A quiet Virgin landing

A farm is sold. There are new beginnings. There is perhaps a little initial interest from the media, which might or might not fizzle out. Such interest is greatly piqued when the new buyer is an international business celebrity, perhaps even more especially when there’s no great subsequent fanfare as has been the case with Sir Richard Branson and his purchase of Franschhoek farm, Mont Rochelle Hotel & Vineyards in May 2014.

An invitation to the launch of the first vintages under his regime and to hear future plans was accepted with alacrity.

Mont Rochelle, on the north-facing slopes above Franschhoek town (with spectacular 180°  views over the valley), was founded in 1994 by Johannesburg advertising man, Graham de Villiers. The sauvignon blanc and chardonnay vines he planted that year are still bearing; the two newly released 2015 whites are from their fruit.

View from Mont Rochelle's picnic spot by the dam with spectacular view over Franschhoek Valley
View from Mont Rochelle’s picnic spot by the dam with spectacular view over Franschhoek Valley

In the early 2000s the farm was purchased by Congolese telecommunications entrepreneur and first black African to own a winery in South Africa, Miko Rwayitare; he sadly didn’t live to see all his dreams for the farm come to fruition. With permission from his family, who sold the farm to Branson, Rwayitare’s name lives on at Mont Rochelle under the flagship Miko label.

Winemakers too, have come and gone – and in Dustin Osborne’s case, returned. He ran the cellar from 2007 to 2011; after a brief two year spell at Aaldering, he came back to Mont Rochelle in 2014.

This isn’t the full narrative of Mont Rochelle’s modern history, but it’s enough to suggest the lack of consistency in personnel has hardly allowed for stability of range, style or image. This may in part account for the lack of song and dance about the new owner (Franschhoek may be quietly glad about that given the very public sweeping changes Mr Singh is making to his acquisitions in the valley). It’s a sensible approach on Branson and Virgin’s part; start fairly quietly and build. Our introduction suggests the changes and new wines herald a positive future.

Very often launches are unimaginative affairs; the Mont Rochelle team showed some pleasing creativity, taking our small group to different spots on the farm, where each wine was introduced and accompanied by a small, complementary dish from their Country Kitchen restaurant. It was in the shade of the trees outside the restaurant that we sat down to lunch proper.

Don’t expect the earth to move with these new wines; rather bask in the pleasure of their calm yet interesting honesty and decent prices. The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc (R85) includes a little semillon and splash of viognier; this last and a tiny portion of the sauvignon barrel-fermented in older barriques, which enhances suppleness and texture, as does lees ageing. Franschhoek sauvignon is typically understated; this fits the regional bill perfectly. Its versatility ensures both excellent aperitif and food wine.

The same positives apply to Chardonnay 2015, also split between tank and barrel fermentation (55/45%), although here 10% new oak was introduced. Plump and supple, the ripe citrus flavours are lifted by a cleansing, natural thread of acid. It’s so nice not to have to moan about too much oak, something which is increasingly happening, I’m happy to report. Enjoyable now and for at least a further two or three years.

Reds are a little different, as they are part of the previous regime. There are currently two available; at entry level there’s Little Rock Rouge 2014, named for a rocky outcrop at the top of the farm; it’s an eclectic blend of 41% merlot and cabernet with the rest split between mourvèdre and petit verdot, the blend aged on staves for three months. Much to its credit is the absence of the often rather confected taste staves and, hallelujah, it’s dry. A good, dense mouthful of dark brambly fruit and crunchy tannins in a style I’d call country red. For R72 it’s yours.

Mont Rochelle Miko 032016At the other end of the scale is the premium label, Miko. As disclosed above, it honours the farm’s previous owner. The current release, an 09 syrah, was made by Dustin before he left the farm. Like the whites, there’s a focus on elegance (a natural Franschhoek characteristic) the silky, supple flow gripped within a gentle yet persuasive frame. Despite its ripe profile, there’s plenty of flavour dimension. This refined seven year old wine (don’t forget that) sells for R450. Osborne is very keen to show Franschhoek has more strings to its bow than cabernet, which this clearly does. But cabernet it is that makes up the following 2010 Miko, while 2012 is cabernet, merlot and syrah. There’s then a gap until 2015, its composition as yet undecided, but it’ll be what the team believe is the best red from the cellar.

Over lunch, Osborne treated those of us who had the stamina to taste through 13 Mont Rochelle cabernets, a vertical of this variety straddling vintages from 1996 to 2009 (99 couldn’t be found among the cache uncovered in the Manor House). Cabernet, the red grape selected by the producers behind Appellation Grand Prestige as historically producing some of the District’s best wines. This line up was pretty mixed; early vintages suffered the mintiness of vine stress, vintage difference itself played a role – 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2009 all performed as well as one might expect of these top vintages; ditto poor wines from 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2008, some dismal years from the start, others after too long ageing.

It is planned to release decent older wines under a museum programme; the first from 2009.

In case you’re wondering, no, Sir Richard wasn’t there and the team say they never know when he’s going to visit. But I can’t see they’d need to worry; their first step up the ladder looks likely to continue in an onwards-upwards trajectory.

It’s very good to see another Franschhoek farm, using home-grown fruit further enhance the wine credentials of this town already famed for its gastronomy.

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