On Friday, an exercise aimed at putting the three examples of Shiraz produced by Stellenbosch winery Hartenberg in context. “The concept of terroir has its supporters and its naysayers,” says cellarmaster Carl Schultz. “Let’s see if these wines provide any insights”.
First, the 2004 of the standard bottling, shown because this was a “classic vintage”, moderate conditions allowing for fully ripe reds at reasonable potential alcohols. What was striking about this wine is that combined both richness and freshness, the two qualities often mutually exclusive. According to the back label, it had an alcohol by volume of 15% so how could it possibly be so lively? Schultz admitted that he does add acidity at crushing. “The secret [to ensure it is not jarring in the end-wine] is when you do the addition. We would never add after ferment”.
There are 15 different Shiraz vineyards on the Hartenberg property, and the standard label is an assemblage from the top nine or 10. This amounts to 3 000 to 5 000 cases (depending on vintage) out of a total production of around 40 000 cases, which may sound like a lot but Schultz says he’d hate for consumers to view it as a “catch-all wine”. With library stock of the 2004 available at R170 a bottle from the farm, and the current release 2006 (sixth in this year’s Global Trader Shiraz Challenge convened by WINE magazine) at R130, there aren’t going to be very many who treat is as a quaffer. If there is such a thing as a catch-all under a Hartenberg label, then it would be the Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz blend, volumes of this amounting to between 15 000 and 20 000 cases.
Onto The Stork, the vintage shown on this occasion being the maiden 2003. The wine celebrates the late Ken Mackenzie, who bought Hartenberg in 1986. He originally served as Spitfire fighter pilot in World War II, his call sign having been “Stork” and hence the name of this cuvée. It’s unusual in that it is from a 4.6ha vineyard planted on rich, deep red Tukulu soils contrary to conventional wisdom that holds Shiraz would do better on a site of low vigour. This was at the behest of consultant Alberto Antonini, formerly chief winemaker at Antinori in Italy and one of the key figures in pioneering the Super Tuscans. Was Schultz surprised by his consultant’s advice? “Initially, I was dead against it,” he says.
What’s resulted could hardly me termed “delicate” or “ephemeral” but “arresting” it surely is with great richness and breadth of palate. “It’s unashamedly big and powerful and it needs food and hearty food at that,” notes Schultz. It spent 26 months in 100% new French barrels and he reckons he could have left it even longer as it just kept “soaking up the oak”. How does he view the wine now? “It’s our answer to the Barossa, which also has deep, dark, very fertile soils. There age of vines typically keeps vigour under control. We have to use techniques like cover crops”. Total production is around 450 to 500 cases and the current-release 2006 sells for R325 a bottle.
Lastly the Gravel Hill, named thus because it is derived from one particular site that has very little soil in an ordinary sense, the vines planted on ferrous stones some 40 to 50 cm deep above a bed of clay. “[Master of Wine] Jancis Robinson refers to Shiraz as the “Mediterranean weed” and it’s vital to control its vigour. It only comes to greatness in tough places,” says Schultz.
Vintages served were the 2000 and 2005, the hallmark of both being that they were full-bodied but with great poise, intensely flavoured but not weighty. “Gravel Hill has length and elegance that I’m not sure The Stork is designed to have,” says Schultz. “It’s an intelligent, intellectual wine and something that you buy with a fair measure of trust as it takes at least seven years from vintage to start to come around. If well made, Shiraz can be as long-lived as Cabernet Sauvignon”.
While The Stork is made from the SH99 clone associated with the more Mediterranean southern Rhône (and which first came to prominence for Schultz when he encountered the legendary Stellenzicht 1994), Gravel Hill is made from clone 470, more usually linked to the continental northern Rhône. However exciting The Stork is to drink, the Gravel Hill is the more classic offering.
Maiden vintage of Gravel Hill was 1995 and for a long time it was reserved for sale on the Cape Winemakers Guild auction, the 2004 being the last to be sold there in 2007, fetching an average price of just shy of R600 a bottle. The 2005 was made generally available last year, total production amounting to all of 550 bottles, asking price from the farm being R675.
It wasn’t entered into this year’s Challenge as Schultz feels that if had to compete, then it would have to be decanted first “to fast-track its development”, a benefit that he accepts is logistically impossible to grant it. “I’ve been making it for a good few years now and I would prefer its reputation depended on credible third party endorsement”. Should any wine be allowed to escape being directly reviewed against its peers? This might just be one.