They came from the valleys and the meadows; from the mountains and the parched flats; the cool misty kloofs and that arid shrubland of rocks and hills. They came with collective centuries’ experience in and knowledge of the world of wine, descending on Kanonkop Estate for their monthly gathering and tasting, these members of the Cape Winemakers Guild. To be an outsider invited into this hallowed grouping for two hours’ exposure to dazzling vinous insights, informed opinion, and spirited engagement, well, this leaves one with a feeling of blessed enlightenment. One that makes you feel ready to walk on water into a new world, armed with memory and crowned with gleaming shards of freshly acquired knowledge.
Margaret River, down there in south-western Australia, that’s where David Finlayson took us in his role of Guild member tasked with this month’s tasting. On this area, my knowledge was cursory before David’s introduction, only knowing it is coastal and south of the dull Australian city of Perth, and that Margaret River is coaxed by Indian Ocean breezes and has a climate pretty close to that of my beloved Cape. David has been there… walked the old soils, seen the vineyards and experienced the rigour and respect with which viticulture is practised in that region. He knows many of the producers, their approach to wine, the vision and achievements. Some 5 000ha of land is under vine down Margaret River way, and its quality – especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay – is deemed disproportionate in its excellence and superiority compared to the rest of Australia’s vast wine offering.
Settling down after the comprehensive and informed introduction each Guild member is expected to make when tasked with the hosting of a tasting, 15 wines were presented. The selection was shown in three flights of wines for which Margaret River is known: Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends; Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The first flight comprised three extremely delicate white wines, which to my mind were somewhat lost as a result of the fervent discussion that ensued later during the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon flights. The introductory troika were two Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon Blends – Domaine Naturaliste SBS 2021 and Xanadu DJL 2021 – and a typical Finlayson curve-ball in the offering of a Chenin Blanc, the delightfully named Tripe Iscariot Kroos from vintage 2020.
All three of these wines were meticulously crafted and gently graced, alcohols at 12.5% and showing a harmonious balance between acute freshness and delicate layers of white grape beauty. Domaine Naturaliste stood out with a heady guava perfume, while Xanadu featured a prominent black-currant note, typical of Graves Sauvignon-Semillon two-step. The Chenin Blanc was almost honeyed in texture, the presence elevated by spectacular reams of yellow citrus and salt-lick.
But I’ll remember the almost fragile, vulnerable presence of three gorgeous white wines that harnessed land, sea and sun into its offering of polished, well-crafted glasses of pale gold wonder.
The tasting took a more serious tone when six Margaret River Chardonnays were poured, as we were now heading into the revered territory of one of the New World’s renowned wine offerings. Even Margaret River gringos like myself know of the reputation names such as Leeuwin and Voyager Estates had staked their claims on, so this was going to be a highlight, and rightfully so.
Scrumming down in this Chardonnay line-up – all 2019 vintages – were Leeuwin Art Series, Stella Bella Luminosa, Flametree SRS, Voyager Broadvale Block 6, Vasse Felix Heytsbury and Xanadu Reserve.
Having scrutinised the line-up, Guild winemakers raised issues of reduction and tightness, possibly the result of the screwcap closures, although the unanimous opinion was that the winemaking was exceptionally well-executed. Kevin Grant said he would have been proud to have made any of these Chardonnay, which pretty much is the final word on the flight for me.
The flight began with a taste of real cold in the Leeuwin wine which was tighter than a rugby-player’s jock-strap during weight-training and initially about as reluctant to open up as a first-year accountancy student during the mid-term house dance. There was an icy frigidity about the wine, rapier-sharp thrusts when – once withdrawn – gleamed with the sap of green lime and the sour plums of northern Portugal. It was quite an introduction to Margaret River Chardonnay.
The Stella Bella and Flametree Chardonnays allowed slightly more sun in, showing touches of yellow fruit and hits of a yeasty brioche-ness. Finishes were long and riveting, brightness showing as in most of the flight.
Voyager was a beaut, and here my Chardonnay reference recalled more familiar terrain. White flowers and chalk showed on the nose, with the palate of grilled nuts and honeysuckle riding the by-now-familiar Margaret River shore-break of brisk, bracing acidity, broken rocks and piercingly resounding raw citrus.
My favourite was the most complex wine in the Chardonnay line-up, namely Xanadu Reserve from a producer which, thanks to this tasting, I now have my eyes on. It came across as a friendly wine, a “G’day Mate” walking out from the chilled, stormy Southern Ocean wherein its colleagues rolled, dropped and clamoured. Crunchy grape-fruit and ripe loquat gave the Chardonnay a quaffable drinkability with a thin slice of zesty green apple to keep the wine alive with an excitable vigour. Layered in texture and taste, this was Chardonnay Complete.
As for the much-vaunted Cabernet Sauvignons, our host had selected from the A-list. From the 2018 vintage came Cullen Diana Madeline, Moss Wood, Devil’s Lair, Deep Woods Reserve, Cape Mentelle and my friend Xanadu.
Stand-out features on the Cabernet Sauvignon line-up were, for me, the clean precision and almost restrained varietal expression of this regal Bordeaux grape. Wines showed balance with gentle, prying attacks on the palate, a cloud of berry-fruit hanging on the mid-palate, followed by clear, unhindered finishes.
I loved the freshness of the Moss Wood, a slight hit of mint giving air and vitality to a wine glowing with black-currant, dusted with cedar and seeped, briefly, in Cuban cigar wrapper. Cape Mentelle had a beautiful nose of dates and fig-paste with a brief whisp of old balsamic, and the fruit was cut finely and interwoven by a tapestry of tannins that really created a wonderful red wine. Memorable, evocative, musical and dramatic.
Devil’s Lair played a similar tune, although at a lower volume and with bit of a shorter, inattentive finish.
The wines were, however, all memorable thanks to an amazing environment. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats of South African wine, sharing the experience of a renowned wine region and being permitted access to the collective wisdoms of the Cape Winemakers Guild is an unforgettable experience that was as much of a privilege as an honour.
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