Friday 8 March 2019
Dornier Wines was my second tasting venue for the day having made the short journey of just a few kilometres back down the Upper Blaauwklippen Valley, South of Stellenbosch, from Keermont Vineyards. The sandy entrance road, lined by trees on the left side, passed through the vineyards that included Tempranillo. As I turned the corner the vista before me showed a great contrast between ancient and modern.
At the top of the large grassy lawn was a historic Cape Dutch barn that is home to the Bodega Restaurant. Below, and reflected in the reservoir of water in front, was the ultra-modern winery and Tasting Room. The thought of Tempranillo, a Spanish grape, made me reflect that the sloping roofs of the winery below reminded me of the Antoni Gaudi modernist buildings in Barcelona.
The size of available parking, extensive Restaurant and vast Tasting Room gave hint of how popular Dornier must be when busy. For the moment, however, my fellow Cape Wine Academy Diploma student friend and me were the only guests in the open, sparsely decorated – yet functional – Tasting Room with its curved white bar counter to match the shape of the roof. Luke welcomed us and explained that the tasting consisted of 3 white and 3 red wines for R60. Hungry from Keermont, I ordered a cheese board (R140) to share.
Meanwhile, I tasted the first wine, the Limited Release Chenin Blanc made from Swartland bush vines. The ultra-modern label, reflecting the shape of the cellar roof, seemed slightly out of place for a wine with such infamous origins. It was made in fruity, weighty style using 50% wooded in oak and 6 months ageing on the lees. The luscious nose of green apple, pear and honey promised much. There was too much oak to balance the fruit on the palate and the complexity suffered as a result.
It was good to see a Sémillon for tasting. Made from the oldest vineyards (Luke did not know hold old), the pale yellow wine that was fermented and aged in 2nd/3rd fill barrels showed similar character to the Chenin Blanc. I managed to pick out sweet lemon, vanilla and floral aromas and flavours but they were simple and of low intensity. I wondered if, tasted ‘blind’, I would have identified the wine as a Sémillon.
Chenin Blanc and Sémillon, the first 2 wines tasted, were blended in the flagship Donatus White. Sémillon is more usually blended with Sauvignon Blanc to make a white Bordeaux-style blend, so this was an unusual combination. I am unsure whether it fully worked. The complexity from the 2 cultivars was certainly better together than alone but the wine fell away much too soon to leave a bland palate of oak from 1 year’s barrel maturation.
The cheese board duly arrived from the Restaurant at the top of the hill. It contained 5 small wedges of cheese, a small bowl of thinly sliced, dry ciabatta, citrus relish and 3 slivers of preserved fig. I did not expect a full meal for 2, it being a single order, but it was one of the meanest cheese boards I have been served at a wine tasting.
The Siren Syrah from the mid-level Dornier Range was the first red of the tasting. It was here that Luke did give some explanation about the name origin of the wine. The Siren is the subject of the painting of the nude lady at the entrance to the Tasting Room. It was painted by the art-loving, engineer founder of the estate, Christoph Dornier. The wine was bold and dark with indistinct brooding red and dark fruits on the nose that were masked by dense tannins on the palate.
The Equanimity Cabernet Sauvignon from the same range was made from 2 different vineyards with different soils. The full bodied wine was better made than the Syrah to show obvious Cabernet Sauvignon fruits with an improved balance between fruits and tannin on the palate.
The final wine on the Tasting menu was the flagship Donatus Red. The Cabernet-dominated wine was matured in 30% new French barrels. The youth of the 2016 Bordeaux-style wine showed by its simple structured tannins that were too forward. It was difficult to understand the R297 price which was at least double what I considered it deserved.
Limited Release Petit Verdot and Tempranillo were on the wine list and would have been interesting to sample. The Tempranillo was not available for tasting but the Petit Verdot was. The cultivar is typically used as a minority component (5% to 10%) of Bordeaux blends to add depth of colour, intensity and structure. The wine was very much as I expected, showing dense dark fruity aromas of black cherry, cassis, blackcurrant and dark plum. The palate was tannic and structured.
Dornier disappointed. As I tasted the Petit Verdot and looked for a photographic opportunity I noticed a book showing a Dornier seaplane on the cover. I realised for the first time the origin of the estate name. It frustrates me when there is so much history and information about a wine estate that is not revealed – or even offered – at wine tasting. Looking at the busy website after, I realised I could have learned so much. There’s inter alia the history of the Dornier family that dates back to the Rhône Alps in 13th century France; the German Claude Dornier, the aviation pioneer and son of a wine importer; the flight of the Dornier from Zurich to Cape Town in 1926/7, the propeller of which hangs in Cape Town airport; and the life-long passion for art and architecture of founder Christoph Dornier.
I could have learned about the Dornier logo that is the head of Leda – the Syrah Siren – who was seduced by Zeus whilst metamorphosised from human to beast and disguised by a swan on her head with 2 beaks. I could have learned about the early 18th century Restaurant building, the 19th century Homestead and the 21st century loft-style winery. I learned nothing about the history or philosophy of the farm; the estate, its terroir, vines and viticultural practices; or of half a dozen worthwhile environmental and social responsibility projects. Did you know that Dornier has since 2010 banned strawberries from its Restaurant menu? And why?
Dornier promised so much yet delivered so little. I did not buy any wines, in part because they were over-priced and not made in a style that I liked. I am sure I would have more likely have done so had I known more about this important and interesting wine farm.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2017 Moordenaarskloof Limited Release Chenin Blanc – R137
2018 Limited Release Sémillon – R177
2016 Donatus White (80% Chenin Blanc, 20% Sémillon) – R197
2016 Dornier Siren Syrah – R152
2016 Dornier Equanimity Cabernet Sauvignon – R152
2016 Donatus Red (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petit Verdot, 13% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc) – R297
2015 Petit Verdot – R197