The last time I visited David Trafford's place, my lower back took a week to loosen up after driving up the steep, bumpy road to his winery. I was secretly hoping it would be better-paved this time, but no such luck.
No matter. The incentive to meet and taste with David is more than enough to power through. I'm often asked what my favorite wines are, and I always say I can't play favorites, especially as a professional critic. What I put in print is what I stand behind. But let me make this clear if a decade's worth of reviews haven't made it clear enough already: David Trafford makes some of the most distinctive, compelling wine in South Africa. And his Syrah is one of my favorites.
Tucked up in a kloof between the Stellenbosch and Helderberg mountains ("kloof" is the local word for the closed end of a valley), Trafford's small hillside winery hasn't changed a bit since I visited in 2007. He still farms just 12 acres of vines, while buying in some fruit from neighboring vineyards along the valley. He still produces just 3,500 cases annually (with a scant 10 percent to the U.S. market). And he's still a soft-spoken, thoughtful winemaker.
Trafford is replanting a small parcel on the estate, part of what he calls his "succession plan," as he deals with the effects of a virus that shortens the lifespan of vineyards on the Cape. He's pulled out Pinot in favor of Syrah—despite his affinity for Pinot, he realizes his winery is known for Syrah and Cab and that a Pinot doesn't seem to make much sense in his lineup.
"In Europe, if you know your vineyards will last 40 years or more, then OK, great," said Trafford. "But here in our situation, if you want to succeed over time, dealing with leaf roll virus or dead arm disease, you have to plant for going forward."
"Old vines are great, but I think sometimes that old-vine fruit can be too concentrated. I've tasted some of those Rhône wines where they keep the old vines separate and for me, sometimes they're too much. I think a little young-vine fruit brings both accessibility and balance to the wine. The tricky part is when vines are eight to 12 years old, especially Syrah. They're adolescents and difficult to deal with. But young-vine fruit can be terrific and I like blending it with old-vine fruit. So, with the plantings we have from '94 and the new stuff, I like the balance of the farm now," he said.
The 2010 Syrah Stellenbosch 393 is the estate's top Syrah bottling, with just a slight name change that kicked in with the 2009, Syrah instead of Shiraz, and then the elevation of the house added as well, to mirror the name of the winery's top Cabernet bottling. "It's sad, the connotation 'Shiraz' now has in the marketplace," said Trafford. "But we really felt we had to make that change. People were thinking it was an Australian wine. Just part of the struggle we have as South Africans to get known."
The 2010 sports delicious loganberry, briar and plum sauce flavors with a thread of ganache stitching up the finish, which is focused and finely tuned.
The 2009 Syrah Stellenbosch 393 shows a similar loganberry, blueberry, violet and spice profile, but not as briary through the finish, with a juicier, anise-tinged feel and silky tannins that are remarkably refined. The 2008 Shiraz Stellenbosch is fleshy and broad, with anise, plum compote, blueberry coulis and singed apple wood notes, but no angles at all from the more obvious toast as it stays integrated all the way through. The 2007 Shiraz Stellenbosch has stretched out, showing alluring violet, steeped plum and boysenberry fruit with very silky texture despite its weight. The long, fine-grained finish echoes with pain d'épices. It's a beautiful wine and continues to demonstrate why it earned a classic rating on release.
With the 2005 Shiraz Stellenbosch, the wine starts to show a chunkier, grippier profile, despite the extra bottle age, as toasted spice, black licorice, plum paste and steeped currant fruit rolls along, laced with briary tannins that provide an energetic finish. It still has lots of vibrancy. The 2003 Shiraz Stellenbosch delivers pastis-soaked plum, blackberry cobbler, ganache and black tea notes, with ample grip and power still showing through the finish. Even the 2001 Shiraz Stellenbosch hasn't lost a beat, sporting pastis, steeped raspberry, blueberry and plum skin notes, singed anise and briar and lots of graphite coursing through the finish. It's intriguing to see the older wines showing a darker, more muscular profile than the younger vintages from 2007 and up.
"But that's when the young-vine fruit started to go into the wine," noted Trafford. "And the young-vine fruit is primarily French clones, which has more spice and finesse, versus the earlier vintages which are the initial plantings--so the vines had matured, plus South African clones which have less pepper and spice aromatics and more of that dark, powerful fruit. The more recent vintages show the young-vine fruit ameliorating that old-vine muscle, making the wine more supple. And I like that combination."
The top Cabernet bottling here is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and the occasional drop of Cabernet Franc. The 2009 Elevation 393 Stellenbosch is smoky, with lots of tobacco, sage, mulled currant, steeped spice and well-singed cedar notes. Think Dunn Howell Mountain combined with Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernets. Or just think de Trafford.
"People always ask me why I put Shiraz in the blend with the Cabernet. 'Why not do a proper Bordeaux blend?'" asked Trafford rhetorically. "But Shiraz is one of the things we do really well here. And besides, I bet the Bordelais would love to put some Syrah in their wines. They used to, after all, in the past," he said with a gentle laugh.
The 2008 Elevation 393 Stellenbosch continues with the savory, sage, mint and roasted mesquite profile, followed by dark mulled cherry, black currant and smoldering black tea notes. The 2005 Elevation 393 Stellenbosch has no Cabernet Franc in the blend and the aromatics seem even more expressive, with warmed sage, tobacco and cedar leading the way for dark currant preserve, black cherry compote and a smoldering, charcoal-loaded finish that has amazing restraint.
Trafford is equally skilled with Chenin Blanc, which he sources primarily from the neighboring farm. Always barrel-fermented in a mix of 225-liter and 700-liter barrels, but with minimal new oak (down to 15 percent in recent vintages), it's one of the most distinctive and ageworthy Chenin bottlings from the Cape. And each vintage is adorned with a slightly different label, reprinting a painting by David's wife, Rita. The wine is always bottled unfiltered and Trafford never inoculates for the fermentation.
"We haven't bought a package of yeast since I've been here," he said matter-of-factly.
The 2012 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch had just been bottled and it shows bright salted butter, macadamia nut and creamy white peach flavors with a gorgeous mouthfeel. The 2011 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch has heather, chamomile and a flash of quinine along with honeysuckle and white cherry notes and a long, pure finish. The 2008 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch is where the wine starts to broaden out, with five years of bottle age, showing orange blossom, peach, pear, melon and green fig fruit, while staying creamy and beguiling through the finish. The 2006 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch is surprisingly youthful still, with clementine, green almond, macadamia nut and sweetened butter notes that stay lively and bright through the finish, perhaps a function of the increasing restraint that Trafford has shown with the oak regimen for the wine.
"That's two factors," said Trafford. "One, when you start, you have only new oak, so it takes a while to get a barrel program where you have a mix of new and used barrels you can trust. Plus, when we started, Chenin had basically no reputation, so making a showier wine was necessary to get it noticed. Now, our customers know and appreciate the wine and we're able to tone the oak down a little."
"But still, every wine we make sees oak," said Trafford. "We have no stainless tanks, except for topping off juice. I think oak brings something to wine, even old barrels. In tank, there's no oxygen exchange, no motion in the wine as it ages. You don't get that mouthfeel. In the end, I want more of the feel of oak, rather than the flavors."
The 2003 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch is now fully mature, with creamed white peach and heather honey flavors offset by a feathery thread of kafir lime. There's stylish minerality on the finish for balance, but overall the wine drapes languidly, with a long, creamy finish. The 2001 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch shows crème fraîche, lime custard and flashes of green almond, chamomile and quinine. It's gentle and soft now, with a languid feel as well.
"I'm comfortable taking the wine to about 10 years out from vintage," said Trafford. "And I think the new vintages will stay a bit fresher longer as they age. But for me, the way I prefer to drink wine is to watch a wine evolve over time, drinking a bottle of it every year or so to see what it does. I like that better than putting it away and trying to time it, waiting for just that right moment and hoping you get it right at its peak."
Sage advice from one of the Cape's most experienced winemakers. I'll also be visiting Trafford's new project, Sijnn, out in Malgas later during this trip.