Blaauwklippen was Good for a Friday
Friday 30 March 2018
I have always wanted to visit Blaauwklippen – the home of Zinfandel – but didn’t plan to today. Good Friday was Blaauwklippen’s good luck. My original plan was to visit Bartinney, Camberley and Oldenburg – boutique estates to the East of Stellenbosch – but they were all closed on Good Friday. An impromptu visit to Delaire Graff en route to show my partner the impressive setting and spectacular panorama views from the terrace gave no clue of the Easter shut down. I called JC Le Roux or, rather ostentatiously and very French, The House of JC Le Roux. Surely, they would be open? But no. I guess the estates were foregoing tourist trade and visitors like me to enjoy a long weekend after the busy harvest period. Blaauwklippen, however, came to my rescue.
The vineyard was well signposted off the R44 South of Stellenbosch by 2 large oak barrels flanking the entrance with their distinctive Blaauwklippen blue branding. The approach led through the vineyards, some with grapes that had not been harvested, to a large car parking area with trees for shade. It was clear that Blaauwklippen gets busy at peak times besides the popular Family Market on Sundays that I have yet to visit.
It was a short walk to the Cellar building and into the Tasting Room, decorated with landscape paintings by the resident artist Marius Prinsloo. Opposite was the Spirit Room – for brandy and gin tastings – and beyond the Bistro Restaurant. Unsurprisingly given the holiday Friday closure of many wine farms around Stellenbosch, there was a constant flow of people to enjoy the Blaauwklippen experience. My partner chose the Macaroon & Wine Pairing (R135) while I opted for the regular tasting of 5 wines for R79.
I began by sharing the macaroon tasting of 5 colourful pairings. Each glass was poured and a miniature macaroon set beside. This meant that the sparkling wines were already losing their bubbles. Liaan (a classic portmanteau name combining those of both Afrikaans parents) and, later, Nono, hosted the tastings. The first 2 wines were both sparkling. The sweet pale lime green macaroon paired with the Diva MCC made from Zinfandel with minimal skin contact for a pale straw colour. The MCC showed aromas of simple baked apple. It was dry, light and unassuming on the palate. Consequently, the pistachio sweetness neutralised the plain flavours of the MCC.
The pairing of salmon pink pétillant (effervescent) non-vintage Ons Sprankel with the rosewater macaroon was better. Made from Shiraz with very little skin contact (2-3 hours), medium intensity strawberry and candy flavours of the wine matched those of the floral, sugary macaroon. The fizziness too seemed to offset the sweetness of the pairing.
Blaauwklippen made the first white Zinfandel in South Africa in 2007. Usually, this would have been the wine to pair with the raspberry macaroon. Sadly, the white Zinfandel was sold out and so it was substituted with a Sauvignon Blanc made from grapes grown in Slanghoek. The wine showed great intensity of warm guava, litchi and kiwi notes that followed through with a bright acidity on the palate. The raspberry macaroon didn’t pair well as it completely flattened the delicate flavours of the wine.
A better balance was the pairing of the Zinfandel and the salted caramel macaroon. Purple tinged in colour and medium to full body in appearance, the Zinfandel was lighter in style than I expected. Known for its big wines, it showed a bouquet of red fruits (mostly red cherry and cranberry) of moderate intensity on the nose. It was simple on the palate with dry, soft tannins for an easy mouthfeel. The saltiness of the macaroon was accentuated by the wine and complemented the tannins.
Blaauwklippen is famous for its annual Blending Competition (I have just entered for the first time) that has been running for over 30 years. It opens to amateur wine clubs and enthusiasts to submit their own blends from a pre-selection of cultivars. The 2017 edition had 87 entries. More are expected this year. The competition winner has the kudos of having their own wine made commercially under the Blaauwklippen Barouche label. The current winner, a limited release Shiraz/Merlot led Cabriolet red blend, was the best of the tasting so far. I liked the full bodied, aromatic, forwards and complex aromas of red to dark fruits and currants to berries. Sixteen months maturation in oak gave a quaffable experience in the mouth. This, however, was not enough to stand up to the dark chocolate flavours of the macaroon.
The Blaauwklippen vineyards are some of the country’s oldest and founded in 1682 by Gerrit Visser. The farm was one of the first on the Stellenbosch Wine Route in 1971. Six years later, in 1977, the first Zinfandel was planted. The cultivar is best known as a Californian variety for making big red wines (10% of vineyard production). The thin-skinned grape is also grown in the heel of Italy where it is called Primitivo, literally meaning ‘early’ ripening. I have tasted before at Grande Provence (Zinfandel) and Idiom (Primitivo).
Zinfandel remains a minor variety (just 0.03% of vineyard area in South Africa) with the vines at Blaauwklippen grown at high density (over 5,500 vines per hectare). This is to encourage competition between the vines to promote smaller berries with more concentrated flavours. The farm has had German ownership for over a decade and is known for its red wines (90% of production), red blends as well as Zinfandel.
I was keen to taste some of the other wines and so chose single variety wines from both the Cultivar Selection and Vineyards Selection ranges. The Merlot was a decent if not exceptional wine with notes of red cherry, redcurrant, maraschino and cranberry, together with sawdust and pencil shavings. The palate was light as flavours tailed off to leave soft tannins beneath.
The Cabernet Sauvignon was similar in character and style. Unusually made in stainless steel tanks, then matured for 24 months in new French oak, the wine showed diluted and simple aromas of more dark than red berries. Medium to high acidity characterised the palate that was dominated by stalky tannins that were short on structure.
I much preferred the vibrant, young Malbec. A heady 14.5% alcohol content (the Cabernet Sauvignon was just 12%) gave rise to a fuller nose of violet, black plum, black peppercorn and liquorice notes. Dry persistent and green tannins overpowered in the mouth that spoiled the overall balance. Nonetheless, I would enjoy this wine with a good braai.
The final red wine of my tasting was a Shiraz. This was another pleasant wine of average intensity and moderate complexity of meaty, warm bramble and mulberry flavours. It wasn’t as big as many a Shiraz but showed defined, grippy tannins on the palate.
The opportunity to compare Noble Late Harvest dessert wines from 2 cultivars – Zinfandel and Malbec – was too great to miss. Priced the same and served chilled in mini stemless glasses, I rated the Zinfandel wine highest. It was my favourite wine of the tasting. Red Noble Late Harvest wines are unusual and this was a shiny ruby to garnet in colour. The aromas of dried apricot, raisin and dusty sultana were subtle and enticing. A fuller fruitiness emerged in the mouth for a smooth and lingering finish. The Malbec sibling was riper in character with flavours of stewed plums, prunes and marmalade. I liked how the dry tannins kicked in on the palate to balance the sweetness of the wine.
Nono insisted I sampled last the Before & After, a 60%/40% blend of Zinfandel/Malbec Noble Late wines in distinctive bottle and fortified with 20% Brandy-infused alcohol. The extra alcohol was immediately apparent on the potent nose with subdued red and ripe dark fruit flavours. This gave a Jerepigo feel to the wine that persisted with a good balance between fruitiness and warming alcohol.
Blaauwklippen has much to offer and I could easily have enjoyed time in the Spirit Room (with open jars of each brandy and gin to smell) or the Restaurant. There were tasty platters available as well as other wine pairing offers (Chocolate Tasting for R135, Canapé Tasting for R225). There’s too much for a single visit – let alone the Sunday market – and so Blaauwklippen warrants a return on another occasion.
As for the wines, there was nothing that stood out except for the Noble Late Harvest Zinfandel. I would have liked to have sampled the White Zinfandel to have given it a fair analysis, just as I did the Mellasat White Pinotage at the Pinotage & Biltong Festival last year. It is always a challenge to pair wine with sweet dishes (chocolate too) and, in that regard, the macaroon pairing didn’t work for me. Nonetheless, I am sure it is a popular choice for the visiting taster. As I said at the start, Blaauwklippen was open on Good Friday when many other vineyards were not. For that and despite a slightly chaotic tasting start while the wines were set up, I am delighted to have visited.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2015 Diva Zinfandel MCC – R155
NV Ons Sprankel Shiraz – R95
2017 Sauvignon Blanc – R80
2017 Zinfandel – R130
2016 Cabriolet (40% Shiraz, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 8% Zinfandel, 7% Petit Verdot) – R130
2016 Merlot – R90
2014 Cabernet Sauvignon – R90
2017 Malbec – R90
2014 Shiraz – R90
2013 Zinfandel Noble Late Harvest (375 ml) – R260* FAVOURITE WINE
2012 Malbec Noble Late Harvest (375 ml) – R260
NV Before & After (60% Zinfandel Noble Late Harvest, 40% Malbec Noble Late Harvest)(500 ml) – R325