Hope Lies High in the Valley
Friday 5 July 2019
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 3.5/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 3.5/5
As I headed up the tree-lined paved driveway, young vines and olive trees to the side, I tried to translate Haut Espoir in my head. It is close to 50 years since I learned French at school and I can just about get by when in France. I know that ‘haut’ means ‘high’ but ‘espoir’ puzzled. The closest I could remember was that ‘espère’ meant ‘to hope’ so I reckoned that Haut Espoir meant ‘high hope’. The winery certainly has a high setting as the expansive view opened up over the valley and towards the Hottentots-Holland Mountains beyond. I am barely 2 kilometres South West of the centre of Franschhoek but this feels like another world. I have not been before as I park and easily find the Tasting Building. It is set on the edge of the slope for the best views of the mountain surround.
The Tasting Room is vast with tables and chairs laid out, a log fire and long bar counter. There is space for many but the room is empty and I am the only guest. It is a Friday afternoon too and I wonder why. Haut Espoir has such potential. I guess there are many more well known estates closer to the town centre and North West along the R45 towards the N1. Siyanda welcomes me as I browse the tasting options. She confirmed that Haut Espoir does indeed mean ‘high hope’. The choice is simple with each wine costing between R8 and R33 to taste. The 10 wines are split into 4 ranges: the entry Signature Range that has blended wines; the Classic Range with white wines; the Flagship Single Vineyard Range of younger (2012) wines; and their older siblings in the Vinoteque Range.
I begin with the 2 Classic white wines that are made from grapes bought in from nearby Glen Wood. The single vineyard Sémillon is a pale straw colour and shy on the nose. It does not help that it is heavily chilled but as I warm the glass in my hands I can pick out lemon and lime aromas, not the classic fuller honeyed tropical ones, but the citrus style that is typical of Franschhoek Sémillon. Gentle wooded flavours, from 12 months maturation in older French oak, emerge on the palate to balance the fruits and the bright acidity.
I rated the Chardonnay, made in similar style, the same. The nose is delicate with note of apples and lemon and just a hint of wood from 5 year old recycled barrels. It makes for an elegant wine with a light creamy mouth texture and fresh acidity. Chardonnay is a minority cultivar on the Cloudfall from the Signature Range that is Sauvignon Blanc-led. I was reminded how the clouds topped the mountains when I first arrived today in Franschhoek, similar to the ‘tablecloth’ on Table Mountain in Cape Town. They have long burned off now in the winter sun. The wine showed good complexity of mostly citrus lemon and lime aromas with average intensity of flavour on the palate, for a decent value for money wine.
Haut Espoir grows red cultivars only on 8 dryland hectares of the 23 hectare farm – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Shiraz and Cabernet Franc – with the rest devoted to olives, an herb and vegetable garden and fynbos. The property has been owned by the Armstrong family since 1999 with biodynamic practices followed since 2011. Next, I tasted the sibling red blend to the Cloudfall. The Gentle Giant refers to the elephant on the mountains opposite that is clearly shown on the elegant, etched label but also visible on the opposite side of the valley. I learned too from Siyanda that Franschhoek was originally called Oliphantshoek and that the last elephant was seen in 1852. The wine is oxidised in character with a touch of volatile acidity that weakens as ripe red Merlot fruits dominate the blend – red cherries and plums, redcurrant but also blackcurrant, blackberry, prune and dried fruits. Defined tertiary flavours of earthy barnyard overcome weakened fruit flavours. The tannins are barely enough to hold the wine together and it will not last much longer.
The flagship Shiraz is a much better wine. Full bodied and showing slight colour graduation befitting its 2012 vintage, the wine is fruity and bold in character with aromas of cassis, blackberry, mulberry, green peppercorns and ageing savoury notes. Oaky cedar tannins from 30 months maturation in French oak barrels give structure and balance to the fruit flavours. I rated the Cabernet Sauvignon, the final wine of the tasting, the same. It is full bodied and deep ruby in appearance, with like big fruity nose of dark berries and currants with less of a savoury and more minty character. Classic puckering Cabernet tannins show signs of rounding with age but not at the expense of structure and balance.
Haut Espoir offered a mixed experience. The handcrafted wines were generally good but mixed in quality. Their range was limited and the prices varied. Allowing even for inflated Franschhoek prices, the flagship wines were overpriced (R400) for my preference. A wide price range can work if each collection is distinct and varied enough – I am thinking of Hartenberg here – but it did not quite work for me with just 10 wines, of which 2 were older vintages of the same wine. The tasting was affordable (R112 for the 6 wines) but I seek a greater experience when tasting R400 and R450 wines. I sense that Haut Espoir is in transition. There needs to be a focus and a reason to visit. There is space enough and perhaps winter meant I was the only guest, albeit it was a Friday afternoon. The future I am sure is bright and, for Haut Espoir, I have high hopes …
Wines tasted (bought *):
2017 Haut Espoir Sémillon – R175
2018 Haut Espoir Chardonnay – R195
2016 Signature Cloudfall (36% Sauvignon Blanc, 26% Sémillon, 17% Viognier, 14% Chenin Blanc, 7% Chardonnay) – R105
2014 Signature Gentle Giant (48% Merlot, 31% Petit Verdot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon) – R120
2012 Haut Espoir Shiraz – R400
2012 Haut Espoir Cabernet Sauvignon – R400 FAVOURITE WINE