Lothian Left Me Breathless – and Not Only the Wines!
Saturday 7 April 2018
Few wineries take my breath away to leave me speechless. Just 1 or 2 out of 150 visited. Muratie Estate with its dusty, quirky Tasting Room full of memorabilia was one. Original, contemporary Cavalli Wine & Stud Farm with its stunning bold wines was another. Lothian gave no clue on my arrival. An unassuming paved road led through harvested vineyards to a house. That’s all.
Earlier, I had struggled to find Lothian, the second first tasting on my Elgin mini-tour. Don’t use the Platter’s Wine Guide GPS reference as you will end up at the bottom of Appletiser Road going nowhere. Far better, enter Rockview Dam Road in your satnav. The road leads off the N2 past the Eskom Gate some 8 kilometres beyond the top of Sir Lowry’s Pass, heading East from Cape Town and beyond Somerset West. As with the vineyard paved entrance road, the Eskom security gate gives no clue of what is to befall you. Pass Shannon Vineyards 3 kilometres on your left and soon after you will find the entrance gate to Lothian.
The landscaped entrance with whitewashed walls and oak barrel was typical of many a wine estate. I parked beside the large foliage-covered house and entered through a vast wooden door. Nothing so far had prepared me for what was inside. A huge open staircase led to the first floor, perfectly symmetrical and made in glass, chrome and wood, curved to draw the eye inwards and upwards. I walked past and the house opened out into a riot of colour. This was a modern mansion the likes of which I had never seen. Ewen, my host, called it ‘a house to play in’. It certainly befitted a playboy – it has a helipad too! Every vast window opened out onto a perfect waterside view. Modern glass sculptures and paintings added colour to the beige walls, immense in their height. Indoor palm trees added to the inside-to-out feel.
I ventured outside as I waited for Ewen to see to a group of departing guests. Every line of the spectacular pool was curved with precision to integrate the house into the surrounding landscape. I hadn’t seen a layered pool before but each infinity flow led to another level, with secluded seating area and mini fire pit above the final lower layer with access to the lake. The house sits on a finger of a peninsula and surrounded by the Applethwaite Lake on all sides. Ewen told me later that 20 hectares of the 46 hectare property is water.
I returned inside for the tasting, seated at an elegant ‘crazed’ glass-topped table surrounded by chairs each a different colour. I was still virtually speechless by the architecture and the décor. Bear in mind that I am traditional English (my last house was built in 1540) and so not a fan of modern buildings. I hadn’t even tasted the wines yet. I wanted to explore each room but that would have been nosy and intrusive. I had made an appointment for tasting but Ewen explained that the vineyard was opening more for tasting having joined a higher level of the Elgin Valley Wine Guild (now open 10.00am to 3.00pm on weekdays, weekends by appointment). The property also opens once a year to show off its 3 hectare garden as part of the Elgin Open Gardens festival in late October/early November.
As Ewen poured the first wine – a Mourvèdre Rosé in classic oeil de perdrix onion skin colour and named after his grandmother, Isobel who owned Rust en Vrede vineyard where he grew up – he told me how he and his brother own the Wilson family home. The family was originally from Scotland, hence the Lothian name, and hail from 3 generations of winemakers.
There are 8 individually designed bedrooms to accommodate up to 16 guests. The house can be rented for corporate or private clients for weddings and functions but you’ll need a minimum of 3 days and upwards of R42,000 ex VAT (self-catering!). Lothian used to sell the grapes from the 13 hectares of vines to Waterkloof but decided to make their own wines, employing Master of Wine, Richard Kershaw as winemaker. The ultra dry Rosé was crisp and refreshing to balance a concentrated warmer bouquet of strawberry, pomegranate and sweeter nougat.
The Riesling, a less common wine but made elsewhere in the Elgin Valley (Paul Cluver and Oak Valley come to mind), was classic pale greenish straw in colour. The flavours of lime, kiwi and less-than-usual kerosene opened up in the glass. It was delicate on the palate yet precise and refined for a light mouthfeel.
I should have asked Ewen for a fresh glass for the Chardonnay as the Riesling aromas showed through. I nonetheless picked out notes of citrus lemon, apple and pineapple in the lightly wooded (11 months in French oak, 25% new) bouquet. I rated the wine highly for its smooth creaminess on the palate which perfectly balanced the length and intensity. Ewen told me how the wine is made from 3 clones, each of which bring a different character and flavour profile: 79 for fruit cocktail aromas; 95 for citrus; 548 for backbone and structure. It is always a pleasure to learn more about wine.
The Pinot Noir was my favourite wine of the tasting and I had no hesitation in buying a bottle (the Rosé too). The 2 hectare block of vines used to be planted with Shiraz but the first Pinot Noir that Lothian made received such good accolades that Pinot Noir was grafted onto the Shiraz rootstock. The wine is made using a technique called délestage before being matured for 11 months in smaller (228 litre) oak barriques. Délestage, or rack and return, is more delicate than the traditional pumpover. The fermented wine is drawn from beneath the cap with the weight of the pomace used to extract the tannins and pigments from the grapes.
The wine was very light in body and colour, noticeably so compared with the Pinot Noir I tasted yesterday at Elgin Vintners. The pale depth hid elegant and bright aromas of cranberry, red to black cherry and fennel. I gave maximum marks for the palate – for great acidity, for intense refined flavours, for silky intensity, for fabulous length, and for wonderful overall balance.
I finished with the golden medium yellow Viognier Noble Late Harvest, 80% of which intriguingly is sold to the Japanese. Rich, silky and delicious in the mouth, the aromatic flavours of tangerine marmalade, dried apricot and ripe lemon were luscious and superb.
Lothian was much more than a fancy modern building with a definite WOW factor. Yes, it was all that and more. I so wished my partner had not chosen to stay to work at South Hill but had come with me. The house and its setting are indeed extraordinary with its exclusivity and exquisite design. I felt every item of space had been planned for the maximum use of the magnificent lakeside landscape. As I left, I noticed a window seat set into the glass curve of the building that had perfect balance – as did the wines.
The outstanding wines spoke for themselves and I rarely award 5/5 for both the tasting experience and the wines. Richard Kershaw’s non-interventionist and Burgundian approach made the most of the cool climate and Lothian terroir for elegant wines that showed finesse and delicacy. I recall Johann Innerhofer at Capelands Wine Farm on other side and at the base of Sir Lowry’s Pass telling me how easy it is to make ‘powerful’ wines but so much harder to make ‘fine’ wines with poise and style. Ewen’s detailed knowledge impressed too, as good as any winemaker, which sadly is never a given at any wine tasting. Lothian shall need strong competition to win the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society ‘Hidden Gem’ Award for 2018.
As if to shake me out of my bubble of perfection and excellence, and as I returned to South Hill for my second night, I passed a man holding out an apple for a lift along the N2. That one image captured more than anything about South Africa’s diversity and the gap between rich and poor ….
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Riesling – R106
2016 Chardonnay – R199
2016 Isobel Mourvèdre Rosé – R95*
2016 Pinot Noir – R220* FAVOURITE WINE
2016 Viognier Noble Late Harvest (375 ml) – R199