Thursday 28 March 2019
It was after a late night at the Ed Sheeran concert that I left Cape Town for a day of wine tasting in Stellenbosch. The cloud base was low with just the very tip of Devil’s Peak showing as a small rock triangle above the mist. I was excited by the prospect of tasting at Oldenburg, Le Pommier, Bartinney and, perhaps, Camberley.
It was not the first time I had tried and so my excitement was all the greater. I had tried a year ago, almost to the very day, having checked the opening hours for a Friday in my Platter’s Wine Guide. I drove all the way to East Stellenbosch only to find it was Good Friday and all the wine estates were closed! I ended up with an enjoyable tasting at Blaauwklippen that was open, instead. I was looking forwards too because Rainbow’s End, just beyond Oldenburg, was a triple winner in my 2017 Cape Wine Lovers’ Society awards. I knew that the wines were going to be good.
The further I drove from Cape Town and the later in the morning it became, the more the mist lifted and the sunnier the day became. I remembered the narrow winding road up the Banghoek Valley. I remembered too the last 1.5 kilometres of gravel road to Oldenburg, together with the impressive, symmetrical Cape Dutch-meets-contemporary Tasting Building that was built in 2011. The thatched roof, tan walls and double front reminded me of the Cellar and Tasting Room building at Lord’s Winery in McGregor. I parked beside, met my tasting friend for the day, and went inside to meet Stefan who was my tasting host for the morning.
The high roof, with thatch visible from inside, and vast glass window overlooking the Jonkershoek Mountain backdrop – one I recognised from Rainbow’s End at the end of the valley – made the most of the spectacular setting. The Tasting Room with its impeccable décor offered a relaxed atmosphere with just the right hint of calm authority. I could easily have been in someone’s house – remember the exquisite Lothian Vineyards? – as I expectantly sat with Stefan by the large open window. By now, the clouds had completely lifted.We discussed the tasting order as there were white and red wines of the same cultivar in different ranges: the entry <CL° Range, the Oldenburg Vineyards Series, and the flagship Rondekop Series. Each has a different pricing: R80 for the <CL° tasting; R110 for the Vineyards tasting; R200 for the 8 Elements tasting; R100-240 for the Rondekop tasting (1,2 or 3 wines); R85-201 for the Rare Vintage tasting (1,2 or 3 wines); and R120-210 for the Maiden Vintage tasting (1 or 2 wines). The prices are not cheap, even allowing for the inflation-bursting increases in tasting fee over the past 2 years, but are waived if 6 or more bottles are purchased. A complimentary mini-platter is included, something I have not seen at other tastings elsewhere.
I started with the 2 <CL° blends in distinct opposing white and black minimalist labels. The striking design, not just in appearance but how the essential information is displayed on their rear, had just won a Bronze Award for ‘Wine in a Series’ at the 2019 Wine Label Design Awards. The millennial feel continued with the serving of both wines in stemless glasses.
The <CL° logo made for a good talking point, the opportunity for me to guess, and for Stefan to explain the meaning behind. Cutting a long story and many guesses short – reminder to self, do not over think! – it broadly means ‘cooler than Stellenbosch’. This reflects the daytime temperatures that average 2 °C cooler than surrounding Stellenbosch due to the 410 metres above sea level elevation, so important for later harvesting, better phenolic ripeness and easy going quality wines. It is cool to be cool by the pool, so they say. The Elgin Valley wineries did it first with their clever ‘cool climate wines’ branding. Elim, not to be outdone, went beyond with their ‘cooler than cool climate’ strap line. It makes perfect sense for the Banghoek Valley estates to ride on the cool breeze too. The new logo is perfect for the entry range with its clever eye-catching design that will surely be the topic of conversation at any braai, supper party – or by the pool. The addition of the Oldenburg GPS coordinates on the label is inspired too as a vehicle to encourage visitors.
Both <CL° blends were of uncommon composition and thus interesting. Chardonnay is relatively rarely blended in South Africa (save with Pinot Noir for MCC of course). The white blend was 2/3 Chardonnay: 1/3 Chenin Blanc that made for a honeyed lemon/lime citrus to tropical wine. It was unlike the more common Bordeaux white-style blend (Sémillon/Sauvignon Blanc) with a rounded and less acidic palate. Nonetheless, the subtly wooded Chardonnay (8 months in old 2nd/red fill barrels) gave the wine a Sémillon-like texture and feel.
The red blend could have been labelled as Syrah (87%). It had 13% added Merlot. Again unusual, one of my delights of South African wines is that any blend is permitted – in this case between a Rhône and a Bordeaux grape – that are rarely approved elsewhere, and certainly not as an Appellation wine in France or in much of the Old World. The wine was light in style and feel and perfect for the alone-or-with-food range. Medium to full-bodied in depth and ruby red in colour, spicy and fruity aromas filled the nose with a medium intensity. Reserved tannins on the palate well balanced the fruit flavours to make a pleasant and very affordable wine.
Marthélize, the Direct Sales Manager, joined us for a while to explain how Oldenburg was in a phase of rebranding. The aim is to become a Top 10 Stellenbosch vineyard within 5 years. Newly designed labels across the wine range, together with new staffs in key positions (including Stefan as Brand Ambassador), were all part of a coherent plan. Oldenburg was very definitely on a mission.
The next 2 tasting rounds were single variety Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay wines from the Vineyards Series, served in conventional glasses in pairs of different vintages. They made excellent siblings for comparison and excellent value for money for their quality. The 2 Chenins were both 35% barrel fermented in 2nd/3rd fill oak but individual in character. The older, 2015, wine – from the near perfect South African vintage – was slightly deeper in straw colour with lemon, lime, vanilla and white honey aromas. The slight diesel notes on the nose could have fooled me into thinking the wine was a Riesling but the acidity was too low. It took a while for the fruits to show on the palate as the wine was served a little too chilled. By comparison the younger, 2017, Chenin was less fruity with more tropical flavours. It showed distinct acidity and minerality on the palate.
The Chardonnay from 1 year later sported the old and the new label, giving Stefan the cue to explain the new design (also a Winner at the Wine label Awards, gaining Silver Medal for the ‘Wine in a Series’ category). The label captures the ‘8 natural elements’ (read terroir) that are rarely found together in one location. They combine to make the quality Oldenburg wines. From large to small scale, the influence of the ocean and in particular the warming Agulhas/cooling Benguela currents means that wines can be made in South Africa. Second comes the mountain ranges and, third, the surrounding Jonkershoek Mountain amphitheatre. These combine to give the Banghoek Valley a special mesoclimate.
The Chardonnay were 1 year apart but recognisably different. The 2017 vintage was a classic Chardonnay, with aromas of intense yet elegant ripe apple and vanilla on the nose with a warm fruity palate with good balance between fruits and acidity. The 2018 version, fermented for slightly less time (50% for 6 rather than 9 months in barrels) was yellow apple fruitier on the nose, showing slight tropical aromas. The acidity was higher for a cleaner and easier drinking wine. The final white wine and the one I least enjoyed was the Viognier. The wine is not usually included for tasting as 1,000 bottles only were made. The wine showed floral then apricot aromas but not the jasmine or white pear that I was expecting. The palate was textured with good intensity of flavour and length but I wanted more weight and typical Viognier oiliness in the mouth.
Stefan brought a palate cleanser, with olives and frilly shaved cheese as we turned to the red wines. He explained that South African/Swiss owner Adrian Vanderspuy grew up on a neighbouring farm. It was a fruit farm at the time and, whilst a child, tasted a pear that was the best tasting ever. He vowed one day to come back, having left for an international career in 1967, only returning to the Cape annually for Christmas. A chance opportunity led him to buy Oldenburg by auction in 2003. Cabernet Franc and Syrah were first planted in 2004 to make the first vintage in 2007. The maiden vintage was so good that Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah were later planted. Thirty hectares of the 50 hectare property are under vine with the remainder set aside for conservation.
The Grenache Noir, always a favourite, was one of my preferred wines of the tasting. Lightly oaked (6 months in 40% new, 60% 2nd/3rd fill barrels), the medium bodied ruby red wine was bright and elegant to belie a heady 14.5% alcohol content. I liked the red fruit complexity – bitter-sweet raspberry and cranberry not unlike a Pinot Noir – with a fresh acidity for a clean palate. The Syrah was matured for much longer (20 months). The wine showed a decent complexity of red and dark spicy fruits (blackberry, mulberry and blackcurrant) that balanced well the tannins on the palate. The tannins were almost too tight for the elegance the wine showed.
As we glanced at the spectacular view outside, Stefan continued with the 8 elements. I already mentioned elevation with the <CL° wines and so, sixth, is the circulating wind (today was an abnormally still day). This removes the morning mist and associated humidity. It also helps reduce pest and fungus incidence. The next element is the soil that is made up of decomposed granite and sandstone. It is mineral rich but the nutrients are not easy to access. Deep rooting is further encouraged by dense planting to encourage competition between the vines.
The Merlot, also from the stellar 2015 vintage, just edged out the Grenache for my favourite wine. I have written elsewhere that great Merlot are difficult to find. The Oldenburg Merlot was a rare exception and one of only 3 Platter 5* Merlot in 2019. Interestingly the Rainbow’s End 2015 version was my 2017 Merlot of the Year. The wine showed a superb complexity of redcurrant, red cherry, red plumb and herbal aromas that seamlessly followed through to a smooth and rounded palate, with excellent intensity and length. Cabernet Franc is another favourite cultivar. Adjacent Rainbow’s End also made my Cabernet Franc of the Year 2017. This was almost as good and made in fresh, green style. The palate showed freshness and cleanliness on the palate with just a little less weight than I expected from the vibrant red fruited and herbal nose.
The tasting ended with 2 superb Cabernets Sauvignon, one from the Vineyards Series and the other from the super premium Rondekop Series. Both Cabernets Sauvignon vied for my favourite wine making the choice between the Grenache and the Merlot extremely difficult. The wines were from the same excellent 2015 vintage (not always easy to find) and so perhaps it does not surprise. The Vineyards wine – excellent value at R230 – was just as a great Cabernet Sauvignon should be, even if showing its youth a little. It was fruity on the nose with slightly sweet red and dark cassis to spicy liquorice notes. They were well balanced on the plate with elegant, rounded and smooth tannins.
Stellenbosch has a reputation as home to the best Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa. That said, I am all too often disappointed by them, even those produced by some of the iconic and top named producers. It adds to my scepticism of some of the ratings and reviews. The Per Se Cabernet Sauvignon was up with the best of the vintage. Served in top of the range Zalto glasses, the wine showed immense intensity and fullness of fruit. There were aromas of cherries and berries, bramble and pepper spice, sage too, on the nose. The palate showed a rare depth and complexity with structured tannins of more intensity than the Vineyards wine.
The wine comes from the Rondekop Series, named after the koppie that is so prominent in view from the Tasting Room. The Rondekop is the 8th and final of the 8 elements and forms the centre of the new label. The chance to taste the same wine, served via a Coravin, in a regular glass was too great to pass off. I had tasted wine in a hand-made Zalto glass only once before – the Sauvignon Blanc straw-style dessert wine at Keermont. I am sceptical too of the ‘different wine glass for each wine’ approach and the more flamboyant marketing claims of the premium glass companies. The proof of the wine is in the tasting, so to speak. I was amazed at the difference that the Zalto glass made. This was even more remarkable since the other glass was made by Riedel and not, a cheap ‘joker’ glass as used during a comparative glass tasting at Esona. The Riedel glass made the Per Se flatter on the nose by comparison and with less intensity of fruit. The Zalto brought out the vibrancy and freshness of the fruits and the alcohol on the nose. There was less to separate on the palate.
I have no hesitation in awarding Oldenburg top marks for both the wines and the experience. Both need to come together in the Tasting Room but, all too often, they do not. The new branding was there for a reason and a sense of purpose far from the all too often marketing gloss. The ‘granny will do cartwheels’ Tasting Note for the Warwick Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, the entry (yes, entry!) Premium Range at Vrede en Lust, and the ‘experience beyond the ordinary … unforgettable enriching adventure that touches the soul’ promise at Peter Falke, for example, all come to mind. The wines have to be good and to speak for themselves. Oldenburg wines did just this. I have been privileged recently to have tasted some excellent, elegant and well made wines at Keermont and Haskell Vineyards and, now, Oldenburg. Before leaving, I bought 12 bottles to join the Wine Club which is something I have not done before.
Last, but never least, is service delivery. Oldenburg understands this. I very much believe we are story tellers and story listeners. Every wine estate I have ever visited has a story to tell, whether the history, the logo, the owner, the buildings, the estate, the winemaker, the wine and more. It is all too rarely told or even offered to be told. The new <CL° label and the 8 elements have been cleverly crafted to tell that story. Story alone though is not enough. Any stored can be learned as the robotic ‘pour and talk’ tasting experience shows. The top experience brings understanding behind the terroir and the cultivars and how they interact with the winemaking to make the wine. Stefan got this and explained simply the complexity of the relationships. So too, incidentally, did Jana at Rainbow’s End. It must be something of the terroir in the Banghoek Valley. I was not scared at all. Far from it, Oldenburg is the new cool place to be! To quote Ed Sheeran, Oldenburg was ‘perfect’.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2018 <CL° White Blend (64% Chardonnay, 37% Chenin Blanc) – R115
2015 Oldenburg Vineyards Series Chenin Blanc – R140
2017 Oldenburg Vineyards Series Chenin Blanc – R140
2017 Oldenburg Vineyards Series Chardonnay – R150
2018 Oldenburg Vineyards Series Chardonnay – R150
2018 Oldenburg Vineyards Series Viognier – R170
2017 <CL° Red Blend (87% Syrah, 13% Merlot) – R115
2017 Oldenburg Vineyards Series Grenache Noir – R240* FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Oldenburg Vineyards Series Syrah – R185
2015 Oldenburg Vineyards Series Merlot – R195* FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Oldenburg Vineyards Series Cabernet Franc – R280
2015 Oldenburg Vineyards Series Cabernet Sauvignon – R230* FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Rondekop Series Per Se Cabernet Sauvignon – R450* FAVOURITE WINE