Waterf-ord More Ord-inary Than Extra-ord-inary
Thursday 25 April 2019
Waterford is another of those big name wine estates amid the other 800 or more in the Western Cape (and a growing number beyond too) that I have wanted to visit for some time. I have tasted at over 200 wineries since I started the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society over 2 years ago so there are several more to visit and review. Like many, I had sampled the Waterford wines before at festivals and other events but there is no substitute in my mind for tasting a wine at the place at which it is made, ideally looking out over the vineyards whilst doing so. The occasion was a mid-week break in the Upper Blaauwklippen Valley, South of Stellenbosch during which I planned to taste also at Kleinood Winery (Tamboerskloof wines), Keermont Vineyards and De Trafford Wines.
The stone walled entrance (opposite Kleinood) showed presence and status, leading to an impressive tree lined avenue that gave dappled shade from the bright late-afternoon autumn to winter sunshine. Growing ever closer and through the Clementine orchards, framed above by the stony Helderberg Mountains, were the cellar buildings with their red corrugated tile roofs and stately, central arched tower. I parked close by and tried to decide the architecture in my own mind. It was part Italian, part Spanish perhaps – much as I might expect a Californian winery – but certainly not Cape Dutch. The website refers to the ‘Mediterranean courtyard’ so I guess I was half right twice.
Impressive the arrival at Waterford certainly was. It was all the more so as I ventured into the large circular courtyard inside, complete with central gushing trademark Waterford fountain. Expansive, upholstered, and no doubt expensive sitting rooms flanked either side of the entrance with their large open fireplaces, terracotta floor tiles, designer décor and extravagant flower decorations. Further couches and low tables filled the verandah outside in case inclement weather prevented tasting whilst sat on the low circular wall around the fountain.
Waterford clearly meant to make a statement and a statement it did. I chose to sit at one of the many small tables at the edge of the courtyard so I could taste and write with ease. The Waterford Tasting Experience lists 7 options. I would have expected no fewer from the grand setting. Two of these require pre-booking (the 3 hour Estate Wine Drive and Porcupine Trail Walk, at R1,150 and R450, respectively) and are part of the ‘Waterford Way’ which is ‘to be prosperous’. There were 2 wine and chocolate pairings – or rather, ‘Experiences’ – for 3 or 6 wines, costing R95 and R125. There was also a single tasting of the Jem (R115) which is Waterford’s flagship wine – named after owner Jeremy Ord, also as in Waterf-ord – which is a blend from a selection of the 11 estate cultivars grown on the estate and first released in 2007; 8 for the 2014 vintage at an ethereal cost of R1,650 a bottle. Being neither ‘prosperous’ nor fortunate enough to have held the contract for Waterford’s marketing material, I opted to skip the Library Collection Tasting (R250 for a selection of unique and limited blends) for the basic or rather ‘Portfolio Tasting’.
While I waited for Thomas to bring the first of the 6 wines, I was reminded of Vrede en Lust whose lifestyle, entry level wines are part of their Premium Range. The wines came in set ord-er (pun intended) beginning with the Rose-Mary that is named after Jeremy’s late mother. This was a Rosé – more correctly from the website ‘a very sophisticated approach towards a blanc de noir’ – that was pale salmon pink in colour. Made from Shiraz, Mourvèdre, Tempranillo and Grenache grapes, picked early to be bone dry (1.1 grams per litre residual sugar) and low alcohol (10.8%), the wine showed typical sweet strawberry and raspberry aromas with a hint of white spice and medium intensity. The palate did not show much sophistication for me, with a weak follow though, little weight and low complexity (a different ord-er of magnitude to the outstanding Tamboerskloof wine I had earlier tasted at Kleinood opposite).
Next was the first of 2 white wines. In contrast to the Rosé, the Elgin sourced Sauvignon Blanc was almost too big on the nose with intense forward aromas of guava, litchi and pineapple that gave way to grassy, citrus, green pepper notes that belied the pale straw colour. I did not expect this degree of tropical fruit salad flavour for a cool climate wine but perhaps the 2018 drought and summer heat contributed or even yeast selection. The palate was dry, clean and fresh as expected of the variety but with very little flavour. The contrast with the aromas was as marked as the shadows around me as light and dark danced at the end of the afternoon.
I rated the Chardonnay, served in correct ‘balloon’ glass, the same. The grapes come from a single block (5.8 hectares) of vines that were planted in 1988, making them some of the oldest Chardonnay in the Cape. Barrel-fermented for 9 months in 24% new oak, the wine showed a pale gold colour. This was classic medium-oaked South African Chardonnay: sweet citrus, vanilla and pecan nut aromas of decent intensity, a smooth mouthfeel, and medium complexity. I would have rated it higher except that the acidity was not fully integrated to leave a bitter aftertaste.
The Waterford Estate has been owned by a partnership between two families since 1998, before which it was part of the adjoining Stellenrust farm. Jeremy and Leigh Ord purchased the property whilst Kevin and Heather Arnold have developed the wines to make it the estate it is today. Half of the 120 hectares are under vine with a wide selection of French, Italian and Spanish cultivars being grown, with the remaining 60 hectares set aside for conservation. Red wines form the majority (70%). The winery was designed by Alex Walker using stone from the vineyards and local quarries as well as timber from the estate.
My favourite wine of the tasting was the Estate Grenache Noir that could by its pale ruby appearance easily have been mistaken for a Pinot Noir. Look out for more Grenache in South Africa, better known for Priorat (as Garnacha in Spain) or as the major component of Château Neuf-du-Pape and many Rhône blends, due to its drought-resistance. The grape makes for a muscular and spicier Pinot Noir with more body, tannin and alcohol and lower acidity. Thomas described the wine as ‘a red wine like a white wine; a white wine like a red wine’ and I could see how it could appeal to traditional white wine drinkers who do not enjoy red wine. The nose showed a bright intensity of smokey, gamey cherry and currant fruity aromas with a hint of maraschino. The wine was bolder on the palate than I expected and certainly more so than a Pinot Noir.
The Kevin Arnold Shiraz was next which I had tasted at the Charcuterie & Shiraz Festival in Franschhoek last year. Subtitled Katherine Leigh, youngest daughter of the Ord family, the wine showed a better intensity of aroma than flavour. The nose showed good complexity of fruit, floral and savoury notes – sweet plum and dark fruits, violets, leather and meats – that lessened on the palate for a lighter styled wine. Tannins nonetheless were structured and green olive in flavour.
Cabernet Sauvignon was the final wine of the tasting as the shadows lengthened in the courtyard. It is Waterford’s leading varietal (30% of plantings) and made with 6% added Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot for colour, perfume and structure. The medium-bodied wine was made in lighter style than many Stellenbosch Cabernets. It showed good fresh red and dark fruit aromas of cassis, blackberry, black cherry, pencil shavings and green herbs. The tannins were closed and forwards on the palate, with classic drying mouthfeel, for a bright finish as befitting its youthful age.
Waterford promised so much. The impressive approach, mountain backdrop and setting, the grand design, opulent Tasting Room and the wide circular courtyard spoke of the Waterford ‘prosperity’. The wow factor is definitely there and a lure for the many American and other foreign tourists beside me. It is undoubtedly the kind of wine estate that is made for the coffee table winery books and vice versa. That is all well and dandy for me and part of the rich and diverse South African wine landscape and heritage. The proof for me as a wine journalist, student and connoisseur lies in the wines. Waterford ticked all the right boxes. There was a broad selection of the best known white and red wines to show off the best of the Stellenbosch terroir. There was a Rosé too and a wine from Elgin (the Sauvignon Blanc). There was the interest cultivar too with the Grenache rather than a Pinot Noir. Wine quality was however variable, with the red wines higher rated than the white wines. The service level was variable too, even for late afternoon when there were relatively few customers, and I had to wait too long between some wine servings. Wine prices were well above average which did not surprise. The Waterford name itself brings premium pricing (as did the tasting fee) that many a tourist will not even notice.
I enjoyed Waterford and was pleased to have visited and tasted the wines, which was my motivation to go. The wow was more from the buildings than the wines. I was reminded on leaving of my experience at the similarly named Waterkloof (I often get the 2 estates muddled up for that reason) that also underwhelmed as expectation fell below experience. Overall, Waterford was more ord-inary than extra-ord-inary.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2018 Waterford Elgin Sauvignon Blanc – R132
2016 Waterford Estate Chardonnay – R272
2018 Waterford Rose-Mary Blanc de Noir – R116
2016 Waterford Estate Grenache Noir – R295 FAVOURITE WINE
2014 Kevin Arnold Shiraz – R295
2016 Waterford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – R356