The DAMASCENE Vineyards new vintage releases
Why damascene and Jean Smit have restored my faith in the idea of luxury.

The new range of Damascene wines has restored my faith in luxury.

At a think tank held in Stellenbosch in 2022, Areni Global hosted an Oxford-style public debate on the necessity of luxury in society. It was one of those topics that – at first glance – felt like a fun bit of intellectual gymnastics. But by the time that panelists like Felicity Carter, Nicole Rolet, and Chinedu Rita Rosa were done with their tasks of either attacking or defending the notion, I felt more disillusioned than ever.

Deceitfully delectable

To be clear, I was not disillusioned because I had become convinced that luxury (and therefore fine wine) should not exist. But rather, I had become disillusioned because I realised that the majority of what is perceived as “luxury” – from shoes to yachts to wheels, whisky, and wine – achieves its status through misdirection, obfuscation, or distasteful decadence.

Of course, this is not a new observation. But perhaps it is one that I’ve been slow to internalise. Perhaps I’ve been too busy marvelling at the exquisite alchemical magic and mystery of wine at a molecular level to notice that much of what gets sold as “luxury” in the wine industry achieves that status through pricing strategy, brand positioning, and a manufactured sense of exclusivity. As opposed to earning the title through to the acknowledgement of the costs and effort that go into the act of delivering genuine, coherent, beauty.

“[Luxury] can only really occur when visual aesthetic and sensory intricacy are combined with skillful storytelling that is entirely congruent with the life and habits of the storyteller. And no, it’s not scalable.”

Awfully Honest

And of course, the alternative to the current marketing weave of Gran Habano smoke and gilded mirrors is an unfortunate over-correction that embraces “authenticity” to the point of absurdity. The artisanal movement (in any industry, not just wine) elevates flaws, faults, unintentional product variation, and sloppy design as proxy for “authenticity” or “truth”. And the end result leaves the consumer – like Joe Pantoliano’s Cypher – longing for the patinaed pleasures of the Matrix, even if they know it’s not “real”.

Is “truth” the new luxury?

Of course, what I have created here is a false dichotomy. Because that which is beautiful is not necessarily a veneer. And that which appears hokey, handmade, or artisanally quaint may also prove to be a deception. But… on that sliver of precipitous middle ground… lies the truth…and
What I’m talking about can not be assessed by sight or taste alone. Nor can it be processed purely intellectually. But rather it’s a multi-faceted experience of coherence that results in the rare confluence of peace and exhilaration. This can only really occur when visual aesthetic and sensory intricacy are combined with skillful storytelling that is entirely congruent with the life and habits of the storyteller. And no, it’s not scalable.
The peace that I mentioned earlier comes from the deep sense that you’re not being scammed. That what you’re being told corresponds with reality. And you can rest from the exhausting, ceaseless battle against being duped.
And the exhilaration? Well, it’s simply the result of experiencing something undeniably delicious.

What is Damascene?

Which brings me to the current release of Damascene Wines from winemaker, Jean Smit. Damascene is a collaboration between winemaker Jean Smit and David Curl, the owner of Habibi Farm in Elgin. Both David and Jean have credentials, but I won’t go into them now. Instead, you can read about them here, if you wish. I’m more interested in talking about what they’re doing now as opposed to what they did then.
Damascene is a range of wines that aims to “tell the story, not of their owners, or marketing trends, but of the very vineyards themselves.” Admittedly, the goal of “creating wines of place” has been bandied around so loosely that the phrase has been rendered nigh-on meaningless. But it must be said that Damascene has managed to claw back some of sense of impact for the term, ironically, by fore-fronting the decisions of the winemaker in the process of translating a place into a wine, rather than insisting that great winemakers try to “stay out of the way” as much as possible. It is refreshing to learn that Jean Smit does not view himself as a “victim of terroir”, or someone who “just wants the grapes to speak for themselves”, but rather has a very clear idea of what inspires him about a given region or vineyard site. He then focuses on that inspiration and begins the task of hunting down the right vineyards, and partnering with the right sorts of producers, farmers and viticulturists, who will help him to achieve his vision of inspiration.

First, do no harm

Perhaps a notable addition to this process is that he refuses to work with growers who don’t share his long term vision for a sort of agriculture that exhibits respect for existing ecosystems, and seeks to restore more than it depletes. He has been known, on more than one occasion, to turn down an ideal vineyard site or vineyard expansion on account of the negative environmental impact it might have had.
Even more strikingly, this ethos of sustainability extends not just to the vineyard environments in which he works, but also to the people that he employs, and the relationships that he cultivates. The end result of all this is a profound sense of respect for others in everything that he does.
That said, one also gets the impression that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Because his striving for excellence is as ruthless as his desire to show consideration. Mindsets that don’t cohere to this may find the Damascene experience slightly uncomfortable.
Because, if Jean Smit can be faulted for anything, it is that his relentless intentionality and sincerity carries with them an almost unnerving intensity. This, however, is something all luxury seekers should welcome. For if my theory that sincerity and excellence combine to communicate true luxury, then there is quite simply no other way to be.

“[Jean’s] striving for excellence is as ruthless as his desire to show consideration. Mindsets that don’t cohere to this may find the Damascene experience slightly uncomfortable.”

Tasting notes

I feel like I have sufficiently argued for the diligence, sincerity, and creative ethos behind the Damascene label. But what of the wines themselves?
The range is quite large, featuring eight wines in total. And I find it easier to recall them in smaller groupings:
There is the Syrah showcase, which features three quite distinct Syrahs (Wines of Origin Stellenbosch, Swartland and Cederberg). The greatest joy in these wines is achieved when drinking them side by side, allowing Jean’s vision for each region to be communicated quite distinctly in the glass.
All three wines are fermented in tulip-shaped concrete tanks (with 60-75% whole bunch, varying from component to component). Portions are fermented using the oh-so-now submerged cap technique, before being matured in Austrian Foudre.
Then there is the Chenin Blanc series, with one Chenin from Stellenbosch, and another from the Swartland. Both wines are fermented and matured in tight-grained Austrian foudre.
There is also a Cabernet pairing, which displays a Cabernet Franc from Franschhoek and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch.
Finally there is the exquisite-but-odd-duck, standalone Old Vine Semillon harvested from two different vineyards in Franschhoek; comprised of vines planted in 1942 and 1962 respectively. It may currently lack a comparative partner, but with Jean travelling a legendary 40,000km per year in search of magical vineyards, we live in hope of a second Semillon to match the majesty of the first.
I have not rated all eight wines here, but have instead focused on the ones that gripped me most viscerally on the day:

Damascene Syrah  2021 W.O. Stellenbosch

A wine comprised of fruit from three hallowed sites in Stellenbosch; the higher altitude granitic sites of Botellary and the Polkadraai Hills, contrasted with the lower-lying and slightly lusher Devon Valley.

The Damascene Stellenbosch Syrah offers an absolutely gargantuan aromatic performance, brimming with fresh cherry blossoms, dried roses, cloves, white pepper, pomegranate, as well as a whiff of seaspray…and this is me trying to rein in the adjectives!
The palate is edgy, savoury, and fresh, with the above mentioned elements all intricately woven around a blackberry and cherry fruit core.

A light-footed, intricate 95 points

Damascene Syrah 2021 W.O. Swartland

Featuring a large portion of fruit from the Kasteelberg, with vineyards at an altitude of about 340m ASL. Smaller portions are sourced from bush vines in the foothills of the Paardeberg, and from the Malmesbury shale soils of Leeuwenkuil.
While not quite as extroverted as the Stellenbosch Syrah, there are still some impressive violet and rose-like floral elements, amidst more gentle spice elements.
On the palate is feels almost flawless. There are fresh, distinct, neatly layered elements of blackberry fruit, red currant, and vibrant red cherry, along with some savoury meaty notes. A supremely impressive finish that persists long enough to allow one to drift through at least three tangential trains of thought, each triggered by the myriad shifting, lingering residual aromas.

A polished, persistent 95 points.

Damascene Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 W.O. Stellenbosch

Jean Smit has made his thoughts on pairing granite soils with Cabernet Sauvignon quite clear. The fruit for this wine was sourced from three very different vineyards, but the uniting factors that link them all are the granitic outcrops in which they’re planted.
And honestly, it’s hard to imagine a purer expression of Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon.
Powerful, concentration elements of blackcurrant, roasted black cherry, graphite, and concrete dust are all tied together with softer aromas of blueberries and purple flowers.
Structure and purity are supreme, and complexity will only build with time.

A pure and powerful 94 points

(with another 3 or 4 points to spare for those who have the patience and some space in their cellar).

Damascene Cabernet Franc 2021 W.O. Stellenbosch

An entirely whole-berry affair, with fruit sourced from the extremely steep granite slopes of the Bottelary Hills (at about 290m ASL). Incidentally, this was the only wine of the flight that forced me into an immediate involuntary smile. It’s extraordinarily charming.
The vanguard carried generous elements of violets, fennel, bell pepper, a hint of menthol, and some dried currants.
The palate is delightfully vibrant; packed with red cherry candy, raspberry sherbet, roasted bell pepper, black cherry, and fresh tobacco leaf.

An immediately likeable 93 points

Damascene Semillon 2021 W.O. Franschhoek

The 2021 vintage of the Damascene Semillon features 15% of the elusive Semillon gris mutation, but this will vary from vintage to vintage, depending on the post-harvest pruning regimen.
This is – in no uncertain terms – a wine that needs to be savoured and considered over time. It  was deliberately served at what could have been no colder than about 15 degrees, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The nose delivers its gospel in staggered chapters of peach fruit, orange sherbet, lemon blossom, lime zest, and lanolin. Slowly revealed, with time in the glass.
The palate adds salted peaches and sunshine citrus to the mix; coating everything in beeswax, and tying it up with silk.
This wine exhibits remarkable texture, weight, and power, even at 12.7% Alc.

An intellectually satisfying 94 points.