From Greyton to Wellington, from a feisty Californian to a sultry tart

In the good old days of KWV quotas the idea of a winefarm in Greyton would have been virtually impossible, and in fact very few have realised that it might be a good idea. Even post-quota days there are inhibiting factors that would dim the ardour of many – but when you meet Samantha O’Keefe you realise that once she puts her mind to something it tends to stay put. So here she is perched on a splendid mountainside not far from the town – growing grapes and making wine for Lismore Estate Vineyards, coping with all sorts of problems, bringing up her two little boys, almost as far as it’s possible to be from her native California, and also a world away from her Hollywood executive life.

It could be that the view helps.  Stellenbosch and Constantia have their advantages, but there are surely no vineyards and no winery with quite the wide open and breathtaking views that the Lismore ones do. And the wines (first bottling was 2006) are doing pretty well too; interestingly some of the most gratifying growth in Lismore’s market, especially for the Viognier, has come via word of mouth from happy customers of the fine La Colombe restaurant in Constantia.

The current 2008 vintage of the Viognier was one of two Lismore wines I lingeringly sampled recently. Its pleasure for me came mostly with the subtlety of its aromas and flavours – this fashionable northern Rhône white variety can too often emerge relentlessly billowing from the glass. This is chewy and dense wine and the flavours persist pleasingly; as good for sipping as it is (La Colombe customers insist, and I won’t argue) with food. It must be said that it is also very powerful stuff, packing a whack of alcohol, which adds to the sweet notes. Perhaps 15/20 for me.

I actually preferred the Chardonnay 2007 (which comes partly from bought-in grapes; see my earlier discussion of the labelling implications of this). It is also a powerful wine, but less overtly so, and I particularly enjoyed the characterful harmony of its orange-peel hints, its finely fresh acidity and well-managed oaking. 15.5/20. Neither of these wines is probably for long-term keeping, but drink very well now.

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Doolhof Estate in Wellington is described in the current Platter as “bustling”, and it does seem full of energy and ambition, with marketing aggression nearly matched by determination in the cellar and vineyard. Their latest venture undoubtedly originates more in the minds of marketers than in terroir. The Dark Lady of the Labyrinth (yes, indeed) was released today at a function of the type which I wish more producers would follow: no long schmoozing lunch full of longueurs and speeches that end up occupying half a day, seated next to someone you have no desire to talk or listen to; but just all the wines elegantly set up (some good snacks available too) for invitees to taste as slowly or quickly as they wished, with staff available to intelligently answer questions.

Doolhof apparently does mean labyrinth in Afrikaans – for some reason quite obscure to me, some imaginative colonial settler decided that the hills and valleys of this pretty part were labyrinthine. If one invokes Greek mythological origins, presumably the original lady of the Labyrinth would be Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete who built the winding-passaged Labyrinth to house the bull-man Minotaur. It’s a long story (and totally irrelevant here), but Ariadne rather fancied King Theseus and helped him find his way about the Labyrinth.

Quite irrelevant, as I say, for this Dark Lady is neither Theseus’s nor Shakespeare’s, but the same person as one of Warwick’s Three Cape Ladies – pinotage. Here she’s decked in purple-crimson robes, with more than a dab of coffee and chocolate behind her ears, aspiring less to Warwick than to the starlet from Diemersfontein. And I’m not entirely sure that she’s a lady at all, if one excludes from that category those who flaunt their obvious charms to all and sundry offering her (in this case) something approaching R70. Rather more of a tart, to be frank.

Abandoning all tiring metaphor: this is a wine with soft tannins and a lot of cleverly applied toasty oak to give the mocha character that Brit writer Jamie Goode described as being something of a saviour for pinotage as it prevents wines from actually tasting like that actual “vile” grape. (Jamie’s at present judging wines for the Trophy Wine Show – not the pinotage category, one hopes, for the sake of himself and the producers). Somewhat off bone-dry, this wine is not vile, just vulgar, which is exactly what it is meant to be. Cleverly the producers offered espresso (cold!), cheesecake and chocolates to accompany the wine, and it must be said that the Dark Lady rose superbly to the challenge. Was very much more enjoyable, in fact, with a mouthful of chocolate.

In defence of Doolhof’s less marketing-led achievements, I must say that their Signatures Pinotage 2007 (costing just a little more than the tart) is a good wine that I’d defy Jamie Goode to honestly describe as vile. It was, in fact, my favourite among the line-up of Doolhof reds, though I also liked the Renaissance Cabernet Merlot 2006. A new release in the Signatures range of single-varietal wines, Malbec 2007 (R80), I found less successful: ultra-ripe flavours, and a touch hollow and insipid, with little backbone. But I must say that I heard a couple of appreciative “mmms” about it, so, as with the pinotages, there’s perhaps something for everyone at Doolhof. I suspect that’s what they’re after.

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