Incredible Old Vine wine from Chamonix

Lafras Huguenet

The late Chris Hellinger had a wine farm in Africa of which he told me en route to Zurich to count his reserves of gold bullion. We met twice, both times in the Swiss Air 1st class lounge in London, and I remember him as an easy conversationalist able to talk on a wide variety of topics. We shared an interest in business, mining, wild-life, languages and wine, the latter being a passion of far greater importance to Chris as he was heavily invested in vineyards and cellar. He bought the Chamonix spread in Franschhoek in 1991 and during both our leisurely meetings raged about the travails of turning a fruit farm into a wine estate. Tracking a wounded buffalo was, apparently, child’s play compared to the efforts of soil preparation, selecting of clones and fielding the opinions of consultants on viticulture and cellar technology.

Chris Hellinger

The results of what he achieved on Chamonix, however, gave Hellinger a discernible sense of pride. He spoke about his vineyards and the wines in tones of reverence and respect, with gratitude for what the vines embedded on those Franschhoek mountain slopes were expressing in the glass.

Chris loved Pinot Noir, one of Chamonix’s calling cards, and when the fruit orchards went, in came Pinot Noir, Pinotage, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. He’d send me a few bottles every once in a while, which I enjoyed – and still enjoy immensely. The Chardonnay especially, is very good.

It is a great pity Chris is no longer alive to join me in drinking the latest release from Chamonix, as the first thing I would ask him is why, when he bought the farm and removed all the old growth, he allowed a Chenin Blanc vineyard to remain rooted. This was one of the few vineyards that had been set on the original Chamonix, probably a workhorse vineyard to supplement the income accrued from the fruit crops.

Planted in 1965, this Chenin Blanc vineyard – the only of the variety on the farm – was recently chosen for special treatment by Chamonix management. Watching the bunches developing on the old vineyard with its long shoots resembling sky-grabbing witches’ fingers, Chamonix CEO Stefan van Rooyen and winemaker Neil Bruwer last year sought to send this fruit for vinification. And to add a new wine to the Chamonix offering, this bearing the Old Vine Project seal developed by the Cape wine industry to underscore the importance of the region’s old vines. As well as to promote the quality of the wines made from these magnificent old gnarly pieces of living wood.

Neil Bruwer in the Old Vine Chenin Blanc vineyard.

The first batch of Chamonix Old Vine Steen, thus, was made from the 2020 vintage. Bruwer was offered a tentative meagre offering of old vine fruit, from which he managed to coax 600 bottles of white wine.

The vineyard is planted at 320m above sea-level in loamy apedal soil of sandstone origin. The patch is farmed dryland and comprises .58ha carrying 1732 vines. Due to the tender care the vineyard has been receiving of late, 2021 saw it bearing more fruit which will see more bottles Chamonix Old Vine Steen being offered in future.

And if the maiden 2020 is anything to go by, this is set to become a classic Cape white wine that also plays a role in emphasising Franschhoek’s legacy of viticulture and senior vineyards.

The Chamonix Old Vine Steen 2020 was fermented in old French oak, then aged for seven months in two old oak barrels, the one barrel undergoing regular lees-stirring while the other remained undisturbed. To my mind, this decision by Bruwer was a game-changer as the managed lees exposure gives the wine breadth and airiness without diluting the keen expression of life that make old vine wines so commanding.

To the eye, the wine fills the glass with a pale goldenness, gold being one of the many features Hellinger could talk about with uninterruptable authority. A tight, nostril-awakening hit of salt and citrus aroma drifts from the wine’s surface, and my attention has been captured.

The attack on the palate is, as is the wont of old vine wine, filled with the assertive confidence of a life well-lived, a vineyard that has seen it all in 55 summers and that has borne the savagely cold brunt of just as many winters. Edgy and probing, the wine soon finds purchase on the palate, filling the senses with an immense offering of unfettered flavour-filled joy.

Tang and zest are off-set by breezy flutters of white flowers, honey-suckle and ripe Kakamas yellow peaches. A rind of the maritime is there, clingy wet kelp and the just-pried shell of the white mussel. Citrus is sharp, more to the salted Moroccan lemon kind than just-picked freshness. But the whole, here, is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Chamonix Old Vine Steen is, simply, a deliciously wonderful wine talking the language of an exceptional vineyard planted to a unique patch of earth on the mountains above a charming Cape village. It is, like the pioneer of Chamonix, unforgettable.

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