Muratie Wine Estate; history hangs heavy, but the wines soar

Friday, 10 May, 2013
Dave March, CWM
If you are making a brief visit to the Cape winelands and are looking to get a feel for the history and heritage of the area, there can be few wineries that offer what Muratie Wine Estate does.
Just off the R44 north of Stellenbosch, Muratie is surely one of the earliest established homesteads in South Africa( in 1685, the same year as Groot Constantia ) and after 328 years, with the last 90 of those making wine, it retains more original features than most others of that era.

No doubt Constantia can offer the visitor a sleek and informative look at a truly historic wine estate, but if you want to feel what it was really like to live not long after Simon Van der Stel gave his name to the nearby town of Wildebosch, then head to Muratie.

Heritage and tradition ooze from every ivy covered crooked stone wall at Muratie. Approached through abundant and charmingly unmanicured gardens, the entrance to the cellar is as unpretentious as it could be. Already you know you are stepping back in time, the light changes, the smell more earthy and the walk past old barrels and dusty nooks and crannies and across ancient stone floors leads you deeper into a world before electricity and uniformity.  Muratie developed naturally, nothing is artificial or embossed, outbuildings scatter from the main house and the visitor’s cellar seems like a maze of damp and dimly lit old barns. I once spent several minutes removing a cobweb from my sleeve having leant too close to a window in the tasting room. In fact, the tasting room is an image that stays with you. Old wooden bar, uneven floors, small, misshapen windows, simple furniture and low ceilings, and all seeking the passage of time, unhurried and preserved.

The characters behind Muratie are as colourful and intriguing as the buildings are rustic.  Ask about Laurens Campher or Ansela van de Caab or Ben Prins or Ronnie Melck as you sip wines that carry their name. Or enjoy the artwork from the man who planted the country’s first Pinot Noir, the renowned George Paul Canitz.  Ansela’s story alone will tear at your heart and send you home feeling a little bit richer. Their lives are truly epic, and you understand what this place has witnessed and what it means to the present owners, Rijk and Kim Melck.  Talk to Rijk (don’t worry, he’s a  people person and loves to welcome visitors) and you realize that this estate is much more than a business and that legacy and respect come way before making profit.

Look at the wines, though, and you see that here rusticity ends. Rijk and winemaker Francois Conradie aren’t held by any outdated practises and are not scared to change things if the wine warrants it. Hygiene is high on the list, and tradition is not a straightjacket in their winemaking. Despite this, the wines are remarkably reflective of terroir and whatever tweeks in style or variation of harvest, ferment or oaking Francois makes the wines sing of ‘place’. And what a place.A spectacular vertical tasting recently left its audience convinced.

It began with the Lady Alice 2010 MCC – another story to request- full, rich and with just enough biscuity bottle age to give the fruit character. Then to a range of the Isabella Chardonnay. Suddenly, I was no longer bored with Chardonnay.  Perhaps I was in the minority, but I loved the Burgundy weight and crisp fruit pushing through the buttery malo and oak of the 2008 and 2009. The 2010 reflected a change in style. Still whole bunch pressed but the MLF was done in French oak and stopped earlier and the wine has more Chenin-like malic and toasty tangerine than previously. The honeyed notes, chewy texture and layers of flavour had me write down, ‘lovely, 93/100’ and after the slightly more mineral 2011, the 2012 made me a believer. This wine, yet to be released, is stunning and I scored it 94/100. Youthful, but it stood up to the salmon and venison entrées well. It is elegant, poised and multi-layered and has Montrachet sophistication. It bridges Burgundian weight and class with vibrant, pristine fruit and attack.

The Muratie Shiraz is traditionally made in open fermenters and plunging is done the old fashioned way. Yields are uneconomically low, at around six tons per hectare and all expressed fruit above oak, despite a proportion of American oak and new oak on the younger wines. The 2005 showed length and classic structure and the 2006 carried the 15% alcohol reasonably well, though it was beginning to show through its herb and spices. The 2007 was still young and yet to open up, but the 2008 was the star (94/100).The nose was intense, with violets and lavender and the wine was full and ripe yet elegant and classy. Alcohol is restrained, at 13.5% and there was delightful white pepper, herbs and savoury plum coming through. The 2008 overshadowed its big brother, the flagship Family Selection Shiraz at three times its price. Yes, the FS Shiraz is beautifully crafted and intense, but for fruit purity and structure, the baby brother has the edge. The 2009 was grippy, less weighty and dry, despite its 4grms of Residual Sugar /L, with lots of rustic red berry fruit, and the 2010 showed pristine fruit and real explosions of flavour in the mouth; quite delicious (94/100).

The 2005 Ansela van de Caab Bordeaux blend was Merlot based, and I fear I was alone in enjoying its bold ripe flavours, all smooth and rich (92/100).  Most agreed the switch to Cabernet with varying dollops of Cabernet Franc were better structured wines, though the 2006 was a touch too ‘green’ and grippy for me. The 2007 was subtle, a ‘slow burner’ and as yet tight and very dry.  Again the star was the 2008 (93/100), not a vintage of note locally. Classic structure and elegance were the hallmarks, with exuberant pristine fruit and integrated tannins, drinking beautifully now and you can imagine the delight of this wine with the succulent lamb shanks put before us. The 2009 and 2010 need more time. The ’09 is brooding, quiet and deep and will unwind deliciously, and the 2010 had a more expressive nose and crisp yet intense mouthfeel, it also needs more time.

Bravely, I attempted the pears poached in the 2009 Ben Prins Cape Vintage to finish. It was a mistake as the near 20% alcohol infusion made me surrender. I was glad to see I was not alone in hoisting a white flag.

The food and wine were classic combinations and the wines displayed quality everywhere. Despite the weight of history at Muratie, there is nothing sluggish about the wines or fussy about the welcome.  Take a glass of Chardonnay and wander amongst the original artwork and under the ancient eaves, breathe in the musty aromas of three hundred seasons and imagine the conversations of Ansela and George and Ben; it is a living history.

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Muratie Wine Estate
Muratie Wine Estate

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