As Jean Smit wanders alone through forgotten vineyards, in what others perceive as baron land, he is searching for a damascene moment , goosebumps, an epithany.
“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. “It’s what we’re trying to do with our wines.”
Smit, part owner at Damascene, is a winemaker without borders, passionate about celebrating unsung pockets of South African terroir. He is a vinehunter, soil farmer, terroisite – so much more that a conventional winemaker, searching for memorable vineyards in order to show the diversity of the South African wine-growing regions. After all, we have the oldest and most distinct soils in the world.
“I spend countless days on the road, covering thousands of kilometres, visiting vineyards and farmers in search of special parcels of land.”says Smit.
From over 45 unique vineyards he is currrently working with, he produces some of the most honest and exciting wines being produced in South Africa. His maiden vintages blew away critics locally and abroad. Each bottle takes the consumer on a memorable journey with Smit.
“What I love about DAMASCENE is always seeking out that next moment that shifts my perspective on winemaking,” says Smit. “When you walk into a vineyard, or onto a virgin site, and it contains everything you ever wanted in one place. Soils, aspect, slope, altitude; you can just sense all of these invisible factors coming together. It sends a shiver down my spine and I simply can’t believe my good fortune!”
Towards the end of last year, mid global pandemic the second vintage of Damascene was released. Wines which proudly showcase South Africa and it’s amazing terroir. It was the hope we needed, the Damascene moment that everything was going to be ok. It gave all the critics, and wine lovers alike, a shudder down their back. It was a step up from the impeccable maiden vintage and confirmation that this producer meant serious business.
“These new releases raise the bar, confirming that these terroir-specific wines are set to become new local benchmarks and that Damascene is the most exciting newcomer to the South African wine scene in the past decade”James Pietersen, CEO of Wine Cellar.
I was fortunate enough to to be asked to taste these wines at the equally formidable Tintswalo Atlantic. At the time of the much anticipated second release, the critically acclaimed Damascene range of wines were pretty much sold out. As I sat there, my mind was blown, my palate seduced, I sourced and secured what I could from various online merchants. No South African wine collection however big or small would be complete without Damascene.
Damascene Franschhoek Old Bush Vines Semillon 2019.
Semillon is a cultivar enriched with history, it was one of the first varietals planted in The Cape in the 1600s putting it at the core of The South African wine industry. In fact in the 1970s, 73% of the plantings in South Africa were Semillon, compared to in 2017 where devastatingly that has dropped to a mere 10%. Damascene proudly showcases Franschhoek Semillon – the unofficial home to the varietal. From two separate bush vines, one which was planted in 1962 and the other, one of the oldest blocks recorded in South Africa, was produced twenty years prior.
This is the kind of wine that intrigues your senses; after a few minutes of swirling and indulging in its expressive aromas, you dive deeper and deeper in awe of nature and the midwife who guided its journey from grape to your glass. Ambitious, complex, indulgent and gracious. For all those who doubted Semillon, critics who said it merely produced dull tasteless fruit, to those who pulled out the vines to replace with more commercial cultivars, I urge you to taste this wine and reconsider.
On the nose, aromas of warm spiced peach, pear drops and subtle ginger captivate you and whet your appetite, bewitching notes of jasmine and dusty gravel roads peruse. The palate is generously fruit-driven with a sublime waxy, intricately textured and luscious mouthfeel. A melody plays in perfect harmony between the mouthwatering acidity, weight and lingering savoury finish. Utterly captivating.
Damascene Stellenbosch Cabernet Franc 2019
From the cooler east-facing slopes of the Bottelary, Smit has found a treasure trove of Cabernet Franc. The trellised vineyard was planted in 2004 on soils of decomposed granite, at an altitude of 260-metres above-sea-level. Comments Smit: “This low-yielding vineyard produces small bunches that offer incredible concentration, structure and ripeness at low sugar levels.”
Deriving from two unique sites in Stellenbosch, 20% Polkadraai and 80% Bottelary. This dark and broody yet poised Cabernet Franc bellows fresh spices and playful red fruit. A wine of beguiling elegance and purity. Vibrant acidity and pebble stone minerality intermingle to enliven the senses. Fresh fennel, raspberries, violets unfurl. Fine, intricate tannins. A wine which makes me wonder why Cabernet Sauvignon is the favourite sibling. This is the charming, intelligent, svelte brother who doesn’t wolf whistle to get attention but opens the door and stands back for the lady to pass. A very fine gentleman indeed.
Damascene Stellenbosch Syrah 2019
The inaugural release, the Stellenbosch Syrah 2019 is sourced from the Bottelary and Polkadraai Hills – each site adding a building block to the wine. The vineyard on Polkadraai Hills was planted on a southeast slope in 1996, and contributes perfume and spice to the wine. While the structure and fruit intensity comes from a vineyard of low-yielding granitic soils in the Bottelary.
The syrah goes through carbonic fermentation for thirty days, culminating in a lucid wine of great fruit purity. The fruit is bright and juicy yet dark and deeply routed, freckled with savoury spice and violet perfume. A vibrancy runs through the wine that is absolutely compelling.
Damascene W.O Cederberg Syrah 2019
“We drive more than 40,000km per year, kilometres we rack up in the pursuit of discovering new sites,” shares Jean Smit, winemaker of DAMASCENE. “Sometimes, after a while, the lush green pastures disappear, even the road signage,” he muses. “You climb to nearly 1000m above-sea-level and then once you are surrounded by even higher mountains and fynbos, you stumble across some of the most unique vineyard sites in South Africa.”
One particular site he’s referring to was planted in 2006 on the oldest farm in the Cederberg, which dates back to 1790. High up on crumbling sandstone soils, the vines are rooted in the underlying ferricrete. This is extreme viticulture. The Syrah clings to the edge of the world, nothing but the heavens above – and whatever manner of climate it wants to pour down, be it wind, rain, snow, it does unheeded.
At 940-metres above-sea-level this isolated pocket benefits from a wide diurnal range, cold nights are followed by warm days resulting in balanced grapes with a natural acidity and an intensity of flavour.
“On my first visit to the farm I spotted a Cape leopard, crossing the road less than 30 metres from me.” A rare sighting that Smit took as a sign.
In the winemaking he opts for a light-handed approach. “This Syrah has massive intensity, you need to take your foot off the pedal in the winery to achieve a balanced wine that showcases the region.” A natural ferment is followed by maturation in 1000-litre oak foudres for 11 months. Smit prefers to bottle without fining, doing so as to strip none of the character out of the wine, to ensure an authentic expression of Syrah.
Syrah is one of the best cultivars to show the diversity of soils which Smit undoubtedly proves with these two impressively different wines. The W.O Cederberg Syrah shows more densely packed dark fruit; blackberries, cassis, blueberry jam, brambles before olive tapenade and lavender blossoms. Firm tannins lifted by an amazing acidity, the wine dances like a male ballerina; with power and elegance.
Damascene Syellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
The Cabernet was sourced from mature vineyards scattered across the Helderberg, Bottelary and Polkadraai Hills. Granitic outcrops, these sites produce fruit with an outstanding purity and brightness.
As with all the wines, Smit prefers a natural ferment, the point of difference with the Cabernet however is the use of new oak. Maturation takes place in a new French barriques and 1000L foudre.
Smit honours the King of reds through this classic but exemplary expression of the Stellenbosch region. A harmonious wine with all the attributes of a modern Cabernet Sauvignon, firm but supple tannins, abundant rich and crunchy fruit; unfurling layers of plums, cassis, and cranberries, spectacularly nuanced with leather and pipe tobacco. A wine of great power and depth delivered with restraint and an elegant touch.
Tasting these wines was an excellent tour of South African geology, expressed in the most appealing and delicious way. Hunt these wines out, all of them take you on an enchanting journey of discovery. Jean Smit has many more stories to tell, diverse sites to express, and a lot of kilometres to cover, so make sure you jump on board.
“The experimental side of what we do will always be there, that’s what takes us to new vineyards, new people, new combinations of cultivar and site. We have an amazing opportunity in South Africa, we need to let these vineyards tell their stories to the rest of the world.”Jean Smit
Images from the exquisite Damascene lunch at Chef’s Warehouse at Tintswalo;