Excellence at Gabrielskloof (1): Crystallum

Who remembers what the maiden wine released under Peter-Allan Finlayson’s Crystallum label was? I’d quite forgotten, myself, till I was checking up in old Platters guides, and there it is in the 2009 edition: Crystallum Sauvignon Blanc 2007. Given that sauvignon is hardly Peter-Allan’s favourite grape variety nowadays, and that he was the teeniest bit grumpy about having to work with the poor old grape when he took over the winemaking duties at Gabrielskloof in 2015, the reminder seems just a touch hilarious….

But Crystallum Sauvignon didn’t last long; as far as I can see the last vintage was 2009. By then, Peter-Allan was focusing exclusively on pinot noir and chardonnay: the Cuvée Cinéma Pinot and Clay Shales Chardonnay both debuted with 2008. And both are going strong.

Peter-Allan Finlayson with four vintages of Cuvée Cinéma Pinot and one of Clay Shales Chardonnay

As I was happily reminded on a recent visit out to Gabrielskloof in the Overberg – just off the N2 after Bot River, coming from Cape Town. This is now also the home of, naturally, Peter-Allan’s Crystallum brand, but also of Marelise Niemann’s Momento and of Thorne & Daughters, the range of delicate wines by John Seccombe. Frenchman Julien Schaal has been here for a while too, but is now moving to new quarters on the Paul Cluver estate (where he previously made his wine in the main cellar, before it became too cramped). John Seccombe was unfortunately unwell and unable to be there on my recent visit (along with Angela Lloyd), but we had more than enough really good stuff.

Crystallum was represented on the day by the fine Cuvée Cinéma vineyard in the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge ward. (It was thus bizarrely named, in case you don’t know, because some scenes from a movie about Napoleon were shot there the year before the vines arrived.) In fact, the pinots on this tasting were preceded by the current-release Clay Shales Chardonnay 2016, which is not from the CC vineyard itself, but for the first time from a very nearby one – previously it came from vines a little further away. Incidentally, this must have been one of the first Cape wines (perhaps the first?) to be named for the soil type on which the vines grow. Anyway, the 2016, matured only in an oak foudre (it’s a few years since any new oak was used for this wine), is extremely good. It’s rich and quite powerful, with great depths of pure, clean fruit, enlivened by an amazingly succulent, penetrating acidity.

It was a treat thereafter to have four vintages of Cuvée Cinéma Pinot Noir. The 2013 was more developed than I expected – Peter-Allan said that cork problems meant that the wine had been recorked, which might have led to an oxidative element; there was a rounded sweetness, and the wine was pleasing, if not outstanding. Cuvée Cinéma 2014 was a little shyer in its expression. Less intensity than the 2013, but plenty of flavour and some elegance; of the four we tasted, this is perhaps the one to drink now (though there’s no hurry for a few years at least).

The next vintage was a great one in the Hemel-en-Aarde, as in most parts of the Cape. Cuvée Cinéma Pinot Noir 2015 (50% whole bunch fermented) is still very youthful and unmistakeably impressive – though not in a blockbusterish sense. Lovely perfumed aromas lead to a palate with a great combo of richness and elegance, finesse and intensity. Expressive, and well balanced, with no element too obvious.

Cuvée Cinema 2016 seems to be more restrained, more delicate and at this stage slightly less perfumed. What I liked is the more obvious structuring acidity, slightly shouldering aside the subtle tannic structure that characterises these wines. I do like pinot where acidity is a more dominant structuring element than tannin.

Then came a surprise, a wine I didn’t know of. It’s also from the Cuvée Cinéma vineyard and the 2016 vintage, but partook of something of an experiment, being entirely whole-bunch fermented (as opposed to the 50% of the released wine). It doesn’t mention the vineyard on the label, but rather the defining technique, and is called simply Whole Bunch 2016. I loved it (Peter-Allan says that some people do, some don’t). The aromas are more forward, and altogether it’s more fresh and bright. The notes I scribbled say: “So full of life. Very grippy. Lightness. Predictably more tannic. Very lively.”

We did, later in the cellar, taste the infant 2017 from barrel, and on this youthful showing it’s maybe the vintage I would choose, if I were allowed to take only one: it seems to combine the ripe intensity and feeling of completeness of the 2015 with the grippy elegance of 2016.

Crystallum Cuvée Cinéma Pinot Noir is proving to be one of the finest Cape versions of this variety – which, these days, is actually saying something.

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