In early April I paid my first visit in a few years to Tulbagh – that large mountain-ringed inland basin, called the Land of Waveren by the Dutch settlers. They first saw it as early as 1658, but it was too far from Table Bay, and the way too arduous, for wine to have played a meaningful part in their early farming activities. The land is still largely devoted to cultivating fruit and grain, but this century has seen Tulbagh gaining more of a reputation for serious wine, with Rijk’s being the brave and successful pioneer here, especially with regard to reds.
Until Rijk’s came along, there were eight wineries producing wine here; now there are about double that. The Twee Jonge Gezellen estate deserves special mention, as one of the Cape’s great old domaines, claiming a grape-growing tradition back to the early 18th century. Rather sadly, it is no longer a family estate (see my story on Vinimark’s purchase a year or two back) and now the Krone family have moved off entirely (clearly the experiment of having them remain to fulfil various functions didn’t work out): but huge investments portend great things for Krone bubbly.
Saronsberg, one of the early new-wave Tulbagh wineries, comprises two farms (both historically part of neighbour Twee Jonge Gezellen), bought by Pretoria businessman Nick van Huyssteen in 2002. Winemaker Dewaldt Heyns has been here from the start, helping to design the rather fine cellar (now pushing its capacity hard it seems), and crushing his first grapes in 2004. Plantings are about half syrah, but a wide variety of other grapes are also grown, both on the Saronsberg slopes and the flatlands.
I arrived for my visit to Saronsberg on the last day of harvest. The sorting table was running, Dewaldt and his team (including a number of young interns, all local for a change, gaining serious winemaking experience) hard at work with barrels, tanks, hoses…. After a look around there, keeping my hands resolutely un-sticky, I went to the handsome, high-ceilinged and art-filled tasting room to work through the Saronsberg current releases.
Saronsberg specialises in reds and, like those of their neighbour Rijk’s, these are generally full-bodied, rich and powerful expressions of Tulbagh’s hot, sunny summers. I have to say that this is not a style of wine to which I generally incline, but I was impressed by the way that Dewaldt approaches his project. There is a purity of fruit evident on the best of them, and even a genuine gracefulness – though these are never what I would call elegant wines, as they are too robust. But think how gracefully some big men can dance, with a winning element of lightness that belies their size!
I offer some tasting notes below, but in fact the most interesting part of my visit to Saronsberg occurred in the evening while we were waiting for the braai. (The interns not on duty were there, scrubbed and happily tired and cooking the food, as well as the boss, Nick van Huysteen – it was all throroughly pleasant, on a lovely late-summer evening.) Dewaldt generously brought out a complete vertical of his rather famous Saronsberg Shiraz, from the maiden (and still very much alive) 2004 to the forthcoming 2012. This line-up revealed, I think, not only the greater complexity and interest coming from maturing vines, but also a winemaking movement towards bringing out that graceful element more often, and avoiding sweet, jammy heaviness, with the oak increasingly in balance with the fruit. The highlight was the excellent 2009, but the current release 2011 is not far behind. All these Shirazes show a mastery of tannin management (no doubt helped by the terroir – Swartland shiraz is also marked by its brilliant tannin structure).
The subtle shift in style had been earlier revealed more negatively in the oldest of the current releases, the Bordeaux-style blend Seismic 2008 – to me something of a caricature of the “typical Tulbagh” style – big, oaky, powerful, softly rich and very ripe, finishing on an emphatically sweet note.
Actually, I’m not quite sure how much future the cab-based label has at Saronsberg, where it is very obvious just how much better the Rhone/Mediterranean varieties perform. Especially, I think, when the oaking is more restrained than it usually is on the Shiraz. The Grenache 2011 shows those soft but effective tannins that to me are the hallmark of Dewaldt Heyns’s understanding of the possibilities – and demands – of Tulbagh. Even better is the Full Circle blend, which epitomises for me the best of Saronsberg: big, even bold, but with a succulent gracefulness too.
Ultimately, perhaps, a judgement on Saronsberg is going to be a stylistic choice. The quality of the work in the cellar is not to be doubted. I must add that I was happy that my last impression of my visit was that evening around the braai, observing the combined respect and friendship that the interns had for the cellarmaster; I found it easy to understand.
Some further notes
Saronsberg has just three whites. I like the MCC 2010 (R120), with its appealing appley richness and a few crumbs of baked bread on the nose; it’s full, but balanced; not exactly steely, but with some refinement. One of the better local bubblies, benefit from a little longer on less than most of them.
Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (R70) is also attractive, and typically ripe, full and well-bodied – but with freshness and echoes of citrus and blackcurrant along with the tropicality. For fairly early drinking, I’d guess.
The Viognier 2012 (R90) was less to my taste. Not over-powerful or showy, but the obvious presence of oak combined with quite a bit of residual sugar (though I think it’s technically dry, but South Africa’s generous measurement) makes it just a bit hard work. Not clumsy, but not the most refined example around.
Provenance Shiraz Rosè 2013 (R45) is a very decent example of an unpretentious, gently fruity, delicately perfumed and rather delicious lunchtime wine. Dry, if not bone-dry, with some sweet fruit lengthening the finish.
Another in the Provenance range is the Shiraz 2012 (R95); intended to be easier-going than the Saronsberg version, with, less new oak and less obvious power. A clean, rather jammy, boiled sweet, fruity nose; soft and ripe, but with just enough structure for respectability.
The big, aggressively showy aromas of Provenance Rooi 2011 (a Bordeaux style blend) made me rather nervous of even letting the wine near my tastebuds. When I gingerly did so, it proved a little less overpowering than expected, but still big and sweet-fruited: well balanced on that scale, however, but wow. I have no doubt that many people will love it, and I can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t … if that’s what they like.
Grenache 2011 (R120) From a mix of bushvine and trellised vines. 16 months, older oak. Some perfume, nicely complex nose, spicy; red-black fruit. Ripe, but tasty, tangy palate. Again pure-fruited, with very soft smooth tannins – but they are vital. Good length.
Shiraz 2011 (R185) Spicy oak still showing on nose. Full and rich, with soft but informing ripe tannins. Pretty tasty, dark fruit.deep clear fruit. Has gracefulness rather than elegance.
Seismic 2008 (R190) Still rather oaky. Ripe, plenty of showy fruit aromas and flavours. Finish a bit too sweet for (my) comfort, but with firm soft structure. Bigger and bolder than the more youthful wines in the line-up, with none of their approach to refinement.
Full Circle 2011 (R250) Again power, but some genuine complexity on the nose. In fact, not too big and forward, as the rich and powerful elements are matched with that elusive touch of grace. Rather reminiscent of a good modern Chateauneuf du Pape. Good length.