Thursday 27 June 2019
Spier, like Jordan and many other wine estates, is one I have visited several times but not for wine tasting review. I have sampled the wines before with friends, at festivals, and even enjoyed a lazy day at the Craft Market (currently closed for the winter) but not written an article for the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society. It was good therefore to visit again. It was good too to be wine tasting again having spent much of the last 6 weeks deep in Cape Wine Academy Diploma and WSET Level 3 revision and exams.
Spier lies on the R310 less than 10 kilometres to the South-East of Stellenbosch. The wine farm is easy to find and even has its own railway station opposite the entrance. It has one of the largest parking areas of any estate which is certainly needed for those visiting for wine-tasting, the Eight Restaurant, Eight to Go and picnics, craft bakery and café, Hotel and Spa, Museum, Conference Centre, Segway and walking tours, Eagle Encounters, daily Craft Market (not in winter) and more besides, particularly at peak times of the year. Being winter, with glorious sunshine, the pace was more relaxed and less hectic. I knew my way to the Tasting Centre next to the lake with gushing fountain. Entry into the large, well lit Tasting Room with its simple design and high ceiling is via a well-stocked shop complete with not only all the Spier wines but a wide range of wine and food accessories, books and crafts to tempt the tourist.
There were 3 tasting option: the Winemaker Selection (R90, 6 award-winning wines); a Chocolate & Wine Pairing (R70, 4 wines and 3 chocolates); and one wine selected from the 21 Gables, Creative Block and Seaward ranges, R40. I opted for the Winemaker Selection. Marushall was my attentive wine host or, as per her name badge, my ‘Wine Educator’. The first 4 wines were served in 2 pairings which made sense as it was good to compare the wines side by side. The first pairing was a Bordeaux-styled white blend – the Creative Block 2 – and the second a single variety Sauvignon Blanc from the flagship 21 Gables range. The Creative Block Range, named from the Spier Arts Academy and with lettering inspired by the age-old letter press, is numbered according to number of grape varieties in each blend.
Both wines were shiny pale straw (or lemon if I choose my new-learned WSET terminology). I preferred the blend, the cheaper wine, for its greater intensity and complexity. This made it the more interesting, with the Sauvignon Blanc (85%) contributing fresh acidity, lemon and lime citrus aromas and flavours, and refreshing cleanliness on the palate. The lightly wooded Sémillon offered sweeter apple and vanilla aromatic flavours together with body and creamy texture from lees contact. I liked the green style of the 21 Gables wine with its aromas of gooseberry, lemon, lime and herbaceous grassiness. It was nevertheless a simple wine by comparison with a bright freshness that made it approachable. I would have preferred more oomph and complexity for the price (R180) that made it costly for a Sauvignon Blanc.
I rated the next 2 wines, of the same range, 2016 vintage, oak treatment (18 months in 2nd fill French oak) and price, the same. It was good to taste the Creative Block 3 (Rhône-style blend) with the Creative Block 5 (Bordeaux-style blend). The ‘3’ was full bodied and deep ruby in appearance with a complexity of red and dark fruit aromas – red and blackcurrant, dark cherry, blackberry, black plum and smoky spice – that belied the large proportion of the main cultivar (94% Shiraz). The wine was lighter in mouth feel on the palate than the broody colour suggested with toasty, earthy, woody flavours emerging just to balance the smooth fruit flavours.
The slightly deeper ruby coloured ‘5’ showed more herbaceous, green character from the Cabernet Sauvignon supported by spicy sweetness from the Merlot, for a mix of plum, dark cherry and mulberry aromas. The tannins were more structured and not as soft as those in the ‘3’, as expected, but needed to be more pronounced at the finish.
The Spier estate dates back to 1692. The first owner who planted the earliest vines was a German soldier called Arnoud James who worked for the Dutch East India Company. The first grapes were pressed in 1712. It was not until 1971 that wines were first produced by Neil Joubert under the Spier label. Before then, as was custom at the time, grapes and wine were sold to the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and KWV co-operatives. The Enthoven family have owned the property since moving from London in 2004. They have restored many of the ancient buildings – 1767 wine cellar (South Africa’s oldest), 1822 Manor House, outbuildings, gardens and vegetable garden – to make Spier the combined historic and contemporary attraction it is today. Most of the wine produced is red (65%) made from 650 hectares of vines that include all the main Bordeaux and Rhône cultivars, together with Chenin Blanc, Barbera and Pinotage.
The final 2 wines were also the same price. The 21 Gables Cabernet Sauvignon was my favourite of the tasting. Less shy and more opaque than the Creative Block blends, the appearance suggested a less worked and less filtered wine that was better for it. This was a full on Cabernet Sauvignon, aided by 2 years maturation in new French oak, with a ripe fruity freshness characteristic of the stellar 2015 vintage. The aromas were more dark than red fruited – mulberry, cassis, blackberry and a hint of mint – with fruity yet fresh flavours to balance well the chewy tannins. Whilst tasting I concluded that this was an excellent Stellenbosch Cabernet for R169 only to realise that the price was R295. Quality does bring a price. Nonetheless, this is a wine that will age well and ideal to drink with food, especially dark meats.
The First Stone from the new Organic Range was a cut down Bordeaux-style blend, simply containing Merlot (60%) and Cabernet Sauvignon, and was served from a decanter. Named after the giant, ancient granite boulders that are unique to the Eerste River that flows through Spier, the blend was less heavily extracted and shinier in appearance than the 21 Gables wine. I liked the freshness of vibrant redcurrant and blackcurrant, mulberry and cherry fruit aromas on the nose that matched earthier tannins from 2 years in 55% new/45% 2nd and 3rd fill French oak.
The overall tasting was pleasant enough, albeit service a little slow, but Marushall was hardly an ‘educator’. She was polite, well presented and poured the wine efficiently. Nonetheless I would, as perhaps many a visitor, have liked to have known something about Spier itself or even the background to the 21 Gables name (I learned from the back of one of the wine labels, having kept the bottle for photos, that Spier is known for its 21 architecturally significant Dutch gables).
Spier nevertheless ticks all the right boxes: a record of excellent wines – ‘our wines are among the most awarded in the country’, the website proclaims; 300 years of history; organic farming and vineyard management; alien plant removal; 98% recycling of solid waste; social consciousness, community engagement and empowerment; a large collection of contemporary South African art and entrepreneur-friendly craft market; multiple accreditations for environmental practices and ethical business; and owner-managed by the family who still live on the farm they bought in 1993. All of this should in theory translate into superb wines but somehow it did not.
Perhaps, as I sense with some other big name wine estates that fall short of expectation – Meerendal, Waterkloof and Groot Constantia come to mind – the weight of anticipation is too great. Perhaps, the wide business focus means that wine receives a smaller share of overall attention compared with diverse other aspects (restaurant, hotel, spa, conference centre, art, craft market, eagle encounters, Segway vineyard tour, Heritage Walk and more) such is the current trend for multi-faceted ‘vinotourism’ for all the family. Perhaps, having a big reputation makes it too easy compared with energetic upstarts like Oldenburg, Holden Manz and Rainbow’s End who are pushing their way into the top flight. Perhaps, the average wine punter does not get to sample the top, award-winning wines. That said, I chose the Winemaker Selection tasting; 5 of the 6 wines were awarded 4½ Platter stars. Perhaps, a combination of all. I cannot quite put a finger on it.
To conclude, Spier is understandably and deservedly a tourist magnet with its wide range of attractions and eating options, and at premium brand tourist prices. Just like the tasting experience, there was nothing wrong with the wines. They were decent enough even though I did not taste the full range. The entry Signature Collection includes inter alia MCC and Prosecco-styled sparkling wines, Chenin Blanc, Rosé and Pinotage as well as the cultivars and blends I tasted. I left feeling that I wished for a little more creativity, complexity, power and adventure from the wines to give Spier the wow factor it deserves.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2018 Creative Block 2 (85% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Sémillon) – R110
2017 21 Gables Sauvignon Blanc – R180
2016 Creative Block 3 (94% Shiraz, 3% Mourvèdre, 3% Viognier) – R169
2016 Creative Block 5 (48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot) – R169
2015 21 Gables Cabernet Sauvignon – R295 FAVOURITE WINE
2015 First Stone Organic Red (60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon) – R295