Sunday, October 19, 2008

Report from ... Durbanville Hills Dinner and Tasting - October 08, 2008

Dinner with a bunch of straight talking guys - that was what this Durbanville Hills dinner turned into. Someone mentioned, as we began the evening, that agents and women would help to keep us in line, but there were none to be seen so this became a no-holds-barred, drag-‘em-out, no-comments-verboten dinner. Meeting with winemaker Martin Moore, managing director Albert Gerber, Distell ambassador to Canada Deveron Wilcock, and fellow wine writer Dean Tudor, this evening turned into quite the "bag of fun”, which is just one of the phrases I picked up from this ultra-gregarious South African. (I might mention others throughout this review – but you must know from the outset, this is the kind of guy you’d enjoy going out for a beer with, he’s just “one of those guys”. Martin has been with Durbanville Hills since the beginning (1998), but his past has taken him through KWV and into Bordeaux.

Durbanville Hills is a joint venture between 8 producers and Distell (South Africa's version of Constellation) with five percent of the company set aside as a workers' trust. The winery is named after, and located in, the second oldest wine region in South Africa - established around 1702 (Constantia is the oldest, established in 1695) and is located only 12km from the sea. All their wine is grown, bottled and produced using the eight producers’ grapes, thus making the wine an “estate” product. But, only five percent of the grapes go into the thirteen wines they produce ... the other 95 percent get sold off to Distell for their other brands, that’s because they only want to make premium wines of very high quality – and not get the reputation as a jug wine producer.

Durbanville Hills sells more white wines that reds, 65 percent to 35 percent, but grow more red grapes than white, 60% / 40%. “We keep about 30 percent of the reds as opposed to 80 percent of our whites," says Martin, "we just don't need all the reds we grow ... the bulk we’re selling off is very high quality red, we just can't use it all." Durbanville Hills makes eight red wines to only five whites. The wines come in three distinct lines: the entry level "Hills” line, the reserve "Rhinofield" line (named after one of only eight floral kingdoms left in the world – the winery contributes to its preservation), and a single vineyard line (Biesjes Craal - white, Luipaardsberg and Caapmans – red) - this line is unique in its selection process - the name will always remain the same, but the vineyard that the fruit comes from is selected annually after harvest, fermentation, and aging – only then can the best be determined and the growers/producer is then issued a bonus. Only one vineyard is selected, and in the case of the Cabernet-Merlot blend, a different vineyard for each component. The specific vineyard is never mentioned on the label.

I can give you history and winemaking method up the ying-yang, but for those wondering how the wines taste, here's what you've been waiting for:

Durbanville Hills 2007 Sauvignon Blanc - $11.95 (available at the LCBO)
Nice citrus and grassy notes when cold, as it warms tropical fragrances emerge ... the palate follows the same formula with a creaminess in the mouth that's derived from two to four months of lee's contact.

Rhinofield 2007 Chardonnay - $16.00 (not at the LCBO)
This 50/50 unoaked/barrel fermented wine does not go through (“deliberate”) malolactic fermentation so that it keeps its crispness and good acidity ... the aging is nine months in barrel and/or on lees, depending on which component half you are. The smell is ripe with toasted vanilla, popcorn, cloves and spice. There’s also a citrus that Martin called "orange mold” or "forgotten in the refrigerator orange". Tastes follow with vanilla oak, good acidity and a bit of orangy-ness (minus the mold) - there's also a spicy character that appears as it warms.

Durbanville Hills 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon - $11.95 (not at the LCBO)
There's a hint of what I call "typical South Africa smell" on the nose, but it mixes nicely with the fruit, currants and vanilla. Mouth-wise the “typical” disappears, leaving behind blackberries, cedar-vanilla, and spice - while aeration really pulls out the fruit, making it juicy and almost sweet on the palate, there also a little white pepper that develops around those berries ... quite yummy.

Rhinofield 2006 Merlot - $16.00 (not at the LCBO)
Eighteen months in new French oak and ten percent Hungarian oak. Martin's philosophy, "pick the best blocks, put it in the best wood." Lovely smooth mouthfeel black fruit, red berry, juicy flavors, silky tannins and a bit of chocolate to top it off.

A few choice quotes from the evening:
When asked if Martin plans to make Pinot Noir he responded: "If I wanted trouble I’d buy an Italian car." After the laughter subsided he explained, "if I can't make a good wine consistently I don't want to make it all - I have a friend who grows Pinot and he admits he makes a really good one every 8 years or so."

When asked about his favorite wine, Martin answered, "this may seem like I’m pandering to my audience because of where I am, but it’s Canadian Icewine, that stuff is bloody brilliant, like nothing else made. I know they're expensive, but they should be expensive, because they're like nothing else."

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