Friday, March 06, 2020

A walk through Plaisir de Merle with Cathy van Zyl MW

An invitation to visit Plaisir de Merle in Simondium for a media function was very welcome. It is an estate which we had never visited before but meant to; there are so many wine farms that we still have to visit, new and old and some like this that we often drive past and say, “we must come soon”. Prompting had the desired effect and we do seriously regret not having visited sooner

With other members of the media and trade, we were to take a walk around this historic estate with Wine Master Cathy van Zyl to learn of the farm's 300 year history and, most importantly, taste the wines of this iconic estate. Plaisir de Merle means 'At the Pleasure of the Blackbird' in French and is derived from the name 'Le Plessis Marly', a small town in the middle of France and home to the estate’s first guardian, Charles Marais. It is a very beautiful and historic estate, on the slopes of the Simonsberg - one of the largest wine farms in the Cape at 974 hectares, of which 400 are under vines. You come up a long driveway and turn right for the tasting room and the older part of the farm

The welcome could not have been more spectacular; the table in front of the old Landhuis, built in 1821, the only surviving house of its kind in the Western Cape. The huge oak tree hung with chandeliers, with Bubbly and water cooling in champagne buckets full of ice, very welcome on the hot day
The Plaisir de Merle MCC Grand Brut is a very enjoyable blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, red berry fruit from the Pinot, and limes from the Chardonnay, with warmth, hints of nuts and complexity
Fans on the table to help us cope with the heat
The path up to the cellar
Sue and Duimpie Bayly were also guests. Duimpie has been involved with the estate for many years,
first through his work at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and then as Group Operations Director of Distell
Across the warm vineyards, you can see a church spire
Acorns dropping from the trees, a sign of approaching autumn
Our host for the day was Robyn Bradshaw, the Global Marketing Manager, Libertas Vineyards & Estates,
the Distell offshoot which now owns the estate
Cathy van Zyl MW, begins her history chat. She said she would keep it brief but detailed and it was very informative
Cellarmaster Niel Bester has worked at Plaisir de Merle since 1993. He welcomed us and it was good to see him, as he was very busy with harvest and made time for us. He was picking Shiraz that day. He said that it is a promising vintage. He told us that his wine making is very simple; he lets the fruit speak for itself, as it is fruit that makes the wine last, not the wood or the tannins
Cathy telling us about the history of the farm
Multitasking for Lynne: listening, writing and tasting at the same time
The farm deed was granted to Charles Marais in 1693 by Simon van der Stel. He was one of the first French Huguenots to come to South Africa and settle in the area and also one of the few who had any experience of growing and making wine. He planted grapes on the farm. The farm was owned by five generations of the Marais family. In 1705, Claude Marais (who took over the management of the farm after his father died) declared 8000 vines and 6 leaguers of wine. By 1729 an inventory of the estate declared 20 leaguers of wine worth 25 rix-dollars each; they were successful, no longer poor and were making money
Our first foray was across the lawn to the Landhuis to taste the delicious Pinot Noir,
which we so enjoyed that we have made it our Wine of the Week
Fellow guests enjoying the terrace
The Pinot Noir for the bubbly was from grapes grown for JC le Roux in Stellenbosch. Pinot Noir has been planted on the highest vineyard on the Estate and is now being harvested. There are two vineyards, one at 700 metres above sea level and another at 620. They grow the 777 clone. These vineyards were planted in 2014 and the first vintage is this 2018. The harvest produced 6 x 320 litre barrels. They harvest the top vineyard twice. The farm, in conjunction with Cape Nature, has installed camera traps which document and record wildlife. The Cape leopard, honey badger, various buck, barn owls, otters, mongoose, and caracal are but a few species of the fauna to be found on the farm. Thankfully, no baboons stealing grapes
A resting winemaker!
Sitting in the shade, hearing history
Cellarmaster Niel Bester talking about his wines
Plaisir du Merle 2018 Pinot Noir has incense wood from the expensive new French oak barrels used;
it has quite a dark nose which leads one to expect wine with dark fruit but no, it is full of ripe plums and mulberries on the nose
Silky soft and delicious with cherry fruit in abundance, with long elegant flavours. So hard to put down!
One of the best Pinot Noirs we have tasted in a while. And so different from the others. R350 on the Estate
Next we strolled towards the moat and the waterwheel of the small mill behind it
This bit of the moat conjures up pictures of Venice and gondolas. We learnt that Stellenbosch Farmers Winery bought the farm for Nederburg Cellar when Günter Brözel took over as their winemaker. In the late 1980s and early '90s, the farm was planted with many German varietals and was used to trial different grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon
Next wine on offer was the 2019 Chardonnay. Bready, yeasty, grassy and golden on the nose with apple, acorn and pale oak
Warmth of alcohol, cooked apple with rich pastry and Calvados. Of course it’s familiar, its Tarte Tatin in a bottle!
And there are long flavours, with wood just supporting
Inside the Mill, they had laid out a table of patés, butternut humus, toast and mushrooms which were tucked into with gusto
The mill still grinds grain, but very slowly
They only use it for guest demonstrations, buying a sack of local wheat and gifting the flour
It is a beautifully crafted machine, powered by a water wheel
Since 1993, Chardonnay has been part of the wine portfolio. Niel does not use too much oak or look for too much creaminess
It is all barrel fermented in 50% new oak and left on the gross lees for 9 to 11 months
Then we walked to the front of the cellar and tasted the flagship wine, Charles Marais 2013, which is a classic Bordeaux blend of 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Petit Verdot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot. Definitely, a wine of quality when you taste it. Incense wood, spice, good dark berry fruit with some black pepper, cassis and red currants. On the palate, it is intense, with more spice, pepper and chilli heat, then cassis, mulberry and salty licorice. 16 months in 100% new French Oak and the oak does not dominate at all
Parasols had been supplied to shelter us from the sun
We were in front of the cellar, which was built in 1992 and opened in 1993, and we could study the crest above the door
Many of its elements refer to the history of the farm. The blackbirds in the grape vine, the cherubs representing Bacchus,
the Lion of Africa and the horse which pulled the ploughs on the farm, and above them all, the eagle 
and, at the bottom, the ship that brought Charles Marais to the Cape and 1693, the date the farm was granted
The griffon drainpipes send water to the moat and above every window there is a dove that signifies political freedom
which South Africa was granted in 1992, when Mandela was freed and the ANC was allowed to be a political party at last
Into the huge barrel cellar,
where there are some innovations, ceramic amphoras
and where we tasted the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon. Intense cassis on the nose with a hint of violets and soft oak wood
This is repeated on the palate, it is a cassis bomb, with hints of heat and pepper, mulberry on the end
with long fruity flavours and wood support
Their 2010 Cabernet "Did quite well" said Niel modestly
The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. Green cassis leaves, almonds, cherries and smoke on the nose. Richness and fullness,
pure blackcurrant fruit; with some chalky tannins and a touch of salt on the end, with more green cassis leaves
Anyone lucky enough to have some is very fortunate, A beautiful wine
Shiraz grapes in the crusher
Some clinging on!
Niel spoke about the grapes, the quality and the harvest
Newly harvested grapes just arrived, waiting to go into the cellar
In front of the Farmhouse, an area on the lawn to relax
Visitors just chilling in the late afternoon sunshine and enjoying the wonderful landscapes
Up to the Farmhouse
where the table was laid for an early supper
Ta Da! a Victorian Picnic, prepared by Dish Food and Social. The table was groaning with food
cheeses, rolls, figs, grapes, hot smoked salmon with a horseradish mayonnaise
Individual pork pies and one enormous raised pie, shredded duck,
sliced rare beef topped with tomatoes and, in the rear, the desserts
A fruit tart, a berry Charlotte, pannacottas, small individual tarts, a meringue pavlova, two fruit jellies and a rose petal cake
Choices, too many choices...
A game terrine, grissini, a tomato tart, fresh asparagus and some individual quiches and onion tarts
The cheese selection
Chocolate and apple tarts and that Rose Petal cake, which was a delight, layers of soft sponge with cream
subtly flavoured with rosewater, topped with raspberries and fragrant rose petals. The berry Charlotte is in the background
A bruléed custard tart
Those pork pies with one blackbird peeking out
Some beautiful 18th Century china in an elegant antique display cabinet
Duimpie Bayly with Cellarmaster Niel Bester
and a real treasure, the original deed granting the farm to Charles Marais
The chef described the food to us before we all tucked in manfully
and driving back to Cape Town in the Uber that they so kindly supplied, we saw fantastic layered cloud formations
over Table Mountain. from high stratospheric clouds to storm clouds, wind clouds and fluffy mist shrouding the city
And sunset just beginning to glow behind Lion’s Head and Signal Hill
The end of a great day at Plaisir de Merle. Thank you

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