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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The South Africa Diary: De Morgenzon

Chenin Blanc and Syrah star at this growing Stellenbosch estate
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 24, 2013 2:00pm ET

A relative newcomer to South Africa's Cape wine scene, De Morgenzon has been quickly churning out some superb value Chenin Blanc and Syrah offerings, and has some new bottlings up its sleeve. Owned by Wendy and Hylton Appelbaum, who bought the estate in 2003, De Morgenzon debuted with the 2005 vintage. It has really taken off since the 2010 vintage, when they hired winemaker Carl van der Merwe, formerly of Quoin Rock.

Situated in a steep bowl with 200 meters of elevation from bottom to top, the vines sit on a windy, cooler spot slightly similar to Glenelly, requiring some aggressive vineyard management, including leaf pulling, to maximize the sun and buffet the constant breeze.

"Chenin's strong point is its weakness," said van der Merwe, 35, who seems wise beyond his years. "It wants to push out a lot of crop, so you have to manage that back. But I also need to expose it to the sun here and capture what I can in the morning. I don't want green notes in the Chenin, but I still want minerality. If I were on the other side [of the valley] getting afternoon sun, or in the Swartland where it's really warm, I'd be protecting the grapes with more canopy and without risk of getting green notes. But here I need to open it and get those notes burned off early in the ripening process so I can get the purity I want."

"We can ripen anything we want on the Cape—we have the sun. But can we do it well?" asked van der Merwe rhetorically. "That's the challenge. I think we need to decide what the focus is for South Africa. For me, I think it's Chenin and Syrah. Those are our real strengths. There is a lot of trend-chasing in South Africa. The pressure is on for us to get the wines sold, so we tend to be followers rather than innovators. We need to start leading with what we do best, not with what people think we should do. We'll educate the market along the way."

The winery is growing quickly: The 222-acre estate now has 123 acres planted; production hit 15,000 cases in the 2012 vintage and will climb to 20,000 in 2013.

The DMZ line retails for $15, making the wines terrific values. The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Western Cape DMZ is a new addition to the lineup, blending fruit from Stellenbosch, Elgin and Durbanville (the DMZ line blends estate and purchased fruit). Partially barrel-fermented, it delivers bright lime and kiwi notes with a hint of tropical fruit while staying bracing in the end. The 2012 Chardonnay Western Cape DMZ blends Stellenbosch, Robertson, Durbanville and Hemel-en-Aarde fruit and spends six months on its lees with minimal stirring, a tactic that keeps the wines fresh, while not dissipating too much of the protective natural CO2 buildup, which in turn allows van der Merwe to avoid heavier sulphur additions. The result is a wine that delivers clear, bright yellow apple, fennel and peach notes with a breezy, mouthwatering finish.

The 2011 Syrah Western Cape DMZ is light-bodied but persistent, with white pepper, violet and red cherry notes that are fresh and breezy enough to drink all day.

Debuting with the 2011 vintage is the Maestro Red Stellenbosch, a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc blend that delivers singed cedar, tobacco leaf, mulled currant and a light tarry note. The 2012 Maestro White Stellenbosch blends Roussanne, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier to provide a range of salted butter, brioche and white peach notes with a creamy, stylish finish. Both wines drink above their projected $25 price point.

The leader at De Morgenzon, though, is the Chenin Blanc. The 2012 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch is set to be bottled in a week or two and it's a rapier of a wine that should easily equal the outstanding 2011, with mouthwatering green almond, green fig and stone notes and a long, crackling feel through the finish that should stretch out nicely in the cellar. The precision and bright profile is a change from the slightly broader, more tropical style of the wine in its earlier vintages, such as 2007 (still drinking well) and 2009 (showing a bit of fatigue now), as it bears the stamp of van der Merwe's preferred style.

"There's less pithiness and bitterness in our Chenins than in Savennières, for example," said van der Merwe, referring to the French appellation where the grape is revered. "But we on the Cape still need to work on defining our own style. We can use the Loire as a benchmark for quality, but not for style."

"We can make wines with richness but have the balance to develop well in the bottle too. Sun, heat and wind make ripening easier. We just need to buffer that a bit with site selection and viticulture. Then we need to learn to make wines that are full-bodied but have restraint and match with food," he said.

Van der Merwe is clearly learning quickly at De Morgenzon.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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