Winemaker Jean Smit has joined forces with David Curl, ex-Château Gaby in Bordeaux, for a new project, Damascene, billed as their most exciting release in a decade.
“A Damascene moment is one in which your perspective shifts completely. A moment you will remember for the rest of your life,” shares winemaker Jean Smit, previously of Boekenhoutskloof and Rustenburg. “It’s what we’re trying to do with our wines.”
The word ‘Damascene’ comes from the conversion of St. Paul to Christianity while he was on the road to Damascus. But lunch today with Jean is more from the vine than of the divine.
Wines From The Western Cape
Damascene is a new range of wines made from vineyards across the Western Cape. The launch portfolio includes the Damascene Stellenbosch Syrah 2018, the Damascene Stellenbosch Cabernet Franc 2018 and the Damascene Franschhoek Sémillon 2018.
The venue for this mind and palate shift is The Shortmarket Club in the heart of Cape Town. It’s a decadent dive, all mood and sumptuousness with copper lamps and leather-clad tables. Ensconced inside velvet booths, Jean pours us glasses of the sémillon.
Damascene doesn’t have a brick and mortar home. Rather it lives in the soils, the winds, the vines twisting out of the ground; there are 20 different sites across the Cape and Jean is the custodian, pulling these threads together to create some of the finest expressions of post-modern South African wines.
The project is a collaboration between Jean and David Curl, former owners of Château Gaby in Bordeaux. It all began with the Moya Meaker Pinot Noir made in memory of David’s late mother-in-law from pinot on his Elgin farm.
“David and I met in mid-2017 and formed Damascene by October of that year. We had an immediate sense of shared vision and recognised the passion we each held in striving to make something exceptional. Currently we rent a 120 tonne cellar just outside of Somerset West. Our first three vintages will be produced there. In June 2020, we will be moving into a custom-built cellar being constructed on David’s Elgin farm.”
A gastronomic wine, the sémillon is perfectly suited to The Shortmarket Club’s style of food, contemporary and nuanced. The vineyards for the wine were planted in 1942 (South Africa’s oldest sémillon vineyard) and 1962 respectively on the alluvial soils of Franschhoek.
“We are acutely aware of how fortunate we are to be working with this unique piece of South African viticultural history. A large percentage of these bush vines mutated to sémillon gris which adds to the unmistakable complexity of the wine.”
Made in an oxidative style the Damascene Sémillon 2018 is all about texture. The components of sémillon gris, the bunches are characterised by their pinky-grey colour as opposed to semillon’s golden-green, add a savoury depth. South Africa has the largest amount of sémillon gris under vine in the world which is rarely found anywhere else.
In the early 1800s, 80% of the vines in South Africa were thought to be sémillon, then known as groendruif or ‘green grape’ as it was so ubiquitous. By the mid-1800s over half of the semillon had mutated into semillon gris. An old vine phenomenon, this mutation happens slowly from vine to vine, and only to plants that are at least 30-years old.
Damascene Stellenbosch Syrah 2018
On to the Damascene Stellenbosch Syrah 2018. A devotee of the varietal, Jean experienced a damascene moment with syrah.
“A profound moment was tasting the 1997 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah for the first time. This wine showed me exactly how far syrah could be taken in Stellenbosch. To make the Damascene Syrah we experimented with 15 different sites and chose only two of those vineyards to put in bottle. To push things further we used in excess of 10 different types of fermentations from submerged cap to variations on whole bunch in order to create the ultimate expression of syrah.”
His hard work has more than paid off. It’s the finest example of syrah I have tasted yet. It manages to be both weightless and full of depth. Floral perfume and spice lead to intensely concentrated fruit with an intrinsic energy that speaks to place. It’s a damascene moment.
Damascene Stellenbosch Cabernet Franc 2018
Finally, the Damascene Stellenbosch Cabernet Franc 2018. The wine is inky in its crystal glass, picking up and reflecting the low lights of the restaurant’s moody interior.
“The cabernet franc is planted at 290m above sea-level on an east facing decomposed granite slope in Stellenbosch,” explains Jean. “This provides an extremely long hang time, allowing us to make a cabernet franc with intense dark and red fruit and a distinctive fennel profile that is hard to find in South African cab franc.
“With Damascene we truly have a blank canvas to work with. We have no requirements to make wine from anything except what we believe to be the best vineyards in the country. What has amazed me the most in the first two years of this project is how open, friendly and helpful the wine farmers of this country are. I have made countless new friends and I can assure you that the vast majority of those in the viticultural industry are passionate about their crops and the future.”
What’s next for Damascene? “I’m going to keep you guessing,” Jeans says with a smile.
In amongst the shifting soils of the Cape, more damascene moments lie waiting to be unearthed, and I for one, can’t wait to drink them in.
The Damascene and Moya Meaker wines retail for R400 and R250 respectively and are available from winecellar.co.za
Words by Malu Lambert