Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 3.5/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 4/5
Villiera was the last tasting of my day out to the North of Stellenbosch having tasted at Morgenhof, Quoin Rock, Laibach and Slaley. Just off the R304 and close to the N1, it was an ideal last port of call on my way back to Cape Town. The entrance was easy to find and led to the small car park via an attractive avenue of trees with vineyards on either side. It had been a dank day and it showed even more so against the tan and dark brown Cellar and Tasting Buildings in the soon to fade winter light.
I made my way into the Tasting Room – or rather the ‘Wine Sanctuary’ – as it is now called following extensive renovation by architect Rick Stander and interior designer Liesel Rossouw. The modern feel with its bright LED lighting and artworks provided quite a contrast to the outside that was offset by the olive green uniforms of the serving staffs. Lee was my attentive host who advised the tasting options which, besides MCC/Nougat and pre-bookable MCC/Chocolate Pairings (R120 and R130, respectively), were a choice between a Reserve Wine Tasting (6 top wines for R110) and the Standard Tasting (any 6 wines from the Villiera White/Red Ranges, MCC Range and Domaine Greer Range for R40. I opted for the Standard Tasting which, at current, increasing tasting fee amounts, was a bargain.
I decided against tasting any of the MCC Range as I had tasted many sparkling wines before at the annual PicknPay Stellenbosch Festival and at the Stellenbosch Street Soirée. I began with 4 Villiera whites which I sampled in pairs for comparison. First up were 2 Sauvignons Blanc, one unwooded and one wooded. The regular wine, made from Elgin grapes, was made in classic New Zealand style with pungent and intense green herbaceous, bell pepper, lemon and lime notes with a good intensity. The bright acidity was almost too bracing slightly to offset the balance and to mask the fruit intensity. This was a classic green style Sauvignon Blanc and priced at the right level (R79).
The Bush Vine Blanc Fumé slightly confused by its name since Blanc Fumé is a term associated with a Sauvignon Blanc and Bush Vine mostly refers to Chenin Blanc. The Sauvignon Blanc grapes come from a single dry land block on the farm and were part fermented in concrete eggs before the juice was racked to 50% new/old French barrels for the remaining fermentation but without malolactic fermentation to preserve freshness. The result was a deeper coloured straw wine with warmer, sweeter lemon, lime and slight vanilla aromas on the nose. The acidity on the palate was far better integrated for a fuller and more balanced wine.
My second flight, so to speak, were 2 Chenins Blanc. The regular wine (35% fermented in oak with 2 months ‘sur lie’ before bottling) was the weaker – and cheaper – of the 2 wines. Made in lemon citrus style, there was some ripeness and bright acidity on the palate but little of the expected Chenin richness or fruitiness. The Traditional Barrel Fermented wine was far better with defined aromas of lemon, pineapple, pear and white honey aromas on the nose of good intensity. Made from one block of bush vines and 2 trellised blocks, the grapes were part whole bunch pressed (35%) with the remainder de-stemmed. Malolactic fermentation was limited to 40% of the juice to give freshness and the wine fermented for 7 months in new/2nd fill French barrels. This made for a more complex wine with honeyed fruits on the palate that became more prominent at the finish, albeit the acidity was a little too forwards and fresh for my preference.
Villiera has been family owned since being started by cousins Jeff and Simon Grier in 1983, with 4 family generations being involved in the poultry and then wine business since the 1920s. It remains one of the largest private wineries in South Africa with 180 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinotage on the 400 hectare property, grown in equal amount (50% white. 50% red). Villiera specialises in MCC (45% production) that was developed in the mid-1980s via a 10-year partnership with Jean-Louis Denois, a Champagne specialist. Woolworths and Marks & Spencer, locally and in the UK, are major clients. White and red wines take minor positions (30% and 25%, respectively).
Villiera has a keen environmental awareness and eco-friendly ethos that pervades the viticulture and the winemaking: the winery was the first switch to solar power in 2010 and has one of the largest privately owned solar panel installations in South Africa; rainwater is harvested; natural pest control, water conservation, indigenous tree planting and the use of 35 owl boxes are standard practice in the vineyards; game drives are available to guests in an electric game viewer; and the farm is home to the Pebbles Project charity that educates and enriches the lives of disadvantaged families and children from the Wineland farming communities. These initiatives all feature as ‘back label’ stories on the Villiera wines: Natural Energy; the Duck and the Snail; the Villiera Family; Wisdom; Unlocking Nature; Carbon Footprint; Leave an Impression; Doing Things Slowly; and Sustainable Farming.
The red wines were next and I selected a comparison tasting of 2 Merlot. The Villiera Merlot was ruby red in colour and just full-bodied. Red berry and currant fruits showed limited complexity on the nose together with some mixed spices. The wine was not well balanced on the palate. Fruit flavours fell away to be dominated by flavours of cedar, with tight, astringent tannins and a bright acidity. I much preferred the flagship Munro Merlot – Munro is the second name of all the men in the Grier family – that was made from selected old vines and aged for longer in newer French barrels (18 months in 50% French oak compared with 10 months in 75% old barrels). The resultant wine was fuller bodied with much more intense red and dark cherry, currant and plum aromas with liquorice. The tannins were nonetheless bold and taut but better balanced by the richer fruit flavours.
Villiera invested in a 22 hectare vineyard in the Roussillon region in Southern France in 2006. The vineyards grow Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Chardonnay and Maccabeu (more commonly used to make White Rioja and Cava in Spain). Selected wines from the Domain Grier Collection are available for tasting and purchase, both in the tasting Room and online. The wines sport elegant white, grey or black labels with a simple and stylish silver pattern in which the fleur-de-lis meets Africa.
The Alba is a white Grenache blend and mostly (80%) the least known Grenache Gris. This is a pink skinned mutation of Grenache Noir, important in Roussillon, and more perfumed that Grenache Blanc. Grenache Blanc, which makes up the remaining 20% of the Alba, is a mutation of Grenache Noir. The vines are grown as field blends and the grapes co-fermented. The juice is barrel fermented with malolactic fermentation before undergoing 8 month maturation in oak. The wine showed a good intensity of fresh citrus, honey and peach/apricot stone fruit aromas on the nose. Fresh, bright and integrated acidity well balanced layered fruity flavours together with subtle citrus, almond and herb flavours. The fruitiness surprised for an Old World wine and for the Mediterranean climate. I liked it.
I tasted the Odyssea from Domaine Grier too. I felt this to be a South-East France equivalent of a Rhône blend but, instead of being Grenache-led with Syrah and Mourvèdre, the blend was mostly Syrah (50%) with Carignan and Grenache (30% and 20%, respectively). This made for an interesting wine and was my favourite wine of the tasting. The nose was bright and forwards, slightly atypical for an Old World wine, with aromas of red cherry, red plum, cranberry and definite pepper spice. The palate showed a much more Old World character with garrigue herbal and savoury flavours to complement more bitter fruits and right tannins, aided by limited ageing in old oak.
My last wine was a single variety Grenache (Noir) that also showed a good fruity intensity on the nose. The red cherry and red plum aromas with their smoky and pepper spice complexity, together with the pale ruby and medium-bodied appearance, could easily have made me mistake the wine for a Pinot Noir in a blind tasting. Grenache can be thought of a beefed-up Pinot Noir with a fuller body, more tannins and higher alcohol but with lower acidity. Oaky tannins came to the fore on the palate, held up by the fruit flavours, and good acidity for a clean palate.
Villiera made a good final tasting of the day. I had just enough time to taste the wines I wanted although the Cellar door was locked so I could not do the self-guided walkthrough on this occasion. The tasting experience was adequate and I would have liked to have heard more of the green and social credentials as that is a story worth hearing at a tasting. Further, the quality of the wines varied which always make an overall rating difficult, especially since I chose not to taste any of the MCC. I much preferred the wines priced over R140 which included the interesting and unexpected Domain Grier collection and so, on balance, I have rated a slim 4/5 for the wines. The investment in Roussillon shows the pioneering nature of Villiera and the Grier family which makes me interested to follow future developments and vintages. The future certainly seems green.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2018 Sauvignon Blanc – R79
2017 Sauvignon Blanc Fumé – R150
2018 Chenin Blanc – R65
2018 Traditional Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc – R143
2016 Domaine Grier Alba (80% Grenache Gris, 20% Grenache Blanc) – R199*
2016 Merlot – R86
2017 Monro Merlot – R199
2015 Domaine Grier Odyssea (50% Syrah, 30% Carignan, 20% Grenache) – R141 FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Domaine Grier Grenache – R136*
HARTENBERG WINE ESTATE
Saturday 29 June 2019
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4.5/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 4.5/5
I have greatly enjoyed Hartenberg wines at successive Stellenbosch Wine Festivals, the Shiraz & Charcuterie Festival and at a Steele Wines Trade Show but I have never visited the estate itself for tasting. It has been a wait of 2 years so I was pleased again to be in the Bottleray Road area, North-West of Stellenbosch. My plan was to visit Hazendal and Fort Simon before going to Hartenberg for lunch and wine tasting. At last!
I nearly missed the entrance in my excitement before heading up the paved road through winter vines with detailed signs for each block. A low stone wall gave clue to the free draining soils on the North, West and East facing slopes of the Bottleray Hills that bring either morning or afternoon sun to the varietals. I parked above the Tasting, Restaurant and Cellar historic buildings with their quintessential white washed walls and heritage green painted windows.
The walk to the Tasting Room is past a slave bell and down a flight of steps. Slave bells remain on many of the Cape’s wine estates and, as I paused to look, I was unsure of the ‘monument’. Slave bells were brought from Europe to regulate and control the routine of slaves for 180 years until slavery was abolished in the Cape 180 years ago. There is a fine balance between retaining the history of a nation and modern day diversity, inclusiveness and sensitivity. Witness, for example, the name changes of countries, regions and streets; removal of the Cecil Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town following pressure from the #rhodesmustfall campaign born out of the 2015 #feesmustfall movement; or even last week’s decision by Nike to withdraw the special 4th July edition of the Max 1 trainer that featured the Betsy Ross flag. The two needs do not always sit together in balance -especially when symbols can be hijacked by others for other needs long after their original purpose – and so I make a mental note to return to the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum in Cape Town.
I was reminded of the history of winemaking at Hartenberg by a 1920 piston wine pump as I make my way for tasting. The estate dates back to 1692 when settler friends Cunraad Boin and Christoffel Esterhuizzen were given permission to farm 20 hectares of land. They cleared it to plant 2,000 vines (I wonder what cultivar?). Christoffel was granted the title deed for ‘Het Hartenberg’ twelve years later, in 1704, by Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel. The property was planted with 10,000 vines by 1718 to produce 4 leggers of wine. A legger is an Old Dutch unit of liquid capacity used by the East India Company, equivalent to around 575 litres in today’s measure. Ownership of Hartenberg changed hands many times during the next 260 years, including by the Finlayson and the Gilbey families, until Ken Mackenzie purchased the estate in 1987, 2 years after launch of the Hartenberg flagship brand. Today, 85 hectares of the 187 hectare property are under vine, growing Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz from which the wines are made. Production is mostly red (80%) with Hartenberg famed for its Shiraz.
I chose to sit inside the Restaurant-come-Tasting Room rather than outside in the Courtyard Garden or small Tasting area beneath. The Tasting Room shares the same space as the Restaurant (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays) to make for a warm and cosy environment to relax in and to enjoy the wines, with its log fire, yellowwood tables, riempie chairs and terracotta tile floor. There were several winter specials on the menu to tempt. I ordered a very tasty and filling beef ‘Hartenburger’ that was excellent value for R120 and came with crisp potato wedges. There were 2 wine tasting options: the Premium Wine Tasting, R50 for 5 wines from the Premium Range; or the Super Premium Wine Tasting, R150 for a set tasting of 5 of older vintages of the best wines, including the Flagship Gravel Hill Shiraz. I opted for the former. Roderick was my attentive and very knowledgeable host who, seeing my obvious interest in the wines, generously allowed me to taste from both ranges.
I enjoyed the white wines in 2 paired flights to compare. First, were the dry and off-dry Riesling. Both wines were a similar shiny pale straw colour in appearance and contained 13% alcohol. The dry wine showed typical Riesling diesel notes balanced with lemon/lime citrus, delicate white honey and floral aromas. These followed through for a fresh, green, acidic palate with a medium finish. The off-dry wine, picked later and with longer skin contact for a more concentrated, acidic must, offered like lemon/lime notes but sweeter and with less pronounced diesel on the nose. The body was noticeably fuller on the palate with a greater intensity of flavour than the dry wine, with the extra sugar (20 gram/litre compared to 5 gram/litre residual sugar) deftly balanced by the higher acidity to maintain freshness.
Second, was Chardonnay from the two different ranges. They were of like pale-medium straw colour and both barrel fermented and matured. The Estate wine, blended from 4 blocks of vines, was shy on the nose with aromas of lemon, lime, yellow apple and buttery vanilla. The smooth mouthfeel and light style made for a Chardonnay with a delicate elegance albeit limited complexity. Unsurprisingly the Super Premium Eleanor at nearly 3 times the price, made from a single block and named after matriarch Eleanor Finlayson, showed a greater intensity and complexity on both nose and palate. The wine was richer and weightier with much better length, aided by longer ageing in a smaller proportion of new French oak (13 months in 25% new/75% old oak compared with 11 months in 34% new/66% old oak). I preferred the Eleanor.
It was soon time to enjoy the red wines on which Hartenberg’s reputation is built. I started with two well made Estate wines of 2016 vintage, a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines were distinct and characteristic of the cultivar. I liked the Merlot most for its vibrant red cherry and red plum fruited nose, complemented by sweet spice and cigar, that well followed through to give a good intensity of flavour and classic silky Merlot tannins.
The Cabernet Sauvignon substituted spicy sweetness for more herbal, minty flavours, red fruits for fresh dark fruits – blackcurrant, blackberry and mulberry – and tannic silkiness for cleaner, textured yet angular and youthful structure in which the fruits did not balance the tannins as well as for the Merlot.
I sampled the Estate Shiraz beside the Stork Shiraz which, like the Chardonnay had a three-fold price difference. The Estate wine, from grapes grown on rocky sandstone soils, was a classic, lighter styled Shiraz with medium purple colour, fresh cherry, plum and mulberry fruits, a tinge of greenness and white peppercorn on the nose together with a delicate and balanced palate.
The Stork, which I had previously tasted elsewhere, was a step up in all wine criteria. Named after WWII fighter pilot Ken ‘Stork’ Mackenzie, so-called because of his long thin spindly legs, the wine was deeper and more intense in appearance. As fruity as the Estate, the wine was more vibrant, less green in character and with a leathery smokiness to the darker fruits of black cherry, dark plum and cassis with their cinnamon and pepper spice aromas. Slower ripening grapes from the single vineyard on cooling clay soils meant that the latest of harvests brought a rich, ripe fruitiness of flavour that superbly balanced tannic grip and structure on the palate.
The Stork was my favourite wine until Roderick persuaded me to end with a tasting of the flagship Gravel Hill Shiraz, double the price of The Stork at a dizzying R1300 per bottle. I needed little persuading as he poured me a glass using a Coravin to maintain wine quality once opened. I had a new favourite wine. The wine, made from grapes from the small and unusual ‘gravel hill’, was first made in 1978. It develops very slowly and is labelled only after 5 years, this being of 2006 vintage. The unique geology rests on concentrated iron laterite ‘koffie-klip’ stone underlain by fine, deep clay. The combination gives water retention in the wet winter whilst just enough of a reservoir for summer moisture to limit vine vigour.
The Gravel Hill was the fullest bodied wine of the tasting with a rich and deeply intense nose of brooding blackcurrant, mulberry, bramble, ripe plum and white peppercorn. The wine, like all classics of supreme quality, had a freshness that belied its age. Power, focus and concentration were the hallmarks of the palate that was smooth, intense and perfectly balanced. Intriguingly, and testament to its quality, I could drink this wine alone as much as with food.
Hartenberg was well worth the wait, as I had much expected. The wines were all extremely well made, with good cultivar definition, and priced at the right level for their quality. I liked the wide price range (from R95 for the entry Alchemy Range, which I did not taste, to a stratospheric R1300 for the Gravel Hill) that meets those of every budget. The experience was good too with pleasant setting where it was easy to enjoy simple home-made food whilst sampling the wine. I could easily have chosen any item off the lunch menu. Sadly, I did not think of visiting the underground cellar, the largest privately owned of its kind in South Africa, but that just gives me an excuse to return. This I shall. I recommend that you also do so. Oh, and bring a friend or two for lunch at the same time.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2017 Riesling (dry) -R120*
2017 Occasional Riesling (off dry) – R120*
2016 Estate Chardonnay – R140
2016 The Eleanor Chardonnay – R375
2016 Estate Merlot – R200
2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – R200
2016 Estate Shiraz – R200
2016 The Stork Shiraz – R700
2006 Gravel Hill Shiraz – R1300 FAVOURITE WINE