Situated in the narrow De Hoop valley, a scant six kilometres from downtown Robertson, Mont Blois was described in the original title deed as De Hoop in het Land van Waveren aan de Witter water.
A small tarred road winds upwards towards the Langeberg Mountains, whose sheer peaks rise to over 1,500 above the valley floor, unfolding into a timeless and secluded vista. Here lies Mont Blois, one of the most spectacular and attractive farms in all the Cape. It’s a different world.
The signpost to the farm points across a dry ford and a dirt-track beyond. The stream is dry most of the time, but one can imagine the torrent that comes with the rain, blocking the only route to the immaculately maintained mid-19th Century gabled homestead.
The farm had been acquired in the 1880s by the Bruwer family, descendants of Estienne Bruère, a Huguenot who had arrived in the Cape as a refugee fleeing religious persecution from the city of Blois in 1688.
It’s unsure how long the Bruwer’s (and there are many off-shoots in the Breede River valley) have been farming in Robertson, but in the early days it would not have been grapes. The annual summer drought (the farm gets around 500mm of winter rain a year) prevented anything but grazing, before the Brandvlei Dam was built in 1919. Localised irrigation, established in the early 1800s would have allowed cultivation of some crops along the edge of the mountain rain where Mont Blois is situated, but their ancestors would have grown only fruit and vegetables, until the end of the nineteenth century.
The farm kept its original name of De Hoop until 1920, when it was changed to Mont Blois, in honour of the family’s Loire origins.
Today, the property is in the hands of Ernst, the sixth-generation to have worked the land here. He met his future wife at Stellenbosch University, where they both studied oenology and viticulture. Nina-Mari hails from Pretoria and started a BSc at University, but moved to study wine in her second year.
Historically, the Bruwer’s have had a long-standing relationship with the Distillers’ Corporation, a legacy of Ernst’s grandfather investing in the Rembrandt Group after Dr Anton Rupert set up the company up at the end of the Second World War. This relationship continues today and involves the selling of bulk wine, although the recent changes within the monolith (today known as Distell) has rather focused the couple’s attention in exploring other routes to market, which includes selling premium quality Chardonnay grapes to the Capensis project; surely South Africa’s most expensive white wine label.
I first met Ernst and Nina-Mari in London about five years ago and the couple explained their objective to reintroduce the Mont Blois label to the market. We’ve kept in contact and I’ve visited the farm on several occasions ever since to keep up with their progress.
After graduation from Stellenbosch, Nina-Mari worked stints at both Boekenhoutskloof and Thelema as well as working a harvest in Bordeaux, before marrying Ernst and settling on Mont Blois. In addition to producing two daughters, Nina-Mari controlled the farm admin but, as a trained winemaker, the temptation to experiment with the venerable old basket press in the corner of the cellar was too great to ignore.
After qualifying as a Cape Wine Master in 2014, it was time to put her skills to the test.
Mont Blois had always been a farm noted for the quality of its White Muscadel and, between 1974 and the late 1980s, the wines (which also included a Chardonnay and a Blanc Fumé) were distributed by The Bergkelder, the commercial arm of Distillers’ Corporation, who were also responsible for the sales and marketing of other notable cellars such as Meerlust, DeWetshof, Zandvleit, La Motte and Alto. But by the early 1990s, the Mont Blois label had disappeared from the market and has lay dormant for the last twenty-five years.
The farm holdings extend over 3,500 hectares, with around 150ha under vines, although not all are within the De Hoop valley. Grapes are also grown on the neighbouring farms of ‘La Fontaine’ and ‘Sunshine’, plus ‘Goedemoed, located on the alluvial, sandy-loam soils closer to the Breede river.
Each parcel of vines has its own distinctive and evocative Afrikaans names, with the four wines initial releases respecting the name of the vineyard from which they were sourced. The topography of each site ensures that the wines all enjoy their own distinctive character, through the influence of both altitude and differing soil types.
The inaugural vintage of 2016 has seen four wines released. All small production, each has been raised with minimal interference with grapes crushed manually, using the old basket-press. Fermented with natural yeasts, aged in older French oak and bottled unfiltered.
There are three white wines, two of which are single vineyard Chardonnays.
Hoog en Laag Chardonnay, translates logically as high and low comes from a block of 13-year old terraced vines grown on calcium-rich red Karoo soils which allow the grapes to ripen with considerable natural acidity. Vinified without malo-lactic fermentation. Only four barrels were produced.
Kweekamp Chardonnay is sourced from high altitude vines rooted in limestone and is the more elegant of the pair. It should be noted at this point that calcareous soils are something of a rarity in the Cape but, as anyone in Burgundy will tell you, it is responsible for producing some of the best wines in the world. The more recent history of these grapes has been as a one-third blending component in the previously-mentioned ‘Capensis’ Chardonnay.
All I will say is that it’s taken me 25 years to taste a truly great table wine to come out of the Breede River Valley, but that box has since been ticked.
Nina-Mari’s complex Chenin is named, simply Groot Steen and is another single vineyard wine from 30-year-old vines planted in the riverside alluvial soils on Goedemoed. Although the parcel is groot (or large) at 6-hectares, the grapes for this wine were selected from just three rows of vines. Again, there is no malo-lactic fermentation and the resulting wine is lean and chalky.
The range ends currently with the single vineyard Pomphuis White Muscadel. These 26-year old vines are grown at the top of De Hoop, where the altitude helps to create a lighter, fresher style of wine – despite the 257 grams of residual sugar. This first release was fortified with bought-in spirit, but the future plan is to restore the old pot-still on the farm. The wine was also bottled (in 500ml bottles) unfiltered, after spending 12 months in old French oak.
As mentioned, Mont Blois enjoyed a fine reputation for Superior Muscadel in the latter half of the last century, so this really helps to evoke some memories for those, like me, who remember its prior existence.
The significance of the name Pomphuis is, however, best left to the imagination.
I am delighted to pronounce that Mont Blois is back on the Robertson map in a small, but significant way.