Stellenrust Eagerly Impresses
Friday 19 July 2019
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 4.5/5
Look at the Stellenrust entry in the 2020 Platter’s Guide and you will see more red than black ink, indicating wines rated 4½* and above, especially for the Super Premium (Exclusive) Range. This was not my sole reason for visiting as I much prefer to taste and make my own scores. I happened to be in the ‘Golden Triangle’ wine sub-region that lies South of Stellenbosch to the West of the Helderberg Mountains for the day, with visits planned at Hidden Valley and Alto after. Stellenrust lies midway between the R44 and the Blaauwklippen Road along a dirt road that was closed for paving when I last tried to visit a few months ago. Even today, the Stellenrust Road was only partially opened, and I had to make a small diversion.
Fluffy white clouds scudded in bright blue skies above the Helderberg peaks as I arrived that reminded me of Lesotho. Stellenrust certainly likes to impress. The Tasting Building has an expansive setting on relatively flat open ground beneath the slopes of the Helderberg. There are water features too, with one of a lady holding an ever-pouring urn that reminded me of La Motte. The stand-out is the building itself with its Roman columns standing tall at the entrance that is more opulent than pretentious. Inside, in the grand open Tasting Room, one is greeted by the cheerful sound of running water that belies the Cape drought of just a few months ago. There is scattered artwork and a central bar counter for tasting, behind which is a large glass window into the Cellar.
The Cellar Price List is just as impressive with nearly 30 wines. All but the Limited Production and JJ Handmade Artisan Winery wines were available for tasting. The choice lay between 5 wines from the entry Kleine Rust and Premium ranges (R35) or 4 wines from the Exclusive Range (R55). Before you get carried away, the Premium Range is just above entry level with wines priced at between R63 and R85. Leandre was my efficient pourer and I chose to select from both tasting options.
I started with a NV sparkling Chenin Blanc. The wine was unusual for 2 reasons: first, Chenin Blanc is rarely made into a sparkling wine in South Africa (think sparkling Vouvray in the Loire Valley, France) and, second, because it was made using the Charmat (tank) method. MCC/Cap Classique wines and champagnes, most Spanish Cava and Italian Franciacorta too, are made by the méthode champenoise method in which secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle in which the wine is sold. For this Stellenrust wine and others like it, notably Prosecco, secondary fermentation takes place in a pressurised, reinforced tank. The fermentation is arrested by cooling when the desired pressure and sweetness is reached. Riddling, dosage and disgorgement are not needed hence the low price of these wines (R85 here). The very pale wine with tiny bubbles was poured from a Prosecco-shaped bottle (the mother of the family is Italian). Fresh fruity lemon, lime, pear guava and white honey aromas gave clue to Chenin Blanc. The flavours were less intense on the palate with its moussante and lightweight feel together with low alcohol (11.5%), as expected of the style.
The next 2 wines I tasted were Chenin Blanc too, both 2018 vintage, and I sampled them together. The first was from the Premium Range and mostly made in stainless steel tanks (16% barrel-fermented in old French oak, 5 months lees contact). The shiny green-tinged straw-coloured wine, like the sparkler, showed typical Chenin Blanc aromas of fresh, lively citrus, tropical fruits and white honey of medium complexity. Light bodied and lively on the palate, the fresh acidity was not wholly integrated to overpower the fruits.
I much preferred the Barrel Fermented 54 Chenin Blanc from the Exclusive Range that was more than 3 times the price (R210 compared with R63). The grapes come from the Bottleray Hills region from 54-year old bush vines, hence the ‘54’ in the name. Much deeper in colour than the Premium wine, as expected from 8 months natural fermentation in 90% French/10% Hungarian oak, the wine showed far more intensity on the nose whilst retaining freshness. The citrus and fruit salad flavours were complemented by those of vanilla for a weightier and better-balanced palate, albeit with slight acid aftertaste to the medium finish.
Stellenrust was established in 1928, shortly after winemaking started at nearby Alto. The family-owned estate is one of South Africa’s largest with 200 hectares of the 400 hectares under vine. Half of this is in the Golden Triangle with the remaining half in the Bottleray Hills area North-West of Stellenbosch. Half of Stellenrust’s wine production is red with the other half mostly white (40%) with some rosé (10%). All the major French cultivars are grown together with Pinotage, Cinsault, Grenache Noir and Muscat d’Alexandria.
The next wine was the only one I tasted from the Kleine Rust Range, that belongs to the 70 permanent workers. The Pinotage Rosé was an almost perfect pale pink colour for a rosé, from just 6 hours skin contact. The wine was simple for its style with fresh strawberry aromas and little else, a light palate with modest depth and finish. Nonetheless, it was very drinkable and good value for R48.
All the remaining wines I sampled came from the Exclusive Range. The Wild Yeast Barrel Fermented Chardonnay was my favourite of the tasting. It had a slight green tinge to the light, shiny straw colour, unusual for a Chardonnay, that led to a beautifully wooded nose (aided by 12 months in 30% new French barrels). The aromas of lemon, lime, melon, apple and vanilla were vibrant, inviting and of good intensity. It was the best-balanced wine with medium+ length and a creamy smoothness on the palate. Barrel-fermentation clearly helped to give a rounded feel to give a wine with integrated flavours and acidity.
I will always taste a Cabernet Franc and especially if from the stellar 2015 vintage. The wine was a deeper ruby colour than most and full-bodied in appearance. The perfumed aromas were typical of the cultivar with prominent sour red cherry notes ahead of those of red and black currant, together with black tea, tomato leaf and tobacco rather than green herbs, to suggest that the grapes were de-stemmed and not whole bunch pressed. The palate slightly disappointed as I had expected a greater fruit intensity for the vintage. It needed more fruity richness to hold onto the oak flavours (18 months in 225 litre French oak barrels).
I liked the Peppergrinder’s Shiraz that was made in similar lean style to the Cabernet Franc. The nose was predictably darker and spicier with aromas of blackcurrant, mulberry, blackberry fruits and pepper spices. The palate was better balanced between the closed, green tannins – from a long 20 to 24 months maturation in French oak – and the fruit flavours, with medium length.
I ended the tasting with a Noble Late Harvest made from a rare combination of Chenin Blanc and Muscat d’Alexandria, from old Bottleray Hills bush vines (50 and 70 years, respectively), that is blended after separate fermentation for 12 months in barrels. The dessert wine is the only wine carrying the original 1928 label and was served in a small 150 ml tasting glass. Although the wine contained both cultivars in equal amounts, the grapey Muscat aromas came to the fore ahead of those of honeyed, tropical fruit salad from the Chenin Blanc. The sweetness on the palate (Residual Sugar of 122 g/l) was admirably restrained to well match the 11.0% alcohol and fresh medium intensity fruitiness. It was an excellent wine with which to end the tasting.
Meanwhile, the blue sky that had greeted me a few hours earlier had gone as the grey clouds merged and lowered. My enthusiasm for Stellenrust had not dimmed. The collection of wine covers all the basic styles and varieties and with good price separation between the individual ranges. I admittedly dislike lower middle ranges being called ‘Premium’ (it also happens at Vrede en Lust) but that is a minor observation. On the plus side, the tasting fees were reasonable and very competitive. I was able to taste 8 mostly very good wines in 5 styles and that does not happen at every tasting by any means. It was good too to sample Chenin Blanc in so many guises and price points. I bought a rare White Cinsault too that was not for tasting. Quality and price correlated well with successive improvement for each price increase through the wine ranges. The motto on every bottle summed up my experience well: ‘Where Excellence Meets Winemaking’.
Wines tasted (bought *):
NV Sparkling Brut Chenin Blanc – R85*
2018 Chenin Blanc – R63
2018 Barrel Fermented 54 Chenin Blanc – R210
2018 Wild Yeast Barrel Fermented Chardonnay – R160 FAVOURITE WINE
2017 Series Rare White Cinsault – R260* (not tasted)
2019 Pinotage Rosé – R48
2015 Cabernet Franc – R150
2016 Peppergrinder’s Shiraz – R180
2016 Chenin d’Muscat Noble Late Harvest (375 ml) – R150