Delaires and graces

It was with the tiniest sigh of relief that I passed through an inconspicuous door in the splendid Delaire building complex, moving from the public area into the cool, spare functionality of the winery. Behind me was all the smart lavishness that the most ardent admirer of conspicuous consumption could wish for in the public part of a winery – including (for the very rich) a boutique selling the jewellery of Delaire’s owner, big-time international diamantaire Laurence Graff.

Even the name has acquired grandeur and amplitude. This is now the Delaire Graff Estate, not the simple Delaire founded by John Platter a generation back. Lying high above the Helshoogte Pass outside Stellenbosch, it is utterly transformed since those days – but the immemorial views remain spectacular: across to distant Table Mountain in one direction, and even more magnificently down the Banghoek Valley in the other. There’s a restaurant for each prospect, incidentally, as well as a small, luxurious hotel. In terms of view, at least, you won’t find a better lunching venue in the winelands

Continuing the grandiloquent note, the tasting room is called the Tasting Lounge and about as far as you could get from a little shack offering farm produce – in this case, wine. (As the pic from the Delaire website shows).

But the space behind the winery door is governed in a different spirit (though an equally meticulous and fundamentally ambitous one), by quiet young winemaker Morné Vrey. His wines, too, have nothing of the showy about them.

Morné is, in fact the ninth winemaker at Delaire since the Platters sold it in 1988 (Graff became, in 2003, the third owner since then), making for a somewhat giddying Cape record. Inevitably, wine styles have changed over the years – although it has always been clear that these vineyards can produce quality. Morné also points out with pleasure the continuity provided by two old cellar assistants who have been here since the earliest days.

Fortunately, under the new Graff regime, things look more settled than they have for a long while and Morne can proceed with his own quiet vision, leaving the bling on the other side of the winery door. His cellar is not large, and production will never be huge. The Delaire vineyards are limited too, here on these high slopes. What has been learnt over the years is that they are most suited to red wine grapes – as well as chardonnay – and they have been replanted accordingly.

The vineyard focus is largely on chardonnay and the main red Bordeaux varieties: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot, which go towards varietal wines as well as a blend of all five, called Botmaskop. Most of the grapes for the white wines are brought in from elsewhere – including Sauvignon Blancs, of course, and a particularly pleasing Chenin Blanc from Swartland fruit.

The range is surprisingly extensive, from the whites, through a very charming rosé, to a clutch of reds and even an excellent port. But there’s somehow a unity of aesthetic across the Delaire wines. Beyond the quality claims, they share a character of restraint and finesse. It’s hard to realise, for example, drinking the excellent Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (not ridiculously overpriced at about R300) that actually the alcohol level is fairly high. Morné Vrey’s firm and skillful control ensures that all is harmoniously balanced. Delaire has settled down beautifully.

A postscript on Delaire Botmaskloof 2008

A reduced Grape New Releases team of Angela Lloyd, Ingrid Motteux and me this afternoon sampled the recently released Botmaskop. Presumably this wine would have been vinified under the direction of the previous winemaker, Chris Kelly, when Morné Vrey was still his assistant.

Botmaskop is a cab sauvignon-based blend (mostly from Delaire itself, but some grapes from elsewhere in Stellenbosch) including the other four main red Bordeaux varieties – plus 9% shiraz which seems to have the effect of adding a pleasing element of spice, emphasising the savoury side of the wine, and perhaps of volume. Typical cab flavours dominate, however.

Again the 14.5% alcohol is not obtrusive, and the wine is not at all heavy or “hot” – quite the opposite in fact. Though clearly ripe, and showing plenty of forceful fruit and a softly firm tannic structure, it has a good fresh element. Well balanced, on the whole, and drinking okay now, though a few years should bring more harmony. We rated it 16/20, and thought the ex-farm price of R130 as fair and decent as the wine itself.

The main part of this article was first published in the Mail & Guardian, 4-11 March

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