A remarkable number of the Cape’s top wines in the last decade or so come from vineyards that previously fed the producer cellars’ vast blending tanks. Go back a bit further and the same thing is true of more wines, and of many entire estates. Such change is certainly one of the most important indicators of national progress in winemaking – especially given the far too heavy preponderance of cooperative cellars in South Africa.
How much more potentially brilliant wine is getting lost in the bulk wines getting turned out in such vast, dispiriting and cheap volumes? Little by little we’re finding out; but slowly, and there’s a very long way to go.
Nina-Mari Bruwer of Mont Blois in Robertson is, happily, doing her bit. Some oldsters might remember a Mont Blois muscadel – joined for a mere few years from 1989 by a chardonnay and a “blanc fumé” sauvignon blanc. But for a long time now the fruit off Mont Blois’s three farms has gone elsewhere, as bulk wine or grapes – although at least some has been delivered to a few smart addresses for making both sparkling and still wines under well-known labels. On the whole, in fact, Robertson (along with the rest of the Breede River Valley) has made little in the way of a new contribution to the revolution in Cape wine this century – with Lourens van der Westhuizen’s Arendsig one honourable exception, and I think Lourens’s example and influence is starting to have an effect.
Nina-Mari is married to Ernst Bruwer, the sixth generation of his family to own Mont Blois; she’s been there nine years now, and for a brief while was involved in making bulk wine at the farm. She’s both a qualified winemaker and a Cape Wine Master, and this situation wasn’t enough for her. Many decades’ experience have revealed the “pockets of greatness” on the farm, as she points out, which helped her project. Some rows of vines were set aside for her (“and received TLC to the extreme”), and she got a corner of the cellar in which to work. “Our winery was built in 1884”, she says. “It’s big and nothing special to see. The part I make my wines in is very primitive – back to basics I would say.”
Now Nina-Mari has just released her maiden vintage, under the revived Mont Blois label (dormant for nearly 30 years) – and they are something of a revelation of possibility.
There are two 2016 chardonnays named for their different vineyard origins – all Nina-Mari’s bottlings are registered as estate wines and single vineyards. Kweekkamp is off limestone soil. It’s ripe and fairly rich, but clean and fresh with notes of red and yellow citrus (rather than lime, say), with a bright integrated acidity giving an important element of leaner elegance amongst the tight-packed fruit. Intense and long, and impressive. Fermentation was half inoculated, half spontaneous (the 2017 was all natural ferment).
Hoog en Laag Chardonnay was made in the same way, but is off red Karoo clay soil, and has a different character entirely – less citrusy, more nuts (almond marzipan), white peach, spice; a little more exuberantly obvious in its appeal but I thought its acidity a touch less well integrated (unlike Kweekkamp, a little acidification was needed here) – at least at this stage; these chards both have a good few years of development ahead of them I should say.
Interestingly, and inexplicably to me or to Nina-Mari, both are quite golden in colour, usually suggesting either oxidative ageing or new oak; in fact they were just a year in second- and third-fill barrels.
The third wine is a chenin, made in a very similar way: Groot Steen (the name of the 30-year-old vineyard on alluvial soil). Its most enticingly aromatic, with layours of aromas and flavours and its easy to find such things as spice, apricot, quince…. Again rich and ripe but balanced and fresh. A really attractive wine.
These whites are by no means cheap at around R295, but the quality is there (signalled by being individually packed in wooden boxes). Chenin is a more competitive market, of course, but especially the chardonnays are fair enough value these days.
No reds – yet, but a 2016 from pinotage and cabernet is still in barrel. There had to be a muscadel, however, and in fact there are two, also 2016s, also with single vineyard origins (about R240 per 500 ml bottle). They’re both on the lighter-feeling side of muscadel, clean and uncloying and even with nicely dry finishes; both delightfully silky. I confess I haven’t had much trouble in lowering the levels of my bottles over some winter evenings, though I’m not an inveterate muscadel fancier. Harpie – from a harp-shaped block which is often misty and comparatively cool – has floral, litchi and mint humbug notes, compared to the burnt orange and marmalade that, for me, characterised the Pomphuis.
So – a very welcome return from Mont Blois. It’s very good to see some more high quality wines emerging from Robertson, and Nina-Mari Bruwer is full of keenness to build the brand that she’s made such a fine debut with. Lots of plans – including a dry muscat (oh, I do hope so, especially having recently enjoyed the utterly winning version that Adi Badenhorst made for the CWG Auction a year or two back). New plantings include grenache blanc and chenin bushvines – apparently the only bushvines in Robertson. And, says Nina-Mari, “we are restoring two old potstills, which used to stand on our stoep …. We hope to distill our own spirits to fortify with in future and even make some brandy. Who knows. Possibilities are endless.”
I look forward to seeing more of Mont Blois’s possibilities realised.
I don’t think the Mont Blois wines are yet available by retail, but there are contact and order details on the website, if you want to make an enquiry.