Tim James: The eminently drinkable pleasures of Noble Hill
By Tim James, 28 September 2020
Which is the hill in question, I wondered, as I stood with Kristopher Tillery looking down over his vineyards. Surely Noble Hill couldn’t refer to the slopes we were on? They are the Paarl-side foothills of the Simonsberg, which rose up mightily behind us – itself noble indeed, but hardly to be called a mere hill. But there, ahead of and below us, on the edge of the property, was the Babylonstoren – a large granitic lump abruptly rising out of the ground, and giving its full name, rather than a mere allusion, to the neighbouring farm, gardens and winery. It is unquestionably a hill. And it impressed the Dutch settlers enough to suggest the mythical tower in the land of Shinar that was tall enough to reach heaven and thus offend God, who scattered its builders in linguistic chaos around the world. Noble, arguably. But the Tower of Babylon, Paarl version, is hardly that, I’d have thought – pretty plebeian, even. Presumably, however, as Kristopher says, it does account for the farm’s well-established name.
Vines have long been grown on Noble Hill farm, but it was only after the Tillery family bought it in 2006 (and subsequently added to it very significantly) that the wines it produced used that name – and I don’t know how far back it goes for the farm itself. The previous owners had, from 2001, used Cowlin Wines as their brand. The Tillerys are Americans, but were well-established farming in Nigeria (Kristopher is the son; his mother lives on the farm but his father is based in Nigeria). They knew little about winegrowing, so for some years used more expert consultants in vineyards and cellar.
But Kristopher, now aged 36, started assuming greater control over the winemaking (and the vines). His professional education was in economics and sustainable development – he’d studied at Harvard, his only extended period in the USA since babyhood, but long enough, together with parental influence I suppose, to give him a proper American accent. Clearly, though, farming and winemaking interest him more than economics. And he can see the virtue in being a self-taught winemaker: In a sense he is, he says, “liberated by lack of knowledge… I could follow my own idea of what I liked in wine”. And he didn’t much like the way wines were being made at Noble Hill in those early years – they followed too much the prevailing fashion for big and bold statements, great ripeness, a lot of extraction, obvious oak. “My own tastes never said: ‘I really dig this!’” But it took time to start having sufficient confidence in his own judgement.
That confidence has grown and been justified by the wines. It’s over the past five years or so since Kristopher has taken full responsibility for the wines that things started becoming interesting. The aim is to express the vineyards, and winemaking is now done with minimal intervention (including spontaneous ferments, bottling without fining or filtration, less extraction for the reds, low levels of new oak – and in fact something of a move towards maturation in concrete).
He’s farming and making wines in an area – Wine of Origin Simonsberg-Paarl – that is not as fashionable as the terroirs on the Stellenbosch side of the great mountain, and the wines are arguably not as grand as the panoply of those on the Stellenbosch slopes, from Kanonkop to Delheim to Rustenberg – though especially this part of Paarl needs to be taken seriously. But they are fine wines in the understated way that Kristopher is making them, modest in the very best sense of the word, fresh and eschewing overt power. The reds remind me of the old Welgemeend – not far geographically distant – in this way (and those wines in their elegant longevity are now proving a quality that was seldom recognised in their youth).
It is, in fact, the Noble Hill reds that I most admire. The whites are good, though, conforming to the general aesthetic of understated refinement, including a textured, old-oaked viognier that certainly shows more complexity as well as restraint than many examples of the variety. The Blanc de Blancs MCC is also unusual in having no dosage added and thus being bone-dry – yet there’s plenty of ripe fruit character. And a lees-matured Chenin Blanc is particularly charming. There’s also an Estate Reserve white blend of grenache blanc, marsanne, chenin and viognier, which unfortunately I didn’t get to taste – but there’s none available, as the estate is between vintages.
Cabernet sauvignon is Noble Hill’s strongest suit, however. It is the backbone of the classically styled-2018 Estate Reserve – which is still very young, but with a firmness of structure and a balance promising harmony and complexity in years to come. The current release of the straight Cabernet Sauvignon is 2016 – the few extra years in bottle a nice bonus, with the grippy dry tannins maturing nicely. It’s an extremely good buy at around R160, I’d say; as is the Reserve at R40 more.
The Syrah 2017 is the wine harking back most to a more overt riper, sweeter style of red, yet it too is not without a pleasingly savoury dimension. It already has an admixture of mourvèdre and viognier, but Kristopher is moving towards a more emphatically blended wine, with less oak and more concrete, and generally more in accordance with his preference for lightness.
An interesting experiment – if I may call it that – is a mourvèdre made with proper carbonic maceration. Cruxes Mataro Nova 2020 is at least an outlier in the range, and marked as such by the very different label – it’s a stunning one, and would be the main reason I’d go for the wine (R109), which has a remarkably intense fragrance, but lacking depth and with rather simple boiled-sweet flavours. The other labels, incidentally, are not lacking in attractiveness, and feature old Cape keys: different ones for each variety (so four on the blends).
Under Kristopher Tillery’s direction (we could do with more self-taught winemakers when they have such intelligent and sensitive teachers!), Noble Hill has grown into a considerable estate which deserves a higher profile than I suspect it has, given the quality of the wine that is now coming off its hillside vineyards. And those vineyards, it should also be mentioned, are on the point of achieving formal recognition as organically farmed – something which speaks, like everything else here, to the seriousness of the terroir-centred ambition that is the focus.
- 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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