Wednesday 23 August 2017
The Tasting Room was warm despite the late-winter sun struggling to break through low grey clouds. I was sat beside a huge circular fire pit, with black conical chimney, as I waited for my tasting selection. The room shares a vast open space in the ultra modern cube-shaped building that juts out from the Schafenberg Mountain (Afrikaans for ‘Sheep Mountain’) above the vineyards. The concrete and glass building wass immediately visible on the skyline as I passed the unassuming entrance. In the dull afternoon, it could as easily have been a municipal utility station as a contemporary wine farm building. The award-winning ‘cellar in the sky’ was built in 2009 as a state-of-the-art gravitational winery. The glass box design is intended to reflect the Waterkloof philosophy for honest, transparent and authentic wines. I was unsure whether the building ‘radiates beauty’, as the website proclaims. Fortunately, bright yellow daisies gave welcome natural colour beside the road.
Paul Boutinot bought the property in 2004 having spent 10 years searching for a vineyard site. The hill, some 300 metres above sea level and just 4 kilometres from False Bay, was where Adriaan van der Stel grazed his sheep. It was also a lookout over the bay for visiting ships. The first Waterkloof wine was made just a year later from vines that had been planted in the 1970s. Soil surveys and then major replanting were completed by 2008. Today, 53 hectares of the 100 hectare farm are under vine, with the remaining land set aside for fynbos conservation.
Mention Waterkloof and most wine drinkers in the know will mention ‘biodynamic’. Biodynamism is an alternative and esoteric form of organic architecture drawn from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (also founder of Waldorf education) in 1924. Soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care are interrelated tasks, for which their spiritual and mystical perspectives are emphasized. The approach treats the animals, plants and (in wine parlance) the terroir as a single system. Therefore, local plants are encouraged, manures and composts are used in place of chemical fertilisers, together with astrological planting. More than 700 vineyards worldwide have been certified as biodynamic. The biodynamic winemaker claim their wines have stronger, clearer and more vibrant tastes as well as a better balance of flavour and alcohol levels (even in changing climatic conditions) due to better balanced viticulture.
The cover of the glossy large brochure ‘Waterkloof: The Story’ – hardly sustainable or environmentally friendly by its size – shows one of the 6 Percheron horses that are used to plough, spray and harvest the vineyards. This reduces the soil compaction damage and carbon emissions associated with conventional tractor usage. As I left, I noticed the Dorper sheep grazing to reduce the weeds and winter vegetation between the rows of vines.
The ‘proof of the pudding is in the eating’ so they say, and so proof of the wines is in the tasting. Waterkloof seeks to produce ‘honest’ wines. They are grouped into 4 collections: Seriously Cool – from seriously old wines in the Helderberg region; Circumstance – single variety wines; Circle of Life – multi-variety blends from the Waterkloof vineyard; and the flagship, one wine Waterkloof – consisting of a single Sauvignon Blanc. The wine farm produces 2 further ranges from the False Bay and Stellenbosch regions, called False Bay and Peacock Wild Ferment, respectively.
I opted for the R40 tasting that included 6 wines. I began with the Waterkloof Sauvignon Blanc that had been bottled just a week previously. Served in a balloon glass, the grapes come from a single block. I picked out distinct green, grassy, lemon, lime, asparagus and herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc aromas. The wine was clean, smooth and not too acidic on the palate. It showed its youth by an edge that needed rounding.
The Circumstance Chardonnay was shy on the nose and light on the palate. The subtle yellow apple and underlying oak notes followed through to a mild palate, clean not creamy from 5 months on the lees. I was unsure whether this translated as ‘elegant’ but I wanted more. I did not pick up a terroir driven Chardonnay as I had, for example at De Wetshof, Springfield or Ataraxia estates.
The Chenin Blanc from the same collection was deeper in colour, my favourite white wine and much more interesting. Fruity aromas of lemon, baked apples, melon and pear layered with vanilla and lanolin in the glass. I preferred the fuller mouthfeel, creamier texture and firmer finish than the Chardonnay.
I ordered the cheese platter (R150) to ease my hunger. The serving was generous and big enough for 2 persons to share. Fresh bread, mature cheddar, Karoo blue and Dalewood Languedoc cheeses, salami meat selection, gherkins and cocktail onions were tasty.
The Seriously Cool Cinsault made from bush vines that my sommelier Lee explained were ‘closer to the nutrients’. More usually used as a workhorse grape for blending and for brandy production, it is less commonly made into a single variety wine. It was dry and light in body and character, almost reminiscent of a Grenache. Simple fruity redcurrant, red cherry and mulberry aromas weakened on the light, dry palate. Unrefined tannins were out of balance and the follow through weak.
The Circumstance Cabernet Sauvignon was warmer in fruit and body, aided by 20% new and 80% 2nd fill oak maturation, to give netter complexity of red and dark berry fruits on the nose. It too had pronounced and bitter tannins that needed time to ease and soften. The Merlot, also from the Circumstance Collection and with the same oak regime, was my favourite wine. Warm redcurrant and blackcurrant aromas were simple and inviting. The dry mouthfeel was clean and clear, with moderate acidity but short on the finish and nagging raw tannins.
Waterkloof is not the first wine farm I have left with unsure thoughts. I shall admit I am sceptical about the trumpeting given to organic or biodynamic practices, the modern uses of natural yeasts, unfiltered and unfined wines. Blind tasting of 10 pairs of biodynamic and conventional wines for Fortune magazine by an expert panel of a Wine Master and 6 head sommeliers judged biodynamic wines superior to their conventional counterparts.
I am though open minded and without prejudice. Excellent wines at Waverly Hills, Silvermist, Springfield, Ken Forrester and other estates come to mind. I mentioned above the terroir rich wines from Ataraxia and De Wetshof. Many drinkers rave about Waterkloof and so I checked my thoughts. Were they right? Or was I wrong? Or did hype overtake substance? My overall impression of Waterkloof was nevertheless one of disappointment.
The service was slow for a quiet Wednesday. The wines were young and unrefined, showing an awkwardness of youth. ‘Honest’ they may be but I wanted better quality of balance between fruits and tannins, and more defined character on the nose and palate. I checked after writing this piece my review of Waterkloof wines from the tasting at the Vineyard Hotel in May. My recollections match almost perfectly. Unfortunately, my earlier disappointment was not put to rest by a visit to taste the wines in situ.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Waterkloof Sauvignon Blanc – R220
2016 Circumstance Chardonnay – R140
2016 Circumstance Chenin Blanc – R140
2016 Seriously Cool Cinsault – R120
2015 Circumstance Cabernet Sauvignon – R185
2013 Circumstance Merlot – R185 FAVOURITE WINE