Size matters at Durbanville Hills?
Durbanville Hills is big. Really, really big. My guided tour by red winemaker Wilhelm Coetzee took me past row upon row of fermentation tanks huge enough to sink a battleship should the need arise. Wilhelm’s last job was at Flagstone – no baby winery itself – but it pales by comparison to this and I got the feeling that even after 3 vintages in Durbanville, he is still slightly overawed at the scale of this operation. Every year the winery processes nigh on 8,000 tonnes of grapes – mainly Sauvignon Blanc, but increasingly Pinotage, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon as well. Vast rooms of barrels, raised metal walkways, ladders reaching to the sky – honestly I’ve never seen a winery quite as big as this.
Which made it even more of a surprise when I met cellarmaster Martin Moore and Managing Director Albert Gerber, because anything less like the heads of a vast corporation you couldn’t find. From them I learnt that DH isn’t just a subsidiary of wine giant, Distell – it is actually part-owned by 9 growers whose farms produce all the grapes for the various labels and still have some leftover to sell to Distell. 5% of the winery is also owned by a workers trust which secures the longterm future of the farms’ employees as well as sponsoring upliftment, education and development programmes for them and their families. Sure there are glimpses of Distell hovering in the background like a large black bat, but for the most part, DH manages to circumvent any interference by the ‘suits’ (which is a fair comment from Martin in his farmer’s shirt and boots but a little pot and kettle coming from Albert!) and just get on and do its own thing.
And its own thing is remarkably successful. Martin tells me that he was chatting with the owner of Buitenverwachting recently who ruefully admitted that DH Sauvignon has now overtaken Buiten Blanc as the wine by which everything is benchmarked price-wise in restaurants. The entry level, Durbanville Hills range gives you exactly what you would expect – correctly-tasting, well-made wines at a more than fair price – but the real interest comes when you spend an extra few rand and upgrade to the reserve Rhinofields range and the single vineyard wines. Recently awarded 5 stars by Wine magazine, the Biesjes Craal Sauvignon Blanc 2009 is still a little green and raw but the good news is that the totally marvellous 08 is still available and should be snapped up as soon as possible.
So there are interesting and rather cosy touches at Durbanville Hills – for instance they insist that the very good onsite restaurant (which is leased out) offers all their wines at tiny mark-ups so that customers don’t feel ripped-off, and whilst I was there both Wilhelm and Martin were happy to sit, taste and chat with customers in the newly-designed tasting room – not many places where that could happen in the middle of harvest. When you are dealing with such a big brand and on such a large scale, then consistency has to be the driving force, as you would expect, but as my visit wound to a close, I really felt that the attention to detail and the obsessive passion for quality displayed in the reserve ranges just might justify their claim to be the biggest boutique winery in South Africa!