ASARA WINE ESTATE & HOTEL
Tuesday 20 August 2019
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 4.5/5
Asara lies just 4 kilometres South of Stellenbosch. It was my final tasting of the day having started at Overgaauw, then DeWaal and Lovane. Security was good at the entrance before I headed up a long brick-paved drive, line with trees and neat lawns with tidy vineyards beyond, past a dam and to the Hotel buildings. Signs to the simple Tasting Room that overlooked the Cellar were clear and easy to find. Riaan looked after me during the tasting in the simple Tasting Room that overlooked the Cellar, complete with barrel tables and black and white historic photos on the walls.
Asara is a busy place. There’s the Hotel that offers a range of accommodation options; Mis en Place formal Restaurant, Sansibar Bistro and courtyard Deli; a Gin Lounge and Pool Bar; a Wedding venue and associated relaxing activities. I was here for the wine. The choice was between 3 wines for R50 or 5 wines for R75, with an extra R50 to taste the super-premium Avalon. I opted to taste all. Asara wines are grouped into 4 collections: the entry, straightforward, value for money Cape Vineyard Collection; the fruity, easy drinking Pickled Fish Collection; the mostly, single variety Vineyard Collection that forms the bulk of the Asara wines; and the Speciality Collection of individual, premium wines.
I began the tasting with 2 white wines. The first, the White Cab, is a Cabernet Sauvignon made in Blanc de Noir style using minimal skin contact. Whilst blanc de noirs are not uncommon (currently around 35 in number), white wines made from red cultivars and labelled as such – white Pinotage from Mellasat, white Zinfandel at Blaauwklippen and white Merlot from Vergenoegd – have something of a novelty value. I was keen therefore to taste the wine and give it serious consideration. It tasted more like a white wine that its Vergenoegd sibling (which showed red fruited notes) with fruity lemon, mango and tropical fruit aromas of good intensity on the nose. The acidity of the shiny pale straw wine was slightly forward on the simple, dry palate ahead of a medium length at the finish. I liked it.
The lightly wooded Chardonnay (30% barrel-fermented for 5 months with the remaining 70% vinified in stainless steel tanks) was of similar colour and with like forwards acidity. The wooded, vanilla character was more than I expected with flavours of baked yellow apple, white pear, citrus, orange peel and melted butter. The Chardonnay was simple on the palate with medium intensity and length to make for an average wine.
Red wines make up the bulk of Asara’s wines (70%). Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Pinotage, Shiraz are grown on 102 hectares of the 180-hectare estate together with Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. The remaining land is set aside for conservation and fynbos regeneration. The vineyards are just 12 kilometres from False Bay and so the vines benefit from the cooling sea breezes and a modest 120 metres to 200 metres height above sea level. There was a useful map on the wall to show the position of each block and how carefully each cultivar is matched to soil type and aspect. I liked too the soil display and its explanation of the contribution of each soil to wine character. Most soils are of decomposed granite (Oakleaf and Tukulu) that are well-drained, fertile and with high clay content and good water retention for consistent grape yields. Smaller quantities of gravelly Glen Rosa and Vilafonte soils, derived from quick-drying shale, makes for smaller vines with lower yields and more concentrated fruit.
I began with the single variety Petit Verdot from the same Vineyard Collection, no longer show on the website, which I much preferred to the Chardonnay. The Médoc grape is commonly used as a minority cultivar (around 5%) to give colour and dark fruits in Bordeaux blends. Like blancs de noir, therefore it is infrequently made into a wine by a similar number of producers. The 2011 vintage was great value at R90. The wine was full bodied as expected with its age showing by a slight watery rim to the deep, deep ruby colour. The dark fruits were equally dense with aromas of bramble, cassis, black plum and raisin with a slight floral, perfumed undertone. Ultra-dry tannins, aided by 3 years’ maturation in 10% new French oak, were high in amount but softened by their age.
I rated the red Cabernet Sauvignon (so to speak) equally highly. The bottle sported a matching taxi-cab label to the White Cab and can be bought together as a boxed set. This was typical Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon with a ripeness distinct of the 2015 vintage. Classic more-dark-than-red cassis, plum, cherry and bramble aromas were fruity in character to match the ruby red, full bodied appearance. The tannins on the palate were of enough intensity to balance the ripe fruits and 14% alcohol. I would have liked just a little greater length at the finish.
The super-premium Avalon was my favourite wine of the tasting and priced at a dizzying R1,750 per bottle. It is easy to understand the high cost when one considers how the wine is produced and that only 1,200 bottles are made. The Avalon is made in the Amarone style that is common in Valpolicella, Italy in which the grapes are dried on the vines and then in the cellar. Slow ripening of the Pinotage grapes from the highest and oldest block on the farm, together with the withdrawal of irrigation, gives a slow dehydration to contribute to concentrated, elegant flavour and spiciness. The juice is naturally fermented with the wine aged for 3 years in 30% new French/American oak (80%/20%) 300 litre barrels. This was the third vintage of the Avalon, first made in 2010. The wine had an intensely focused and concentrated nose that was almost Port-like in character, with raisin, dark fruit and Xmas cake spice aromas on the nose, that belied the 15.5% alcohol. The palate was cleaner than expected, lacking the sweetness of a Port (9.8 grams per litre residual sugar), for an extended dry and lingering mouthfeel.
I finished the tasting with 2 dessert wines, of the same 2014 vintage, that I sampled together and which were close to my favourite wines. The two made a lovely combination and an opportunity to compare 2 of the most common means of sweet wine production: straw wine and noble late harvest. The grape juices, their sugars and flavours are naturally concentrated from desiccation on the vine for Straw Wine (2014 had a heat wave during harvest) whilst infection of grapes by the Botrytis cinerea fungus has similar drying effect to make Noble Late Harvest wines.
The barrel-fermented Vine Dried Sauvignon Blanc was superb. Deep gold in colour, the wine showed impressive concentrated apricot, dried peach, mango and guava aromas on the nose with great intensity. It was extremely moreish on the palate with a luscious sweetness that was well balanced by the acidity. Chenin Blanc is prone to Botrytis in the right but rare temperature and moisture combination at harvest. Moisture-retentive Tukulu soils and a small nearby spring in one block and Glen Rosa soils in another sun-exposed block led to the right conditions for the Botrytis noble rot. The Carillon Chenin Blanc was more orange in colour than the Sauvignon Blanc, also barrel-fermented but with lees contact with a reductive, closed process (the barrels were periodically rolled). Tropical pineapple, honey and rich marmalade flavours risked being overpowered by the rich sweetness (183 grams per litre residual sugar, less than the 198 grams per litre for the Sauvignon Blanc) but were balanced by typical high Chenin Blanc acidity.
I knew little of Asara before visiting except for the White Cab. Consequently, my expectation was perhaps lower than the tasting itself. The tasting experience was straightforward and simple even allowing for the end-of-the-day timing, with relatively little detailed explanation about each wine. The extent and innovation of wines in the 2-top range of wines, particularly the Speciality Collection, were impressive. Blancs de Noir, Petit Verdot, Amarone-style, Straw and Noble Late Harvest remain relatively uncommon and so excellent to sample at one location and tasting. I liked too the excellent vineyard map and soil displays, both simple but most effective. Asara is certainly well recommended for a tasting visit – and the excellent views – if ever you are wondering where to taste in Stellenbosch. There’s so much more to enjoy than the White and Red Cabs.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2018 The White Cab – R95*
2016 Chardonnay – R95
2011 Petit Verdot – R90*
2015 Cabernet Sauvignon – R140
2012 Avalon (63% Pinotage, 37% Shiraz) – R1750 FAVOURITE WINE
2014 Vine Dried Sauvignon Blanc (375 ml) – R185*
2014 Carillon Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (375 ml) – R250