Hartenberg has been around a long while. This property on the Northeastern slopes of the Bottelary Hills has had vineyards on it since the mid 1690’s. 20 years ago they hired winemaker Carl Schultz, and it was to celebrate his 20th vintage that I was at the farm recently.
We celebrated with a vertical tasting of Hartenberg’s flagship wine, the Gravel Hill Shiraz.
I’ll give you my notes below, but I first want to comment on what I learned about wine during this tasting. It makes you look a fool, even if it’s only you that know.
I have struggled with the big, hefty Hartenberg Shirazes in the past. Hah, struggled, that’s wine-speak for disliked. They were too big for me. Too dense and impenetrable in their youth for me to begin to grasp or like them. And I, being young, arrogant, and altogether uninformed, dismissed them. I placed my preference ahead of a quality judgment. In so doing I never gave the wines a chance, and I never gave myself a chance to understand the wines.
Wine is a nightmare to discuss, appreciate, and judge. It is a vastly complex chemical concoction, tasted by emotionally troubled, easily influenced and inherently flawed humans, who must then pronounce ‘objectively’ on the subject. It’s no wonder we get one of these ‘wine tasting is bunk’ articles one a year.
Sometimes you are lucky enough to get a second chance. After the vertical I haven’t entirely changed my mind on the Gravel Hill Shiraz; my preference at least. They are not, to be honest, my cup of English Breakfast. The quality of the wines however, is beyond question. They are excellent, carefully made, balanced wines that any cellar is better for owning. They are, however, not to my taste. These powerful wines don’t offer the delight I look for in Syrah. I am happy I can now say that from an informed position, rather than because I simply didn’t understand the wines.
We tasted six wines, the 1997, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. All the wines are made from the single Gravel Hill vineyard. The vineyard first identified as top quality in the 1970’s was only produced as a single bottling after Carl joined the Cape Winemaker’s Guild in 1993. The wine was produced only for the CWG until 2004, after which it became the Gravel Hill Shiraz, the estate’s flagship wine.
Planted in the 70’s, the vineyard – like many in the country – suffered from leafroll virus, and during an 8 year period replanting (from the late 90’s to early 2000’s to ensure continuous supply) Carl worked with Andre Van Rensburg of Vergelegen to find the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus.
The block has a thin layer of ‘koffieklip’ soil on top of a few metres of clay. This geology adds to the wine’s power, and assertive tannins. They are big wines. Wines of power. What Impressed me most was that all six wines were in balance. Despite their size and power, none felt extravagant or over weight, even the ginormous 2005. This balance is down to two aspects. One that the vineyard is cared for meticulously. As Carl said, quoting from the 2008 film Bottle Shock, “the best fertilizer is the footsteps of the viticulturalist.” The other reason for this balance is how the knowledge of the vineyard is used. The vineyard is broken up into eight parcels, which are picked individually over a two week period, each parcel is in balance when picked, the results of which are quite obvious in the wines. This is crazy attention to detail when you think there are only between 150-600 cases made each vintage.
If you want to taste these wines, and have the wallet to do so, the farm has kept back wines from the 2001 vintage, so you are able to purchase wines going back 12 years with only a 15% premium. This is important, and as Carl said, they want “to get a chance to prove the wines can age.”
[A note on my notes. I mentioned that these wines were not exactly to my taste. My exuberance in note making seems to suggest the opposite. I write here what I liked in the wines, and why I think they are of excellent quality, keeping my own preference out this time. I hope that makes sense]
Cool, late ripening vintage. Gravel Hill picked 1st March. Similar to 2007.
This was the only wine where the colour had softened a bit. Carl said it was from ‘another era’, suggesting I think, that the wine was made in a slightly lighter style than those that followed. The nose had a touch of tomato leaf showing the wine’s age, with spices – cumin in particular which I found through all the wines – and a mushroom, truffle edge. There was, however, still the faintest red fruit aroma. The palate was bright, and fresh. If perhaps more developed than real complexity still a balanced, excellent wine. A silky, Honourable Galahad Threepwood of a wine, it hadled its age impeccably.
Hot vintage for Hartenberg
Still inky and dark with a defined rim. The difference compared to the 97, despite the years, was marked. The nose was all savory. Meaty, bacon, with dark fruits. The palate matched the nose. Broad, dense and grippy. There was good concentration and intensity, but with the relaxation of age this was not a challenge to drink. Black fruit, spices, good length, again all in balance. Coming back to the wine 30min later, a pronounced malty note had taken over. The wine a dapper gentleman, although a rather bombastic one.
Cooler vintage that produced elegant reds
This was one of my favourites. Although a dense, inky purple, the nose had bright red fruits along with the dark. This seemed (other than the 07) the most pure fruited wine. Fantastic freshness on the palate, elegantly structured with graceful, fine tannins. Again I found cumin spice on the nose. There was some tomato leaf and mushroom notes owing to the age, but these stayed well in the background. The finish was long, and turned finally to a dark, chocolate. Of all the wines I found this to be the most complex. A beautiful, long haired, free wine that will still kick your ass at the Time’s crossword. Balanced and pure.
Short and early harvest. Hot. Big wines.
Living up to the harvest description this wine was a bruiser. Everything was denser, and more concentrated. Dark black fruits on the nose, with a little oak spice evident. Still massive on the palate, with assertive tannins, and a slightly bitter finish. Perhaps shorter than the others too. Despite this I found the wine still to be in balance, carrying its extra weight well. Angular, muscled and large, with great bushy eyebrows, a wine that could “open an oyster at sixty paces”.
Coolish vintage, producing milder tannnined reds.
This wine seemed a little closed at first, but opened up later on. Fresh and bright with a mix of red and black fruit on the nose. The only wine I found any pepper notes on rather than a spicy cumin. Still tight, wound up. Far lighter than the monster 05 Very clean and fresh. On the lighter-side of full-bodied. A pretty wine, with some fierceness, but my least favourite on the day.
Cooler vintage, small berries produced elegant structured wines
Another Gravel Hill that serves its vintage well. A broad nose, array of fruits, still quite primary, touch of oak spice. Again spicy cumin notes. The palate is rich, broad and dense, but with a freshness and balance that seem to draw out the finish for ages. It is far from ready, with serious tannins, and a solid structure. A super wine that competes with the 04 for the wine of the tasting. I believe it will age beautifully. It manages to combine the lightness of the 04 with the intensity of the 05 and carry it off brilliantly. Balance again is the hallmark of this vineyard. A precocious wine, that will be drinking well for another 10 years.
A final thought
I think what impressed me most about all of these wines was the balance and structure. It’s hard to taste 6 wines in balance. You forget they are in balance, as it is a characteristic most obvious when it is silent. It would have been easier if in the middle we had tasted a wine out of balance, to remember how sure-footed the Gravel HIll is. However, I found the wines perhaps slightly lacking in real complexity for me to be moved by them. The greatest wines I have tasted have flummoxed me by their complexity, these ones came close, but just didn’t have it. If you enjoy big, muscled Stellenbosch Shiraz, however, there are few better to buy, age, and drink.
Oh, and my more perceptive readers will see that I have been reading rather a lot of P.G. Wodehouse again.