From Palette to Palate to Muratie
Friday 8 September 2017
‘Visual overload’, said sommelier Nina as I stood near motionless in the Tasting Room taking in all that was there. It should not have worked. It should not have worked at all. The ridiculously small car park on the right hand side before the estate buildings. The random signage, if any. The Tasting building that looked like an old English post office or near derelict farmhouse from the outside. MacGregor-style white-washed wriggly tin-roofed buildings, just as pretty but scattered at random (I never thought MacGregor was organised until now!). Dark and dingy entrance to the cramped Tasting Room. Cobwebs everywhere. A first-day Belgian student intern sommelier who I taught about wine. Wines accidentally left in oak for 2 years. Weird blends. Rad and random. Need I add more? No, it should never have worked. Try getting this past your Executive Board for a new wine estate!
Muratie worked. Yes, it did and very much so. I was not even meant to be here either! My plans for an intended ‘Big 5’ of chosen estates North of Stellenbosch were meant to have included inter alia Le Bonheur. I had already visited Warwick, Kanonkop and Uitkyk estates. Strangely, Le Bonheur was closed. I had assumed it to be open. It was only later that I found out that the estate is closed to the public – how typically French! And so I ended up at Muratie.
‘Ended up’ is an appropriate turn of phrase as my approach from car park to cellar was somewhat random. This was not due to the quantity of wines I had sampled at earlier tastings. Instead, it was because I could not help but explore the exquisitely beautiful and rural surrounding buildings. I felt immediately at home having been brought up in a hamlet (a small village) in England. There was a restful peace that not even the crowing cockerels could disturb.
I eventually found my way inside the old cellar building and to the Tasting Room. I could hardly believe my eyes, feeling equally at home again having lived in an untidy, cluttered old Tudor farmhouse for my childhood. Unique is an over-used word – is not every vineyard unique? – but if there is to be a more unique-than-unique wine tasting room it surely has to be at Muratie. Two wine tour guides with their gaggle of guests filled most of the room. It mattered not that the sommeliers were attending to them as I simply looked and observed and soaked up the atmosphere. Paintings, photos and artefacts filled every space, just as in my home in Cape Town.
That the name origin – murasie is Dutch for ruins – did not surprise. The estate dates back to 1685 when the farm was granted to its first owner by Governor Simon van der Stel. This was to a young German soldier called Laurens Campher. Laurens not only had an earthy love for the soil but also for a young slavegirl called Ansela van der Caab. He must have been in deep love as he walked 64 kilometres to visit her, a trip that took 3 days, for 14 years. She then returned to Muratie as his wife. The oak tree planted to bless her marriage still stands.
Laurens Campher was my first wine of the tasting (R60 for the Premium Tasting of 5 wines). It was an unusual white blend with the Portuguese grape Verdelho added to Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. This gave a great complexity of forward herbaceous, citrus and tropical fruit aromas on the nose. Smooth, dry and mildly creamy on the palate, this was a wine I liked, so much so that I bought a bottle. I am not surprised I enjoyed it as it compared well to a similar blend that I tasted at the Cavalli wine farm. Called the Cremello, it too contains Verdelho and Chenin Blanc, though with added Chardonnay. It recently won the Trophy for Best White Blend at the Old Mutual Wine Show. I am sure Muratie is onto a winner here too.
I was easily distracted from this delicious wine by my surroundings. An 80-year old family table served as the centrepiece for the ancient room with the sole window covered in preserved cobwebs. An orange light filtered through the dusty panes and from smoke-stained lampshades. Orange too was the name of my next wine, a Sémillon called Orange is The New White. The wine, like all at Muratie, has an interesting story. Legend has it that the wine was accidentally left for 2 years in barrels to be discovered only after the winemaker passed away from cancer. It tasted so good that the practice has continued with the grapes left for 2 years on their skins in French oak.
I struggled to describe the wine for it was unlike any Sémillon I had tasted before. The aromas were not the customary rich honey fruity ones but restrained, earthy, chalky and dusty (just like the Tasting Room). The flavours followed through to the palate unchanged to make for an interesting and intriguing wine with moderate intensity. I returned 2 days later to buy a bottle.
George Paul Canitz bought the farm in 1927. He successfully combined a career as painter and winemaker. Not only was he a nationally and internationally renowned artist who painted into his 70s but he was also the first Pinot Noir grower in the country. It is said that Professor Perold took cuttings of Muratie Pinot Noir to cross with Hermitage (Cinsault) to create Pinotage.
The George Paul Canitz Pinot Noir was my next selected wine for tasting. This was another excellent wine with a bright pale ruby colour that the artist would have been proud of. Warm to sweet cherry, cranberry and slight pepper spice flavours balanced well the clean dry acidity for a persistent finish. Paul Canitz left the estate to his daughter, Annemarie, who was one of the first female wine owners of the 20th century. The rooms at Muratie are exactly as they were when she was at the property.
Another Muratie owner, the 21st, was Ronnie Melck who in 1987 returned the farm to the Melck family. He redeveloped the farm – though fortunately not the Tasting Room – to improve quality of the wines. He is the only owner whose remains rest at Muratie. His name is given to the Shiraz. Lighter in style than many I have tasted, the wine showed classic flavours of blackberry, mulberry, blackcurrant and black peppercorn. These balanced well with supple tannins to give good complexity on the palate.
I mentioned above the romantic story of Laurens Campher’s love for slavegirl Ansela van der Caab. Born into slavery in the quarters of the Cape’s infamous castle, the illicit liaison had to be kept secret. She became the mother of his 3 children and her memory is recognised in the Bordeaux Blend. There was nothing secret about the wine. It was full bodied with bold plush fruity flavours of ripe cassis and berry flavours, tinged with olive and cedar enriched from 22 months in 50% new French oak. This is a great food wine and one to keep.
Dessert was served up in the form of a sweet wine called Amber Forever. Made first by George Paul Canitz in the 1940s, the name stems from both the medium straw colour and the novel ‘Forever Amber’ written by author Kathleen Windsor at the time. It is a story of a high class call girl who kept some of the British upper class gentlemen happy and content. The painting behind the cellar table is home to one of George Paul Canitz’s many paintings and used for the Amber Forever wine label. The lady is said to be one of his many models and probably his mistress too.
The wine, served slightly chilled, was fruity and warm on the palette – or rather palate – with intense flavours of grapey raisin and apricot. Smooth but not syrupy I liked the mouthfeel. This was another bottle to buy.
The 5pm closing time cut tight into my tasting and so much so that I had to rush the tasting of my last wines. There is usually some latitude at the end of the day at the estates I have visited. This gives the staff time to tidy up when the guests have left. This was not so at Muratie – nothing is normal here – as the sommeliers seemed intent on leaving at precisely 5pm. This slightly spoiled my experience as I would have liked to have had the time to have tasted more wines and longer to savour those I did.
That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Muratie. There is a quirkiness that almost but not quite borders on arrogance. It is different to any other estate I have visited (and, yes, I know I could say that about every vineyard) and so perhaps more different than the others. The wines were pretty decent too and I shall look forwards to tasting others from Muratie. Prices are at the top end for their quality but then this is North of Stellenbosch where prices can be higher. Added to which, Muratie is a small to medium-sized estate that grows some 12 grape cultivars on 42 hectares (out of 110 hectares) on the slopes of the Simonsberg Mountains.
Muratie is popular with the tour guides and their tour groups and I can well understand why. The estate has a rich and colourful history and makes rich and colourful wines. The wine maker is a modern artist and so brings the palette to the palate.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Laurens Campher White Blend (47% Chenin Blanc, 27% Verdelho, 20% Sauvignon Blanc, 6% Viognier) – R135* FAVOURITE WINE
2014 Orange is The New White Sémillon – R200*
2015 George Paul Canitz Pinot Noir – R200
2014 Ronnie Melck Shiraz – R140
2014 Ansela van de Caab Bordeaux Blend (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc) – R325
2015 Amber Forever Muscat D’Alexandrie (375ml) – R120*