Continuing the family tree lineage from Hamilton Russell, winemaker and owner Kevin Grant started his own Ataraxia Mountain after leaving Hamilton Russell in 2004, following a 10-vintage run there. Located a 20-minute drive up the valley from HR, at the highest elevation in Hemel-en-Aarde (1,300 feet, versus 600 feet for Hamilton Russell), Ataraxia is located in the newly created Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge ward, a windy site with a convoluted mix of convex and concave hillsides, though the soils are very similar (clay/shale) to what's down below.
"I farm little bumps of soil," said the bespectacled Grant, 51, with a wry smile.
Grant immediately started planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay after he bought the 116-acre estate in 2004. During my last visit here in 2007, Grant was still sourcing fruit primarily from outside to get production rolling while waiting for his own vineyards to come on line. There are now 30 acres of vines planted, split equally between Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the two varieties Grant earned his stripes with at HR and aims to hang his hat on at Ataraxia.
The site is further inland—5 miles from the sea versus about a mile for HR—but the wind and elevation offset whatever increase in warmth there might be. I asked if the wind, which prevailed noticeably during the entire time we walked the vineyards during my visit, is the biggest problem for managing the site.
"The real problem here is the three Bs: birds, buck and baboons," said Grant, alluding to the area wildlife, which likes dining on ripe grapes.
Grant was drawn to the site, formerly a part of the Nidderdale sheep farm and apple and pear orchards, partly because of its reputation as being a poor spot for farming—making wine is counterintuitive to normal agriculture.
"When this was a sheep farm, people in the area always mentioned how the sheep from here were smaller than the other farms. To me that had to do with what they were grazing on. And I realized it was a very poor site in terms of nutrients in the soil—so ideal for devigorating grape vines."
Those poor soils have made getting the vineyard established a bit harder than on a more fertile site. See the accompanying video as Grant talks about how he is approaching his new vineyards.
The first Ataraxia wines were commercialized in the 2005 vintage and production is now up to 9,000 cases annually. The bulk of the production is currently represented by the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Western Cape, which uses sourced fruit. It's very juicy, with kiwi, lime and mâche notes and an engaging, bright, pebbly feel on the finish. After a cold ferment, the wine spends a few months on its lees and sees no new oak. Grant also tweaks the acidity, a fact he doesn't hide.
"I'm still unapologetic about acidifying," he said. "If the wine needs a correction, I correct it."
Entirely barrel fermented, using about one-third new oak, the 2012 Chardonnay Walker Bay is nonetheless steely in feel, with citrus rind, melon rind, honeysuckle and white peach notes and a pure, stony finish. The wine only goes partially through malolactic to preserve freshness, though it also spends 10 months in barrel with bâtonnage (stirring of the lees). The 2011 Chardonnay Western Cape is broader, with green melon and green fig fruit, pear skin and citrus oil notes along the edges and a nice broad feel through the finish, as the barrel ferment starts to assert itself with the extra bottle age.
"For me, wood and Chardonnay is like tarmac roads and white lines. They go together," said Grant. "But you need to get the right wood and only leave it the right amount of time in oak. You don't put elegant Chardonnay in a well-toasted barrel, for example. You want to optimize the expression of the vineyard."
The 2010 Chardonnay Western Cape shows lovely creamed Jonagold apple, melon and pear custard notes, but it's far from blowsy, with honeysuckle and meringue notes defining the finish. The 2009 Chardonnay Western Cape is fully mature—plump and friendly, with melon and pear fruit, lightly toasted brioche and a hint of papaya on the finish. It's flattering, but I prefer where the 2010 is, right at the balance between richness and freshness.
2011 marks the first vintage that Grant used his own Pinot Noir fruit. He vinified and bottled a wine, but declassified it down from his main label and sells it for just a few rand at the winery.
"I need to keep my finger on the pulse of the winemaking and the vineyard, rather than just selling off the fruit. But I'm not commercializing it until it's right," he said forcefully, a testament to his desire to hit a quality level before making a broader release. The 2011 Pinot Noir Declassified (it has no wine of origin as it was not submitted for formal certification by the industry's regulatory body) shows airy cherry fruit, a light savory note and a gentle, open-knit finish. The 2012 Pinot Noir Declassified was just bottled in December. It shows a step up in intensity as the young vines start to take hold of the site, with a flash of kirsch, red cherry and strawberry fruit. It's bright and longer than the '11, but still has some filling in on the midpalate to do.
"That's exactly it," said Grant. "The density clearly isn't there yet."
Is Grant frustrated or surprised so far by the time it is taking to get the Pinot Noir up to his level? "Frankly, yes, I'm a little surprised," he said. "But I know these soils can do it. We just need to get a handle on the site itself, the wine, the sun. Since it's such a naturally low-yielding soil, I think the vines are taking a little longer to really establish themselves. But I'm still confident we'll get there."
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