When life sends you chances, grab them, especially when it’s a ten vintage vertical of a highly regarded wine from a reputable producer.
The value of such an experience is multi-faceted: discovering whether the wines have matured or merely aged, whether there’s been a style change and, importantly, whether there’s any sense of place. Given South Africa’s many young vineyards, the effect of age of the vines may also be notable.
All came to mind as winemaker, Dewaldt Heyns took a tightly-packed audience of around 40 enthusiastic wine writers and retailers through ten vintages of his Saronsberg Shiraz; from the maiden 2004 to a barrel-sample of 2013.
He joined Saronsberg in 2003, just after Pretoria businessman, Nick van Huyssteen had purchased this Tulbagh property, naming it Saronsberg after one of the mountain peaks behind some of their vineyards.
It was a mixed blessing that, shortly after Huyssteen purchased the farm, a wild fire wiped out some vineyards; the upside was that more up-to-date viticultural knowledge could be employed in their replanting.
Heyns is a thoughtful, down-to-earth person and winemaker; there’s no braggadocio, rather plenty of refreshing honesty. ‘Tulbagh is suited to shiraz, though it won’t necessarily ever make the best,’ he admits. Rather than force something on the fruit to make a grander wine; ‘I try to let the wine express a style that the area produces naturally and believe each should make its own statement about vintage conditions.’
Heyns has a self-depreciating sense of humour, so to listen to him is entertaining as well as informative. Weather conditions, not only during harvest but also from the previous winter and how the amount of rain and cold, or lack of it affected the harvest, never sounded so interesting thanks to Heyns’ fluency and relevance (NB other winemakers).
But the main point he repeatedly emphasised is the importance of balance. He makes no bones about his shirazes being big; prior to 2009, all bar 2006 clocked in at 15% alcohol, the odd one out a mere 14.5%. Despite that and residual sugars somewhere between 3 and 4 grams (technically dry, but with high alcohol present, an impression of sweetness is likely), the balance is such there’s no alcoholic glow and the wines do taste dry. This allows them to make great partners with food, as Harald Bresselschmidt’s dishes for the lunch which followed proved at his Auslese venue.
The line-up divided neatly into two styles: 2004 to 2008 inclusive and 2009 to 2013. Because of the fire and having to replace vineyards, fruit for the first few vintages was bought in; in fact 2008 was the first from all home-grown grapes, but stylistically it seems to fall in with the earlier vintages. These can be characterised by their more obvious richness and denser, bigger tannins. Except, that is 2006, where the colour is stronger, more youthful, the wine fresher, more elegant. It was a cooler year, ‘Though coolness is relative,’ Heyns maintains, adding; ‘We’re so enamoured with being cool, we write off hot vintages.’ An unfinished statement insinuating that properly read, hot vintages can produce good wines. This was more than adequately proved in the Saronsberg 2005 and 2007, though I wouldn’t hold on to the older wine any longer.
From 2009 onwards the shift is to greater refinement, better extraction and integration of tannins, oak as well as grape. Heyns confirmed from 2008 there was less toasting of the barrels, a positive move that also increased fruit definition.
It was strange to see the bottle of 2009 without any of the adornment accorded the others (apart from 2012 which has yet to pass any judges’ taste buds, but watch this space; it’s a cracker). Lower volume, Heyns told us, meant there was insufficient quantity to enter the usual shows.
It’s impossible to miss these bottles with their vast array of stickers; discussion about them and competitions was inevitable. ‘How do you prove to consumers that you’re making good wine?’ Heyns answered this rhetorical question by admitting they’d chosen going the competition route but describing it as a ‘necessary evil’; he’d much prefer to sell without any stickers, which caused plenty of chuckles, given his friend and Top 100 Wines’ owner, Robin von Holdt was among the guests! Heyns passed some unnecessary depreciating comment about his status as a winemaker, along the lines of not being a rockstar, but frankly, it can’t help when you’re making wine in Tulbagh. Really only Saronsberg, Rijks and Fable have any image in this sleepy area where there’s obviously much un-achieved quality potential, let alone any local body trying to brush up Tulbagh’s image with some enthusiastic marketing.
Tulbagh has also become a bit of a pariah for officially being part of the Coastal Wine of Origin, when it is patently so far from any coast. I did query with Heyns whether producers had been consulted during the process for the recent changes (see Tim James report here). He confirmed they were, but the opinion is that if Tulbagh had to be removed from the official Coastal Region, then so should Franschhoek, parts of Paarl and Wellington. Needless to say, one can’t see that happening, so Tulbagh preferred to let the status quo stand. It begs the question: shouldn’t the whole WO system be revised.
Heyns is proving that however Tulbagh is officially defined, his quality Saronsberg shirazes are authentic reflections of this warm inland area.