Contrasts in Tulbagh (2): Lemberg

If ever you want a strong indication that shared terroir doesn’t necessarily dictate a single style of winemaking, do as I did after a tasting of Saronsberg (reported here) and drive ten minutes to Lemberg, where they’re making a very different contribution to Tulbagh’s wine culture. Essentially, while Saronsberg exuberantly expresses Tulbagh’s warmth with a combination of ripe power and gracefulness, Lemberg has set its sights on earlier-picked elegance and freshness – perhaps occasionally paying the price of some reduction in intensity and substance in the reds. But I much enjoyed Lemberg’s wines, which are admittedly in a style which corresponds more to my own vinous aesthetic.

Lemberg-2The wines I tasted that late April afternoon had all been made by David Sadie, who spent a while at Lemberg from February 2011, before moving on in the latter part of 2013 to concentrate particularly on his own excellent Swartland label, David – in fact the wines show clear evidence of the winemaker’s involvement with the exciting developments of 20th-century Swartland.

So it was the current winemaker, young Niël Russouw, having moved here from Montpellier just down the road, who showed me around the 9-odd hectares of vines on the banks of the Little Berg River (Lemberg also buys in grapes as necessary), and poured the wine for me.

Lemberg’s recent history had become something more than lack-lustre before Henk Du Bruyn and Suzette van Rensburg bought it in 2001 and set about renovating and expanding vineyards, cellar and tasting facilities. Henk made the wine for a while, but clearly made the vitally correct move when he handed over winemaking and viticultural responsibility to David Sadie.

But, of course, Lemberg’s earlier years had been interesting as the base for Janey Muller, who established it in 1978, as the Cape’s smallest estate, and as Tulbagh’s fourth. Janey is generally regarded as the Cape’s first professional woman winemaker (although other women had made wine here before, notably Marie Furter at the Zonnebloem estate). Janey was at Le Bonheur in 1981, and made the first two vintages at Lievland in 1982 and 1983, before devoting her winemaking attention exclusively to tiny Lemberg, where she made, said John Platter, “wines of individuality and personality”. A serious car accident led her to eventually sell Lemberg in 1994.

Lemberg-1

Niël Russouw among his vines

Wines of individuality and interest are now being made at Lemberg again – and it will be interesting to see what Niël Russouw does with the short but powerful tradition of David Sadie. He starts with a completely clean slate with the 2014 vintage, as the owner wanted all the 2013s, including those in barrel, bottled in what seems like a great rush before Sadie left.

I particularly admired the Lemberg white wines currently on offer – unfortunately the Hárslevelű 2012 (harking back to the tradition with this unusal Hungarian variety started by Janey Muller) was sold out, and I haven’t tasted it.

The Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (a good bargan at R55) is pure and fresh – slightly perfumed rather than simply fruity, with aromas and flavours difficult for me to characterise, but not the usual. Fine acid balance. Refined, well textured, very elegant.

lemberg-ladyLady 2012 (R105 – another good buy) successfully blends viognier (57%) with hárslevelű, sauvignon and sémillon. Naturally fermented, rather oxidatively made and matured in older oak (see what I mean about the Swartland influence?), it has a light, textured richness, again with a decent acidity, beautifully balanced at little more than 13% alcohol. The peachiness of viognier is there, but subordinated to the complexity of the blend.

Sauvignon Blanc (vine-dried) returns in the sweet wine, Surin 2011 (R120 for 375ml). Notably light and elegant – just 100g/l sugar and just 12% alcohol, an unusual balance for the Cape, and it works well. Has that nicely dry finish, and a very natural feel to it.

One of the great delights of this tasting at Lemberg was the pale-partridge-eye Syrah Blanc de Noir 2013 (R50), which has its origins in crop-thinning the syrah – hence the rather low alcohol of 11%. So it’s very light, but vinous and balanced, with a lovely red-fruit character. Fresh acid, great with food.

And so to the reds.

Cape Blend 2012 (R65) shows red fruit, and aromas somewhat reminiscent of pinot noir (there’s 15% pinot included, but the 30% pinotage probably also contributes). Soft, easy-going tannins, with acidity playing an important structural role. A touch of pinotage bitterness, but it adds interest. Balanced and pleasant despite a fairly high alcohol.

Pinot Noir  2011 (R160). Pinot is not an obvious choice for Tulbagh and I’m not entirely convinced by the wine. Herbal, almost resin aromas, with just hints of red fruit. Intense, softly textured palate. Earlyish-picked, hence the green suggestions. An interesting wine, but….

Syrah 2012 (R75). Modestly oaked, red-fruited and typically fresh. I couldn’t help thinking it could do with a bit of Saronsberg Shiraz blended in – though I did enjoy the freshness.

Pinotage 2012 (R89) has some attractive perfume and a real charm on the palate, with good acidity, and softish ripe tannins. Round though a touch unharmonious.

Spenser 2011 (R150) is in some ways the most conventional of the reds (and most successful), but with a signature element of freshness. Interesting, complex aromas, including some toasty tones from oak, a little pinot-like perfume, red fruit and darker cherry notes. Balanced, warm, sweet-fruited, with a more pronounced tannin structure than the standard version. Friendly but serious.

***

All in all, Lemberg is offering some really attractive and compelling wines – especially the whites – which are a great addition to the Tulbagh palette. I will follow with interest what happens under Niël’s regime over the years to come. I have a feeling that David Sadie inaugurated a really worthwhile tradition in the cellar (though leaving room for Niël to tweak things), and that a lot will depend on ever-improved vineyards and keeping yields modest.

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