Durbanvillean elegance

It’s always pleasing when there’s an element of concordance between wines and their winemaker, and sometimes a bit disconcerting when there’s not. When, for example, Bruwer Raats (an undoubtedly large man) made big, powerful bruisers for Zorgvliet and then Delaire, that somehow seemed more appropriate than the delicate finesse of the Raats Cabernet France and Chenin Blanc … although it’s been often noticed how gracefully big men can dance.

Anyway, there’s a definite connection I find between the wines of Hillcrest Estate in Durbanville and the man who makes them, Graeme “Curly” Read. It’s a direct, straightforward likeableness, a friendliness which is reserved rather than gushing, an honesty, and a modesty that is not wildly common in the smarter parts of the winelands or in smarter wines.

The farm itself was bought in 1984 by Haw & Inglis, a construction company – initially for business premises and for the quarry, I think (it’s now a lake and you can fish in it), but then vineyards were planted, and the grapes sold to Durbanville Hills when that winery was founded. Curly (a marine biologist of all things, I think he was) turned up in 2001 and persuaded them to let him start their own cellar and make their own wines. They were persuaded and he’s been doing it ever since, though a good load of the grapes still go to Durbanville Hills.

I tasted a few of the current (and future) releases at a small function a few days back, which is where I really noticed the concordance I mentioned.

Understandably, given the origins, the Sauvignon Blanc is in some ways the standout Hillcrest wine: the 2009 (that great sauvignon vintage!) has winning, perfumed aromas, on which it’s not hard to find notes of blackcurrant, passionfruit and perhaps a very acceptable touch of sweatiness (guava, if you prefer); it’s fresh but not green, with a good natural acidity, and lightish-bodied. I suspect that it’ll be even more delicious and harmonious in another six or twelve months, and should keep happily a few years longer. It costs R70 per bottle from the farm.

I wasn’t much taken with the Merlot 2007 – but as I don’t think I much care for any Merlot I’ve ever had from Durbanville, I wasn’t all that surprised. The upside was that refinement I mentioned, expressed partly in a comparatively lowish alcohol. The downside was, well, the all-too-frequent merlot downside of a greenish tartness, with an element of acidic hardness no doubt accentuated by the partly new oak maturation – although this was generally well controlled. It should be pointed out that by no means everyone at the function on Wednesday would have agreed with my disappointment.

But when the grape is blended as the minority component in the Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot 2007, there’s a much nicer story to tell. True, there’s still a hint of herbaceousness, but here it is part of an elegant freshness, balanced by a bit of richness, and to be welcomed. The tannins are firmly gripping but not at all harsh. While the Merlot costs R125 a bottle, this is only R75 and, I think, a very good buy. If you remember and liked the style of Welgemeend in the 1990s, you might well also enjoy this a lot (though it’s not as profound or complete as those much-lamented Welgemeends).

To be released later this year is a new flagship 2008 wine to be named Hornfels (after a particular kind of rock). The aforementioned Bruwer Raats (in restrained mode) was a consultant for this wine, apparently, although it seems to me in good continuity with Curly’s Cab-Merlot. It has equal proportions of those two grapes, plus a good lot of cab franc, some petit verdot and a dollop of malbec – so, all of the big five red Bordeaux varieties. Richer and more intense than the Cab-Merlot, it is also elegant and fresh. The only problem now is that it is showing a lot of oak, which is not a good idea (was the consultant or the winemaker responsible for this uncharacteristic over-ambition, I wonder?); but perhaps it will be absorbed with another six months in bottle. I find oakiness can be very confusing with a young wine, which can change its demeanour very often, and if you don’t have any background about how the wine is likely to develop – because you’re tasting it blind or because it has no track record – it is all the more confusing.

Something else to look forward to is a planned flagship white blend of sauvignon and Semillon. The maiden vintage should be 2012.

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