In the Highlands in the Lowlands of Elgin
HIGHLANDS ROAD ESTATE
Thursday 7 December 2017
It was over halfway through the tasting that the proverbial penny dropped … I had looked at the Highlands Road logo in simple blue and white for some time and wondered its origins. There was no history that I knew of (the estate started in 2004). The sign was not a family crest. The logo had nagged at me from the corner of my eye throughout the tasting. Looking closer, I could see a central oak leaf – makes sense – and a disa flower – makes sense – but the knitted cabling surround? The intricate ropework or wool weave was reminiscent of the Arran jumpers worn by fishermen of the Scottish Isles. But why? The penny dropped. Of course! I was right. The blue and white colours were Scottish, the disa flower reflecting a Scottish saltire, the blue and white colours of the flag too, and the name – Highlands Road!
The boutique estate was another along the Highlands Road that threads its way through the Elgin vineyards: Belfield, Hannay Wines, Almenkerk, Paul Wallace, Oneiric and, up over the Highlands Pass, Iona. Set beside a full dam, resplendent in azure blue beneath the bright sun, the Café and Tasting Room had the most exquisite setting. Sadly, the Café was closed (open on weekends only) for I was hungry and would have enjoyed a wood-fired homemade pizza, platter or burger. I made my way to the Tasting Room and introduced myself. I had arranged to meet winemaker Vanessa Simkiss but she was busy with filtration. Christel was my tasting host.
I began by sampling 2 Sauvignons Blanc, a vintage apart and made by different winemakers (Vanessa started as winemaker in 2015). I rated them equally but just preferred the younger vintage for its firmer palate. Both were a very pale straw in colour. The 2014 was fruitier with slightly shy notes of kiwi, melon and lime with hints of green pepper and asparagus beneath. It had moderate acidity and an average finish. The aromas of the 2015 wine were more defined and greener – green melon, lime, greengage – clean in the mouth and with a decent follow through to the finish.
The lightly wooded Chardonnay (10 months in French oak) was an attractive bright pale straw in colour. Subtle flavours of baked apple, ripe lemon and vanilla balanced well a firm acidity and 14% alcohol for a creamy mouthfeel.
The Sine Cera was a white Bordeaux blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc in equal amount. The style is increasingly popular and I had sampled one at South Hill earlier in the day. ‘Sine Cera’ means ‘without wax’. I enjoyed the warm aromatic notes brought by the Sémillon. Gooseberry and greengage Sauvignon Blanc flavours showed but these were balanced by those of baked apple, caramel and vanilla from the wooded Sémillon (15% in French oak). The fuller mouthfeel, moderate acidity and good follow through made for a decent wine.
Highlands Road is known best for its Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz are grown too, with just 10 hectares of the 28 hectare property under vine. The owner is Michael White, an attorney from Port Elizabeth, who has directed that Vanessa makes wines using oak to deliver complexity and ageing potential.
My favourite wine was the Rosé, uncommonly made from Pinot Noir. Skin contact of 3 to 4 hours gave the wine a delicious medium salmon colour. The aromas were positive and vibrant with wild strawberry and semi-sweet Pinot Noir aromas clearly showing. It was dry and with a clean acidity on the palate. I especially liked the firm mouthfeel; so many Rosés promise much on the nose only then to fall off on the palate.
The Pinot Noir, wooded for 18 months in 30% new French barrels, disappointed on the palate as the oakiness overpowered aromas of warm cherry, ripe berries and white pepper spiciness. The wine was served slightly warm too that meant I did not taste it at its best.
The final wine of the tasting was a blend of Shiraz and Mourvèdre, with added Tinta Amarela. I had not heard of the latter cultivar before, a deep coloured, dark fruited, big tannin Portuguese grape known also as Trincadeira. It is mainly grown for port. Intriguingly, the biggest planting outside Portugal is in South Africa, apparently bought by Fairview where it was bought in the belief that it was Tempranillo. The medium bodied wine showed inviting ripe red (to dark) fruited aromas with pepper spiciness that had a good intensity. Dry, grippy but not astringent, tannins came to the fore on the palate to give decent length.
Vanessa appeared at the end of my tasting and offered me a tank sample of Sémillon that is grown on just 0.4 hectares of the estate. It must have just been filtered as it was clear in appearance and a deep straw to medium yellow in colour. The wine was already well developed with bold, rich, ripe lemon, sweet lime and wild honey aromas. It was good on the palate too as vanilla and oak flavours emerged to add to an elegant, creamy mouthfeel. I shall certainly look out for the wine when it is bottled.
Highlands Road wines are ably made and the estate produces a good range (dessert, special late and noble late wines were not included in the R50 tasting). The quality is even and the Sauvignons Blanc in particular were well priced at under R100. I could not help feeling that my experience could have been a little better. Nothing was bad, far from it, but small things – a little more attention and explanation from the sommelier (I was the only guest at the time), wines served at the ideal temperature, more time with Vanessa who I had booked to taste with etc – could have made it so much better. Not all the wines showed as good balance as they might have done (particularly for oak maturation) but I expect this to improve as Vanessa has more time to get to know the vines and the cellar. I should like to return again, when the café is open too, for a lazy pizza and Pinot Noir. Oh, and to taste the Sémillon too!
Wines tasted (bought *):
2014 Sauvignon Blanc – R85*
2015 Sauvignon Blanc – R100
2016 Chardonnay – R190
2013 Sine Cera (50% Sémillon, 50% Sauvignon Blanc) – R140
2017 Sémillon – tank sample
2016 Pinot Noir Rosé – R95* FAVOURITE WINE
2012 Pinot Noir – R140*
2014 Shiraz/Mourvèdre (45% Shiraz, 45% Mourvèdre, 10% Tinta Amarela) – R190