Quiet innovator

Many innovative South African winemakers are familiar names to winelovers; Eben Sadie leading that pack with plenty of young guns following him. Not every innovator receives the wider public recognition he or she deserves, not because of less talent, a lack of opinions or even wine sales; maybe they are of a quieter disposition or us writers forget to seek them out.

Super Single Vineyards’ Daniel de Waal is one of them. Back in the 1990s, I remember being impressed with his classic-styled reds from the family farm, Uiterwyk (now DeWaal Wines), an approach he still admirably follows. He holds strong opinions too, as I learned from a recent lengthy chat with him on his Cannettevallei farm in Stellenboschkloof.

The business, started in 2004, now has two distinct ranges. The ‘local’ one, Pella, focuses on small batches, roughly 900 bottles per label, from good, older vineyards around Stellenbosch, Paarl and the Swartland. Reds are without doubt De Waal’s forte, the Pella range includes a classic, cab-led Family Reserve blend, as well as equally splendid varietal wines, each named for the individual vineyard: Granietbult Cabernet Sauvignon, Oukliprant Malbec and Koueveld Petit Verdot with just one white, Kanniedood Chenin Blanc. None, however, are registered as single vineyards – yet. It is the current legislation for single vineyards that is a cause of annoyance to De Waal and I’m in complete agreement with him.

The regulations stipulate, inter alia, that the vineyard shouldn’t exceed six hectares in size and be planted to one variety, but, as De Waal explains, other factors which influence any sense of place in the wine, such a soil, altitude, aspect etc, are not taken into account and can vary even in a block smaller than that maximum. Thus, De Waal takes care to ensure his rows are homogenous in the above respects.

A break of at least seven metres around a block is required for single vineyard registration; ‘A deterrent to any farmer who needs to remove an income-earning row of vines to comply,’ notes De Waal.

As the smallest Wine of Origin, where a sense of place should be front of mind, the single vineyard needs much more rigorous interrogation by the authorities prior to registration. Regrettably, marketing is often argued over place.

Mount Sutherland vineyards under snow. One of several photos in the Cannettevallei tasting room.

It’s De Waal’s other range, Mount Sutherland, where he’s being daringly innovative. Sutherland, a four-hour drive from Stellenbosch, lies at an elevation of 1500 metres, is prone to frost, both white and black, snow and between 200-300mm rain in winter. Precisely the sort of continental climate, with schist soil – ‘not too rich, almost perfect’, De Waal was seeking when he planted the first vines in 2004. The grapes are brought to Stellenbosch for vinification.

It was a trip to the northern Rhône, where he encountered growers speaking of their continental climate, that made him wonder why nobody mentioned it here. A friend in Sutherland introduced him to the area; 2009 produced the maiden vintage.

It’s a brave (some might say foolhardy) wine producer who knowingly introduces vines where spring frosts are a regular occurrence. As I write this, it seems Bordeaux, the Right Bank especially, is being badly hit by frost; this along with areas stretching from Champagne to the Languedoc.

De Waal is pragmatic about the problem. ‘We manage white frost, which usually happens in October, by spraying the vines with water, which freezes and protects them from damage.’ Black frost, a danger in the drier, windy conditions from end October into November, burns the vine from the top down. ‘An upside is that the vine can go through a second budding after a black frost,’ says De Waal, relating with a smile that the Old Mutual Trophy winning Syrah 2012 was made from second-budding fruit.

Light intensity ensures ripening is no problem, ‘We’ve harvested shiraz at 12% potential alcohol with perfectly ripe tannins and even though daytime temperatures can climb as high as 30C, nighttime they’ll drop to 9C, which is good for pH levels.’

Shiraz bunches from Sutherland (top) & Stellenbosch (thanks to Super Single Vineyards Facebook page)

It also seems the diurnal differences, high altitude and dry, south-easterly winds account for the much smaller berries in Sutherland shiraz. ‘Even with small berries, the skins aren’t so thick and the tannins soft.’ De Waal describes some of Sutherland’s benefits but maintains Mount Sutherland wines are very much a work in progress. ‘We planted cabernet, but it needs more humidity and didn’t work out. Sauvignon blanc proved too acidic, so we’ve dropped that too.’ Until it’s seen how the current crop of wines develop, they don’t intend to introduce other new varieties.

That said, both ranges are selling well in the US, online, in restaurants and from the pretty little tasting room on Cannettevallei.

Daniel de Waal might be one of the less high-profile innovators but he’s certainly among those with the most vision and talent.

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One thought on “Quiet innovator

  1. I have known Danie since school, and he has always been a softly-spoken man but with a honed, rapier belief in what he wants and how to get there. The story sums it up well, and the Sutherland Shiraz is, in my mind, a great wine. It is interesting how extreme sites – Sutherland, Virgin Earth, Prieska – deliver such bright, clear wines.

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