On my last visit, nearly a year ago, the long and winding road up the lower Schapenberg slopes to the winery and restaurant at Waterkloof was potholed and very rough. And Werner Engelbrecht was making wines in a splendid new cellar (with one of the biggest arrays of wooden fermenters you’re likely to find) that still smelt a little of cement, and he was having to cope with the building of the adjacent restaurant.
Now, the road is tarred (the millions that it cost must be a very small, if useful, part of the investment in this magnificent property), and Werner merely has a difficult 2010 vintage to cope with. The restaurant is finished, and serving very good meals, to judge by the excellent lunch I had there recently with Werner and the estate’s owner, Paul Boutinot – the Manchester-based wine importer, distributor and producer, himself the son of a successful restaurateur. (He was described to me by a Brit Who Knows as deeply respected in the trade there, and “something of a loner – in the best possible sense”.)
The view of the uncompromising building hanging off the hillside is most impressive, and the view from it even more so – over an admittedly scruffy urban landscape to nearby False Bay in one direction, and over the manifold slopes of the Waterkloof vineyards in another. But more impressive to me was fully coming to realise just what Waterkloof means. Talking to Paul Boutinot, it was borne on me that this is perhaps the most significant investment that there has yet been in Cape wine by any outsider: a huge financial stake by a person deeply and broadly knowledgeable about fine wine, who searched the world with intelligence and understanding before settling on this corner. The quality and scale of the well-informed investment is unparalleled, I think (and I say so fully cognisant of the claims of Glenelly and Capaia, for example), as is the ambition behind it.
Boutinot just laughed when I asked (after enquiring about the cost of the road, but not daring to ask about the cost of the whole thing) if he ever expected to recoup his costs. I think that he is a man genuinely dedicated to making this a great property, and in a way it really is simply out of love of wine that it is being done, a creative act that certainly can bring pride and ego-satisfaction to its enabler-creator but also something deeper and more satisfying than just those things. Boutinot has a pleasing (to me, at least) combination of arrogance, of confidence in his own judgements, and of subservience to the glory of wine at its best.
And he has a very firm, and happily old-fashioned, idea of what constitutes “best”. Fortunately, it’s something that he thinks will emerge from his cellar. I last year reported my enthusiasm about the Circumstance Shiraz 2007, and this year I sampled the elegant, fragrant 2008 which I think is going to be even better. In fact I would rank it alongside Quoin Rock’s as one of the very best Stellenbosch shirazes. But it’s not yet good enough for Engelbrecht and Boutinot to have it in the top rank of Waterkloof wines – though Paul did suggest they’d hesitated about the candidature of some of the 2008.
As yet there’s only one wine, the fine Sauvignon Blanc, that bears the straight Waterkloof label. But I was allowed to learn at least the secret that April this year is to see the release of the first Waterkloof red – before it gets an international release at the London Wine Trade Fair in May. I can’t wait. I wasn’t allowed to learn the deeper secret of what it’s going to be – I’d assumed it was going to be a shiraz – but I have my suspicions, from what was said and what was not said, and I rather think for the variety we’re going to have to look further south than Hermitage, to the shores of the Mediterranean…. But in fact, it’s perhaps less about variety than about the variety’s interaction with the Waterkloof terroir (and the sympathetic restraint of Werner Engelbrecht) – and I would guess (and probably hope) that the wine might not even bear a varietal name. We shall see.
And we shall also see, I am more confident now than I was last May, that Waterkloof will be, within a few years amongst a very small handful of large producers at the very summit of Cape wine.
Two new wines
This afternoon I tasted, with Angela Lloyd and Ingrid Motteux, Waterkloof’s most recent releases under the Circumstance label, the Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon, both 2007, both at R120.
The Merlot seems a cut above the 2006. A little dark, dark chocolate on the nose, with plum and a touch of savoury herbaceousness which was fine with us. The palate is fresh and lively, with serious, ripely firm tannins; even a touch austere. Unshowy, subtly oaked. Angela liked it but thought it not likely to develop. She scored it a little lower than we others, who gave it 15.5/20. I had the advantage of taking it home and trying it after being aired for five hours or so, and it had opened up somewhat, become a little more succulent, and I’d raise my score to 16 now. (Oh, the benefits of a lingering approach to deciding on an assessment of a wine!)
The Cabernet Sauvignon was the finer of the two. A full, rich wine that retains subtlety and elegance, neither fruity nor showy, and with the same welcome dry finish that the Merlot had (quite a rarity, that, in local reds), but more precise and focused, with lovely fresh berry fruit, and the tannins better balanced. Again there’s a touch of herbaceousness that would not be pleasing to some critics. It will certainly benefit from at least a few years in bottle. We gave it 16.5, but, again with benefit of further and later exploration, I wonder if it shouldn’t get the extra half point. But who cares about half-points, really. This is a very good, serious wine.