Excelsior Wine Estate gave my first sight of the Breede River Valley vines as I turned off the R60 East of Robertson. The comprehensive listing of GPS co-ordinates in the Wacky Wine Weekend vineyards made the short journey from Robertson Winery easy. Fading leaves clutched to vine arms in the bright autumn sunshine on either side of the entrance driveway. I parked beside the large, white cellar/storage building and then walked to the Tasting Room. This was in a wooden lodge perched on stilts overlooking a dam. The setting was inviting and the best of my day so far.
Arrival and History
I arrived before the official 2 pm Wacky opening time. My reason for visiting Excelsior inter alia was to blend and label my own wine. Booking was not required but I wanted to be early, as I expected this to be a popular activity.
The intimate Tasting Room was comfortably full with wine aficionadas. I felt welcome. I sensed too that I was in for a treat. Excelsior did not disappoint. The horse theme I had noticed on the outbuildings was reflected in the wine names, logos and labels on the Wacky tasting sheet: Purebred and Paddock, for example.
They point to the history of Excelsior. As with many other Robertson vineyards, economic development has not always been easy. The farm was once home to one of the most successful ostrich breeders in the district. Ostrich plumes, the height of haute couture in the early 20th century, could sell for as much as £5 for a single feather. This was the cost of a passage from Cape Town to London. The associated affluence of the ostrich breeders led to an architectural style known as ‘feather palaces’. Kowie De Wet (the family has 5 generations of winemakers) built the Excelsior Manor house in this extravagant style: a Victorian Cape Revival house with embellished Dutch Gables.
Just as advent of the railways led to collapse of the wagon-building industry in the Breede River Valley, so too did the motor car end the fashion for ostrich feather hats, bonnets and boas. Kowie and his son, Oscar, turned to wine-making. They saved Excelsior from insolvency. Today, 220 of the 330 hectares are under vine. Three-quarters of the harvest is from red cultivars and this is reflected in the Tasting Menu.
I chose the Viognier to start as I had not tasted the wine recently and not from the Robertson area. It was a decent wine with bright, characteristic honeysuckle, floral and white peach flavours. The Shiraz Rosé, at just R40, was a bargain. The pale-medium salmon colour, strawberry and raspberry notes, and dry to off-dry not-too-crisp palate made for pleasant drinking. It was all a Rosé should be for a summer – or even a sunny autumn – day.
My tasting turned to the red wines, starting with the Purebred Shiraz/Merlot combo. I tried to get my head around how a blend could be ‘purebred’ but let’s not split horse hairs. The wine was the cheapest I tasted (just R35) and one of my favourites, vying with the Muskadel for my ‘most-liked’ wine. It just goes to show the benefit of tasting in the vineyard. The 2 cultivars, in equal amount, balanced well in colour, their combined spicy fruit aromas and tannin. I liked how it was served slightly chilled too.
The single variety, medium-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, equally priced at R55, offered great value for money too. I rated them much the same. Both were decent wines, good in colour and full of fresh flavour. The tannins in the Cabernet Sauvignon were drying without being too grippy, that belied their age. The Shiraz offered sweeter notes of violet (I rarely pick up this aroma that often is mentioned in Tasting Notes) mingled with red plum and white peppercorn on the nose.
I could not resist sampling the sweet, dessert Rooi Muskadel. I couldn’t find out much about it other than it contains 16% alcohol. The bottle is designated Wine of Origin Klein Karoo with reference to Pietersfontein, Montagu on the label. The delicate pale salmon colour surprised, though perhaps it shouldn’t have from the name. The wine was as pleasant and drinkable as the Rosé, warm in the mouth with grapey, raisin and apricot flavours.
Blending – more Fun
The highlight of the tasting – and the reason for coming to Excelsior – was the chance to blend my own wine. Three small barrels, each containing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz, sat on a long shelf on one side of the Tasting Room. I chose first to make my personalised bottle label as the computer was busy, slightly cramped in one corner beside the bar. Label design proved to be fiddly because of how the computer was set up but well worth the patience to do so.
I hadn’t blended before but have booked a place on the Garagiste Course at Stellenbosch University in mid-September. My approach was both plan and trial and error. My first thought was which cultivar I wished to be the lead. I decided from my tastings so far on a Shiraz-led blend. Which should be the next largest component? Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot? I reckoned that the drying tannins in the Cabernet Sauvignon would add structure to the Shiraz, so made this the second biggest amount. The Merlot would add some cedar notes to fill and balance.
Beneath each barrel was a small measuring cylinder. The method, I was advised, was to use this to experiment and make the best tasting wine. Trial and error then took the place of theory. This was fun. I eventually decided on 67% Shiraz, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Merlot. I have no idea of the technical correctness of the blend but it tasted good! My final task was to convert the proportions to the right amount to fill a 750ml standard wine bottle. Calculations done, I rested the bottle in the cup beneath each barrel tap and filled it to the desired level using the graduated markings beside. Minor final adjustment was needed to fill the bottle to the right level.
My final task was to bottle and label. The corking machine attracted quite an audience. Corking was easier than it looked but everyone posed and took photos to make it look really tough! Self-adhesive label applied – and a second bottle made for a friend – and my wine was complete.
Excelsior Wine Estate was a great place to visit and a vineyard I would recommend. The wines offered great value for money, higher in quality than those at Rooiberg and Robertson wineries and at very little extra price. I bought more bottles here than I did from any other Wacky Wine Weekend wine farm. The blending was something very special too and more than just a gimmick. My sole remaining consideration is how long to age Peter’s Vintage before drinking …
Wines tasted (* bought):
2017 Excelsior Viognier – R50*
2016 Excelsior Caitlyn Rosé (100% Shiraz) – R40*
2015 Purebred Shiraz/Merlot (50% Shiraz, 50% Merlot) – R35*
2015 Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon – R55
2015 Excelsior Paddock Shiraz – R55*
2012 Kapelsloot Rooi Muskadel (375ml) – R50* FAVOURITE WINE