Golden Wines at the End of the Rainbow
RAINBOW’S END WINE ESTATE
Wednesday 13 September 2017
Wine tastings by appointment are always fun. Strip away the corporate gloss and you get to meet the winemaker or owner, who often is one and the same. I remembered Jana from the Cabernet Franc Festival at Avontuur Estate in May. She blew my tasting mind with 2 Cabernets Franc that were identical in terroir, viticulture, vintage, and winemaking. The sole difference between them was that they were different clones. Clones? I had never even heard of them – and, yes, I could taste a difference between the 2 wines. It was good therefore to meet her again.
Rainbow’s End lies at the very end of the road in the Banghoek Valley to the East of Stellenbosch. ‘Follow the gravel road until you can go no further’, Jana said when I spoke with her for directions. The sign to turn off the Helshoogte Pass, just above the Delaire Graff estate where I had come from, was small and unassuming. Blink and I would have missed it but for my trusty satnav. Tar soon became gravel and rough gravel at that as the road was being re-graded.
Rainbow’s End teased me all the way to the entrance gate. 800 metres to go, then another 900 metres, then 400 metres, and then another 650 metres as my satnav recalculated the distance from each turn. I did not mind as the views of mountains in the Banghoek Valley with their Jonkershoek Mountain backdrop were spectacular. I kept passing wine estates that I knew the names of – Bartinney, Camberley and Oldenburg – but did not realise where they were. Mental note to self: return again to taste.
At long last, I arrived at the gate and made contact with Jana who let me in. Two farm dogs, pale ridgebacks, chased the car as I followed the road to the white house at the end of the valley. The views became ever more spectacular as the mountains circled and enclosed, with the vines laid out in neat parallel rows beneath. The estate is at between 350 metres and 540 metres above sea level with deep red oakleaf soils on the high-lying slopes.
I parked beside the cellar outbuildings and made my way to the family home. Spring was very much in the air as I passed a Wisteria climber with its pale purple flowers that are said to resemble and have an affinity with grapes, and Shiraz in particular. Jana welcomed me into the living room where the tasting was to take place. I arrived as 2 guests were leaving. Rainbow’s End is very much a family business and Jana has many tasks, not least being kept busy with marketing and sales. I appreciated even more her time to host me.
Look at the Rainbow’s End website or listen to Jana and you will immediately feel an unparalleled passion and knowledge of winemaking. There is a feeling that every single decision, large or small, is taken with deep consideration and purpose. The estate is owned by the Malan family who named it Rainbow’s End to acknowledge sunshine after rain, the commitment of the earth (dare I say terroir), and the location as a pot of gold.
The first 2 wines – a blanc de noir style Rosé made from the ‘free run’ juice of red grapes and a Chenin Blanc made with Oldenburg grapes – were the only non-red wines of the tasting. The Rosé was made from Bordeaux cultivars, save Shiraz in place of Malbec, and was a clear bright salmon in colour. It showed a bright fruity intensity of strawberry and raspberry aromas for a Rosé. Dry tending to off-dry on the palate, fruity and crisp, it was all a Rosé should be. It had softness too due to the lack of pressing with consequent lack of tannins.
The tasting, together with Jana’s explanation and reasoning behind the wine making, set the tone for the rest of the tasting. Peach, pineapple, pear, nougat and wild honey aromas gave excellent complexity and intensity on the nose from the Chenin Blanc. Chenin Blanc, Jana explained, is a malleable grape that can be harvested early or late, or matured with or without oak. This wine was made with mid-harvest grapes that showed a moderate acidity and a rounded, clean mouthfeel with a lingering finish.
Between glasses, Jana explained more of the history of the former fruit farm. Jacques Malan, a civil engineer by profession, ‘retired’ at the age of 57 years to pursue his dream of making wine. The first vines were planted in 2000 and the maiden 2002 Shiraz vintage was an award-winner. More recognition and competition success followed in 2004 and after.
The winemaking philosophy is refreshingly pragmatic and adaptive. Consistency of quality is what matters and not consistency of style. Each vintage is separately treated with the winemaking techniques adjusted to achieve the best from the harvest and the terroir. It is an intensive approach that seeks to get the best from each season. Neither Old World nor New World styles have a set place. This is no easy task and certainly one that the larger producers are unable to reproduce.
The next wine, the Mystical Corner, espoused totally this philosophy. The red blend differs in grape varieties and proportions each year. Jana explained how Rainbow’s End succeeds to make a quality wine for R70. It was fascinating to hear the economics of the cost of a cork with foil compared to a screw cap, of bottles made with different weights of glass. ‘Corners are cut not in the quality of the wine but in the packaging’, she explained. I was beginning to see a pattern in the Rainbow’s End style of wine: complex and intense aromas on the nose; excellent balance of fruit with tannin with alcohol on the palate; and structured tannins for a decent finish. The 4 cultivars revealed their mystery of red and dark berry flavours with subtle white pepper spice beneath to make for an excellent wine for just R70.
Merlot is a wine that is not easy to make. Look at my wine collection and there are fewer Merlot wines than any other. The thin skinned grape variety is difficult to grow in South Africa as it is prone to over-ripening. In turn, this can lead to wines with high alcohol content (up to as much as 17.5%) which require reverse osmosis to reduce or blending. The Merlot grapes are grown on the highest North facing slopes that receive only the cooler morning sun to slow ripening and maintain flavour. Dark plum, cassis and currant berry flavours harmoniously balanced softening tannins on the palate. I recognised the care and quality and bought a bottle.
Jacques planted 22 hectares of vines with the trellises following the contours and lie of the mountain slopes. Each vine is grown in the ideal climate condition for the cultivar: Cabernet Sauvignon on the lower lying North-West slopes with sun exposure to ripen the late harvested cultivar; Cabernet Franc a little higher as less heat is needed to ripen the grapes; Shiraz on cooler East and South facing slopes to protect from the hot afternoon sun; Malbec and Petit Verdot on the lowest Eastern part of the estate with highest stone content in the soil; and Merlot as explained above. Such is the care and attention. So much too for the easy explanation by Jana.
I rated the Shiraz highly. Full bodied and made in an Old World style, this was a big wine and full of ‘blue flower’ flavour. Fruity dark berries layered with light spiciness on the nose that followed through to a chewy, spicy palate. The Cabernet Sauvignon, also 2015 vintage, showed equal quality. Full bodied also, and with rich pure fruity red and dark berry aromas, bold tannins were grippy without being bitter to leave an extended finish.
Son Francois is the viticulturalist. His philosophy is about balance: between the above and below soil growth; between old leaves and young leaves; between left and right cordon; between shoot growth and crop; and between thick and thin roots. It sounds easy when reading but the words mask an enormous amount of dedication and hard work.
They say that great wines are made in the vineyard and not the cellar and that perhaps explains the outstanding balance of the Rainbow’s End wines. I was looking forwards most to taste the Cabernets Franc made with different clones again. The wines that Jana poured were a year younger than those I sampled at Avontuur, of youthful 2016 vintage. Clones arise due to natural genetic mutation. They are selected by winegrowers for their particular characteristic – ripening or flavour profile, drought or disease resistance, or other – and may be singly planted in a block or mixed with other clones.
Clones 1 and 214, used to make the Estate Cabernet Franc are well suited to South Africa and noted for being high-yielding, resistant to high temperature, and producing berries with dark fruit flavours and tannin structure. French clone 312 used for the Limited Release wine also produces good yields and is later maturing. The difference between the 2 wines was more subtle than I had remembered from the older vintage. Both Cabernets Franc were medium to full bodied and with red to dark berry aromas. The Estate wine showed more intensity on the nose and showed a firm rather than grippy tannin structure. By contrast, the Limited Release wine was shyer, dusty and more restrained on the nose, with floral undertones, and with a more linear tannin structure. It was interesting after to look back at my tasting notes for the 2015 vintage. I had picked out more pronounced black fruit flavours for the Estate Cabernet Franc and a more rounded tannin structure for the Limited Release wine.
‘Save the best to last’, they say. The final wine of the tasting – the Family Reserve – was my favourite of all. Jana explained her thinking on Reserve wines and how they ought (but not always are) the very best of the best. Cultivar content and proportion therefore should vary from vintage to vintage, and the wine produced only when quality allows. Winemaker Anton, takes the best 9 barrels after 12 months of maturation, irrespective of cultivar. The contents are then blended and matured in French oak for a further 24 months. The wine is usually Merlot driven and the 2014 vintage was made with the signature Bordeaux grapes less Petit Verdot. I was fortunate to taste as the wine is not generally offered for tasting. The Family Reserve was a stunning wine. Full of body and rich in intensity, the aromas of each cultivar were identifiable. Dark plum, cassis, redcurrant and blackcurrant, red cherry and blackberry flavours showed on the palate mingled with cedar and oak.
Before leaving, Jana showed me the mountain stream beside the house that is used to make the wine and to cool it during fermentation. She showed me the damp, musty cellar that had a smell very reminiscent of the champagne cellars in Epernay and Rheims. We walked to the cellar in the outbuildings close to where I parked. Here she explained the intricacies of the winemaking – hand picking, individual sorting and de-stemming of bunches, cold soaking to extract maximum skin colour, open fermentation and manual punch downs, gentle pressing using a small manual basket press, malolactic fermentation in barrels, racking and ageing in French oak barrels, and bottling without filtering or fining and with minimum sulphite addition.
The care in the process was very clear. Look at the cellar and you will wonder how wines of such quality can be made – and for their price too. The cellar is reminiscent of a garagiste (though now of larger scale) and reflects the early beginnings when Jacques was encouraged by French guidance that there was no need for large investment. He adapted and used what he had. You will not find the rows of gravity-fed stainless steel tanks that I saw at Delaire Graff just a few hours ago at Rainbow’s End. Plastic tanks compete for space with pipes and pumps and boxes and the small basket press. Moreover, Jacques sons had diverse winemaking learning: one in France with a ‘if it works it works’ approach and the other with all the theory and prescribed structure from learning at Stellenbosch University. I am sure there was many an interesting discussion in those early winemaking days!
Rainbow’s End impressed no end. Put the quality of the wines to one side for a moment. Jana was generous in her time and in her explanations. She has a rare gift to explain the complexities and styles of winemaking in easy-to-understand terms. Rainbow’s End is worth that alone to visit. The attention to detail and care to extract only the very best at each stage – from vine selection to planting to viticulture to the cellar – is hugely impressive. It is not only that but the passion and energy that go beyond. The end result is wines of consistent high quality that are well priced. Rainbow’s End has truly found the pot of gold at the end of the Banghoek Valley ….
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Chenin Blanc – R85
2016 Rosé (37% Cabernet Franc, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 12% Shiraz, 5% Petit Verdot) – R52
2016 Mystical Corner (51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Shiraz, 13% Petit Verdot, 12% Malbec) – R70
2015 Merlot – R150*
2015 Shiraz – R140
2015 Cabernet Sauvignon – R160
2016 Estate Cabernet Franc – R195
2016 Limited Release Cabernet Franc – R300
2014 Family Reserve (33% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Cabernet Franc, 11% Malbec) – R350 FAVOURITE WINE