Starting Off with a Bang

Franschhoek and Muratie

In South African Wine
on 05 Mar 11

Only two days in SA and I've already had an amazing wine weekend! I'm staying with a lovely couple who work at De Toren and Zorgvliet and they've been most hospitable. Yesterday they took me to brunch with their family at Le Pommier, which was once part of the Zorgvliet brand. After a nice Banhoek breakfast I tasted through the lineup and was particularly impressed by the 2007 reserve cab at $10 a bottle.

After brunch we took a drive to Franschhoek, which is incredibly beautiful even for the western Cape. It’s rather touristy but I didn’t even care because it’s also stupidly beautiful and mountainous. We tasted at Haute Cabriere, which is built into the mountain and specializes in “Burgundy-style” chardonnay and pinot noir, particularly in the Methode Cap Classique style with their Pierre Jourdan line.

The blanc de blanc was especially nice; the chardonnay characteristics really came through with tropical fruit and caramel and butterscotch on the palate and a long, rich finish thanks to light wooding. It was interesting to try their 2007 pinot noir as well. It had a very bright fruit/candy nose, good acid, and silky tannins; very pinot-esque in mouthfeel but I'm still waiting for that great Burgundian pinot nose in SA.

We drove up the mountain after that, stopping to watch a charming gang of baboons play by the side of the road and leaving when their alpha male approached the car looking very interested in jumping on it.

Then they dropped me off at Muratie, where winemaker Francois Conradie met me and gave me the star treatment.

We looked at Muratie’s small production facility, where 300 tons are crushed using only a few tanks – to make use of the tiny space, Muratie has to press juice quickly and therefore there’s less skin contact – but Francois is just fine with that. “Too much oak and too much extraction is not my style,” he said. “If you follow whatever trend is happening that year there’s no consistency to your wine.” Muratie’s elegant, understated style is a testament to that philosophy.

Francois drove me up the mountainside to see their highest vineyards; pinot noir is planted high up but it will be moved next year to a cooler, lower site. “We get a lot of heat up here,” Francois said as we stood at the top of the vineyard. "It's not good for pinot." The soil, which stains my hands a beautiful reddish-brown, is a mixture of decomposed granite and sandstone – quite nutritious. The fruit set generally looked stunning as we drove down through the vineyard. 20 clusters per bunch is the norm, all hand harvested and sorted carefully in the cellar.

Muratie’s varietals are spread out enough that there isn’t too much bottleneck: chardonnay, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc are January and February ripeners, merlot and shiraz come later, and then the cabernets are last. But this year’s late summer heat wave pushed harvest early and challenged every winemaker. “It’s the most difficult harvest I’ve seen,” said Morne Vrey, winemaker at Delaire, who was sitting at my table at the blues concert later that evening. Delaire’s claim to fame is sauvignon blanc so they found this harvest heat particularly difficult.

With Francois and tasting room server extraordinaire David, I tasted through the wines including the amazing 2010 wild ferment chardonnay, which is soulful and rich but restrained in oak and malolactic characteristics, and the stunning 2007 merlot which tastes like good Niagara cab franc in its peppery, supple earthiness. I also was stunned by the 2007 shiraz and Ronnie Melck 2007 shiraz, which I tasted side by side. The RM showed a very northern Rhone styled meaty, garrigue flavor and was enormous on the palate, while the regular shiraz was more floral and minerally but also delicious. All the wines are clearly earth and fruit driven, with no overoaking or over-extraction. The 2009 pinot noir, a vintage I haven't yet tasted, showed a hint of that autumn-leaf Burgundy thing I've been looking for as well!

After tasting I got to hang out with Francois’s wife and friends as well as owner Rijk Melck and his wife for a performance by world-famous blues guitarist Dan Patlansky. Between great wine, wonderful new friends, fantastic blues music, and a gorgeous Simonsberg sunset, it was an amazing night. There’s no question Muratie is producing some of the best wine in South Africa, to say nothing about Simonsberg as a district. David pointed pointed out Wine Enthusiast's and other publications' consistent recognition for the area, specifially "Muratie, Kanonkop, and Warwick: there’s no question that there’s something special about this area.” Add Rustenberg, Tokara, and many other great farms to that list, and I'm inclined to agree.

Julia Burke reviews South African wine and writes about social justice, the South African wine industry, and her own adventures in winemaking.