Wednesday 20 March 2019
I am racking my brain as I write to think whether or not I had heard of Paserene before I visited. The elegant, stand-out wine labels seemed familiar but I am unsure. Paserene was the only 1 of 4 Franschhoek estates that I wrote to in advance to arrange a tasting that replied. Lynx and Topiary wines did not respond at all. La Chataigne did not either. A phone call later and I discovered that La Chataigne no longer does wine tasting (so do not rely on their entry in the Platter’s 2019 Wine Guide).
Paserene opened only at 10.00am and so I began my day at Leopard’s Leap (open from 9.00am). It was but a short drive west on the R45 to the estate entrance, its name in bold lettering on wooden panels either side. I parked and, to start, made my way towards the cellar outbuildings. It was only when I turned around that I saw the Tasting Room building behind me, diagonally across from where I parked.
I met Tasting Room Manager Billet, as arranged, in the light and bright Tasting Room. The modern, contemporary building, he told me, was 18 months old. Its cylindrical shape reminded from the outside of a giant wine bottle on its side, less the neck. I read on the Paserene website afterwards that the ‘Paserene nest’ represents a Martin’s nest with the wood cladding and rough slate accents representing the mud and clay that martins and swallows use to build their nests. I could not see it myself. I could, however, see that the dam beside makes an ideal hunting location for swooping martins and swallows to feed on the small insects from the reed surrounds and over the water.
Billet neatly set out 4 tasting glasses of different shapes together with a glass of water. He then poured all 4 glasses of wine (R150) with the final 2 red wines from 2 different shaped decanters to allow aeration. He showed poise and a precision that I rarely see at a wine tasting. I realised why during the tasting as I discovered that he was one of the Zimbabwe team in the recent World Sommelier Championships.
Unusually too, Billet explained that he would say nothing about each wine until I had tasted. I was very content to taste ‘blind’ and understood how easy it is with wines to experience what one is told. Tell me (or most anyone else) that a wine has aromas of, say, roast parsnip and breadfruit and I will likely find them! He did explain that the grapes are sourced from Tulbagh, Franschhoek and Elgin so that the wines ‘speak of where they come from’. I learned after that the young vines outside the Tasting Room were Muscat and not used in the Paserene wines.
I felt on test as I tasted the first wine, the only white wine of the tasting. The bottle had a white label, matching white wax cap, with a girl on it to represent Mother Nature for the beautiful Elgin where the grapes come from. The nose of the pale straw wine showed a medium complexity of baked apple, vanilla, grape and delicate spice aromas, of good intensity. They followed through to an elegant, rounded yet creamy texture on the palate that had just enough contrasting acidity for freshness. I correctly deduced that it was a Chardonnay. The oak régime is unusual in that the new barrels are seasoned, dry and without toasting, for 5 years before being steamed and then used for 16 months to make the wine. The words on the back of the label were accurate: ‘pure fragile restrained’.
The first red wine, called Stoner, came in a bottle with the stencilled upper half of a naked man etched in white against the dark glass. Served at the right temperature, it immediately intrigued by the almost brick red colour on pouring. It was the latest Paserene wine (not even showing on the website) and revealed distinct fruit aromas on the nose: cherry, redcurrant, cranberry, plum and some baking spice. I could easily have mistaken it for a Merlot until I tasted. Tight, green tannins and high acidity gave it away but even then the colour, red fruits and light style did not match a typical Cabernet Sauvignon. I think Billet was enjoying my vocal deliberations as he explained that the wine was a Cabernet Sauvignon-led blend made using grapes from Stellenbosch.
I studied Biology (Ecology) at university and came to South Africa from England some 9 years ago to train and work as a Game Ranger. I therefore knew that a Passerine (note the interesting spelling change from Paserene) is a perching bird due to the arrangement of the 4 well developed and free toes. The Passeriform order, erroneously also known as the songbirds, includes more than half of all bird species. The winery was given its name by Ashton-born, 3rd generation winemaker and co-owner Martin Smith. Martin, like me, has lived and travelled around the world.
Martin knew at the age of 13 years old that he wanted to become a winemaker. He studied in Stellenbosch and has since worked in a number of Western Cape wineries as well as in the Napa Valley, California before starting Paserene. I expect he knows that a martin is a migratory bird. I remember the House Martins and Sand Martins of the Swallow family during my English childhood. Like the British ‘swallows’ who overwinter in South Africa, the migratory martins would return to Europe in the spring from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, only to disappear again in the autumn for warmer climes.
The remaining 2 wines were in a class of their own. The full-bodied Union, in contrast to the Stoner, was far more black than red fruited with intense aromas of mulberry, blackberry, ripe plum, violet and white pepper spice aromas on the nose. The peppercorn spiciness emerged more on the palate that was clean and elegant, also in lighter style. The violet notes and style suggested a cool climate Shiraz from Elgin. The wine was Shiraz-led but from Tulbagh and with a sizeable amount of Carignan (34%) and Mourvèdre (22%) to give lighter tannins and colour. The back of the label said ‘gentle perfumed layered’ which was as good as many a description I have read on a wine label. The name Union, epitomised by the lady and the swift (winemaker) on the label, is about unification with the tree symbolizing stability.
My favourite wine (just) and the bottle I bought was the Marathon. This was a bold, intense wine with a mix of red and black fruit aromas and flavours, of mulberry, black plum and blackberry. The balance on the palate was notable, to show brightness and elegance with freshness, a smooth power and great complexity. As I tasted, I was reminded of Cabernet Sauvignon-specialist Johann Innerhofer at Capelands Wine Farm (near Somerset West) who told me that ‘It is easy to make powerful wines. Anyone can do that. The trick is to make an elegant wine which is much harder to achieve’. The wine label is simplicity itself – just a free-flying swallow and the name Paserene – with the perfect words on the back to describe: ‘complex vibrant balanced’. Afternote: I have drunk the wine already and it was as good as in the Tasting Room.
I much enjoyed the Paserene wines and the tasting. It is not at all easy in the competitive and saturated South African wine industry to stand out and to show personality and difference. It is also not easy to make powerful yet elegant wines either. There was a synergy to the tasting that made it all the more memorable, from the design of the Tasting Room building to the different approach to tasting to the artwork and words on the wine labels to the location-specific wines themselves. It is better, I believe, to do a few things really well than many to a lower standard and consistency.
There was a curious coincidence in that I had visited Leopard’s Leap immediately beforehand. The 2 wine farms (garagistes like Bemind Wyne and Sonklip excepted) are perhaps the only 2 I have visited that buy in all their grapes from elsewhere. I sensed a free spirit and balance at Paserene that do not always come together. It may be that a conventional wine estate is too tied to its own vineyards for that freedom to be expressed. The phrase ‘boutique’ winery is as over used as it is ill-defined but, if ever there is one that truly fits the bill (pun intended), then it surely is Paserene. Tempting as it is to keep my bottle of Marathon wine for a special occasion, I shall drink it tonight. Cheers to Paserene!
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Chardonnay – R375
2016 Shiner (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc) – R150
2016 Union (44% Shiraz, 34% Carignan, 22% Mourvèdre) – R375
2016 Marathon (53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Petit Verdot, 5% Carmenère) – R375* FAVOURITE WINE