There’s something very appealing about people who don’t try too hard to sell themselves or their agenda. Those who call it as they see it, without hyperbole. Those who aren't full of hot air.
Rob Armstrong is one such person.
But the proprietor at Haut Espoir in Franschhoek is also a great character. He brings with him the sort of larger than life presence and relaxed charm that makes you want for his wines to be awesome.
And they are.
Or they were.
I mean, they are again.
Look, here’s the thing:
This family-owned wine farm has been making mostly forgettable wine for the last few years. In 2010, after an impressive start in the winemaking business, Rob himself took over as winemaker. Some of his green initiatives failed to produce the desired results, and his commitment to adopting sustainable, environmentally friendly practices were to the detriment of the wine. In an attempt to take biodynamic winemaking to the next level, he was probably a little over-ambitious in his execution.
But by Rob’s own admission, his real passion was never in the cellar.
He is a conservationist at heart, and in the recent years he has succeeded in turning Haut Espoir and much of its neighbouring land into a conservancy - a huge deal for land and wildlife conservation in the area. But lets give Rob his due; this is not to suggest that he never made a great wine. He proudly opens his own 2013 Semillon, by all accounts, unique, compelling, understated and delicious:
“Yeah, this worked really well. It was a complete accident. I made more mistakes than usual which actually prevented the wine from being terrible”.
His honesty and sense of humor are a breath of fresh air, but wholly in keeping with his character. Having taken us into his wine cave - and it was a wonderful place it is - he candidly concedes that most of the wine he made between 2010 and 2015 was not up to the required standards, before opening some fantastic aged wines from before his time.
Their Chardonnay’s and Semillon’s from 2005 – 2008 were delicious, and a treat for any wine lover. All to some degree showing bright yellow, they have developed significantly in the bottle. They were all complex, restrained and drinking beautifully. If you ever have the opportunity to taste or buy these older vintages you should jump at it.
The journey through Haut Espoir’s history was turning out to be a fascinating one, but naturally thoughts began to wander towards the future. With this we moved into the recently renovated tasting room for stage three of the evolution. The new head winemaker, Marozanne Bieldt, was on hand to take us through the farm’s latest releases.
These 2016 wines represent a fitting return to form. Rob’s realization that he needed an outside influence was well timed and in Marozanne he has found a very talented and disciplined winemaker. Previously Clayton Reabow’s assistant at Moreson, Marozanne was a shrewd appointment. She brings with her an attention to detail and a deft touch that are already paying off.
I couldn’t be happier for Rob and Haut Espoir. They've had their sophomore slump. Their Bob Dylan’s electric period. Their Russell Crowe in Les Miserables. Their Avo on pizza before going into the oven. Their Marissa Meyer at Yahoo. I’d stop but these analogies are on fire like the Proteas outside of a World Cup semifinal.
From 2010 to 2015, Haut Espoir was like the Proteas in a World Cup semi final. But in light of recent developments, i think 2019 might be our year. Rob seems genuinely delighted to no longer be the main decision maker in the cellar. His vibe is strong, and between running a wine farm, handling the business side with his wife Erica, raising a family (with his wife Erica) and protecting the environment, his hands are full. Marozanne’s wines are focused, impressive and bound to get even better, and their new tasting room that has just opened its doors. Much like Rob, it is honest, unpretentious, comes with a great story, and now serves fantastic wines.
Haut Espoir is quietly finding its place, and it's a place they can be very proud of.
It seems you don't always need to shout if you want to stand out.