Real Wines in the Place of God
BLACK OYSTERCATCHER WINES
Thursday 23 November 2017
A flock of several hundred shimmering pink flamingos flew across the road as I approached Black Oystercatcher Wines. I had half expected black oystercatchers, of course, but the flamingos made a surprising if unexpected welcome. It was several hours earlier, at the ungainly hour of 6.30am, that I left Cape Town under grey clouds that hung heavy over the morning traffic.
As I left, I could not help thinking whether I was a crazy or a devoted wine taster, most likely both. It was my first trip to the Elim region and, as ever, I was excited to be visiting a new wine area. Oddly enough, I have been to Cape Agulhas many times before but never taken the R43 road 25 kilometres South West of Bredasdorp to visit Elim or to taste wine. I guess I was focused on visiting or showing friends the southernmost tip of Africa. My focus today was the wine tasting. I followed the N2 past Somerset West, up and over the Sir Lowry and Hoew Hoek passes and onto Caledon. The road heads inexorably through rolling wheat lands to Bredasdorp. I made good time so was able to stop for a quick breakfast in Napier. Black Oystercatcher Wines was easy to find and I arrived within just a few minutes of my intended time which was excellent given the journey length.
Black Oystercatcher is one of the pioneer wine farms of the Elim Ward. It is the most Southern wine ward in Africa. Owner Dirk Human planted the vines in 1998 though his family have farmed the property for generations. Wines were first bottled in 2003. Today, more than 80,000 bottles a year are produced from the 18.5 hectares of vines. The major cultivars are grown: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz. The wines are predominantly white (60%) with rosé and red wine made in equal amount.
The cool climate favours the white cultivars, aided by shale and granite soils. In addition, South-East and South-West winds from the Atlantic and Indian oceans keep daytimes temperatures cool. Leaf growth is consequently reduced and the berries are smaller, with low yields that concentrate juices. Cool night time temperatures further provide the ideal conditions for high acidity grapes that produce crisp white wines.
It was very apparent that since the first vintage that the Human Family has not rested on their wine laurels: they opened the Black Oystercatcher Restaurant in 2008; offered self-catering cottages in 2013; developed a new logo in 2014; set up a craft beer venture with Fraser’s Folly that saw the brewery move to the farm in 2016; and extended the Restaurant in November last year. I hear too that craft gin may be on the tasting menu in the future.
The Tasting Room and Restaurant building is at the top of steps, past a water feature, and across a lawn. The setting offers panoramic views over the shallow rolling hills to the North East. Liezel was my attentive and excellent tasting host and I was fortunate, having arrived so early, that my tasting was 1 on 1 with her. This would not be the case in another fortnight as Black Oystercatcher becomes packed during the school holidays and festive period. The Tasting Room was spacious, comfortable and welcoming. Set in the old stables and farm building, it was possible still to see the original mangers for the animal feed.
The wines – in their attractive new labels that show a pair of black oystercatchers in silhouette on rolling sepia-coloured hills – were well displayed. So too were many local crafts that were for sale, including estate branded soft leather bags and other goods, duck-egg green and white pottery, and watches. The fine design and attention to detail was clear too on the wine tasting sheets, one each for the 2 ranges that Black Oystercatcher makes: the Black Oystercatcher Collection and the Reserve Collection. The Reserve wines are sold only at the Cellar and made from hand-selected grapes.
Also available, were 2 of the best credit-card sized fold out information sheets I have seen at a wine estate. One showed a map of the area and other nearby wine estates one side, with a map of the farm and all activities offered on the other, together with lists of accommodation, restaurants, points of interest and emergency services’ numbers. The second described the cool climate terroir, the harvesting process, and (on the reverse) a simple infographic about how white wine, MCC and red wines are made. There was a 3rd mini-brochure too, for Fraser’s Folly Craft Beer, but that shall wait for my return.
Tasting is R70 per person but somehow Liezel persuaded me to taste the entire Black Oystercatcher range. We began with 3 Sauvignons Blanc, from both ranges and Reserve wines from 2 vintages. It was great to taste them side by side to compare. I could immediately tell all were well made. Pale lime straw in colour (the 2014 Reserve being deeper than the 2015 vintage due to extended skin contact through cold maceration), each wine showed firm, crisp acidity on the palate to make for refreshing wines to drink alone or with food.
Their aromas subtly differed. Aromatic citrus lime, gooseberry and green pepper notes made for a great start from the entry wine. The 2014 Reserve was warmer and fruitier – surprisingly so for a cold climate wine – with complex aromas of lemon, lime, passion fruit, melon and kiwi – that made it my favourite Sauvignon Blanc. The 2015 vintage, from a cooler year, was delicate and refined. Green pepper and elegant cassis notes opened up in the glass.
Next up was the Blanc Fumé. The name is more commonly associated with lightly wooded Sauvignons Blanc from the Loire Valley in France, but which are being made increasingly by South African wine makers. The style is technically difficult to make and the 12 months in French oak showed by a deeper straw colour. The wooded aromas intrigued as they hid the herbaceous gooseberry and greengage fruity notes to start. Oak maturation made for a fuller wine on the palate than the first 3 wines. It was a little shy in the mouth and I would have preferred a firmer finish.
Liezel poured me 2 blends to compare next. Both were superb. The White Pearl was a white Bordeaux blend and, as with the Blanc Fumé, a style that is becoming more common. It is great to see winemakers experimenting with differing cultivar proportions too. This was Sémillon-led (most being Sauvignon Blanc-led) and showed great complexity and mouth feel body. Honey warm fruity Sémillon aromas danced with lemon and lime citrus Sauvignon Blanc aromas in the glass, complemented by vanilla notes from 6 months Sémillon exposure to French oak.
The Reserve Wild Ferment Sémillon just shaded the White Pearl for my favourite wine of the tasting. It was only the second vintage of the wine. It was beautifully made with luscious, sweet flavours of ripe lemon and tangerine, honey and nougat. It had good texture too to show a creaminess that was not overpowering.
I struggled to describe the unusual colour of the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot Rosé, until Liezel helped me out. It was too orange for blush and too pale for salmon. ‘Onion skin’ colour was the perfect description and comes from just a few hours of skin contact. It was sweet on the nose – showing strawberry, blackcurrant and candy complexity – and fresh, crisp and clean on the palate. At just 11% alcohol too, it was all that a summer Rosé should be.
Just 2 red wines were offered for tasting which did not surprise for the Elim cool climate region. The 50:50 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot was deliciously full of red berry flavours of raspberry, redcurrant and mulberry. These balanced well the tannins on the palate, even if it was a little green and needs ageing to soften.
The Rhone style Triton challenged the Wild Ferment Sémillon for my favourite wine. Fuller bodied than its Bordeaux style cousin, warm spicy fruity yet slightly floral (cool climate) Shiraz notes filled the glass, with undertones of dark berry cassis and blackberry. The wine was lighter in the mouth than the strong aromas promised but this made for an especially pleasant wine.
I ended by sampling the Noble Late Harvest dessert wine, made of course from Sauvignon Blanc. It sported a stunning black with gold label that won the Grand Prix out of 88 entries at the 3rd Annual 2017 Label Design Awards Competition. The wine was not typical for the style. The flavours were more delicate – dried fruit, semi-ripe apricot and bitter marmalade – rather than sweet raisin. Restrained yet herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc aromas were detectable too. I liked the clean fruity mouth feel, aided by just 8% alcohol. Far too many noble late wines are oversweet and oily in character for my preference.
Black Oystercatcher met my high expectations from having sampled the occasional bottle at festivals and elsewhere. The near 3 hour journey from Cape Town was worth it (especially as I was visiting other estates in the area). The wines were clearly well made, being mostly complex, with good acidity (whites) and well balanced. I shall remember always Black Oystercatcher as my first Elim tasting. Liezel too was generous and patient, with good knowledge. She wanted me to stay for beer tasting and to sample the Restaurant fare but alas I needed to be elsewhere and could not stay longer. I promised to return – I would very much like to stay in one of the 4 cottages – to enjoy the other activities on the farm, craft beer included, at a later date and in the New Year when the seasonal rush is over.
I passed through Elim on my way after to Lomond Wine Estate. The pretty town began as a small Moravian missionary settlement in 1824. The name appropriately means ‘Place of God’ and it is home to the only monument to commemorate the freeing of slaves in 1834. I did not stop but shall when I am next in the area, as the simple Arniston-style detached white cottages (some pastel coloured too) with their thatched roofs looked well worth a visit.
There are other wine estates in the area to sample too. The wine growers have formed, with Black Oystercatcher, an Elim Ward association with the slogan of ‘Real Wine, Real People’. The ‘Place of God’ beckons again for more than one reason ……
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Sauvignon Blanc – R104
2014 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc – R165
2015 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc – R230
2013 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Blanc Fumé – R198*
2016 White Pearl (60% Sémillon, 40% Sauvignon Blanc) – R110
2015 Reserve Wild Ferment Sémillon – R230* FAVOURITE WINE
2016 Rosé (59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Merlot) – R93*
2014 Cabernet Merlot (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot) – R115
2014 Triton (79% Shiraz, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Mourvèdre) – R130*