Morgenster’s Genius on the Schapenberg

There are two sides to the glorious classical wine estate that is Morgenster, and I am heading for the wilder side. Corius Visser, farm manager, shifts the bakkie into four-wheel drive and heads up into the hillside of Schapenberg, the famous vineyard-growing region on the Somerset-West side of Stellenbosch wine country.

This is rugged, steep and inhospitable vineyard habitat, far removed from the stately Cape Dutch manor house, elegant waterside restaurant and antique-filled tasting room most visitors to Morgenster are familiar with. The wind is howling from False Bay’s icy winter Atlantic Ocean, and the fynbos and young saplings are still showing the black, ashy scales of the wildfires that smoked their way through the Schapenberg earlier this year.

Atop the hill, a team of workers are pruning Merlot vines rooted in a land covered with layer-upon-layer of flat, slate-like stones. 

This is not how I had pictured the spectacular Schapenberg, which from a distance resembles one green bulk of fertile land, elevating upwards above a spread of valley-like country which runs into the majestic stony heights of the Helderberg.

“It gets pretty wild up here,” says Corius who is in charge of the Morgenster vineyards and olive groves. “Wind, especially the southerly, seems born on these slopes. The vines are, as you can see, set in poor soils – top layers of slate with clay below.”

Although the wild cannot be tamed completely, one can see that the conditions of the vines are immaculate as they head into their winter slumber. Leaves are dropping to reveal uniform, evenly sized shoots. The team of workers are pruning with meticulous precision.

“For the past few seasons we’ve had Italian viticulturists guiding us on alternative pruning methods,” he continues. “Just a few adjustments in the cutting of shoots and dead-wood have had an amazing effect on balance in terms evenness of ripening and managing yields.”

We drive around a rugby-field patch of dry, hard broken rock where, I am told, some new Sangiovese vineyards are to be planted despite the earth looking more conducive to the establishing of a Northern Cape cactus nursery.

Lucius Columella, the Roman Empire’s famous first viticulturist, would have approved. For it was he who wrote that “the vine lives on hills and in rocks”.

At Morgenster the Roman reference is, of course, not without relevance. Everything the estate has become known for – classically elegant wines, South Africa’s finest olive oils; a place of originality, perfection and excellence – can be ascribed to Giulio Bertrand. A former tycoon in the Italian textile industry, Giulio bought Morgenster in 1992 and used his eye for detail, love of food and wine and eternal quest for perfection to establish one of the leading addresses in the South African wine industry.

The Italian connection is uncanny in that Jacques Malan, the first owner of Morgenster who acquired the farm in 1711, was a French Huguenot who had lived in Piedmont, Italy before coming to the Cape. As fellow son of Piedmont, Giulio’s settling on the same farm brought the South African-Italian connection full circle.

During my visit to Morgenster, Giulio was over in Italy for the summer and winemaker Henry Kotzé was like colleague Corius eager to enthuse on the energy and focus of “Mr B”.

“There is always something new to do, a new idea to execute,” says Henry. “On the wine labels, in the wine styles, with the olive oil production…..he inspires us by always being on the move – mentally and physically. Mr B turned 90 this year, but he’s got us working to a twenty-year plan.”

The first wine plan at Morgenster began shortly after Giulio took ownership of the farm in 1992, where he still resides in the magnificent Cape Dutch manor house dating back to 1786. Vines, mainly Bordeaux varieties, were planted and before the first harvest Giulio had decided that if he was going to make good wine he’d be best to align himself with experts. Enter Pierre Lurton, an icon in Bordeaux wine circles who still presides over the wine-making at Chateaux Cheval Blanc and d’Yquem.

Since their first meeting in 1997, Monsieur Lurton has been a close adviser to Morgenster’s wines and besides his annual working visit serves on the Morgenster Board of Directors.

With this 20 year partnership and the unique regional terroir, it is no surprise that Morgenster has established itself on the top rung of South Africa’s interpretation of Bordeaux-styled red wines.

These are represented by two wines: Morgenster Lourens River Valley, a juicier, accessible wine that does not compromise on classic refinement and fruit depth, and the Morgenster Estate Reserve, the flagship crafted from finest fruit parcels with a 60% new French oak component compared to the Lourens River’s exposure of 10% virgin wood.

The Estate Reserve also contains a greater Cabernet Sauvignon component – 30% in the 2013 vintage – compared to the Lourens River 2013’s 7%.

Both wines are, however, Merlot dominated with the Estate Reserve 2013 sporting 39% and the Lourens River a hefty 47%. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot make-up the balance.

“There’s no recipe for the two wines in terms of exact ratios of the various components,” he says. “Morgenster has been around long enough and garnered a solid enough reputation for us to know what we are looking for to put under the label and then to blend each year’s vintage offerings until we get there.”

The varieties are first aged separately in oak – 12 months in the case of the Estate Reserve – before blending, after which the wines are returned to barrel.

Henry looks bored at the tired question of why South African Merlot is frowned upon by the wine critics. “The best Merlot ends up in Bordeaux blends,” he says. “After blending, there is not a lot of fine Merlot left.”

It is good Merlot that leads both the Morgenster Bordeaux wines, offering a distinct difference to the robust, tense character of similar blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. The Lourens River 2013 is almost dream-like in its plush, silkiness. Red fruit and hints of spice – probably the result of the older barrels used – makes a wine that can simply be described as deliciously enticing. Older vintage, which I have had the privilege of enjoying, broaden out into a more concentrated, denser flavour profile.

In this lifetime, South Africa’s blended red wines will always be dominated by the class of those made with Bordeaux varieties. And here the Morgenster Estate Reserve is at the pinnacle of these offerings. Intense Cabernet Sauvignon thrusts of pine-needle and pencil shavings grasp the sensual savouriness of the Merlot component offering harmonious flavours of dried fig, mulberry, cigar box and liquorice to overwhelm the senses, making one pause for deeper thought and clarity of expression, as all magical wine should.

But I cannot talk of Morgenster without one of its newer babies, the phenomenal White Reserve. Using the Bordeaux white combination of Sauvignon Blanc (55% for the 2015) and Sémillon (45%), this wine underscores my belief that this, too, is one of South Africa’s greatest offerings. Ten months in wood harnesses the fruit complexity of a match made in vinous heaven as the zippy, steeliness of Sauvignon Blanc is filled out with the white winter fruit profiles and honey-comb warmth of Sémillon. It is a fantastically classy white wine proving that when it comes to elegance and wonderment and beauty in wine, there are no whites or reds, but only truly great wines.

And it is these that make the wildest world one very special and happy place.

  • Stellenbosch Visio Magazine, September 2017

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