Syrah Pillars of Excellence at Haskell
Thursday 14 March 2019
I had long wanted to visit Haskell Vineyards – ever since I tasted their excellent Hades Syrah at the Tops! At Spar Wine Festival. It was almost 18 months ago but the quality stood out for me and I remembered the name. I was all the more excited to be in the upper reaches of the Annandale Valley having tasted the excellent Keermont Vineyard wines (Syrah especially) a week ago. Keermont is in a different valley, the Paradyskloof Valley, but also to the South of Stellenbosch. Both valleys stem from the Hottentots-Holland Mountain Catchment Area. Their alignment means that the 2 estates are barely 1 kilometre apart. Indeed, but for the curve of a hill, it would be possible to see Keermont from Haskell.
It was a glorious sunny March morning as I left Cape Town. The journey became even better when I turned right off the R44 from Somerset West to enter the Annandale Valley. Surprisingly, I had not ventured up the Annandale Road before save for a brief stop at the Root 44 weekend market at Audacia Winery long ago. As I gradually gained altitude, I ticked off all the other vineyards whose wines I had drunk but I had not visited either: Peter Falke, Ernie Els, Guardian Peak, Alto, Bilton and Rust en Vrede. Mental note to self: return!
The valley looked splendid as the road climbed and narrowed. The autumn coloured vines, mostly harvested, showed their ages below bright sunshine and the surrounding mountains. The verges became progressively manicured as I turned a corner to reach a white security gate that was unexpected. Formalities done, I headed to Haskell which is the uppermost wine estate in the valley. I paused to take photos of the Rust en Vrede vines, replete with tight bunches of sweet Petit Verdot.
A bakkie was driving down the valley and stopped. I was doing nothing wrong but one always wonders. The driver was none other than a friend of mine called Rudolf Steenkamp. What a coincidence! Rudi was a key member of my Cape Wine Masters Tasting Group at Groot Constantia last year. He joined Haskell in June 2018, as Assistant Winemaker and Vineyard Manager, and he took over as Winemaker (the second after Rianie Strydom) some 4 months later. It was great to see him again and catch up with news. I learned that after the 2019 harvest, the Haskell vineyards will become organic so there are exciting times ahead. Rudi told me that the Cabernet had just been pressed in the 80 tonne cellar and to pop by and meet Sylvester there.
At the top of the valley I entered Haskell between the imposing tall white pillars that were difficult to photograph into the bright sun. It is only now, and as I write a day later, that I make the connection with the name of the first Syrah I tasted, the Pillars Syrah. I smile! There was ample shaded parking beside the vineyards. The white cellar building, its doors flanked by 2 tall Cypress trees that would not look out of place in Tuscany, basked in the sunshine beyond a small ornamental garden.
I was already in high spirits when I entered the Tasting Room and introduced myself to Arnand, the Tasting Room Manager. The room décor was spacious and functional, with the tasting counter on one side. The Longtable Restaurant was opposite and both opened out onto a large open terrace (or, rather for the non-Englishmen, stoep) with magnificent vineyard and mountain views at the rear of the building. I liked the contemporary feel that was welcoming without being too formal and classic without being either too modern or too ostentatiously historic.
Arnand explained the 2 tasting options: 5 wines from the Dombeya (Lifestyle) Range (R50) or 4 wines from the Haskell (Flagship) Collection (R70). I opted for the latter as he neatly set out a spittoon, glasses and water on the tasting counter. Kindly, he ordered a cheeseboard for me and allowed me to taste some wines from each selection. As I sampled the Dombeya Sauvignon Blanc, Arnand explained that Dombeya was the original name for the estate. The Dombeya tree (‘white pear’ in English) is a native, ornamental South African tree that is known for its masses of white blooms in the spring. I could almost taste white pear in the clear, pale, watery Sauvignon Blanc – made with grapes bought in from Stellenbosch and close to Franschhoek) – that was tropical guava and granadilla in character. The wine showed herbaceous notes of green pepper to add to the complexity on the nose. There was a clean acidity on the palate and at the finish but this was not an overworked wine. R110 was good value also.
The Anvil Chardonnay, a Platter 5* winner and from the Haskell range, was superb. The grapes are from some of South Africa’s oldest Chardonnay vines (1988) and from a block that is the shape of a blacksmith’s anvil, hence the name. Five 300 l barrels only are made. The wine is matured for 12 months in a mix of 50% new and 50% 2nd/3rd fill French barrels. I liked the fruity, nutty complexity of lemon, apple, walnut and vanilla notes on the nose. The intensity seamlessly followed through to the palate which had a pleasant creamy texture, great balance and a bite of acidity at the finish. I could easily have bought a bottle there and then.
Vines are planted on 14 hectares of the 25 hectare Haskell property. Red cultivars dominate (80% production) beside Chardonnay. These include different clones of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot and Syrah that grow on a variety of soils and altitudes to give the best potential for each variety. The first red wine was also from the Dombeya Range, a Merlot. Good Merlots are hard to find and I rated this one highly. There were classic red fruits on the nose – cherry and plum – that had bitter orange and cake spice aromas for added complexity. The wine was made in lighter style but without sacrificing grip, aided by gentle oaking (16 months in 10% new, 60% 2nd fill, 30% 3rd fill French oak.
The 3 Syrah that followed were the highlight of the tasting. All 3 were from the flagship Haskell Range and I tasted them side by side to compare. The Pillars and Aeon wines were from the same (2013) vintage and the Hades from the outstanding 2015 vintage. They form the Syrah Vineyard Series, with the Pillars and Aeon first released in 2009 and the Hades after. All 3 wines were distinctly different even though they are similarly aged for 15 months and from the same Syrah clone. I recommend side by side tasting. This clearly shows, for example, the increase in colour intensity across the Series.
The Pillars, made from vines grown in sandy, clay soils at the lowest altitude (200m above sea level) offered intense fruity notes on the nose accompanied by a smoky, meaty bouquet not unlike bacon. The wine was clean and with a good intensity, excellent balance and a decent finish on the palate. The Aeon was the most interesting wine of the three and (just) my favourite. I could not resist buying all 3 wines to drink on a special occasion when I can compare again.
The Aeon block is higher, at 200m, and surrounded by blue gum trees and fynbos. I always thought wines which described mint as one of their flavours was the realm of marketing, that was until I sampled ‘The Mint’ Cabernet Sauvignon at Thelema Mountain Vineyards not so far away to the West of Stellenbosch. The Aeon showed the same minty, lavender herb to floral notes together with those of red and dark fruits. It was not until I tasted that Syrah spiciness emerged on the palate that was as smooth and well made as the Pillars wine. Interestingly, the Aeon block – like the one at Thelema – is surrounded by glue gum trees.
Arnand explained, as he poured the Hades, that the name arose from the back-breaking work to remove 90 tonnes of rocks from the rocky soil when the vineyard was planted. It took 9 years too to make the first vintage. Just four 300 l barrels are made, slightly more than the Pillars and Aeon (6 and 8 barrels, respectively), from grapes harvested at 250m. The Syrah showed elements of both the Pillars and Aeon on the nose. There were smoky, savoury herbal but not meaty notes and more pepper spice. The spiciness followed through to the palate that was the fruitiest of all – most likely due to the 2015 vintage – and a finish that just lasted and lasted.
The estate has been owned since 2002 by the American property tycoon Preston Haskell IV, whose name is given also to the final 2 wines of the tasting. Both were blends and I similarly decided to taste them together. The II was a Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon mix of near equal amounts (60% Syrah). It makes for an unusual combination in South Africa but more common in Australia. The full bodied wine showed a good complexity with spicy, smoky notes from the Syrah and fruity aromas from the Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was made in the Haskell style with just the right balance between silky and grippy tannins. It will age well.
The IV was Cabernet Sauvignon-led and made as a Left Bank Bordeaux-style wine. This was a big wine to end with. Full bodied and a deep ruby colour, the nose was bursting with bramble, cassis, and bold black cherry aromas. This is a food wine. The tannins on the palate were showing signs of softening with some smoothness emerging to complement excellent balance and a strong finish.
My experience at Haskell was superb, from the arrival and the first wine through to the last tasting. Arnand even took me to meet Sylvester in the cellar to see where the wine is made. It was great to return to the ‘golden triangle’ region for the second time in as many weeks. I can see now the origin of the area name as the wines at Keermont were superb also. I have learned from tasting reviews at 175 wine estates, stretching from the Western Cape to Kwa-Zulu Natal to Malawi, that the big name estates are not always the best and that the least known ones are not always the weakest. Haskell showed as deft a touch to the experience as it does to the balance and quality of the wines. I thoroughly recommend anyone to go there and look forwards to a meal at the Longtable Restaurant the next time I visit. I can confidently conclude that Haskell has joined a small family of wine estates whose wines I would willingly buy ‘blind’ knowing that they would be excellent value for money as well as well made. Cheers to that!
Wines tasted (bought *):
2018 Dombeya Sauvignon Blanc – R110
2017 Haskell Anvil Chardonnay – R350
2016 Dombeya Merlot – R135
2013 Haskell Pillars Syrah – R350*
2013 Haskell Aeon Syrah – R205 (reduced from R350)* FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Haskell Hades Syrah – R205 (reduced from R350)*
2014 Haskell II (60% Syrah, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon) – R220
2013 Haskell IV (74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot) – R350