Stony Brook–artisan quality in Franschhoek

The wines of South Africa have a very mixed reputation in the UK.  Ordinary consumers only rate them by price; wine lovers will buy the high-end wines as examples of mainly warm climate styles which can compete with the rest of the New World.  But we rarely get the chance to explore that middle ground of artisan wines from smaller estates.  Andover Wine Friends’ September fine wine supper offered just that with the wines of Stony Brook Vineyards, South Africa. The wines are not easy to buy in the UK but a real treat when you can get them.


Stony Brook do produce a sparkling but that will have to wait to another occasion. As an aperitif, we had instead the widely available and admirable Graham Beck Brut from the other end of the Franschhoek valley.  The tasting began in earnest with three whites which instantly show the style of the producer – they are wines of real substance, complexity and a finely judged use of oak.  I am a great believer in tasting wines without knowing their price – it forces you to concentrate on what is in the glass and there is a pleasant surprise, a confirmatory nod or a nasty shock to follow!  Having tasted the wine our whole group thought that these wines performed way above their price level.

The very first wine set the standard.  The J, 2011, named after Aunt Jackie (of course) is a three-way blend in which the Viognier (34%), and the Semillon (36%) are barrel fermented and matured for five months in second fill The whitesFrench oak barrels. The remaining Sauvignon Blanc is unoaked to add a streak of freshness.  This wine stands out for its seamless integration of fruit, its mouth-filling quality, the richness well off-set by acidity.  The whole is much greater than its parts. And remarkably it costs just over £7, astonishingly good value.  The white Bordeaux blend is slightly more: Ghost Gum White 2011, 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Semillon, with both components being barrel-fermented and matured for just under a year in second fill barriques.  Rather lighter-bodied than The J, this has superb ripe lemon fruit and a touch of sweet vanilla and smoke.  But the group’s favourite white by far was the now discontinued Semillon Reserve 2008. It is perhaps no longer offered because pure Semillon needs bottle age before it shines.  At just five years, this already had a wonderful nose and palate of wax, honey and minerals alongside its citrus and more exotic fruit. Great stuff … make some more, even if it is only a few bottles for those in the know! 

Two whites The reds are just as good.  Shiraz-Mourvedre-Viognier (SMV to its friends) 2008 is a ‘Côte-Rôtie meets the Mediterranean coast’ wine. The Shiraz and the Viognier are fermented together (as was traditional in the northern Rhône), while the tannic beast which is Mourvedre here is tamed by being picked super-ripe. Long ageing times in oak are de rigueur again, producing a big, brooding monster of a wine with sweet toasty oak over powerful raisiny fruit, still pretty high grippy tannins and a great savoury finish.  And again just £8 … One of the top reds is the Snow Gum blend, around 60% Malbec and 40% Mourvedre. We were supposed to have the 2009 vintage but Lefty (who organised this tasting) to our benefit brought the 2004 by accident.  It is fair to say this split opinion, but I loved those leather, farmyard and iodine notes you get in aged Mourvedre plus those great tannins.  We are still under the £15 mark. 

Our next pair of wines were as instructive as Lefty intended them to be.  First, the lively, immediately attractive fruit-expressive wine which turned out to be Stony Brook’s The Max (after the dog of course) 2008, 45% each of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Malbec and Petit Verdot at £8.40.   Then, De Toren, Fusion V, Stellenbosch 2008 which is mainly the Cabernets, plus three other varieties, which was slightly marred by bottle stink but then showed powerful, assertive black fruit – but at £29.  We had an exact 50/50 split by preference on these wines which were tasted without knowing the prices. 

The Stony Brook tasting climaxed with two further reds, an older bottle of The Max 2005 and their top red Ghost Gum Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, being 95% Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Merlot, aged for one year in new French oak and then blended, then back into barriques for a further 18 months.  At eight years, The Max was full of savoury, developed black fruit and more than a hint of old leather. The tannins had become long and silky.  Some did not like the tertiary notes but there is an easy answer to that – drink your wine earlier; others loved this later state.  Ghost Gum 2006 rather surprisingly did not quite persuade. All the other wines were so good that we were left a bit unmoved by its oakiness, powerful but simple fruit and edgy tannins.  For a top wine, it is still only £18 but at this tasting, we much preferred all the other offerings. 

My main question about these wines is how they are made. The fruit is properly assertive for a warm climate, the colours intense but I was surprised at the level of the tannins. There is no information on the property’s website about picking practice (ie early for freshness or late for phenolic ripeness), maceration times or fining/filtering…. There is a story to be told here.  But that is in the context of real admiration for these wines of bold character!

The evening finished with some bonus bottles from neighbouring Boekenhoutskloof, some food (mercifully) and a couple of distinctive South African sweet wines.

From Boekenhoutskloof, we had two ex-auction bottles whose labels pointed to them having had a rather tough life.  The Semillon, Director’s Chair, 2000 had not emerged from this as a characterful survivor: a surprisingly neutral nose if with fine stone fruit and minerality on palate.  The Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 showed some real class: subtle, fully mature Bordeaux blend, on the turn to garnet. 

In the sweet department, on our left, we have the light and refreshing Waterford Family Reserve, Heatherleigh, NV, a Muscat of Alexandria and Semillon blend, honeyed, sweet apricot, a bit short.  On the right, we finish with the striking image from Myriad 2003, Catherine Marshall, Barefoot, 2003 – being a fortified Merlot/Pinot Noir. That is not a typo, it is a fortified wine made from Merlot (OK) and Pinot Noir (that is a first in my experience) for a raisiny but presumably lighter effect than if it had been just Merlot.

This was a splendid introduction to the wines of Stony Brook.  Many thanks, primarily to Stony Brook of course, but also to Lefty for presenting and to him and others for the generous bonus bottles.  

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