High and mighty

If you think that Cederberg has the highest vineyards in the Cape, think again. Once it was true, but, high they are, at over 1000 metres (“Vites Altae” as the bottle capsules proclaim) they’re nothing like Daniel de Waal’s vines at Mount Sutherland in the recently proclaimed Sutherland-Karoo District.

Districts1

Here, at the foot of Sneeuberg, they have to grapple in winter with snow and in spring with frosts, at a height of 1500 metres above sea level (the coldness, giving a proper dormancy to the vines is a real plus, and rare in South Africa). A glance at the map of Wine of Origin Districts shows, too, how this is by far the most inland of the Western Cape winegrowing areas – some 350km from the sea (Sutherland-Karoo is numbered 17 on the map). Summers are not exactly cool, though it looks that excesssive heat is avoided, with long clear days a plunging temperature at night – that’s a factor that is often thought to be very important in producing fine quality wines form, for example, Spains’s Ribera del Duero.

All very different from the coastal regions. And that’s the point, says Daniel de Waal (whose home ground is Stellenbosch – at the family farm Uiterwyk and his own establishment nearby, now with the rather odd name Super Single Vineyards). “I believe the famous continental varieties of Europe will thrive here and make even better wines here than when they are planted at the coast.” So he’s planted, in a small experimental way as yet, pinot noir, tempranillo, nebbiolo and riesling, and it’s going to be fascinating to see what comes of them.

But first planted was shiraz, and the first wine under the Mount Sutherland wine is the Syrah 2009, from totally organically-farmed vines established in 2005. The name is, I’d have thought, uncomfortably close to the Sutherland Shiraz from Thelema’s Elgin outpost – is it not going to cause some confusion?

Anyway, here it is and immensely welcome – though I must say I am rather undecided in my opinion of it, despite having grappled with it over three successive days (so you can say I’m irresolute, or incompetent, but don’t say I don’t try hard).

The aromas are undoubtedly lovely – fresh and pure-fruited, and there’s a similar honesty of varietal flavours to taste, neither too fruity nor obscured by too much oak. But I was disappointed in the bigness and richness of the wine, especially without their being enough concentration to support such exuberance. Decent tannic stucture, however, though a little drying on the finish.

At which point which I was hit by a definite bitterness – on botht the first and second days, though it had reduced to the merest hint on the third. I know from my own experience and from tasting with the same people a good deal that bitterness is something that is not consistently experienced, but I’m confident that it was a real factor on this wine. It’s origins I can’t be sure about – not wood, I don’t think.

It was tempting to dismiss this as just another rather overblown shiraz, that might as well have come from Stellenbosch as from this exotic and very promising location. But my instinct persistently told me over three days that there is something special here – and I don’t think my instinct was responding to the allure of knowing the wine’s origins.

Mount Sutherland Syrah is selling for around R260, which I think is rather over-pricy for a not entirely convincing wine from such young vines. I would confidently bet, however, that with a little more vine maturity, and a little more experience in responding to the vineyard, that this label is going to be something very special. (And I can’t wait to taste the other Mount Sutherland wines when they appear.) I suspect that earlier picking would do a lot to give the Syrah the elegance that is rather lacking in the 2009. I mean – do we really need to travel so far inland, and climb so high to end up with yet another lush, richly ripe wine at 14.5% alcohol?

– You can read more about the Mount Sutherland project, and see more photographs than the ones reproduced here, on the Super Single Vineyards website.

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