Baby Thrown Out with the Bath Water?
Friday 9 March 2018
Baylonstoren in Klapmuts, Paarl, always excites. It’s been a few years – before I formed the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society – since I tasted their wines at the farm. I’ve been to many of the workshops with Head Gardener Gundula since: Clivia growing; garden structures; bee-keeping; teas and tisanes; and the world of mushrooms. It’s a happy place for me and one I look forwards to visit. I was full of excitement to be returning for wine tasting. Alas, I had forgotten the fiddling R10 entrance fee (Vergelegen Wines is the only other vineyard I know of that charges to enter). The fee goes to a good cause, I know, but it rather blunts the arrival. The number of visitors who spend no money whilst at Babylonstoren must surely be very few and so there must be a better means to raise charity money – in the shop, the deli, the Spa, the Hotel, at one of the restaurants, during wine tasting – than on arrival.
Rant over. I had previously tasted in the former Tasting Room which is now the Scent Shop beside the main Shop and Deli. This made for an intimate tasting experience but has clearly outgrown the available space. The walk to the ‘new’ Tasting Room, opened in 2015, was circuitous as it wended around the workshop and stable outbuildings and display vineyards. The Sémillon, Viognier and Shiraz vines had been harvested – their leaves turning to autumn gold – but the Cabernet Sauvignon was full of cylindrical bunches with their dark black berries and blue waxy bloom.
The approach to the Tasting Room was, unsurprisingly, through a shop. Stairs led through the lofty maturation Cellar, decorated with old farm implements, to the modern facility. Made almost entirely of glass and steel, it stretches between two outbuildings and is elevated above the vines. The concept is that one is floating above the vineyard but it didn’t quite work for me. The tasting tables are set around the central serving and food preparation area. The view of the conical Babylonstoren Hill (from which the farm gets its name) and surrounding Simonsberg and Banghoek mountains, was glorious.
Randall was my tasting host, at least when I could get his attention. The tasting fee was R35 for 5 wines from the Babylonstoren Range. The Flagship Chardonnay cost an extra R15, which I chose. I did not pay for the Nebukadnesar Bordeaux Blend (R20) or the Sprankel MCC (R30). Laminated tasting sheets were at each place setting. I didn’t see any to take away. There were delicious platters for the hungry too – vegetarian, fish, winemaker’s and cellar master’s – priced from R150 to R220. The one I saw looked sumptuous and much more than I could have eaten alone. Why, oh why, do wine estates not make platters for one person?
All the white wines, the Rosé too, were of 2017 vintage. The unwooded Chenin Blanc, in characteristic label-free Babylonstoren bottle, was the first wine I tasted. The aromas were more fruity – sweet lemon, pineapple, white honey and pear – than sweeter nougat or honeycomb but nonetheless typically aromatic. The fruitiness mellowed on the palate to make for a clean and refreshing wine of moderate acidity and medium finish.
I much preferred the Viognier. It was my favourite wine of the tasting and I bought a bottle. The floral aromas could have been mistaken for a Gewurztraminer as the intense white peach, jasmine and slight rose petal bouquet filled the glass. Oaky undertones (7 months in 30% oak) on the nose gave it away. The oak maturation gave the wine weight and length on the palate. The mouthfeel was less ‘oily’ than some I have tasted and the alcohol content higher, at 14.5%, than I expected.
The Flagship Chardonnay was another decent wine and double the price. The simple blue and white label well displayed the Babylonstoren logo: the pipe, the flower and the bird, to represent the farmer, garden and nature, respectively. The wine was a pale yellow to pale gold in colour that more than hinted at its 12 months in oak. Potent nutty vanilla notes from the oak matched more subtle aromas of apple crumble and quince beneath. I liked the freshness of the acidity and the silky, creamy mouthfeel that gave balance to the palate.
The world never stops at Babylonstoren and every time I visit the garden there are new things to see and explore. The focal point of the working farm is the 3.5 hectare formal organic garden that contains over 300 plant varieties divided into 15 sections of fruits, berries, vegetables, herbs, indigenous plants, bees, ducks and chickens. It never ceases to amaze that until little over 10 years ago this space was a working fruit farm. Much of the produce cleverly is used in the Spa, conservatory Green House and high end Babel restaurants, and the Shop.
These are modern changes to the 300 year old Cape Dutch farm. The Manor House dates back to 1777 but the farm originated some 85 years previously in 1692. Wine was originally made on the 700 hectare property but in recent decades the harvest was sold to the big co-operative cellars. Wines were first made again from the 88 hectares under vine – there are some 13 varieties – in 2011.
I remembered the Mourvèdre Rosé for its distinctive honeyed bouquet. It was pretty in pale salmon colour due to just 2 hours skin contact. The honey or nougat notes were subdued to leave warm strawberry aromas that were shy and limited in complexity. These fell away on the palate to leave a dry wine that was much too weak and needed much more flavour.
The red wines were young too, of 2016 vintage. The Babel red was made up of the 5 Bordeaux grapes with Shiraz and matured for 12 months in new/2nd/3rd fill oak barrels. Shiraz-led, the bouquet was complex to the point where there was almost too much happening at once as the many cultivars vied for attention. It was difficult to separate the different notes of red and dark fruit, berry and currant, mint and green peppercorn. The wine showed its youth on the palate as tight, green tannins gripped in the mouth.
Babylonstoren is known for its Shiraz so it was good to taste the single variety Shiraz last. This was a big, full bodied wine – the sort to enjoy at a smoky braai or with a fatty steak. It was a good purple in colour with dark, dark berry, cassis and currant aromas and spicy peppercorns. Matured for longer than the Babel (18 months in 60% new and 2nd/3rd fill oak), the potent tannins were too forwards – closed and angular too – to leave the wine out of balance on the palate.
It won’t surprise you that my tasting experience at Babylonstoren was mixed. Some wines were excellent but others less so. They were priced some 25% higher than their quality deserves and taking into account the Simonsberg-Paarl wine ward. It wasn’t that my expectation was too high and that the reality fell short. I don’t think so. The farm and its gardens – together with the Hotel and Spa – are hugely popular and will justifiably remain so. I felt there was a distraction to the wine. This happens, so I have noticed, at wine farms that have many other large diverse interests (mountain biking at Meerendal Estate, horse-breeding and racing at Avontuur Estate come to mind). The new Tasting Room with its canteen style and harsh echoey ambiance wasn’t relaxing or comfortable.
One of the hallmarks of Babylonstoren for me has always been its exquisite attention to detail. This shows in the delft blue and white branding, the immaculate name badges and uniforms of every staff member, the tidiness of the garden, the alignment of the freshly made loaves in the Bakery, and more besides. Because of this, I noticed the little things that weren’t right. Both tasting glasses on my table were chipped, something that I never would have expected at Babylonstoren. Randall’s service was poor and I had to leave the table more than once to find him to ask for my next wine. The explanation of each wine was functional without exciting or telling me anything about the history of the estate or its other attractions. Why not simplify the tasting menu too? Separate fees for the individual sparkling/flagship wines that, frankly, are hardly fine wines or even rated above 4 Platter’s stars is unnecessarily fiddly.
Change is good and invigorating but I felt that this was too far. The ever-changing Babylonstoren seemed to have thrown out too much of the good and not brought in better – oh, and why not just get rid of the annoying R10 entry fee and recoup it hidden elsewhere too?
Wines tasted (bought *):
2017 Chenin Blanc – R89
2017 Viognier – R125* FAVOURITE WINE
2016 Flagship Chardonnay – R235
2017 Mourvèdre Rosé – R105
2016 Babel Red (42% Shiraz, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 9% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot) – R135
2016 Shiraz – R220