A question of identity

What are you most associated with? This was my (grammatically clumsy!) question to Chris Williams while standing next to a young grenache blanc vineyard on Staart van Paardeberg, the Voor Paardeberg farm where he makes his Foundry wines. The property is owned by his business partner, James Reid.

Chris Williams in front of his Spanish clay eggs & dolium

‘Meerlust’, was Chris’s almost instantaneous answer. I had wondered about this. Chris left this celebrated, historic winery in 2019 to focus on The Foundry, but his association with Meerlust goes back to the 1990s, when he was assistant to Giorgio dalla Cia for six years, before returning as winemaker in 2004.

On this question of identity, I wondered about other winemakers with two strings to their bow and which of them might form the stronger association. Chris and Andrea Mullineux with Mullineux or Leeu Passant; Peter-Allan Finlayson’s Crystallum or Gabriëlskloof? There may be others.

The Foundry label is hardly new; 2001 introduced the brand with a Platter 5* syrah and a once-off tinta-cabernet blend, Double Barrel. Since then, the focus has concentrated on Rhône varieties: syrah and grenache noir, as well as an increasing parade of whites; first, viognier, followed by roussanne and grenache blanc. Unable to resist experimenting, the few Chris made along the way failed to meet his demanding standards. The core range survived.

Grenache blanc planted on a south-eastern slope in 2018

Stellenbosch provided many of the white grapes in the past; this will change as the grenache blanc and roussanne vineyards on the farm reach full production. These and one syrah block, planted in 2018, provided some of this year’s harvest. Grenache noir is grown in a, to me, unusual hybrid method of bush vines with a low trellis, probably around 6 or 7cms high. Gentle slopes at the foothills of the Paardeberg, face both south-east and north; the whites and reds are appropriately sited. Careful planning of the vineyards is echoed in the cellar.

Moving vessels around in this tiny cellar requires forward planning

Chris’s daily drive from and to home, across the road from Meerlust, takes around 50 minutes. ‘An excellent time to plan what needs to be done in the cellar that day,’ something he acknowledges needs precision and detail. The cellar is tiny; there’s barely room for tanks, barrels, clay eggs and doliums, as well as those working in there. Then, the Spanish clay vessels are fragile and expensive; once, there was nearly an accident with the 1400L full dolium. Chris loves these clay fermenters, which add texture to the wines, something important to him. They work in different ways: in the eggs, the lees are circled around; in the dolium, they move from top to bottom.

To the main purpose of our visit, introduction to and launch of the new Geographica range, preceded by a tasting of Foundry wines.

You can take a Stellenbosch guy out of Stellenbosch but you can’t take Stellenbosch out of that guy! Chris grew up and made wine for many years in Stellenbosch. In creating the Geographica wines, he says it’s ‘A way of keeping my feet in Stellenbosch.’ He had wanted to start with a pinot, when he was at Meerlust, but his agreement with them precluded any variety they produced. (There’s now an Elgin pinot 2022 in barrel and due for release later this year.)

He managed to secure chenin, planted 1957 on the Helderberg and cabernet franc, also from an old 1982 planted vineyard near Klapmuts. Named after the tiny chenin berries, Bonsai Chenin Blanc 2020 was wholebunch pressed, fermented and aged half/half in dolium and older oak. Concentration shines through the wine, from its golden brilliance, deep, ripe flavours, viscosity and textured, pithy finish. The worth of old vines is so well expressed here.

Cabernet franc was always one of Chris’s favourites on Meerlust, often producing the best wine. Thoreau Cabernet Franc 2020 underwent natural ferment with part wholebunch and ageing in an 80/20 mmix of older oak and dolium. A fascinating, delicious wine that straddles both Loire and Bordeaux styles; the blueberries and leafy spice bristling with punchy freshness but also sweet flesh; chalky, fine tannins complete the picture.

Simple, elegant Geographica lable

‘The greatest elegance is simplicity’; the beautiful calligraphy, chosen after several attempts has the elegance and simplicity Chris sought; it also has a clever link to The Foundry through use of the same font.

From Stellenbosch to Voor Paardeberg and The Foundry, now with a link back to Stellenbosch via Geographica; where does this leave Chris’s identity? I hope his answer to such a question in future will be ‘quality wines with a sense of place,’ because that’s what his wines deserve.

Beautiful day, fabulous view from The Foundry’s home farm

Rules & regulations

The Wine of Origin scheme, introduced 50 years ago in 1973, has adapted as the wine industry has opened up and grown.  On this, its half-century, it seems appropriate to reflect on the changes but also how it is run and administered.

There are two bodies which oversee this task: the Wine and Spirit Board and SAWIS (South African Wine Information Services). I’m sure there are many who do not know, are even unaware such bodies exist.

The Wine and Spirit Board was originally established by the Government in terms of section 19(1) of the Wine, Other Fermented Beverages and Spirits Act, Act No. 25. By 1970 it was recognised a Wine of Origin system would be necessary: a) many untrue claims of variety, vintage and origin were being made on labels and b) countries importing South African wine insisted on the soundness, cultivar, vintage and origin of our wine should be guaranteed by a reliable, official authority. The Wine of Origin scheme took effect in June 1972, since when it has been administered by the Wine and Spirit Board. The Board, re-established after the 1957 Act, was replaced by the Liquor Products Act 60 of 1989.

Its primary function is administration of Wine of Origin, Estate Brandy and IPW (Integrated Production of Wine).

The Organogram below illustrates the relationship of the Board with its eight committees, which perform functions under its direction.

The Board, appointed by the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, consists of a chairperson and 12 members. These are shared between three from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries officers; one is nominated by the Agricultural Research Council; one is designated by the Minister and the remaining eight have relevant knowledge, skills or expertise in the broader liquor industry.

The committee headings are generally self-explanatory.

The Technical Committee and Wine Evaluation Panel are probably the most recognised, certainly by winemakers as well as the more involved wine consumers, since they are often criticised for refusing certification due to a perceived fault. The Technical Committee also judges the analytical data of wine for certification and handling requests from members and reports relating to technical anomalies, about which it makes recommendations to the Management Committee.

This last body handles anything that doesn’t fall under the other committees, or on which they can’t reach consensus. As far as possible, it answers for the Board; only non-consensus and matters of principle are referred to the Board.

The wines submitted for certification in 2021 account for just over half the total wine production, 57%. In order to certify, producers must participate in the Wine of Origin (W.O.) and Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) schemes.

Changes to the Wine of Origin Scheme sometimes come about a result of winemakers’ innovation or pressure. For instance, for many years, the Estate was the smallest Wine of Origin area; even though there were wines produced from a single vineyard, it was illegal to mention even the word ‘vineyard’. Focus on terroir, viticulture and awareness of international trends, as well as the demise of the Estate system, led to legalisation of the single vineyard; a block, of maximum six hectares, registered with the Wine and Spirit Board and with the name permissible on the label.

Names of those currently on the Board and committees were not forthcoming (apart from the two mentioned below), but the Board’s 2014 Press Release gives an idea of the sort of appointees: WOSA’s Marketing Manager, Matome Mbatha, became the first black Chairman; winemakers Deon Boshoff of Distell, Olivia Poonah Robertson Winery (Olivia is the current Secretary of the Board); Carmen Stevens then of Amani Vineyards and Mario Damon of Bellingham. Kurt Moore, CEO of SALBA (SA Liquor Brand Owners’ Association), Michael Mokhoro of Distell’s legal department and Riaan Kruger, chairman of the Wine and Spirit Board’s management committee – a post now held by André Matthee.

Now to SAWIS (South African Wine and Information Systems) www.sawis.co.za, which handles the Board’s day to day administrative function.

Before SAWIS was established in 1999, KWV carried out the gathering of information and administration of certification. This dual role of referee and player could no longer be sustained after it became a company; SAWIS replaced it. A non-profit company, its income derives from an information levy and the administrative work done for the Wine & Spirit Board. The Board is also one of various industry bodies on the Board of Directors.

I do recommend visiting SAWIS’s excellent website, which clearly sets out its functions; as a regular visitor, it also contains an immense amount of free information. Clearly, the team behind it (and the other functions they carry out) are experienced and very much on top of their demanding tasks. None more so than Yvette van der Merwe, who heads up the information department.  It would be difficult to find someone more efficient, service- oriented or experienced. She was appointed in 1996 by KWV, compilation of the statistic booklet being one of her first tasks, and gaining valuable experience from working closely with the team that collected and processed the data. Yvette was appointed head of the information department when SAWIS was established.

Today it employs a team of 17; among the attributes required of a potential employee are administrative, numerical and computer skills, a good eye for detail and be client focused.

The website, developed around 2001, is updated immediately as new statistics or reports become available. There are continuous developments with the website to capture information and communicate with the industry. The large amount of data generated needs to be turned into comprehensible information, something SAWIS confirms on the website they ‘..will be creative in applying knowledge and technology to turning data into information.’ Requests for new information from the industry and a 17-member industry Information Committee ensure not only is there ongoing demand for new information but that its execution is effective in format and presentation as well as needs-driven.

I hope this brief summary of the Wine and Spirit Board and SAWIS, gives readers a better understanding of their work and its wide range.


A philosophical discourse on the difference between existence and being is an unlikely topic to find in a book relating to wine. Then, perhaps Andrew Jefford is the only likely person to have undertaken a deep dive into such a discourse, one he has re-printed in his inspirational Drinking with the Valkeries. It should give wine lovers pause for reflection when next lifting that glass of wine to their lips. Beyond this thought-provoking chapter, the book, a collection of his musings on individual wines and the stories surrounding his enjoyment of them, is engagingly and beautifully written – a book anyone, wine lover or not, could enjoy.

To return to the difference between existence and being and how it relates to wine, I’ll briefly paraphrase Jefford, who cites Martin Heidegger, a 20th century philosopher: existence is what exists; being is the isness inside everything that exists. To break through the existence of wine and sense its being requires what Jefford describes as astonishment or wonder, or, as I imagine it, a heightened sense of awareness and realisation of beauty in a wine.

Jefford points out not every wine is great; there are those made in a style and price point for consistency, which wouldn’t attract such wonder. Also wine doesn’t have to be great to provide that sense of astonishment.

What are the influences on a wine’s isness? Alcohol, naturalness, the human hand both in the vineyard and cellar, words, difference both in origin and vintage (‘We are prepared to find inconsistency.’), wine-worldliness (‘a taking-for-granted of the givens of wine,’) and of great relevance to those who write about wine, as Jefford writes: ‘The scoring of wines is a form of wine-worldliness, It does, of course, acknowledge difference … yet it also freezes difference by rendering it numerically immutable. The wine is thereafter pinioned to this score, and the teller of that score then becomes in some sense the master of the wine.’ The consumer then relates more to the scorer than his or her own experience with the wine.

La Motte Pierneef Sauvignon Blanc with prosciutto-wrapped chicken breasts, ricotta & green fig stuffing

Conveniently, I have a glass of the La Motte Pierneef Sauvignon Blanc 2022 the farm kindly sent me. What does it reveal about its isness? Its cool-climate origin – Elim and ‘other southerly vineyards’ – are clearly expressed in the intense yet elegant lemongrass, herbal aromatics, with their innate freshness. There’s a sense of place. A feeling of naturalness too; the purity of flavour complements the aromas, as does the all-important alcohol, enough and not too much at just over 12%.

The human hand? Certainly, in the cellar, Edmund Terblanche’s hand is practised (2023 is his 23rd at La Motte) and understands how to do no more than necessary for the grapes to produce a quality, expressive wine. Vintage 2022 was noted for lower than usual acidity, also noted by Terblanche in his tasting notes; thanks to its cool-climate origin and a short period of skin contact, this sauvignon captures appropriate varietal zest and freshness. Beyond this varietal typicity, further interest and textural dimension come from both 15% semillon and a few months lees’ ageing.

What struck me as I first tasted the wine was how I could easily describe it as a blend, the effect of each variety is  clear – and, make no mistake – beneficial both now and for its future.

Knowing how well sauvignon blanc sells and the difficulty with persuading consumers of the pleasures of sauvignon-semillon blends, there should be no problem in the La Motte Sauvignon Blanc 2022 appealing to sauvignon aficionados at a cost of R159. Closed with a screwcap, the wine benefits from air and a few days if opened now, as well as few years.

My words don’t inspire like Andrew Jefford’s but I believe the La Motte range shows an enviable steadiness of quality; there are vintage differences, some wines achieve greatness, not this one, I think, but all may be bought with confidence.

Yes, chardonnay can!

The belief that our white wines can’t age has long been sent packing. If five years is still generally regarded as a decent limit, especially for dry wines, that limit has been tested on 10-year-olds, quite often with excellent results. This says much about how both viticulture and winemaking have advanced in recent years even in vintages that don’t suggest the benefits of long ageing.

It’s a long time since I last dug into the cellar for ten-year-old wines; in truth, I was quite surprised to find not one but two from challenging 2013, it wasn’t a vintage I had invested in as the wines didn’t enthuse me.  

The vintage report I wrote for Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Guide explains the problems some tackled.

Winter 2012 delivered an abundance of rain and cold. Cool, dry spring allowed for late if even budding, until a three-day, November gale caused localised problems with flowering. Harvest began around two weeks late with intermittent showers. Success depended on picking times. Those who got it right produced flavoursome, well-structured wines; rot was a problem for many. Challenging is how most winemakers described the vintage.

My pair of 2013s were made by two of the Cape’s top winemakers; Hannes Storm, then at Hamilton Russell Vineyards and Gottfried Mocke, then cellarmaster at Cape Chamonix Wine Farm. After leaving HRV in 2014, Hannes started his own label, Storm Wines also concentrating on chardonnay and pinot noir from Hemel en Aarde. Gottfried moved across the Franschhoek valley to head up the Boekenhoutskloof cellar in 2015. It would be difficult to better the winemaking pedigree of Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2013 and Cape Chamonix Reserve Chardonnay 2013. The wines didn’t disappoint; the winemakers most surely ‘got it right’.

Before more detail on each wine, putting 2013 into context is enlightening. Does it seem like yesterday or a lifetime ago? Many will remember some of the major events as sad. Nelson Mandela died on 5th December; Olympic mountain biker, Burry Stander, was killed in a road accident and Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp; in other stories, 15000 baby crocodiles escaped from a farm after flooding. Were they all re-captured? Anyone seen larger crocs recently? My best memories are of a trip to Sicily with the Circle of Wine Writers and seeing Leonard Cohen at his last live show in London.

To the wines. They couldn’t be better paired or contrasted.

Chamonix shimmering, limpid, barely a suggestion of its 10 years; aromatically layered, its distinctive lime-lemon zest topping broader peachy undertones, these refrained and a counterpoint to the creamy oatmeal texture. All are thrillingly harmonious and reflect the elegance for which Franschhoek chardonnay is known.

Coincidentally, I’d looked up my notes on the first (and, I think only), Appellation Grand Prestige awards for Franschhoek wines held in 2014. Winners had to show typicity and quality, only ten wines fulfilled these requirements, of which Chamonix was one. A winner which has lived up to its promise.

Tech details: natural ferment, 80% in oak, of which 70% new; balance in concrete egg.

Cool climate is written all over the HRV. Aromatically intense, lifted with frictionless verve in the toasty, citrusy tones. Day one, unyielding tight, with high acidity overshadowing its oatmeal leesy breadth, which emerged the following day, uniting the wine into perfect balance. Anthony Hamilton Russell has commented that their older chardonnays have coloured up with a strong gold after a relatively short time, with no effect on the wine otherwise. No gold in this, rather a striking luminous farm butter yellow shot with green.

Tech details: 86% fermented, aged eight months in 228l French oak, 31% new. 14% stainless steel ferment. TA and pH tell a story: 7.3 and 3.1.

I found HRV well chilled brought out its best, whereas Chamonix’s texture was better served with a short while out of the fridge.

The quality of both stood the test of four evenings.

An important lesson learned; don’t underestimate any vintage from quality producers; 2013 a good case in point.

The promise of pinot

Camaraderie may be a significant part of Hemel-en-Aarde valley wine producers’ success. When the communal focus is on quality, the philosophy of support your neighbour and reap your own rewards, is self-fulfilling. Welcome confirmation of this came during a recent visit to Hemel-en-Aarde, mainly to further an earlier discussion about pinot noir and climate change in the region.

The variety accounts for 118 ha of the valley’s approximate 350 ha under vine and is grown in all three Wards. This might sound substantial, but vines have to compete with the more profitable apples and other fruit; land isn’t cheap either. Properties that sold for tens of thousands back in the day, would now cost millions. The valley’s producers are also on a mission to circle the land with indigenous vegetation to lessen the effects of fire and conserve water.

The division of this relatively small area into Wards – Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Hemel-en-Aarde Valley – occasioned much discussion and disagreement; but, given the goals of quality and distinction, every effort is made to highlight differences. It also keeps the valley’s name to the fore, as there is no Wine of Origin Hemel-en-Aarde; without the Wards, the wines would fall under WO Walker Bay (the over-arching district).

Quality applies across the many varieties grown. ‘Everyone talks pinot and chardonnay,’ says JC Martin, co-owner of Creation with his wife, Carolyn, ‘but the valley does well with several other varieties.’ This includes sauvignon blanc, which, some nine years ago, was a dominant grape, probably when Stellenbosch consultants were more active in the valley. Notable sauvignons still exist, though many vineyards are making way for pinot.

Cabernet is perhaps a less likely success story. It was Tim Hamilton Russell’s initial focus, when he came to the valley, along with other Bordeaux varieties on his property higher up, which had quota.  A wine, Grand Cru Noir, was made from this fruit, until the mid-May harvest and wind eventually rendered it financially unviable.

Now, thanks to Restless River in particular, Lords and Creation, the last in a blend, cabernet has found a niche in the higher reaches of the valley. It reflects advances in viticulture and the benefits of working together. As Peter Finlayson, the pioneer winemaker at Hamilton Russell, pointed out to me; ‘Back in the 1970s, we were the first in the valley, there was no other support. Strength came from thinking out of the box.’

View from N-J’s Sandford vineyard looking towards Restless River & their new Clouds vineyard on hillside

If cabernet has taken time to prove its mettle, the results with pinot were more immediate and positive. It was thanks to Desiderius Pongracz, Tim’s mentor, that pinot was introduced to Hemel en Aarde on Braemar. Peter remembers identifying its promise during that first fermentation. ‘Looking back,’ he remarked, ‘virus was such a limiting factor.’ Virus and the Swiss BK5 clone, one better suited to bubbly.

Thank goodness wine can defy less than favourable circumstances. Last October at Cape Wine, I had the privilege of tasting the first bottling of HRV pinot, a 1981, though not labelled as such due to legalities; still with sweet fruit and a decent structure, it was more than an historic relic. During my November trip, Anthony Hamilton Russell kindly opened an unlabelled, but circa early 1980s’ bottle; it too was in equally agreeable shape. Somewhat later in 1998, this unlikely clone also provided Gordy Newton Johnson with his maiden pinot ‘lightbulb’ moment.

Hamilton Russell Vineyards pinot circa 1983

If Hemel-en-Aarde’s climate – maritime with the sea breeze – and soils – decomposed granite and clay – are drivers in pinot’s success, virus and clonal issues are ongoing. Sea Dragon, the vineyard that produced Newton Johnson’s first 2008 pinot, lost 50% to leafroll virus over 20 years.

Eradication is the goal. Vititech, who supplied virus-free material to JC Martin when he planted Creation’s initial 22 ha in 2002, monitor the vines and take shoots for reproduction. Today, JC reckons he’ll remove maybe 10 virused vines in a year over his now approximate 50 ha.

Virus-free is a common goal. ‘In four years, we will have 21ha in production; I want to leave healthy 20-30 year old vines,’ avers Craig Wessels. This will include the new 10 ha on Clouds, a property a bit above the home farm, where cabernet, pinot and chardonnay will be equally shared. Like his colleagues, Craig spends as much time as possible in the vineyards, ‘where I always find something new, be it a broken pipe or collapsed trellising; it all keeps my eyes open to problems and how the vines are progressing.’ Everyone agrees time spent in the vineyards cannot be overestimated.

The Martins, Newton-Johnsons, Wessels and Hamilton Russells are long-established in Hemel-en-Aarde, with 20 years or more of experience. More recent introductions are  Boekenhoutskloof/Cape Maritime, Hasher Family Estate (formerly Sumaridge) and the new owners of Moya’s Vineyards; I’m told all are of similar mind and serious in their approach.

View from Sandford vineyard towards Newton-Johnson home farm vineyaards & hillside cellar

If virus is one issue, clones are another. Gordy N-J recalls; ‘Twenty years ago, there was a rush for virus-free pinot and new Dijon clones but they weren’t so great. Then, we rather planted syrah, but now with better pinot clones available, syrah is making space for pinot.’ One grape that is not making way for pinot is albarino, the Newton-Johnson’s a first, which has become very popular with consumers. There are plans to plant more on the Sandford property.

As this still-young area evolves, so there are changes in viticulture. Some tackle climate change, others are designed to increase yield, of pinot especially. ‘Re-orientating rows from north-south to east-west has caused less wind damage and less direct sun,’ Gordy mentions. Rootstock too has been adjusted for acid soils and deeper roots, while guyot rather than cordon training is used for better balance and fertility, a change Craig Wessels and JC Martin have also employed. Irrigation is generally used only as a supplement from boreholes.

Over time, the Newton-Johnsons and other long-term producers have learned is that their distinct styles are dictated by individual vineyards with vinification adapted accordingly. This hasn’t happened overnight; the Art pinot block on Creation was ten years old before JC was satisfied it would deliver the correct quality. The Newton-Johnson’s first single vineyard wine, then a barrel selection, was in 2010. The single vineyard Windansea followed in 2012, a great vintage.

A study of Hamilton Russell Vineyards illustrates how far the valley has come with pinot in a relatively short time. Of the farm’s 52 ha under vine, pinot noir accounts for 11 blocks, chardonnay, 17; the oldest chardonnay is 17 years, the oldest pinot 15. Anthony first replanted the farm in 1992 with vines from KWV. Much replanting has taken place since, attention being paid to matching soil, clone and variety. Some pinot blocks are being replanted with chardonnay; experiments with rootstocks on different soils continue; pinot clone 777 has been discarded as having too tight bunches.

South African pinots and those from Hemel-en-Aarde in particular, are doing well internationally as well as on the local market. Bevan Newton-Johnson explains; ‘New World pinots are getting sucked into market, because Burgundy prices have risen four or five times on wines costing $35 or $50, an increase too much for most consumers, who are now asking what other quality pinots they can buy.’

Undoubtedly local pinot prices will rise incrementally but like the winemakers’ philosophy of support your neighbour and reap your own rewards, it equally applies to valuing their customers’ support and taking care to offer quality and value.

3 ages of innocence

A glass of wine is just a glass of wine; a story brings it to life, a story that interweaves the people behind it as well as the wine itself. The more unusual or seemingly ridiculous the story, the more it’s likely to catch the attention and remain in the memory.

Unusual? Yes. Ridiculous? Yes, initially.  Perhaps not so much now.

(l-R) Pieter Lemmer, Thian Fick & Francois Viviers, founders of Draaiboek Wines

The script of Draaiboek Wines incorporates some of both. It all started in 2005 when friends, Pieter Lemmer, Francois Viviers and Thian Fick were in res together at Stellenbosch University. As do so many of the students, they enjoyed going around to wine farms tasting; from a consumer point-of-view, they were enthusiastic.

Their diverse careers led them to write their own stories, while remaining friends and continuing to add to the investment club they had started. At some point, another idea, a break-out idea for that money, was needed. What’s the most irrational thing we can do? Those student visits to wine farms has much to answer for; producing wine was their totally irrational – yet potentially wonderful – idea. It rings of ‘how to make a small fortune in the wine industry’ – start with a large one!

Once the decision to go into wine was made, the next question was, what? That decision took a year before they settled on chardonnay, but chardonnay from where? Experiments ensued with grapes from all over, but their Eureka moment came from a block in Hemel en Aarde Ridge. It fitted the style they were after, a fresher, tighter wine, subtly oaked. A style interpreted by their highly-regarded winemaker, Stephanie Wiid of Thistle and Weed; a tie-up thanks to her husband being in res with the Draaiboek trio.

Onskuld label is full of imagary referring to each of the team; the leaves representing a book

Onskuld Chardonnay 2019 was the first chapter in this new story. It must’ve felt as though fate was against this new team when launching a new wine in 2020 during the chaos of Covid. Reaching this point after many years, they were not to be deterred: friends, contacts and a good review or two ensured all 1300 bottles sold.

The opportunity to taste this, as well as the two younger vintages of innocence (Onskuld in English) provided their own story of progress when enjoyed by a small group of us last week at the most popular venue in town these days, Culture Club.

Like a taut spring, full of energy, freshness, mouth-watering citrus riding on a wave of creamy lees, the cool Hemel en Aarde Ridge shines through each vintage. Progress and vintage variation are what one hopes to find, indeed we did; 2019, which will benefit greater harmony with a few years, was surpassed by 2020’s greater refinement and complexity, with smooth harmony linking creamy waves and toasty, lemony zest. That’s not the end of the story; Chapter 3, 2021, lives up to the vintage’s stellar reputation. Riper, fuller yet bright and intense – is this the point Onskuld loses innocence? Oak in all is a subtle background amplifier. The best news is quantity has increased to 3670 bottles; the price, a not-over-the-top R390.

Draaiboek isn’t proving to be such a ridiculous break-away idea. In fact, courage has emboldened a dip into experiments with pinot. But that’s another story.

The answer is cabernet

South African wine can be such an enigma.

Think of our success stories; chenin blanc, a variety once viewed as a cheap, easy-drinking white or base for brandy, has been reinvented and reinvigorated by imaginative winemakers; the buzz is palpable. The Old Vine Project is a success story on its own, but allied to chenin blanc, South Africa has stepped further into the limelight. Authentication via the Heritage seal bearing the year of planting on a bottle of Old Vines wine, whether chenin or any other variety, adds further credibility to the project and South Africa’s image. The latest OVP Academy, described on the website as: ‘an online platform aimed at educating the wine industry, trade, consumers, and media on the value of Certified Heritage Vineyards and the wines that they produce,’ strikes another first for South Africa. Like the Wine of Origin Scheme, the Wine & Biodiversity initiative and sustainability, South Africa continues to lead the world in many ways.

Diversity isn’t restricted to our flora. Colombar, palomino and cinsaut, all sidelined as the Big Five began to dominate (colombar covers the second greatest vineyard area after chenin but is mainly used for distilling and brandy), are now being given a new lease of life, alongside other trendy, niche wines like semillon gris (not an official variety due to lack of stability, so labelled semillon or red greengrape) and grenache gris. These Cinderella grapes (one colombar is even named Aspoestertjie, Afrikaans for Cinderella) gain further distinction from innovative winemaking methods: skin contact, flor and, with a greater emphasis on texture, the use of clay amphora or concrete eggs. At the other end of the winemaking journey, South African wine in cans is getting more than its fair share of good reviews for its excellent quality.

All this activity keeps winemakers, media and the more involved wine lovers interested and enthusiastic.

Why would someone as esteemed as Jancis Robinson claim South Africa deserves more respect for its innovation and quality? That’s the gist of what she told Jason Haas, proprietor of Tablas Creek in California’s Paso Robles region, on a recent Instagram live chat.

The first-visit enthusiasm of American reviewer, Alder Yarrow with a sizeable 30000+ followers on Twitter, is also noteworthy. Two quotes from his tweets on 6th October: ‘There is no more exciting wine region in the world right now than South Africa.’ ‘South Africa is the next Etna, the next Jura, the next region that everyone interested in drinking on the cutting edge of wine should be exploring.’

It’s easy to enthuse but sales need to result for both Jancis and Alder’s endorsements to prove their worth.  

Innovation, even chenin blanc, draws more of a niche audience, but for South Africa as a wine producing country to be taken seriously, I believe a reputation for classic, fine wine is required; I’d suggest cabernet sauvignon is the most suitable variety.

The definition of fine wine is an ongoing project carried out under the auspices of Areni Global; the Third Edition of Define Fine Wine White Paper, written by Pauline Vicard.

Why is such a definition necessary? Vicard writes: ‘…  a clear and transparent definition of Fine Wine is essential to its development, reach, future success and, to some extent, its survival.’

To summarise the definition as per this White Paper. Quality is the prerequisite for Fine Wine, which; it must have harmony and balance, engaging both the nose and palate with its complexity, these elements require the ability to evolve and improve with time, but remain interesting right through the wine’s life-cycle.

Interestingly, there is also the comment that Fine Wine is distinguished from mere ‘wine’ by the winemaker’s intent.

Tempting as it might be to think of Stellenbosch only as cabernet country, there are great cabernets from other areas: Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon, Franschhoek; Restless River Main Road & Dignity, Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley; Nederburg R163 Cabernet Sauvignon, Paarl are just three recognised examples.

The key element, as far as my proposition is concerned, is ‘the ability to evolve and improve with time’; ie, the wine has to be able to mature. Which variety is better recognised as improving with age than classic cabernet?

It was a recent taste of two older cabernets that prompted these thoughts. Thelema Cabernet 1995, probably the best vintage in a decade not renowned for great wines, but a perfect example of complexity with balance and trademark Thelema note of mint. Meerlust 1980 Cabernet was presented one evening during Cape Wine, as part of a multi-decade tasting of Seven Wineries. Its ethereal air belied the concentration of ripe fruit and still firm structure. Two memorable experiences

If South Africa today can produce cabernets that mature as well as that 27- or 42-year-old, surely they will establish our reputation as a serious, fine wine country, deserving of prices to match.

Sadie by Sadie

Tasting Eben Sadie and David and Nadia Sadie’s latest releases wasn’t quite a side-by-side affair, being just two weeks apart, and close enough to get an idea of how 2021 has treated these two established producers.

Eben Sadie presenting his latest vintages

It is a fascinating vintage, one reason being it was out of the ordinary. Eben and David made two points which highlight this.

It is around April that Eben and winemaker, Paul Jordaan, assess the wines due for release later in the year, before writing up their always comprehensive notes. Speaking about the 2021 Ouwingerds range (signature wines, Columella and Palladius are released a year older), Eben said ‘We were stunned, the wines were completely silent.  We had to leave them 24 hours before they opened up.’ Their initial silence, Eben happily noted, ‘are usually wines with great potential.’

David & Nadia Sadie looking happy about their new releases

David introduced 2021 noting; ‘It was a vintage of patience. We started in March for the first time; we’ve usually finished by then.’

Good things came out of this much cooler year with its longer ripening time; low pHs, high acid and great concentration. The last of these, especially, confuses often expressing itself clearly in some wines and not at all in others. If David’s remark on 2021 being a vintage of patience, it needs patience from wine lovers too.

Chenin blanc is a theme common to both Sadies, though it will be only next year that the first Sadie Family Wines Swartland chenin, Rotsbank will make an appearance.

Ouwingerds Skurfberg and Mev Kirsten 2021 will both please those who like to know what they’ve got in their glass. The former concentrated, generous flavours, layered texture and a limey freshness. Mev Kirsten a feeling of suspended lightness with power, purity & endless length.

The Sadie Family Wines line up

David and Nadia Chenin Blanc is also richly aromatic, green and red apples and a stony note (from the granite soil?), the ripe flavours concentrated backed by a tight core.

If Rondervlei and Plat’bos have riper profiles and viscosity, they reveal nowhere as much as the straight chenin. Meanwhile Hoë-Steen and Skaliekop are reluctant debutants, saying very little for now; their undoubted character will unfold with time.

So it goes. Even though David and Nadia’s Aristagos has winning charm now with its pure, broad flavours, that intense core reminds it still has so much to give.  This doesn’t come by chance, even in a great vintage. The figures: nine varieties, 17 vineyards, 27 pickings, 15% in concrete for freshness, the rest in old oak.

Palladius might be a year older but relevant to vineyard care, understanding the end goal with varieties and winemaking, in a very different vintage, it captures richness, texture with a taut limey thread and no sense of heaviness. Eben believes this wine has seen the biggest paradigm shift. Like Columella, it expresses somewhereness rather than a blend of many varieties.

The variety probably causing the most conversation about 2021, at least in Eben’s case, is grenache noir or his Ouwingerds Soldaat. It’s been described as light and lean, unlike other vintages. Last year, my Platter description read; ‘concentrated with dense ripe flesh & fine tannins supporting vivid wild strawberry, earthy depths.’

This year’s non-Platter notes read: lighter, bright colour but intense, good ruby. Contained yet deep aromas; core intensity of wild strawberries and spice, lots of energy and freshness if still tightly coiled; dry, insistent fine tannins.’

Eben’s April notes remark on opening up the leaves around the overtly shaded bunches to avoid some of the greener, vegetal characteristics of the past. Also it has the brightest, most transparent colour to date, the freshness suggested by the colour carries through to the wine. The tannin is much more grippy than anticipated and this dense texture suggests the wine will need some aging.

David & Nadia Sadie’s new releases

Different from Soldaat 2020 and from David and Nadia’s 2021; this, a blend of five vineyards, provides aromatic depth and notable acidity with more ample texture, the two still needing to resolve; they surely will and become another Swartland stalwart.

I like to believe Soldaat will too, as well as all the other retiring quality 2021 youngsters (of course, not every wine is living up to this vintage hype).

The main point of these scribblings is don’t be impatient and don’t be disappointed if the wine says nothing on first taste. The best have so much going for them.

Old vine project

The end might not seem like a logical place to start, but the nine wines presented at the culmination of the recent Old Vine Project seminar spoke to what the whole morning’s discussion was about.

Old Vine Project seal

In order, these were: L’Ormarins Ou Bosstok Chenin Blanc 2020; Cape of Good Hope van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc 2017 and Laing Groendruif 2020;

Bellingham the Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2021; Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2019 and 2009; AA Badenhorst Family Wines Keller Steen 2021, Klipkop Steen 2021 and Raaigras Grenache Noir 2021.

Each has a sense of effortlessness, being comfortable within its own identity and a compelling one too.

The winemakers, Mark van Buren, Richard Duckitt, Gottfried Mocke and Adi Badenhorst with Hanneke Kruger respectively, play no small role; they respect the fruit from these old vines, letting the wine express itself without unnecessary adornments. Winelovers are not buying just an old vine wine but an individual.

This tasting closed the circle on the many topics presented and discussed during the morning to the 120 attendees present; a full house. The mix of farmers, winemakers, marketing folk, retailers and a few media confirmed the broad interest in old vines and the work being done by André Morgenthal, Rosa Kruger with their team.

There’s Interest too from members of the OVP, which started with eight in 2017, increasing to 130 today. The area under vines over 35 years, the qualifying age for old vines, has also increased to just over 4000ha (the total area under vine around 92 000ha), though it might come as a surprise to many that Stellenbosch rather than Swartland boasts the greatest area of old vines – 958ha vs 778ha.

Rosa was her usual forceful self when discussing climate change, how to manage and prune old vines, do’s and don’ts of vineyard design when planting new vines ‘to grow old’. As it should, water is pivotal. The wonderful tools, such as Cape Farm Mapper, now available to help farmers plan their farms to best advantage. The selection of specific vines from old vines, multiplying and eventually making them available for planting,

The work being done at the UCT Business School by Jonathan Steyn and others gave valuable insight to how old vine wines are viewed in the market. The words Old Vine on the front label suggests a discount wine, on the back label it adds a premium. The seal itself is an attribute which adds to price of the wine, according to area of origin.

Bellingham’s The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc has carved its own reputation in the category with many awards, both local and international since the maiden 2002 when named The Maverick. Andrew Harris, Marketing Manager of DGB, producer of Bellingham and Old Road Wine Company, confirms the seal ‘helps to get the ear of the gatekeeper’, in retail, tavern etc but is aware of the need for ongoing leverage of the value of the Old Vine seal.  Certainly, the Old Road wines deserve to be better known and appreciated.

Old Vine Project seal

Which brings me to Francois Rautenbach, General Manager of Singita’s Premier Wine Direct and someone who sells important quantities of premium South African wines to the group’s wealthy and high-profile guests. The point he made after scrolling over 20 websites of wineries who have Old Vine wines in their range, is that not one had anything about the project or how it benefits these wines. After the other detailed presentations covering such a wide spectrum of issues associated with the OVP, this was a gap that shouldn’t have caused much research.

Would such a section dedicated to the OVP leave the other, non-Old Vine wines in the range seen as lesser quality, as someone suggested. Lesser because the vines aren’t old, or lesser in quality? There are many high-quality and frequently awarded wines from vines under 35 years. A well-designed website, with an explanation of the OVP and details of the OV wines alongside the others should leave no suggestion of lesser quality; Ian Naudé’s site is an excellent example.

Until Francois’s presentation, the vital piece missing from this seminar was the consumer, without them all this effort would be without meaning.

Growing together Part 2

Would it be a surprise to learn there are 92 grape varieties permitted for the production of wine? These 2021 figures do not include assyrtiko, made by Gary & Kathy Jordan this year, and may be more by now.

The possibilities for field blends are extensive and local, innovative winemakers are making the most of them.

Still thinking of Larry Jacobs as a local (!), I received an excited note from this founder of Mulderbosch and now, long crafting classy wines at Hahndorf Hill in the Adelaide Hills; he told me of the first field blend, Brother Nature, he and partner, Marc, are releasing later this year. The interplanted mix of gruner veltliner, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, savagnin, pinot blanc, chenin blanc, welsch riesling, riesling, harslevelu with a little gewürztraminer, muscat blanc and muscadel is unoaked ‘to emphasise what that patch of dirt represents in the bottle.’ Like others, Larry hopes ripening will eventually harmonise; for the first vintage his imagined ideal saw earlier varieties harvested ripe, the others when ‘potentially making different contributions.’

Brookdale’s field blend vineyard

The field blend movement isn’t contained to whites.  Brookdale’s Field Blend Twenty, a red partner to the white, should be released sometime during the coming year.

Going a step further, encouraged by viticulturist, Jaco Engelbrecht, The Blacksmith owner/winemaker Tremayne Smith, is producing one white and two red field blends. Harvesting in all is decided by taste and balance. Winemaking is kept simple with whole bunch pressing, ferment and aging in older, neutral French oak.

A 1977-established Voor Paardeberg bush-vine block, compromises around 10 to 13 varieties, mainly chenin, semillon, crouchen blanc and palomino. Labelled as The Blacksmith These Old Bones, it’s simply described as Dry White Wine. Tremayne and Jaco surmise the farmer thought ‘waste not, want not’, inter-planting these vines left over from other projects.

Both red blocks also hail from Voor Paardeberg and were custom-planted in 2017 and 2019 respectively.

Tremayne chose carignan, cinsault and grenache, planted as bush vines ‘for a Mediterranean style red’. Old oak and olive trees and granite boulders share space with the vines, planted in different sections but each variety occasionally merges with others in The Vine Garden block. Destemmed whole bunch fermentation, around 14 days on skins is followed by nearly  a year in large French oak. Named Third Sight, with Dry Red Wine on the back label, there’s no reference to field blend.

In the third and youngest vineyard the bush vines are head trained, except for syrah, which is grown en echelas, or one vine to one pole. Carignan, grenache noir, durif, mourvèdre and zinfandel complete the varietal sextet. Huge granite boulders dominate the centre of the block, hence The Rock Garden. A first vintage Rosé Méthode Ancestrale has yet to be named.

Tremayne is hoping: ‘to capture the essence of both vintage and terroir, rather than blending across regions.’

Alan Cook’s baker’s dozen field blend on his Riebeek’s River Road property was established in 2017 with the hope of making ‘something resembling a Chateauneuf du Pape in a Swartland style’. His Aspoestertjie Red is mainly grenache with small amounts of cinsault, mourvèdre, shiraz & a sprinkle of Alicante bouchet, bastardo, counoise, carignan, tinta amarela, tempranillo, touriga nacional, souzao. Concrete tank ferment, with small amount of stems, is followed by ageing in large Stockinger foudres.

Field blends come from cooler climates too. Wanderlust suggests a desire to break away from the everyday and undertake an exciting, new challenge. It pretty well sums up Craig and Anne Wessels Wanderlust label, which annually features something new in style or variety.  

The story behind Wanderlust 2020 is unique. The Bosman clone garden was established in 2006 on a 22ha block of the family farm in the Upper Hemel en Aarde, the same Ward as Restless River. Today, after consolidation and focus on varieties preferring cooler climes, there still remain 37 varieties, with many clones; all are grouped together in rows.

‘I could not ignore this vineyard, knowing that some was going to be pulled out the following year; this was my one opportunity to make a field blend from a selection of these grapes.’ Later this year, Craig Wessels’ determination will see Restless River Wanderlust 2020 (the name yet to be revealed) released and unique for several reasons.

The tricky decision of when to harvest due to varying ripening times was solved in a practical way by Craig: he decided on a day that would suit him in the cellar, then pick everything that seemed to be close to similar ripeness. That’s how Wanderlust 2020 came to be harvested on 6th March, a blend of cinsault, malbec, petit verdot cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, ruby cabernet, alicante bouchet, barbera, sangiovese and, one white, roussanne.

Co-fermentation with spontaneous yeast in an open-top oak vat, four weeks on skins, then basket pressed into older small and larger oak for 18 months was followed by six months in tank, before bottling.

To briefly complete the circle; Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel have a Stellenbosch red Field Blend under The Fledge & Co brand; Neil & Warren Ellis do a field blend in conjunction with Alex Volkwyn.

What can field blends offer, apart from ‘something new’? It’s been suggested they spread the risk, any problems in a single varietal vineyard leaves all your eggs in one basket. Climate change is always front of mind; the sizable mix in some of the above vineyards, albeit selected on the area’s natural aptitude for certain varieties, could offer help in finding those that could perform even better under heat and drought conditions.

David Trafford has some cogent thoughts on reasons why field blends might not be such a good idea, but those will have to wait for another time and, maybe the further research and study this topic deserves.

There will be discussion as to what constitutes a true field blend, but it’s early days and vine lay-out may change over time. I, for one, would be against any legislation for the Field Blend certification. Get consumers excited about them first and foremost, bearing in mind varietal wine is still king.