KLEIN KAROO KARUSA!
Friday 27 December 2019
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 3/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 3/5
Road trips are always fun and none more when totally unplanned. I left home on Christmas Day for my first Route 62 trip only to return on New Year’s Day. Starting via Montagu from Cape Town, the empty road took me all the way to Jeffrey’s Bay with each night booked only on the day of travel. I thought I’d be able to find some new tastings along the way and so I did: De Krans and Bramon in Calitzdorp and Plettenberg Bay, respectively, but also Karusa. It will not surprise if you have never heard of Karusa. I had not either until I ventured to Oudtshoorn to explore the Kango Caves.
The winery is listed in the Platter’s 2020 Guide though no wines are reviewed. The property boasts 8 hectares of small parcels of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Red Muscadel, Pinotage, Shiraz and Touriga Nacional. That is an impressive list of Mediterranean cultivars for such a small area under vine. It explains the wide styles and quality of wines made. They range from the Karoo Classique Collection of Non-Vintage Brut Chardonnay and Brut Pinot Noir Rosé – they can hardly be called Cap Classique! – to the Liqueur Collection that includes a Red Muscadel, a Cape Port, White Jerepiko and an Oloroso Sherry. Now that is reason enough to visit to taste, let alone the change to savour Wines of Origin from Klein Karoo, Outeniqua and Kango Caves. Three ranges of tables wines lie between: the Lifestyle Collection of ‘highly fruity and light wines perfect for a summer lunch’; Terroir Specific Collection with ‘complex and individualistic wines with a sense of place’; and the Reserve Collection of ‘flagship wines for the deserving enthusiast’. There is the Klein Karoo’s first full grain micro-brewery (6 bottle-conditioned beers), tapas restaurant’, a deli and 35 hectares of stone-fruit orchards too.
Karusa means ‘land with little water’ in Khoi-San which well describes the semi-arid plateau of the Klein Karoo. The family operated and managed wine and fruit farm nestles in the Swartberg Mountain foothills, conveniently en route to Kango Caves. The property was bought in 2004 by winemaker Jacques Conradie and 3 business partners. The deep well-drained rocky soils suit the vineyards, located on South-facing slopes (to minimizes the risk of sunburn and jammy wines, aided by a North-East/South-West row orientation) at between 440m and 540m above sea level.
Unsurprisingly for the seasonal time of year and lack of nearby vineyards, Karusa was extremely busy. The grand stone entrance led to a full car park beside rows of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines (unusually netted on the bottom of the rows, I imagine preventing bird damage) below a sloping lawn that led to the Tasting Room beside the Cellar. The late-1800 Victorian-style tasting building opened out to a wine garden at the rear. With almost 20 wines to pick from I chose the ‘Signature Tray’ tasting that included a selection of 5 red wines (R50) from each of the table wine collections.
First, was The Warm Climate from the Lifestyle Collection. The blend is made mostly from Grenache for ‘white spice and red fruits’ with lesser amounts of Shiraz to add ‘backbone and darker fruit’ together with Mourvèdre to give ‘elegance and complexity’. The deep ruby coloured wine – unusually dark for a Rhône style blend – showed mostly dark fruits of plum, currant and cherry on the nose. Toasty, coffee rather than spicy aromas, suggestive of oak chips, were the dominant aromas. The GSM was simple on the palate which I did not expect from the combination of 3 cultivars, with a full body, medium+ acidity and a short finish.
I much preferred the deep purple Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon, also a Lifestyle wine, due to its better nose of juicy ripe bramble cherry and plum fruits. The dry Shiraz-led wine was almost too dark in colour (70% Shiraz) with bold tannins meeting the big fruits to balance 14% alcohol, albeit with a modest finish. This definitely was a food wine.
The single variety Terre Noir Syrah, costing nearly double and from the Terroir range, was another big wine and far from the elegant, refined styles that are winning top awards in the Cape Winelands. This was an old-fashioned big, juicy ripe Syrah – more aptly named a Shiraz – with bold aromas of cassis, dark plum, cherry, blackberry and black pepper. Dry earthy structured tannins and a medium+ acidity helped balance the weight of the hearty fruits. I would have preferred more length at the finish.
Jump a level and double the price again and the flagship, limited production 5th Element was the next wine, also mostly Syrah (5% added Viognier). The improved quality showed and notably by the harmonious balance between juicy black plum and dark cherry fruits, the relatively high alcohol (14%) and bright acidity. The feel on the palate was full and weighty that matched the fruity 2015 vintage. Even so, more complexity and length would have better justified the R285 price.
I ended with my favourite wine of the tasting. It was also made from the rarest variety, Petite Syrah. Not a true Syrah but a cross between French Peloursin and Syrah, it is also known as Durif. The cultivar is grown in fewer than 15 South African vineyards and just 0.2% by vineyard area. This is not a wine for the faint hearted due to its inky, brooding purple colour and dense tannic structure. Simple jammy bramble fruits filled the nose with limited complexity to give way to dry, earthy, firm tannins on the palate. The balance was good and the length the best of the tasted wines.
I asked to sample the Oloroso Sherry, the first South African sherry I have tasted, before leaving. The fortified wine, unusually made from Viognier, essentially was a white port that had been naturally oxidised in the absence of flor by early fortification and made in three-quarter filled barrels. The nutty and perfumed nose tantalised with floral notes of dried apricot, peach, marmalade together with walnuts and almonds. The texture was soft and rich. I liked it and wish now that I had bought a bottle, having at the time slightly baulked at the R280 price. I should have made a holiday purchase.
I am conscious that I did not see Karusa at its best. It was mid-afternoon and the winery restaurant and tasting room were overloaded with guests. The service suffered. I waited almost an hour for my tray of 5 wines that arrived with no description of tasting host to add to the experience, hence the probably atypical 3/5 Experience rating. I introduced myself to winemaker Jacques Conradie but he was working flat out making pizzas in the kitchen, clearing tables too in between serving hungry families. With more time I would have liked to have sampled more of the extensive range of nearly 20 wines. I fully expect both the quality of service and the wines to improve when I next visit. Meanwhile, I applaud Jacques and his business colleagues for taking the risk by growing vines and making wines in a new region. It will be interesting to see how the wines improve and develop in the coming years.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2018 The Warm Climate (50% Grenache, 30% Shiraz, 20% Mourvèdre) – R67
2018 Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon (70% Shiraz, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon) – R75
2018 Terre Noir Syrah – R135
2015 The 5th Element (95% Syrah, 5% Viognier) – R285
2016 Double Black Petite Sirah – R135* FAVOURITE WINE
2016 Oloroso Sherry – R280