Comfort zones

If she’d spent her teens in the noughties, Catherine Marshall would have been a skatergirl (or sk8rgurl...) or a dippy hippy chick with flowers in her hair and bells jangling around her ankles if it was in the 60’s!

And it’s hard not to appreciate this fey side to her character when she was presenting her latest vintage releases at Cape Town’s Ellermann House recently – a simultaneous new vintage release and celebration of 20 years of winemaking.

“I’d been wondering for a long time what it was all about, why this, what more, what’s my meaning and my purpose?” she admitted. Her soul searching coincided with a visit to Everest base camp, staring at the hunk of rock which so many aspire to conquering. Standing looking up at it, with a bottle of her own Pinot Noir in hand, her questions were answered.

“This is what it was all about – Pinot Noir is my Everest!”

It might not seem like an epiphany to those who have known her for some time because her affection and love for the Burgundian red grape is well known. Her wines – from the first foot-stomped vintage decades ago – serve as a vinous library with each vintage a new edition.

“It was around 2011 that I realised I had to take Pinot more seriously. I HAD been up to then – but it’s such a demanding grape and it demands more every year!”

So she did. Five years on from then her latest trio of 2016 Pinots display notable maturity and are a remarkable tribute to her distilled vision of what Pinot Noir can and should be; its expression within a South African context. She stuck to Elgin fruit “because it’s a remarkable valley with 30 confluences of rivers and watercourses from dinosaur days, running into one another and flooding and depositing sediments.”

Winemaking was absolutely identical on all three wines and the delineation is solely from the terroir. 2016 Pinot Noir on Sandstone Soil differs from 2016 Pinot Noir on Clay Soils differs from the 2016 Finite Elements, a curated blend of the two. The wines are subtle – yet powerful. One displays more violet and red fruits on the nose while another has a more abundant palate, one is more restrained and linear with another muscling its way to the fore with grip and concentration.
“Pinot Noir moves me. It stirs my soul in a spiritual way.”

But the fascinating thing was to listen to Marshall talk about being challenged by a client to make a Riesling.

“I knew nothing about it! I had to go and research and do all the work because it wasn’t a grape I was familiar with or had a plan for... I had to really dig deep to make it.” And the Catherine Marshall Riesling 2016 (fortunately for Riesling fans!) is one which will be added to the range for the foreseeable future. “I found a stunning vineyard in the Kogelberg biosphere in Elgin. It’s very special block of Riesling, grown on red slate – like in the Mosel.”

Her description of the wine which weighs in at a toned 10% alcohol with acidity of 7g and residual sugar of 4.8g is that it is “chiselled”. It’s taut, limey, slatey, mineral and lip-smackingly dry – and will no doubt age with distinction.

Equally fascinating is a newly-released Chenin Blanc, labelled Chenin fermented in Clay – because 70% of the wine was fermented in clay amphorae. “I put it in the amphorae, closed the lid, sealed it with wax and left it.” 13 months it lay undisturbed and untouched. The remaining 30% of the wine had gone into second-, third- and fourth-fill Chassagne barrels from Burgundy.

“The philosophy was to make a Loire-style Chenin that is restrained and elegant, with pure, bright fruit that has good mouthfeel and palateweight.” It too is a singular wine.

There are those who would say that winemaking is not an art: it’s a science because of the viticulture, viniculture and the chemistry behind it. But when you have a practitioner such as Catherine Marshall questioning the aesthetic, the beauty and creativity of the final product has to absorb some of that fey, artistic ethereality while still remaining grounded and rooted in reality.

Much like the indomitable Ms Marshall.

-Fiona McDonald