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Dinner with Rianie Strydom of Morgenhof Estate 

Rianie Strydom is the young winemaker at Stellenbosch winery Morgenhof Estate (pictured right), whose wines I’ve enthused about in the past. I got the chance to quiz her when I was sat next to her at a dinner put on by Morgenhof’s UK agents, McKinley Vintners. The venue was Smith’s of Smithfield, a trendy, buzzy sort of place, which with its noise and ‘atmosphere’ wasn’t the ideal place to take detailed tasting notes, so I’m afraid my account of the wines won’t be as exhaustive as usual (I can hear some readers breathing a sigh of relief). 

First some background. Rianie started at Morgenhof in 1991 when she was still a student, working for the previous owners. The Estate was purchased in 1993 by Alain Huchon and Anne Cointreau-Huchon, and Rianie started working here full time in 1994, assisting Jean Daneel. She took the job as chief winemaker in 1999, having had control of her first vintage in 1998. She seems quite young to have been entrusted with such a responsibility, but the results speak for themselves. These are wines with poise and a fair amount of elegance.

What does Rianie think about Pinotage? ‘There are three mentalities about Pinotage among South African winemakers’, she explained. ‘There are those that love it, those that hate it, and then those that try to do something with it.’ I guessed from this answer that she’d put herself in the third category. What about cape blends – red wines where Pinotage is used together with other varieties? ‘I don’t like using it in blends’.

And Syrah/Shiraz? ‘I don’t do it. Everyone’s planting Shiraz at the moment. They are going over board, and there’s going to be an oversupply problem in the future’. According to Rianie, part of the success of Shiraz is because it is easy to work with. ‘It’s hard to go wrong with Shiraz; you get away with more’.

I quizzed her about her thoughts concerning terroir, a predominantly European worldview that is often derided in the new world. ‘It’s an important concept’, she replies. ‘More grapes that have been planted correctly are now coming into production in South Africa. We concentrate Sauvignon on south-facing slopes and Merlot on western and southern slopes. Cabernet is grown on eastern and north facing slopes.’ Although she is a winemaker, she has studied viticulture and takes a keen interest in it.

Like many of the younger winemakers from the new world, Rianie has broadened her outlook by stints in the classic European regions. In 1996 she spent some time in Mersault (Burgundy), working with Rene Monnier, and in 1997 she visited the Languedoc and spent 17 days in Italy. Then, in 1998 she did the vintage at Chateau de Franc in Bordeaux. I asked her about the wines that she would regard as her benchmarks, or inspiration, and the names she cited included Cheval Blanc and Pichon Lalande Comtesse – clearly a leaning towards Bordeaux.

Rianie and her husband (who is also a winemaker) have their own project: they’ve recently purchased 8.3 ha of land in Stellenbosch that is currently home to fruit trees. They are planting Merlot, Cabernet and Shiraz, with a view to making just one flagship wine that will not be varietally labelled – again, the Bordeaux influence showing here.

What about the wines? First up is the Morgenhof Sauvignon Blanc 2002. This is an impressive rendition of Sauvignon, made from French clones. The ripe nose shows lots of grassy fruit. Lovely balance here: nicely poised with lots of aromatic fruit. A hit. Next, the 1999 Merlot, which is quite a structured wine, showing attractive chalky, minerally notes. I like this: it’s not too sweetly fruited and shows elegance and restraint. The Merlot Reserve 1998 is much bigger and the fruit is much sweeter. There are minty, tarry notes, and although it’s lush and opulent I find there isn’t quite enough structure to keep it really interesting. Production was 500 cases. The next wine is clearly quite ambitious, as evidenced by the wax seal over the cork: it’s the 1998 Centnaire Reserve. 2000 bottles of this Bordeaux-style blend were made, and it spent 14 months in new oak. It’s a rich, ripe style with lots of lush, smoky, tarry fruit. The palate is opulent and rich, with spicy tannins and good acidity. Despite its size, it manages to stay balanced. This was followed by the 1997 Premiere Selection (so this was made before Rianie was in charge). This is a very attractive structured, minerally wine with more than a whiff of Bordeaux about it. It’s quite savoury with a touch of spice. Nice balance, too. We finished with the 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a leafy, minerally edge to the blackcurrant fruit. A fine set of wines overall that justify the relatively high prices (by South African standards) that are being asked for them.  

Stockists for Morgenhof wines include:

The Holland Park Wine Company - 020 7221 9614
Harrods - 020 8479 9595
The Haslemere Cellar - 01428 645 081
Stanton Wine Company -  01386 852 501
Wm Addison (Newport) Ltd - 01952 686 500
The Bristol Wine Company - 01173 730 288

For more details contact McKinley Vintners, UK agents (ph: 020 7928 7300 info@mckinleyvintners.co.uk)

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