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The Key to Simonsberg

In Japanese ‘-san’ is added to a name or surname as a title of respect. Interestingly the convention is extended to mountains as well, Mount Fuji is called Fujisan. Almost like saying Mr. Fuji, assigning this immortal entity a personality, a spirit.

The Key to Simonsberg

Here in South Africa, we’re not as nuanced, but we seem to agree. Like Simonsberg. Simon’s Mountain. The Simon in question being Simon van der Stel, the first Governor of the Cape Colony. The mountain is said to be in the shape of an inebriated man, lying down, after indulging in too much Cab. Mr. Simon himself. 

Mr. Simon

The spirit of Simonsberg, however, goes far beyond the dubious Mr. Simon. Before Mr. Simon, the French referred to it as Napoleonsberg, in honour of yet another dubious, powerful man. By this reasoning, the inebriated man then could really be anybody, but the general consensus seems to be that it should be a great man (‘great’ depending on who you speak to). While the mountain’s presence may very well have been tainted by its association with these men, no-one will contest the spirit of the place. A mountain in winemaking being one of your single greatest assets in coaxing the more nuanced berries to express themselves accurately in the wine, and while some might employ various scientific techniques to do so elsewhere, on this mountain less is more. 

Noble Hill

Kristopher Tillery, proprietor, and winemaker at Noble Hill is all about doing less to achieve more regionality. A self-taught winemaker Kristopher is singular in his quest to look inward and allow the mountain to speak for itself. His range of wines are defined by light reds, mineral white wines, very little oak, and a brief foray into carbonic maceration seen as his one attempt at scientific interference. He has commissioned large format concrete maturation tanks, manufactured locally and for the first time here in an effort toward minimal interference with the natural vigour of the wine. When asked what he thinks the defining cultivar here is, his answer is Mourvèdre. An interesting revelation if you consider the power of Cabernet Sauvignon in the area, which by Tim Atkin’s own admission is some of the best. Tim also likes Kristopher’s Mourvèdre Rosé, naming it as some of our best and a frontrunner in establishing the category here. Kristopher’s real goal, however, is toward more Beaujolais-style wines, making bold wines approachable earlier, which he does by removing the oak (not completely) and allowing natural fermentation to take place in an effort to discover the true flavours of the Simonsberg. His quest has produced a number of intriguing light red wines. The ‘Cruxes Mataro Nova’ , named for the 11ha Southern Cross farm that houses the old bush vine Mourvèdre it is made from is the product of carbonic maceration and a beautiful example of it. While the ’Sic Transit Gloria Mundi MMXV’ is a blend of equal parts Mourvèdre and Syrah, Latin meaning ‘so passes the glory of the world’ - in reference to the fleeting nature of wine. What I took away from Kristopher’s wines are two-fold. One: Mourvèdre. Two: Slightly chilled, light red wines from the Simonsberg for summer. 

Simonsberg Wines

Kristopher, as it turns out, is not only a proprietor and winemaker but an activist. As the unofficial founder, together with the owners of neighbouring Backsberg and Glen Carlo, Kristopher has established Simonsberg wines, a collective initiative aimed at championing the region. He argues that when you look at winemaking regions of the Old World, it is their regionality, more than their individual brand recognition that sells wine. A theory that seems to be resonating throughout the Cape Winelands at the moment, if you consider the establishment of a number of bodies such as: The Swartland Independent, The Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, the Agulhas Wine Triangle and Banghoek wines more recently. I think the evolution of our industry makes sense, as co-ops started to loose their economic appeal, that people would first start to champion their own brands, and then later realise the strength in unity. The interesting thing now is the LEVELS of unity. You see the Old World has legal regulations that both limit their production and strengthen their economic appeal. Kristopher says that unlike us, these well-established, legally binding wine regions leave the Old World nowhere to go. OUR newly established initiatives are interesting BECAUSE the parameters are not yet defined, the physical boundaries remain ambiguous, the focus of each changing as they become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses. At the very heart of this evolution lies Estate wines, something that Kristopher is a proud supporter of. It makes sense that if the parameters of the collectives still seem a bit ambiguous that the parameters of Estate wines / Terroir Specific wines is set as the building blocks of it. In 2011, Kristopher began exporting South African wines to a few states in the US. The experience left him with the distinct understanding that when international markets purchase South African wines they wish to drink TRULY South African wines, i.e. Pinotage and Chenin Blanc. They are not interested in how we grow Italian grapes if they can merely purchase Italian wines that have had the benefit of age and regionality. It is, therefore, our cross to bear to make wines that are truly, iconically, unapologetically South African - and support these collectives as they find their feet and establish what their regionality means to the wine they produce. 

The Key

It is quite ironic to think that Kristopher, an American by birth (though he spent most of his time in Africa growing up), had to come to unite the farms of old Mr. Simon. When the family purchased Noble Hill in 2005 they received a box of old keys to the estate, some of them didn’t seem to be for anything, maybe just a faint reminder of a forgotten past, but the symbol of the key came to represent their brand. The storyteller in me obviously contends that one of those seemingly pointless keys just HAD to be the key to the Simonsberg.  

Published On: 11/16/2019

Daléne Fourie

Twitter @DaleneFourie

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