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Tim James: Enthusing about Donkiesbaai

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Google for Donkin Bay and you get surfer’s news: apparently it’s “an exposed reef and point break that has quite consistent surf”. Google for Donkiesbaai and it’s much more interesting: wine stuff. It seems that Donkin (or Donkin’s) Bay, on the Cape West Coast just north of Lambert’s Bay, was named for Sir Rufane Donkin, whose was briefly  an acting Governor of the Cape Colony (1820-21). The Afrikaans version is a nice bit of ironical, sardonic rustic wit – there’s no doubt about which side won this little battle in the (continuing) Anglo-Boer war, reducing the imperialist Lieutenant-General, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Guelphic Order, to the gentle, stupid beast of burden pictured on the labels.

The place was where the Engelbrechts, owners of the great Rust en Vrede estate in Stellenbosch, had a remote holiday house, and current Rust en Vrede owner, Jean Engelbrecht, borrowed its name for a new wine label he was creating. He stuck to Afrikaans and local history for the maiden wine from old Piekenierskloof bushvine chenin blanc, and Donkiesbaai Steen 2011 was born – to pretty immediate acclaim.

Speaking at a lunch this week featuring Donkiesbaai wines, in the Salt River warehouse of distributor Publik, Jean told of the brand being a labour of love, experimental to an extent, where success or failure of the new brand was of comparatively little importance. As you get older, he said, you “return to the things you remember”, and this West Coast wine belonged to that world. The decision to emphasise Afrikaans on the labels is clearly part of that personal character.

With success, the new brand seems to have taken on a life of its own – though the winemaker (in the Stellenbosch cellar), Roelof Lotriet, still enthusiastically endorses the labour-of-love idea. There are now two more Piekenierskloof wines: the Hooiwyn (Straw wine) from the same chenin vineyard and a Rooiwyn (Red wine) blend of grenache and cinsaut with a slash of syrah. And a Pinot Noir from Ceres (not own grapes, but those are on their way).

The Steen manages to remain the star of the show, however – or rather, as Roelof says, the star is the vineyard. Just about everything you do to the grapes, he says, “just works”. And he does quite a lot: there are components fermented and/or matured in oak, concrete, clay pots and stainless steel. They all add up to a thoroughly excellent wine – certainly around the top end of the amazing category of Cape chenins, making it actually fair value at about R290 – with some richness of texture and vinous substance, a fresh subtle fruitiness, dry tannic stoniness. Lovely; irresistible now, but it should age interestingly; we also sampled the 2015 which showed well.

And something rather more radical is done to the chenin to make the Hooiwyn of course – spreading the grapes to shrivel on straw mats, ramping up the sugar level to make this the extremely sweet, rich and flavourful wine it is – though well balanced by chenin’s natural acidity.

Along with the Steen, my other favourite wine in the line-up is the Roowyn. Again it fits into a genre of Cape wine that is slowly coming into its own and more frequently achieving excellence once the temptation to stick at the level of fresh, perfumed, fruity charm is left behind. The Rooiwyn has all that bright stuff, but its deliciousness is somehow confirmed by the firmness of the structure, the deft precision and focus that Roelof has encouraged. At R310 it’s not the most expensive of the bottles (the good, rather “masculine”, linear Pinot is that, at R340; while the small bottle of Hooiwyn is R300 making it the priciest per centilitre); and again I must rather reluctantly admit that it is pretty good value. I’d be delighted to have it and the Steen as my “house wines”, if my house were grand enough…

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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