Monday, July 7, 2014

Warwick Estate: Stellenbosch in a Wine Glass

I recently visited South Africa for the first time and had some incredible experiences. I've been chronicling my South African wine adventures for a few weeks now, but before I shift to other places and wines, I wanted to talk about a memorable visit to Warwick Estate in Stellenbosch.

Warwick produces a wide range of wines. Their entry-level Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are delicious and crowd-pleasing white wines that I’d love to see on some by-the-glass lists. Warwick’s high-end Cabs and Bordeaux blends reach that next level of quality and depth, tempting you to take advantage of the cellar door prices and load down your suitcase.

My wife and I visited Warwick before lunch one day, and tasted through the lineup with Mike Ratcliffe, who manages his family’s estate. Mike, the third generation Ratcliffe to run Warwick, is also a partner in Vilafonté, a Paarl-based project that makes some seriously impressive Cabernet- and Malbec-based blends. He shared stories of his family’s history, information about the estate vineyards and the fable of the wedding cup, which inspired Warwick’s wine labels and the brand’s overall aesthetic.

The Warwick wines are fresh and modern, but the whole Warwick experience is tinged with history. From 1771 until the end of the Anglo Boer war in 1902, the Warwick Estate was a farm called De Goede Sukses. When the war ended, Colonel William Alexander Gordon bought the estate, and as the Commanding Officer of the Warwickshire regiment, he changed the name as a tribute to his regiment.

Stan Ratcliffe bought the estate Warwick Estate in 1964 after searching the Cape for a good spot to lay down some Cabernet Sauvignon roots. His wife Norma became interested in the winemaking process and began studying. She was good at it, and in the late 1970s she became head winemaker.

In 1984, she released her first Cabernet Sauvignon, La Femme Bleu, now called The Blue Lady. Two years later, she produced her first Trilogy, a wine that would go on to become a reputable South African Bordeaux-style blend. Norma’s work was recognized by her colleagues in the South African wine world  she became the first woman member of the Cape Winemakers Guild and the only woman to act as Chairperson.

Today, Warwick pays homage to Norma Ratcliffe’s trailblazing efforts by continuing her work with Bordeaux grapes, and through the label art, the brand imagery and proprietary names like The First Lady.

Here are my notes on Warwick’s lineup…

2013 Warwick Estate Sauvignon Blanc Professor Black - South Africa, Western Cape
Fruity and floral on the nose, with peach, green melon and some lemon pith, a slight but pleasant seaweed note. Fresh and fruity on the palate, not green and herbal, with a salt and mineral touch to the generous peach fruit. Very pleasant, easy-drinking style. Includes 14% Semillon. (87 points)

2013 Warwick Estate Chardonnay The First Lady - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch
So tropical on the nose, with juicy mango, guava nectar and honey. Rich and plush on the palate with guava and honey, some freshness from the acid. An entry-level, unoaked, playful wine, approachable but still well made and attractive. (86 points)

2012 Warwick Estate Chardonnay The White Lady - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch
Much more complex on the nose than the First Lady Chard, with lime and white peach, slate, crushed sea shells and hazelnut shells. Tangy and fresh on the palate, but a perfect blend of richness. I get mixed apple and melon fruit along with slate, mineral and lots of dried flowers. The hazelnut and toasted coconut shaving flavors are woven in perfectly. Long and pure, this is fermented in 1/3 new French oak using wild yeasts, no maloactic fermentation and they roll the barrels instead of stirring the yeast to reduce oxygen contact. A very pretty Chard that could develop more with near-term cellaring. (90 points)

2011 Warwick Estate Cabernet Franc - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch
Aromas of red berries, black pepper, English breakfast tea, some pepper, sweet lavender. Firm tannins, rich but velvety with lots of smooth berries. Complex notes of cedar, spice, cigar box, some black olive, cola and spice. Herbaceous qualities add complexity but play back-up. So silky but I'd wager this is three-to-five years from its peak and it will hold for much longer. The tasting room attendant said Warwick was the first in South Africa to make a varietal Cab Franc (this is 100% Cab Franc). Aged 24 months in 60% new oak. (90 points)

2012 Warwick Estate Cabernet Sauvignon The First Lady - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch
Juicy raspberries and strawberries on the nose, along with cola and spice. Fleshy and juicy on the palate with bright berries, cedar and cola. Smooth, fresh, very pleasant and enjoyable now. 100% Cabernet aged 18 months in old oak. Ready to drink now or in the near term. (87 points)

2012 Warwick Estate Pinotage Old Bush Vines - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch
Smells of spiced berry tea, cola and juicy strawberries. Fine tannins and medium acid provide a lively mouthfeel for the fig, raspberry and strawberry fruit. I get notes of roasted coffee, smoke and sweet cola. Soft, almost elegant, with a spice-toned finish. I probably wouldn’t guess Pinotage if served blind, but it’s very nice and I really enjoy this polished style. Aged 9 months in old French oak barrels. (88 points)

2011 Warwick Estate Three Cape Ladies Cape Blend - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch
Smells of sweet raspberries and blackberries, along with cola, smoke and tar. Solid tannins on the palate with pulpy plum and tangy black currant fruit. Notes of violets, iron, cedar and coffee add complexity. Finish with tar and smoke. A big, pretty, ageworthy blend of 37% Pinotage, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Shiraz and 4% Merlot. (Normally, there are only three grapes, hence the name Three Cape Ladies, but this year they put in a dash of Merlot.) (88 points)

2010 Warwick Estate Trilogy - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch
A dark purple color. Aromas of deep black cherry and plums, mixed in with red licorice candy, tobacco, spearmint and charred meat. Silky but bold with interwoven tannins and medium acid. Berry compote is laced with spearmint, pepper, mocha and subtle vanilla and cedar. Great balance. Gorgeous now but could easily benefit from five to 10 years in the cellar. One of the best Bordeaux blends of my trip, this is a very impressive wine worthy of serious attention. A blend of 56% Cabernet, 30% Cabernet Franc and 14% Merlot, aged 26 months in 60% new French oak. (92 points)

2011 Warwick Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Blue Lady - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch
Aromas of black currants, smooth plums, earth and cola. Grippy on the palate with lots of power. Black currants, plum, earth and charcoal. Also I get notes of black olive, tobacco leaf, wet leaves. This is made from a few select barrels that would’ve gone into the Trilogy, and I like how Warwick bottles this separate Cabernet. It’s muscular but also elegant. All Cabernet, aged 27 months in 60% new French oak. Wow. (91 points)

If you ever find yourself planning a winery tour to Stellenbosch, I highly recommend visiting this estate. Warwick is open for tastings from 9-5, 365 days a year, so just show up and enjoy yourself.


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