Staying in place

Reflecting on the piece I wrote last week about the winemaker’s role today, I realise I left out an important point; the time the winemaker has worked in the same cellar.

This is hardly an issue with family-owned and run farms, except I suppose when siblings, with children themselves, fall out when everyone wants to be the winemaker!

I’ve written before about winemaker musical chairs, which happens far too often, especially when the winemaker is an employee and the owner possibly not so conversant with wine. Rapid changes of winemaker does no service to the consistency of the wines nor image of the brand.

A rather hazy photo of Rianie Strydom, winemaker & GM at Haskell Vineyards
A rather hazy photo of Rianie Strydom, winemaker & GM at Haskell Vineyards

There are always exceptions of employee winemakers staying long-term at a winery; Rianie Strydom and Haskell Vineyards is one. It’s a partnership that’s perhaps further under the radar than it deserves to be. Strydom’s involvement in the cellar stretches back to 2005; her tenure also covers establishment of several of the vineyards, beneficial to a better understanding of the vines’ development and the fruit they produce.

The first Pillars Syrah 2007 (and Haskell label) caught the eye (nose) of Strydom and Grant Dodd, Haskell’s Managing Partner, when it was still in barrel. It stirred the idea of single vineyard wines. It also vindicated their idea, when it took the 2009 Wine of the Show, and other awards, against Australia and New Zealand, in that year’s Trinations.

The fourth single vineyard and third syrah, Hades 2014, recently joined the range. The name reflects the hellishly difficult conditions under which the vineyard was established: removal of 180 tons of rock, hammering in iron poles to support the vines and finally re-planting a portion of the vineyard in 2009, when some of those original, 2008, vines didn’t survive. ‘Syrah needs a harsh place,’ Strydom told us, with some understatement, at the launch.

haskell-hades-2014I’m an unequivocal fan of Strydom’s style; her intuition and skill results in precise, elegant wines with layers of flavour and a finish that tastes digestibly dry. If this is the house style, Strydom doesn’t impose character, that is left to the wines themselves.

When single vineyard wines were legalised, around the mid-2000s, many felt they had blocks that fitted the regulations (under six hectares and planted to a single variety being two of the major ones) and produced sufficiently distinctive wine to register them; trendiness undoubtedly also played a role. As of March 2016 there were around 990 registered single vineyards; of course not all produce commercially available wines. Some have proved their worth over the years, others have yet to do so.

The Haskell syrah trio are gratifyingly individual; Hades (R320 ex-cellar) especially has a freshness and greater restraint than Pillars (R415) or Aeon (R320) but it is a year younger and was aged in older wood only; the other two had a small percentage of new oak. Aeon 2013 is a wine of dominant structure, feeling firm rather than harsh, though finishes with a great fantail of richness. Pillars 2013 is the ripest, lushest and with the softest tannins. Will it mature in the same way as that complex, delicious 2007 we were also lucky enough to try? I don’t know but when I come across a wine like that, I reflect on the first time a group of us tasted Chave Hermitage from the very hot 2003 vintage and found it horribly ripe. A second tasting a few years later saw a remarkable change for the better. The Chave family have been making wine in the Northern Rhône since 1481, so know a bit about what they’re doing. Be cautious on first pronouncements: lesson learned.

A story Grant Dodd told at the launch, to conclude. In the early days of his enjoyment of and learning about wine, Dodd was fortunate enough to attend a tasting with that great and sadly now late, wine man, Len Evans. ‘What is a great wine?’ Dodd enquired of his host. After a sip of Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet, Evans asked Dodd, ‘Can you still taste it?’ Dodd confirmed he could and did so in answer to that same question a further 14 times after that sip. ‘That’s what makes a great wine; that and ageability,’ Evans told him.

Great wines are the goal of the Haskell team; patience and faith are the watchwords!

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