Quality either side of the wide river

Life is full of quirks and ironies, some with small consequences, others much more significant. I’d place those affecting Paul and Corine Leeuwerik in the latter space.

The Leeuweriks are from the Netherlands, where Paul was a fiscal adviser. After their children had left home and their thatched roof home had burnt down, they determined to see more of the world. First stop in 2002 was Namibia and Zimbabwe. Africa captivated them; they wanted to see more.

Paul & Corine Leeuwerik in Olifantsberg cellar
Paul & Corine Leeuwerik in Olifantsberg cellar

It so happened an old client of Paul’s had a house near Worcester in the Cape; when he died, the man’s son intended selling it but was happy for the Leeuweriks to stay there in 2003. Three weeks and much discussion later, they decided to buy the house and its few hectares of cabernet and shiraz; after all, it had the view Corine had set her heart on. It also had a thatched roof; they laugh at the irony!

Apart from loving good wine, Bordeaux especially, the Leeuweriks had no detailed knowledge of what went into producing it. They were in for a sharp learning curve. Harvest 2004 produced around six tons of grapes for which they received R2000 from the Co-op. The following two vintages were made by their farm manager with the winemaker at De Wet Co-op. In 2007 a cellar was constructed from an old glass blowing facility. But things didn’t work out and by 2009, Leeuwerik knew he needed a young but well-qualified winemaker. Enter Jacques du Plessis.

The Leeuweriks’ headaches weren’t yet over. They wished to extend their 4.5ha of vineyards, but their beautiful, wild hillside slopes lay in a red zone. Many hoops were required to be jumped through to get permission; eventually it was given for a maximum of 20 hectares (much on virgin soil). One of the conditions was that they had to protect old and now inactive termite hills. Water rights, channelling ground water, reclaiming dams, too had to have permission.

Listening to these trials and tribulations, it’s clear further vineyards are highly unlikely to be authorised on these slopes.

Corine & Paul Leeuwerik with viticulturist/winemaker, Elizma Visser. NB short échalas trained vines. Badsberg & behind it, Slanghoek mountains in background.
Corine & Paul Leeuwerik with viticulturist/winemaker, Elizma Visser. NB short échalas trained vines. Badsberg & behind it, Slanghoek mountains in background.

Rejoice then that Olifantsberg will eventually have 20 ha of vines; the current 17 ha, established between 2010 and 2014 on these wonderful schist and shale soils and surrounded by fynbos, are planted to shiraz, carignan, mourvèdre, grenache – both blanc and noir – and roussanne, 10 ha grown as échalas, one vine on one stake, these of different lengths. These Rhône varieties are completely at home in this climate; it’s hot, yes, but the hillside slopes are well exposed and catch whatever breeze is going. There is also chenin, an important variety in their plans, a little pinotage and chardonnay.

Olifantsberg schist soils.
Olifantsberg schist soils.

Even fruit from young vines already turned into wine, has a sense of character: honest, vibrant, generous in flavour but not showy, moderate in alcohol and welcomingly dry. Olifantsberg Silhouette, a shiraz-based blend threw a spotlight on the property when it picked up a gold on this year’s Trophy Wine Show.

From next vintage, these grapes will be vinified by Elizma Visser, an Elsenburg-trained, Kuils River lass, who took over from Jacques du Plessis in June this year. After meeting her on my visit, I feel confident she will continue in du Plessis’s footsteps. She’s down to earth, well travelled, enthusiastic and has no desire to impose what doesn’t belong on these wines. Her first post after graduating with with Ronell Wiid then at Hazendal; a positive start to Visser’s career: I have endless respect for Wiid’s abilities. Harvests in France and Italy were followed by a couple of posts back in the Cape, the last of which was at Waverly Hills. ‘The job was much more than just winemaking; I had to look after the fynbos nursery and conservation area, something right up my alley!’ But Olifantsberg Family Vineyards is even more up Visser’s alley; ‘I have always wanted to manage the vineyards and make the wines. It’s a dream come true.’

Locally, the wines are available from Caroline’s Fine Wines and Wine Cellar. Acquaint yourselves with them now; they are destined to become much better known.

Attie Louw his infectious smile not quite hidden by his wines!
Attie Louw his infectious smile not quite hidden by his wines!

Across the Breede River valley, behind Badsberg, lies the Slanghoek Valley and Opstal, home to seven generations of one family. Due to passing down the female line, Roussouw and Everson came before Louw. The genial Attie Louw gave me a potted history of the farm – from originally producing rebate wine for ‘sherry’ to focussing on quality from around 1995, when his father, Stanley received Veritas gold medals for his cabernet,

After graduating, working in the Rhône and Yarra Valleys and 18 months of marketing and sales, ‘Because I was sick of winemaking,’ Louw admits, he complete his first Opstal vintage in 2010. Thank goodness his enthusiasm returned. It has infected many of the other 18 winemakers in the Breedekloof, as Louw was one of the leading lights behind the Breedekloof Initiative, initiated in 2014 to try and raise the region’s image.

The initiative gave participants (nine in the first year, 15 in 2015) the opportunity to produce the best chenin blanc possible. Louw’s own offering, Carl Everson Chenin Blanc (named after his great grandfather) is drawn from a 2.5 ha vineyard celebrating its 35th birthday in 2016. Getting together with his great friend, David Sadie, Louw started experimenting. Settled juice with 5% lees goes to older 300 lts and 400 lts barrels and allowed to ferment without inoculation at its own pace. In 2014 that lasted 12 days; this year it took 3.5 months!

Opstal vineyards stretch from tree on lefthand background to unplanted land on right & from foothills of Slanghoek mountains.
Opstal vineyards stretch from tree on lefthand background to unplanted land on right & from foothills of Slanghoek mountains.

The 2014 is a calm yet concentrated wine with lovely breadth of intricate chenin flavour. Elegance is an appropriate term for this and other wines in the range, including the new juicy, approachable Carl Everson Cape blend 2013 from equal parts cabernet, shiraz and pinotage. ‘Perhaps it needs a bit of zip,’ Louw looks at me questionally as he pours a barrel sample of his new petit verdot, a fragrant, vibrant number which should certainly spice up that blend. Louw smiles.

The Opstal vineyards stretch in a neat rectangle from the foothills of the Slanghoek Mountains, across the flat, alluvial, sandy, clay soil to the cellar and now to the other side of the road, rising up the southern slopes of Badsberg, where roussanne and carignan have been planted.

Opstal's roussanne & carignan vineyards on south-facing slopes of Badsberg.
Opstal’s roussanne & carignan vineyards on south-facing slopes of Badsberg.

Like those vines, Attie Louw and Opstal are on the rise; here’s another youngster full of energy and enthusiasm, free from baggage of the past, who believes everything must be about the wine.

Today, there are few reasons to drive the N1 en route to the north or Robertson without exploring Breedekloof.

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