After even a short time with Jean Smit, I gain the impression this intense young man has a neat and tidy mind. An impression firmly embedded by the time I leave his Damascene cellar after an engaging and informative morning.

Jean Smit

Let’s back-track a bit. Jean has an impressive CV of winemaking, internationally in California, Marlborough and with Stéphane Ogier in the Rhône’s Côte Rôtie.  Local wine lovers will remember his decade in the Boekenhoutskloof cellar, where syrah, semillon and cabernet were practised and excellently executed; it would have been surprising had he not transferred them to Damascene, where his own interpretation could be realised.

David Curl, former owner of Chateau Gaby in Bordeaux, first approached Jean with regard to the Moya Meaker wines, which come from his Elgin farm Habibi; their conversations soon led to the development of a bigger partnership and Damascene. The new cellar was built two years ago on Habibi, this extensive, mainly apple-growing farm. At present there’s only a Moya Meaker pinot noir; in a few years, this will be joined by a chardonnay, once the new plantings of both varieties, totalling 10 ha and due this and next year, bear fruit.

Damascene cellar designed by Jean Smit

Blending is a big story for Jean, ‘It produces a more complete wine,’ he reasons; it’s something he’s had to undertake by candlelight at home during load shedding, such is his dedication!  The focus is on vineyards but not as single entities, rather reflecting specific characters, which, when blended tell a bigger story of the region they come from. The regional Wine of Origin is the only designation on the label; ‘it’s easier for the consumer to understand.’ He views vineyard names as too confusing. Similarly with old vines, which feature in several of the wines. Although he appreciates their quality, he is not fixated on them, nor will seek the Heritage vineyard seal; ‘Young vines can also produce great fruit,’ he asserts.

Barrel cellar. 1000L foudre used for chenin and semillon

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. The cellar is brilliant in its simple design and functionality. ‘A result of years of making lists of what not to do,’ Jean admits, acknowledging the design is his, while architect, Michelle Heideman brought the designs to life. Small things like ensuring a three ton pressing fits into one of the 1000 litre conical fermenters, another fermenter holds 2.5 tons of whole bunch. Jean’s philosophy includes natural ferments, gentle treatment of reds especially so as not to over-extract, which is satisfied through the set plates in the fermenters allowing him to work with submerged caps, over which, in most cases, the juice is pumped without disturbing the skins. If it seems nothing is left to chance, it was down to serendipity that the two trees in front of the cellar line up exactly with the entrance!

Serendipity: two trees perfectly aligned with cellar entrance

My photo of the cellar was obviously taken when there was no harvest activity, but Jean assured me that’s how it looks at the end of every day in harvest; ‘Not a pipe or any other piece of equipment to be seen.’ Surely unique in the winelands!

Attention to detail is a constant. Long term contracts with grape growers are in place on 30 blocks, another 10 are receiving consideration. If, for any reason one doesn’t work out, it will make way for another.

The annual intake of grapes from these blocks exceeds requirements, allowing for strict selection of the best blending components and experimentation with techniques such as different fermentation temperatures and amount of stems.

The wine that doesn’t make the cut, still of an equally high standard, is sold off, ‘Some ending up in well-known brands,’ though I couldn’t get Jean to reveal which. There’s a reluctance to develop a second label, which Jean views as a distraction from the other wines.  

Rigorous selection results in limited volume, which accounts for the rapid ‘sold out’ signs. Volume is slowly increasing, ‘As we grow into the style,’ Jean elaborates. This year’s 2020 release of 21 000 bottles is set to grow to 30 000 in 2021.

Damascene labels

To the wines, which are uniformly excellent, made and blended with great skill and understanding, as I already knew (I have bought Damascene since the first vintage, 2018). Consistency of quality is Jean’s main aim, though vintage and blending will see the wines differ. The three Bottelary hilltop, old-vine sites in Chenin Blanc WO Stellenbosch that I sampled as components from the 1000 litre foudres – shale slopes above Sonop, with its intense minerality; granitic soil at the top of Mooiplaas, providing floral charm and a little grip from skin ferment and Houmoed’s Greywacke soils, a source of concentration – blend into a wine with tension, concentration and depth of texture, the flavours of stone fruit, florals and lingering bite of ginger spice. A wine that is much more than the sum of its parts. Blending determines how much of each is included to create the desired style.

My favourites? The WO Franschhoek Semillon, of course with its beckoning lemon balm aromas, mysterious waxy, textured silk feel, freshness and slight salinity to end. A little more open than 2019 at the same stage but deserving of the time semillon needs to fully blossom.

The new WO Swartland Syrah, majorly from schist with granite and a little koffieklip. Its rich, purple ruby robe yielding to the seductive meaty, fynbos notes signalling the grapes’ schist origin; the well-marshalled firm backbone, granite’s contribution, finishing bright, bloody and with grainy tannins.  Jean admit it was ‘The most difficult, as the bar is set so high.’

WO Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon was perhaps the greatest surprise. Its scintillating freshness from the high-lying Polkadraai Hills, sea end of Helderberg and close to the top of Bottelary Hills. With its expressive cassis, cranberry and oak spice aromas, breadth of sweet fruit and confident tannin grip, it meets Jean’s goal of a classic style, the freshness and vigour taking it to another level.

For greater knowledge of Damascene and the wines, I make a very rare recommendation to look at the newly-launched website; it’s one of the best I’ve seen.

Does ‘growing into the style’ include a little more soul in the wines and a more relaxed winemaker? I’d like to think so as Damascene is set to make an important mark on the South African wine scene.

To make great wine you’ve got to know great wine. Some of the bottles that have informed Jean’s winemaking

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