22 June 2017
Solms-Delta was one of those wine farms whose name is familiar and I feel I ought to visit for tasting. The winery was conveniently located on the R45 South of Franschhoek, close to Allée Bleue where I also planned to explore, and so I decided to visit.
The farm is interesting in many ways: its history, its operation, its offerings, and its wines. The property is made up of 3 adjacent farms, each owner having a 1/3 share. Professor Mark Solms, a renowned neuroscientist, owns Delta Farm. British philanthropist Richard Astor owns Lubeck Farm. Since 2007, the final third has been owned by the Wijn de Caab Trust, the beneficiaries of which are the residents and employees. In January 2017, the share of business owned by the workers on the farm has increased to 45%.
It was earlier, in 2007 that Mark Solms returned to South Africa to the neglected Delta Farm. He sought to develop the wine estate but soon realised there were 7 families there who had been living on the land for generations. He himself was a 6th generation farmer. Unexpected resistance to his plans led him to consider the underlying symptoms before he was able to make a healing diagnosis. Subsequent anthropological and archaeological investigations led to many discoveries and to an understanding of the tenant worker’s pain. Everything on the farm, from vineyards to the Cape Dutch buildings, was built by slaves.
The personal stories and artefacts are on display in the Museum van der Caab and the Music van der Caab Centre. The name ‘van der Caab’ means from the Cape’. Sadly, I was not told about or directed to the Museum as I am sure I would have found it most interesting. It is housed in the original cellar building, dating back to 1740, and tells the story of the slave heritage to the present day. I did however visit the small, interesting music exhibition – en route from the Tasting Room to the car park – after sampling the wines.
Two Solms-Delta Trusts facilitate sharing the land and business equity with the community and previously disadvantaged workers. The Trusts aim to restore past injustices and help the people to live with purpose and dignity. The Wijn de Caab Trust is managed by a social worker. It addresses a wide range of social and community needs, from education (crèche through to tertiary level) to medical to recreational facilities. The sister Delta Trust supports a number of projects, the Museum and Music Centre, as well as the annual worker harvest Oesfees. The 2 trusts have recently partnered with Boschendal to extend their influences.
Today, the 323 year old Solms-Delta farm extends to 78 hectares with 33 hectares under vine. Rhône grape varieties that suit the hot, dry, windy climate are planted: Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, Mourvèdre, Shiraz, and Viognier, together with Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, Macabeo, Muscat D’Alexandrie, Muscat de Frontignan, and Roussane. Red wines make up 2/3 of the wines produced.
Little did I know of this history as I made my way down the puddle dirt road past winter vines to the small, modern and unassuming Tasting Room. Well lit with large windows, it was plain inside with simple wooden chairs and tables. It could easily have been an offsite Conference facility. The Tasting fee differed according to which wines selected to sample: R25 for the Lifestyle Collection (5 wines); R45 for wines from the Heritage Collection (also 5 wines) included; and R100 to add in the 2 wines from the premium Terroir Collection. I chose the middle option.
Leon was my tasting host who, while, polite, did little more than pour the wines I asked for. He did not explain about them. Fortunately, the tasting sheet offered some information about the cultivar and style of each wine. My favourite wine was the first, a green-tinged straw-coloured Chenin Blanc. Aromas of warm tropical and stone fruit salad – lemon, pineapple, guava, apricot – filled the nose. This contrasted with a dry to off-dry palate that was crisp to the point of being sharp.
It has been many years since I last tasted Perry, a pear cider that is traditionally made in the West Country in England. The Astor Perry was as I expected it to be. Dark gold and bubbly in appearance, it tasted of pear, baked apple and Demerara sugar. It was an unusual addition to a wine tasting. The Grenache Noir Rosé was much more typical. It was simple in complexity, with strawberry and raspberry flavours, crisp on the palate and a short finish.
I then tasted from the Heritage Collection, each wine bearing a name from one aspect of the Solms-Delta history. The Amalie was an intriguing blend of French and Portuguese grapes from 3 locations. It was Dutch Princess Amalie’s grandson, King William III of England, who gave protection to fleeing French Huguenots, some 180 of whom fled to the Cape. They were granted farms in the vicinity of Delta Farm. I didn’t rate the wine highly and mostly because the high acidity on the palate overpowered tropical fruity flavours to leave a bitter aftertaste.
The Koloni, IsiXhosa name for the Cape, didn’t do much for me either. Made from the 2 Muscat grape varieties, the grapes unusually are desiccated on the vine. This is an ancient Greek and Roman practice whereby whole bunches are strangled on the vine and left for several weeks to dry in the sun. This helps concentrate flavour and colour without sacrificing acidity. Bright medium gold in colour, the aromatic, sweet grape, light apricot and honey flavours promised a complex, sweet taste in the mouth. It was off-dry and the complexity disappeared.
The Africana represents both indigenous and colonial heritages. It too was made from air-dried grapes, from Shiraz. Full in body and with characteristic red-purple Shiraz colours, it had typical green peppercorn spicy and berry fruit flavours. The Tasting Note correctly described the ‘noble bitterness and intense tannins’ that emerged to overcome the fruity aromas. I ended with the Gemoedsrus – meaning ‘peace of mind’ and named after a song by Alex van Heerden, the late great musician-in-residence – made solely from desiccated Shiraz and fortified (to 18.5% alcohol) with grappa. Lighter in colour and body than the Africana, though similar in taste, the sweet entry led to bitterness on the palate and a short finish.
There are times when I feel that I had not experienced the best of a vineyard. More so, when I read and research afterwards. Solms-Delta was one of those occasions. Visits to Constantia Uitsig, Meerendal, Creation, Quando and Ataraxia also come to mind. Solms-Delta is picked out from the hundreds of Western Cape vineyards for glowing inclusion in 2 of my key reference books: ‘Wineries of the Cape’ and ‘Exploring the Cape Vineyards’. On these occasions of doubt, I deliberately pause for a few days before writing to give myself longer time to reflect. I updated, for example, my experience of Ataraxia and its wines when I realised that I was mistaking overt tart acidity for natural minerality.
I worry too that perhaps the winemaker has produced wines of a style I just happen not to like (there’s nothing wrong in that) and that, consequently, I shall not be fair in my tasting review. It is for this reason that I include a ‘Likeability’ score to the standard 20-point tasting methodology. It helps me to score consistently and objectively for quality without favour or prejudice. The subjective analysis for whether I enjoyed the wines or not is made separately and after. I even shared my doubts with a friend with similar wine passion and adventure. My overall assessment was confirmed.
In truth, I have not changed my initial assessment of Solms-Delta wines. The quality disappointed. That in itself is a reflection of my expectation. Herein lies, I believe, the answer to my dilemma. The reputation of a wine farm – and hence my expectation – generally rests on the entire experience and not solely the wines. Credit is rightfully given to Solms-Delta to the unique employee share structure, to benefits provided for historically disadvantaged residents, to the Museum, the arts and music events, to the Restaurant with its traditional Cape cuisine, to guided farm tours, festivals and more. I visited to taste the wine alone. I am also conscious that June is mid-winter and today is mid-week, when many farms scale down their offerings. A visit during a summer weekend might well prove to be an entirely different experience. Seasonality affects the stock cycle too and many wineries are releasing very young and ‘bottle-shocked’ wines at this time of the year.
Nonetheless, Solms-Delta offered some different and unusual cultivars and wines. I had not tasted wine made from air-dried grapes before and that was intriguing in itself, even though I felt unsure quite what the difference in taste was. Many of the wines, and especially in the Heritage Collection, were generously priced (R180 to R250). This made a large step up from the preceding Lifestyle Collection (R55 to R60). I shall rest with my opinions, admittedly slightly uneasily, and shall need return to enjoy the wide range of activities on off at Solms-Delta to make a full and fair assessment.
To do that, and in the words of female singer Grace Jones’ title song, I must explore the “Slave to the Rhythm”.
Wines tasted (* bought):
NV Astor Premium Perry (Pear) – R80 per 4-pack
2016 Chenin Blanc – R55 FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Amalie (30% Grenache Blanc, 30% Chenin Blanc, 25% Roussanne, 15% Verdelho) – R180
2013 Koloni (83% Muscat de Frontignan, 15% Muscat d’Alexandrie) – R150
2016 Grenache Noir Rosé – R55
2013 Africana – R250
2014 Gemoedsrus – R250