It was many years since I’d visited Delheim, but now it all seemed immediately familiar, and as established in my memory as in the Stellenbosch landscape. Those wonderful, enormous oaks, the occasional breathtaking distant view, the lavatories with their silly “Palazzo Pippi” notices that actually reflect not a bland designer’s concept, but someone’s (bad) taste (and someone else’s bad Italian spelling in the notice that has “Pallazzo). For Delheim remains very much a family estate.
For better or for worse, a family estate – and sometimes in the last decade or two it seemed to be for worse. In the 1980s, Delheim was one of the handful of fine wine producers that kept Cape wine in touch with vinous respectability in the dark late-apartheid days of sanctions and battening down. But then, as the Cape wine revolution gather pace in the early 2000s, Delheim simply didn’t keep up (I gather that there were some of the family problems that so often bedevil places like this); the range was too large and unfocused and the winemaking (and presumably the viticulture) a touch lacklustre.
The reason for this recent visit was the launch of Grand Reserve 2013. Delheim had been without its flagship since the 2008. (The 2009 was tasted and listed in Platter’s – noted as oaky but generously rated, in the express “hope that harmony will emerge with 5+ more years in bottle”; but the estate was less hopeful and dowbgraded it.)
This very good 2013 is 100% from cabernet, as a few of the earlier vintages had been, though there was often a smallish admixture of other Bordeaux grapes, especially merlot, and this still remains a possibility. The wine is the first flagship released that reflects the arrival in January 2012 of Reg Holder as cellarmaster and of Etienne Terblanche, in August, as viticulturist.
And it is not only the Grand Reserve that signals the positive impact of that double change (of course there might well be other stabilising factors at the estate that I’m not aware of). The whole Delheim output shows improvement – from the other wines in the Estate Range, where the Vera Cruz Pinotage and Vera Cruz Shiraz of 2013 are probably the best yet, to the very decent wines at the lower levels of ambition and price.
I worked through all these wines for Platter’s earlier this year, and it was one of the greater pleasures of my tasting experience: each wine was well placed at its level and entirely satisfactory, and all shared, in their own way, what is noticeable in the Grand Reserve: good fruit, a restraint, a modest avoidance of showiness, and a poised confidence.
At the launch, we were given eight vintages of Grand Reserve, spread over nearly 30 years. I confess I was slightly doubtful that the 1984 was still going to be in good nick, despite it being an excellent vintage. It was many years since I’d had it, but had drank it reasonably frequently in the 90s, when it was full of pleasure, one of the fairly rare splendid Cape Bordeaux wines of the time (sometimes tweaked with cinsaut) – along with Kanonkop Paul Sauer, Welgemeend, Le Bonheur, Rozendal, Rustenberg and few others. But I was wrong, for the Grand Reserve 1984, made by Kevin Arnold was drinking beautifully, full of life and quietly impressive, with gentle, resolved tannins and still some pleasing sweetness of fresh fruit.
The 2006 and 2007, made by Reg Holder’s predecessor, Brenda van Niekerk, were pretty good, I must say, but I do think that it was only when we came to the current release, the 2013, that I felt we’d reached the level of the 1984. This is a bigger, more powerful wine than the older one, and undeniably more modern: a touch lower in acid and higher in residual sugar, but actually with less new oak. It is a very good, serious wine, and a good emblem of a Delheim that is reclaiming a place in the higher strata of Stellenbosch winegrowing.