Eksteen Experiments in the Lower Valley
Thursday 4 April 2019
It was something of a relief to be sat around a table talking with Bartho Eksteen and tasting his wines. The morning had not been the easiest. The rain in Cape Town was welcome but always slows the traffic down. At least sun was forecast in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley some 2 hours away, or so I thought. Then, I heard about the protect activity going on in and around Caledon. This was confirmed by a roadblock outside Hemel-en-Aarde Wine Village at the start of the Wine Route up the valley. It was still raining when I arrived and with no signs of clearing but the Traffic policewoman at the road block took pity on me when I said I was heading for wine tasting as far only as Domaine des Dieux to let me though.
I arrived at Bartho Eksteen at around 10.15am and soon after opening at 10.00am. The entrance off the R320 was easy enough to find. As I passed young Pinot Noir vines, planted in October 2018, the ‘road’ changed from paved blocks to dirt that seemingly went nowhere as it looped around at the bottom of the slope. I checked where I was and saw the small rustic Tasting Building, painted white with wriggly tin toilet outbuilding beside. I sheltered outside in the rain and waited. The glass door was secured with an unlocked padlock and I was tempted to enter. It would not have been the first time that I had tasted solo and left, as happened at Bushmanspad at the Wacky Wine Weekend last year. An inquisitive farm worker arrived who told me that everyone was out and with no idea when they were set to return. I called the number in my Platter’s Guide but it went to voicemail so decided to leave and return on leaving the Valley later in the day.
As I left, a bakkie arrived with Suné in who I had contacted before my visit. I was saved and she let me into the small, intimate Tasting Building. The inside walls were raw stone and a mixed of old furniture, table and chairs filled the small room. Suné poured me a glass of the Dom MCC as she went in search on Bartho. The wine, with elegant duck egg blue label, showed an impressive line of fine bubble rising in the flute glass. The MCC is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier to make it the only true champagne-style MCC produced in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. It had a pleasant yeasty, leesy nose with a good intensity of baked apple and brioche aromas. Yellow apple and peach flavours came to the fore on the palate that had an excellent moussante mouthfeel.
Bartho arrived and almost immediately poured 2 Sauvignon Blanc. The location, he explained, was the coldest in the Valley, some 10°C cooler than just 2.5 kilometres away on the coast. There is a frost hollow too which makes the terroir excellent for Sauvignon Blanc and the Rhône grape varieties. He has planted Pinot Noir too in the 5 hectares of vineyards but has a problem with baboons. The Meester was of 2016 vintage and an older Sauvignon Blanc. Bartho decried, as I do, the penchant for very young wines. 2019 wines are already released yet Sauvignon Blanc, if well made, can age well. Bartho likes to focus on older Sauvignons Blanc and, as an ambassador for them, to encourage others ‘to see them though different glasses’. The Meester showed subtle herbaceous and warmer fruit aromas. The wine had excellent integrated acidity that was surprisingly smooth, which was unusual for a Sauvignon Blanc and very likeable. Bartho bottles only in December and gives his wines time to settle before release which aids their smoothness.
The Tree of Knowledge wine is part of the Wijnskool Range, the proceeds of which go to the Eksteen Wine Academy. This is an exciting and innovative development that Bartho set up in 2010 to teach younger entrepreneur learners and winemakers how to make wine and responsible drinking. The micro-winery takes 30 Grade 8 to 12 students annually and teaches them white, red or sparkling wine making for 1 year. The Sauvignon Blanc, beefed up and softened by 7% Sémillon together with lees contact, showed the roundness of the Meester. The aromas were delicate and green with decent acidity, intensity and length shown on the palate.
I was so busy chatting and tasting that I forgot to take photos of the next 2 wines. The Shiraz, the Tree of Knowledge sibling of the Sauvignon Blanc was remarkably approachable for the 2017 vintage. The nose was more fruity than spicy to reveal delicious notes of warm mulberry, cassis and redcurrant. Pepper spiciness came to the fore on the palate that was smooth and rounded – higher fruits and cool climate help here – and with good length.
The Signature Range Ouskool could easily have been my favourite wine. The Rhône style ‘SMGV’, as Bartho called it, showed an enticing earthy and liquorice undertone to the red and dark fruits that balanced well on the nose. As if typical of Bartho’s rebellion, eccentricity and disdain for the normal, he could not really remember the percentage of each cultivar (the website that is almost empty of information will not help either). The blend, however, brought out the best of each cultivar: cigar box and pepper spice from the Shiraz; earthiness and the ruby red colour from the Mourvèdre; red berry fruits from the Grenache; and sweet spiciness from the Viognier. The earthiness remained as spiciness emerged on the palate that was rounded and smooth.
I did not taste from the flagship Bartho Eksteen Range or the experimental Cape Winemakers Guild Range. I did buy a bottle of the Houtskool wooded Sauvignon Blanc from the former range. It was too good a chance to miss as it is the Platter’s 2019 Guide Wooded Sauvignon Blanc of the Year. I asked Bartho how he managed to make Sauvignon Blanc that with high acidity that was so smooth. It needs time, he said, that is rarely afforded due to the rush to market and fashion for young wines. The cultivar needs time in the winery. The oaked style needs more time and more wood so he uses older 500 litre barrels.
I thoroughly enjoyed the wines and the discussions with Bartho Eksteen. It is always a rare pleasure to taste with the winemaker and a privilege to do so with someone as innovative and iconic as Bartho. The list of wineries he has worked at was impressive and it came as no surprise, knowing how much I like their wines that he spent 10 years as the co-owner, Director and winemaker at Hermanuspietersfontein before starting his own label and winery in 2015. I could have stayed for much longer but Bartho is a busy man and I had to get to Newton Johnson for my second tasting of the day. As I left, my arrival frustrations had all disappeared – and you cannot say better than that.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Signature Dom MCC – R230
2016 Signature Meester Sauvignon Blanc – R156 FAVOURITE WINE
2017 Wijnskool Tree of Knowledge Sauvignon Blanc – R110*
2017 Flagship Houtskool Wooded Sauvignon Blanc – R430* (not tasted)
2017 Wijnskool Tree of Knowledge Shiraz – R110
2016 Signature Ouskool (65% Shiraz, 16% Mourvèdre, 16% Grenache, 3% Viognier) – R290*