Tim James: The delicious range of Blackwater wines

By , 9 November 2020

Francois Haasbroek of Blackwater Wine.

Google for “Blackwater” and you get to scroll through an alarming list of stuff about international mercenaries, sewage, and dreadful diseases. Add “wine” to the search (always a good move!), and you find out about one of the Cape’s most pleasing, underhyped ranges of new-wave wines. The name comes, incidentally, from the blackish tone apparent (so Francois Haasbroek assures me) in the rivers of Stellenbosch. Blackwater Wine is the label Francois established a decade back, and that now comprises up to a dozen always interesting, generally light, and ever elegant and fresh wines.

Stellenbosch and its black waters scarcely feature in the far-flung list of wine origins, though it’s generally been his home-base. He’s now the resident winemaker at De Meye (and already having an entirely positive impact on that hitherto innocuous but unexciting range – more of that story some other time), so that’s where Blackwater Wine has its home. Some time back, Francois was winemaker for quite a few years at Waterford, where he made a fine reputation for himself; he left in 2013 to spend more time on his own wines – though he continued with some significant consultancies, notably at Bloemendal.

It is, in fact, reflective of Francois’s approach that his wines come from all over the Western Cape (from Swartland and Darling via Robertson to Elgin and Bot River), as he’s sought out interesting parcels of vines, and farmers he can work with closely, with some comparatively rare varietal offerings (carignan and palomino), alongside those often associated with the new wave (cinsaut, grenache, syrah, chenin blanc. And although on the more mainstream side there’s no cab or merlot, there’s a pinot noir and a sauvignon blanc (but look out for a splendid 2020 cab franc eventually) – and, tucked away in the cellar somewhere, a fascinating skin contact riesling. The alcohol level of that wine is just 10.5%, and something of an outlier, though generally Francois’s alcohol levels are modest-to-low, without the wines ever dipping below the level at which character and vinosity emerges.

It was at De Meye, on the Paarl edge of Stellenbosch, that I met up with Francois recently for an early spring sampling of the current releases – mostly 2018s – in their new, standardised livery. All are pretty modestly priced for the quality (prices quoted below are ex cellar-door, and lower than retail it seems to me), starting with the fruitily generous Underdog Chenin Blanc and unusually characterful Highroller Sauvignon Blanc at R85. At R150 is one of the cheaper serious pinot noirs around: Cuvée Terra Lux, from Elgin, which is pretty good, though not particularly charming; firmly balanced and dark.

Real interest comes with the next level (R175). Daniel Grenache, from Bot River fruit, is a particularly good buy: ripe, as I agree with Francois grenache needs to be, but pure and fresh, with a lovely silky richness that is deeply sensual (porno satin sheets, suggests Francois – I wouldn’t know, myself). Zeitgeist Cinsaut, also 2018, from old Darling vines, is light at 12% but with some substance; savoury character as well as the expected fruit. (It was a tough year for cinsaut generally, and the forthcoming 2019 is much more perfectly balanced.) Both these reds are properly dry, which is always a delight to find.

The white at that price is the 2017 Chaos Theory Blanc, which eventually got approval from the authorities. It’s light bronze in colour thanks to the 30% clairette and 10% palomino being skin-fermented to dryness; the 60% chenin is ex barrel. Fascinating stuff, with that savoury skin character coming through with delicacy; elegant and bone-dry, and a touch of tannic grip; playful rather than monolithic, and an excellent food partner. Just a little pricier is Pleasure Garden Palomino 2018 – at 12% alcohol it is, believe it or not, quite late-harvested, from a cool part of Ashton. Perfumed, almost floral (and with a character that back-reminds you that sherry’s aromas and flavours are partly derived from the grape – this grape); matured in a concrete egg, adding to its poise and softly textured refinement.

There are two wines at R275. Picquet Chenin Blanc, from mature and low-yielding Picketberg vines whose tiny berries give a phenolic bite to the wine, is aromatic, complex and vibrant. Cultellus Syrah, ex-Swartland schist, though, is usually the star of the range – certainly, the excellent 2017 is (a deserving Platter 5-star wine); it’s a touch fresher and more perfumed than the currently available 2016 which it will soon be replacing. But the 2016 is also no slacker, with (like 2017) surprisingly powerful fruit for the 12% alcohol (2017 a little riper), to finely balance the serious dry tannic structure. Well-priced, very good examples of Swartland syrah.

I’m not going to claim that all of these are the greatest wines of the new South Africa, and nor would Francois, but I can honestly say that it’s hard to find a range that gives me greater drinking pleasure on release (and I have drunk all of these wines with and without food, not just “tasted” them): they are honest, lively, unpretentiously fine, and delicious. Worth seeking out and they should be better known – though I suspect that Francois puts vastly less effort into selling them (the larger part is exported, mostly to the US) than into making them. Publik is the distributor, but you can get them directly by emailing Francois, who could also arrange a tasting at De Meye.

By the way, if you do go out to De Meye for Blackwater reasons, don’t forget to try the latest wines from the estate, notably Francois’s new 2019 Cab Franc. I’d further recommend – especially if the day is lovely and you can sit under the trees for a serious luncheon – that you sample the first-class table d’hôte of Table at De Meye.

  • 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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