June 2015, are light and airy and set apart from the temporary cellar shop that is to the right of the entrance gate.
Mike’s eyes glistened when I asked to taste the wines ‘blind’. The full tasting of six wines costs R90 and is the most expensive in the Constantia Valley. It includes five whites and one red; the 2013 MCC Chardonnay and the Muscat dessert wine are excluded. There is neither discount if wines are purchased nor a ‘free’ wine glass (Groot Constantia also charges R90 for tasting but an estate wine glass is included in the cost).
The tasting was straightforward enough with the wines served in unbranded glasses. I opted to split the wines into 2 rounds to maintain chilled temperatures: three whites followed by the remaining two whites and the red.
I was given a pretty, opaque paper, tasting mat, complete with cigarette burn, printed with the stylish bird and fynbos logos that are printed on the bottle labels. I quickly hid it so as not to gain any clues for the tasting ahead.
The challenge correctly to identify all five whites proved to be as difficult as expected. I didn’t pick out the Sémillon to start and things got little better. I did taste the woodiness (12 months in second/third oak barrels) with notes of gooseberry, lime, vanilla and green apple. I thought it an oaked Chardonnay, perhaps with a little added Viognier for the fruitiness and aromatic feel. Sémillon lies between the apple and herbal wine flavour families and I had at least smelt elements of both in the nose.
For reasons I didn’t understand and forgot to ask about after, the second wine was served in a balloon glass. The wine foxed me. The nose and palate were earthy, chalky, flinty with little fruitiness to the point of almost being bland and with a soft, short finish. It was dry and of medium/high acidity. It seemed a blend, possibly of Sauvignon Blanc with Sémillon, but was in fact the Uitsig Unwooded Chardonnay. It fell short for me and unsurprisingly was both the cheapest and lowest Platter-rated wine of the tasting.
I preferred the Sauvignon Blanc. This I correctly identified by its herbal notes of gooseberry, leafiness and low citrus nose combined with a clean, acid, dry palate and crisp finish.
Service was slow. Lunchtime business was steady but the restaurant was nowhere near capacity. I did have time to complete my notes and edit my photos before the second half of the tasting. The final two whites were at the top of the price range, both wooded for 7-12 months, pleasant and highly drinkable. My lack of experience of tasting Chardonnay showed. They were a Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon blend and a wooded Chardonnay (and not a Chardonnay and Sémillon as I guessed). Note to self: I must taste more chardonnays.
The single red was a classic medium/full-bodied Bordeaux-style blend – plummy, fruity with dark red and black berry fruits and a hint of cedar. It tasted high in tannin, medium in complexity, and full in the mouth. This was a wine to be drunk with a meal rather than alone, or to age. I picked out the Merlot but not the accompanying majority Cabernet Sauvignon or minority Cabernet Franc.
I didn’t taste the Muscat today as I had recently selected it for the first Cape Wine Lovers’ Society meeting. Made from red and white hanepoot grapes, it resembles a medium-pink Rosé in colour and sells in a tall narrow 375ml bottle. It is beautiful honey-sweet, rich in floral and peach notes, and smooth and balanced. The previous two years’ vintage production is blended with the current year to maintain complexity and consistency of style.
I reflect on my tasting as I drive away after and as I start to consider the overall experience for my writing. Constantia Uitsig both intrigued and confused. It was a wine estate full of paradox and contradiction. I gained an impression that it didn’t know quite where to position itself in the market.
Uitsig has neither the grand historic buildings of nearby Groot Constantia or the superb views of the wine estates high on the Constantia Nek (Beau Constantia and Constantia Glen immediately come to mind). The relatively new Open Door restaurant is a fine building but feels functional and purposeful compared with the edgy, modern style of adjacent Steenberg.
Uitsig offers a restaurant and a cycling academy but no longer weddings or a spa. The La Colombe restaurant (it has moved to Silvermist Organic Vineyard). The new buildings are set to be built to the highest environmental standards. Biodiversity is supported and monoculture is discouraged. Indeed, every wine label shows a bird from the adjacent restored wetland. And yet – Uitsig seeks not the full organic pedigree of, say, Silvermist.
Temporarily until new facilities are built in 2018, wine-tastings are at the restaurant and not the cellar. This translated through in a number of ways. Depending on where you read or who you ask, restaurant staff included, tastings are offered in the cellar and/or the restaurant and do or do not require pre-booking (they are held in the restaurant and pre-booking is not needed).
I was hosted too by a different person for each half of my tasting – as if there was uncertainty whether to utilise a sommelier or a waiter. I was irritated too to find out in the cellar after that the Muscat cost R285 and not the R500 I paid just a week ago after tasting and buying in the restaurant (I was told I could buy from either). Update: I took this up with Julie, the Marketing Manager, after. She has responded with a generous offer of a free bottle of Muscat to thank me for the constructive feedback.
Constantia Uitsig’s wines too vary in quality. Some are undoubtedly excellent: the Sémillon and Natural Vista sauvignon blanc/sémillon blend earn the highest Platter 5-star awards. By contrast, the unwooded Chardonnay was bland and didn’t excite. Nonetheless, tasting charge excepted, prices are not the highest in the valley.
I shall return again and for sure next year when the new tasting facilities are opened and the 2016/2017 vintage is available. I left feeling that Constantia Uitsig was unsure of its identity, in need of focus and clarity in communication, and with offerings too diverse. The estate undoubtedly is going through major transition and re-branding. This likely explains my enigmatic experience. I shall look forwards to seeing how time will tell.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2014 Sémillon – R155
2015 Unwooded Chardonnay – R105 * (previously)
2015 Sauvignon Blanc – R105
2014 Natura Vista (65% Sémillon, 35% Sauvignon Blanc) – R155
2014 Chardonnay Reserve – R165 * (previously)
2013 Red Horizon (69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc) – R180
Muscat – R285 * (previously) FAVOURITE WINE