DE TRAFFORD WINES
Friday 26 April 2019
I have always associated De Trafford with fine wine and so it was fitting that De Trafford was the 200th estate I have visited for tasting and review. It was convenient too since I was staying in the Upper Blaauwklippen Valley, South of Stellenbosch, for a couple of days. The vineyards in the valley and adjacent Annandale Valley make exceptional wines – at Keermont, Kleinood (Tamboerskloof), Haskell and Rust en Vrede – and all within barely 5 kilometres of each other. I was keen therefore to sample from another wines estate. No wonder the region is called the ‘Golden Triangle’. De Trafford is right at the top of the valley, beyond Keermont, so much so that when I saw the sign for Mont Fleur on gates across the road I wondered if I had found the correct way. I continued up the narrow road and was relieved to find signs for De Trafford. I parked beneath the shady trees and made my way to the Tasting Room to be met by Sylvia. It was a Friday morning so my tasting was by appointment (De Trafford is open to the public on Saturdays between 10am to 1 pm). I read after that Mont Fleur is a Conference Centre that is owned and managed by David Trafford’s sister and brother-in-law and used in the 1990s for negotiations for the transition from apartheid to democracy.
De Trafford began with the purchase of old grazing land by architect David and chef-come-artist Rita Trafford in 1976. The Manor House and other houses were built before the first vines were planted on the high altitude slopes (380 metres to 410 metres above sea level) between the Stellenbosch and Helderberg Mountains that seemed suitable for high quality red grapes. It was not until 1983 that quota restrictions were sufficiently eased for the first vines to be planted. The grapes were used for the next 8 years to produce experimental wines for friends and family, with the help of local winemakers and Bordeaux expertise. The small De Trafford winery was established in 1992, a year after quotas were lifted. New vineyards were planted over the next 2 to 3 years. Today, just 5 hectares of the 200 hectare property are under vine with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Shiraz rootstocks, clones, trellising and planting densities carefully chosen to suit variances in the steep North facing slopes with their granite soils, the microclimate and terroir.
The long narrow Tasting Room sits above the cellar with a warm welcome from the smell of the wines and barrels on entering. The room is set with white trestle tables and has very much the feel of a workshop or even laboratory with wines of different vintages and cultivars line up together on wooden cabinets beneath the windows. I liked the working environment and its authenticity. Award winning certificates tell the tale of 27 vintages of superb wines that include inter alia the highest Wine Spectator score for a South African red wine (96 points – 2011 Syrah 393) and the Platter’s Red Wine of the Year (twice: the Syrah 393 in 2008; and the Blueprint Syrah in 2012). The consistent 90-plus score for De Trafford wines over many years is impressive.
The tasting began with an Old Vine Chenin Blanc with grapes bought in from an 86 year old block between Stellenbosch and Paarl. Each vintage has a different label created by Rita; unusually the 2017 label was designed by their daughter. The hand-picked grapes are barrel fermented in 700 litre old oak barrels (two for the 2017 vintage) using natural yeasts which, after 9 months lees contact, give the wine complexity of flavour. It took a while for the wine to warm up enough for me to savour the citrus rather than tropical notes and white honey aromas on the nose. The Chenin Blanc showed a bright, fresh acidity with mineral and saline character.
The 2013 Merlot was from the latest vintage and made using a mix of Keermont and De Trafford grapes grown on clay rich soils to mimic the great wines of Pomerol in Bordeaux and was made in savoury, fynbos style. Deep ruby red in colour and full bodied in appearance, the nose was elegant with a good intensity of redcurrant, red cherry, red plum, raspberry and delicate cedar notes. Cedar flavours strengthened on the palate, aided by 18 months in 35% new oak, to balance subtle flavours for a moderate finish.
My favourite wine was the Cabernet Franc, made only when grape quality is high enough and also from an equal mix of De Trafford and Keermont harvest. The wine was slightly paler than the Merlot but displayed beautiful aromas of cranberry, red currant and blackcurrant, together with green herbs. It showed great freshness on the palate with excellent balance between elegant fruit flavours, firm acidity and subtle oaking.
The Blueprint was the first of 2 Syrah and named to reference David Trafford’s previous architectural career. The grapes come from a specific block at nearby Keermont and grown on alluvial soils. Old oak only is used (20 months). Cassis, bramble, dark plum and pepper nutmeg aromas gave way to a beautifully rounded and well balanced palate. Tannins were showing signs of opening but nonetheless tight with pleasant pepper spiciness on the finish. I liked the flagship Syrah 393 even more. It is made from the best barrels of grapes from a specific De Trafford site that is exposed mid-summer for warm, dry ripening and fed by mountain springs for water during the growing season. The Syrah was fruitier than its Blueprint sibling with intense cassis, mulberry and blackcurrant notes of great intensity. Made in similar light and typical Rhône style to the Blueprint, the 393 showed poise and elegance despite its youth (2016 vintage) with angular tannins that will only improve with age.
The final red wine and the only blend I tasted was the Elevation 393 complete with split label showing architectural plans for the family home. The flagship De Trafford wine is the only wine to be made in new oak (2 years) and aged for 5 years in the bottle before release. Usually Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc-led with Merlot to follow, each vintage has a different blend composition. This wine, from 2012, was made from 1/3 Syrah, 1/3 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1/3 Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The different cultivars contributed for a delicious and inviting fruity yet elegant nose of red and dark fruit, of cassis and plum, blackcurrant and blackberry. The wine showed classic Bordeaux character on the palate with powerful yet refined fruit flavours that did not over power, rounded tannins, great poise and balance, and lingering length. I did not want to waste any of the wine. The Elevation will age well also.
I could not resist ending with the Chenin Blanc Straw Wine that is a rarity in South Africa. Indeed, De Trafford was the first to make this traditional vin de paille wine, experimentally in 1995 and 1996 before officially in 1997 after a Wine & Spirit Board Bill through Parliament. I had tasted only at Vergelegen, Maison, Rustenberg, Dragonridge and Môreson before. The grapes are picked at normal ripeness and then dried for 3 weeks on drying racks beneath oak trees beside the winery. The drying concentrates the sugar as well as flavour, with classic Chenin Blanc acidity providing balance. Straw wine requires careful handling, with a traditional basket press to extract the dense juice from the shrivelled berries and long fermentation for over a year in 50% new French 225 litre barrels. The deep gold to pale brown coloured wine showed classic rich apricot, Dundee marmalade and bitter, burnt orange dried fruits on the nose. The intensely sweet wine (265 grams/litre residual sugar) was smooth on the palate with great, rich intensity of fruit flavours showing good complexity. The Chenin Blanc grapes gave just enough acidity to balance the sweetness so it was not cloying.
I was fortunate as I was leaving to meet David Trafford. He showed me the cellar and the new clay amphorae that he intended to use for the next vintage. I marvelled at how neatly the barrels were stacked along one cellar wall and, even more so, how they were man-handled into position. Did you know that origin of the 225 litre barrel size is believed to be linked to the maximum size and weight that a man can lift? Meeting David was the icing on the cake – to use a mixed metaphor – of my visit to De Trafford. I liked the experimental nature of the winemaking, the pressing of boundaries, that has brought obvious success and both international and national recognition. He wines are not cheap (many above R300) but the quality is most definitely there – and well worthy of my 200th wine estate to have visited for tasting …
Wines tasted (bought *):
2017 Old Vine Chenin Blanc – R280
2013 Merlot – R280
2014 Cabernet Franc – R330 FAVOURITE WINE
2016 Syrah – R260
2016 Syrah 393- R550
2012 Elevation (32% Syrah, 31%Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc) – R850
2015 Chenin Blanc Straw Wine (375 ml) – R350*