Fine wine from a hellish vineyard

The greatest pleasure of my professional wine-life is going out into the winelands and visiting winemakers, winegrowers. Visiting vineyards, to be more precise. One cellar is more or less the same as another, really, but all vineyards are wonderfully different and so often one can look up from the vines and there, spread all around are trees and mountains and skies. It amazes me, actually, how seldom I see evidence of wine writers and bloggers travelling and exploring – while a lot can be learnt about wine from tastings, what interests me more and more is the whole culture of wine production: people, places, passions.

Increasingly I find that wine is – and I know most people probably don’t agree – not just what’s in the bottle, which makes mere scoring a rather sterile exercise in my opinion. Sometimes (moving even more firmly onto quasi-mystical ground, perhaps), an honestly made, eloquent wine itself does alert you to components that go beyond the more easily expressed virtues (and vices) accessible to technical appreciation.

Best of all experiences, perhaps, is the rare one of drinking a wine among the vines that produced it. This has been a good week for me in that regard. True, there’s a disjuncture with regard to the Pinot noir from the Ceres vineyards I visited on Monday: the wine is still in the bottle but I shall have it very soon, before the memories of standing among the vines have faded.

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Grant Dodd with a bottle of (unlabelled as yet) Hades vineyard wine, among the vines that produced it

But yesterday, I stood with Grant Dodd, MD of Haskell in Stellenbosch on the slopes of the mighty Helderberg, in the vineyard they call Hades, and he opened a bottle of the maiden, 2014 vintage made from grapes off the syrah vines surrounding us. It’s a vineyard that means a lot to him, I think, he having been fully involved with it from planting through to the consummation of the first vintage.

Shortly after, my glass of Hades was refilled in the cellar, to be drunk with winemaker Rianie Strydom (unfortunately my photo of her with the wine is too blurry to use). Rianie was, incidentally, looking very relaxed, in something of a harvest lull. Some grapes had already come in (including from that Hades vineyard, as you can see from the photo) but others were still ripening; and Rianie is largely positive about what this year is bringing to her tanks.

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Early days of the Hades vineyard

The Hades vineyard, something under a hectare, was planted in 2007, but many vine failures led to replanting, and the vines took a while to establish themselves, so the first useful crop was harvested only in 2014. I visited it in those earliest days, and took the photo alongside. It’s a hot, tough and hellishly rugged vineyard this – hence the name – standing almost isolated against the slope, at the edge of the farm’s plantings. A huge pile of boulders had to be removed (they now form a wall near the Soverby guest house on the Annandale Road nearby), and the soil is stony, stony, stony. Originally they’d thought of planting cabernet franc here, but a proper look at it convinced them that syrah would be the right answer to the problems it posed.

The wine itself (still a while off being released) is far from tough, however: it begins with a delicate perfume and lingers to a properly dry conclusion – still something of a rarity in warm-country wines, but this wine has a modest alcohol and a sugar level well below 2 grams per litre. It’s a well-polished wine, as one would expect from Rianie, but certainly not over-worked, and with a very pleasing restraint, the tannins gentle but informing. It has a decent future I’d say, despite the youthfulness of the vines, with room for the full flavours to develop interestingly.

Incidentally, over a quick lunch at the estate’s Long Table Restaurant and Café, we drank the Haskell Anvil Chardonnay 2014, a superb wine, undoubtedly in the top league of Cape chards. It’s another exercise in restraint – just 12.4% alcohol and (rarely for this wine) only second-fill oak. Fine fresh acidity matches an element of silky richness, to give that delicate strength that I find so winning.

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