Time can play tricks; it didn’t seem so long since I last saw Johan ‘Stompie’ Meyer and Jurgen Gouws, but at the recent comprehensive tasting of their wines – JH Meyer Signature Wines/Mother Rock and Gouws’s Intellego – I sensed a coming of age of both.
They’re hardly old, still in their early 30s and there’s already another generation nipping at their heels, but they’re clearly focused and every vintage shows improvements. Despite Meyer’s love of chardonnay and pinot noir, the two are attracted to the edgier side of wine, chasing minimal interference, lower alcohols, freshness, skin-contact whites and so on with the Swartland their palette (except for that Burgundian duo, but read on). Their audience might be small but it’s appreciative and growing.
I remember meeting the more reserved Gouws in 2010 (like his wines, Gouws’ has gained in confidence), when he was working with Craig Hawkins at Lammershoek; Hawkins was already experimenting with skin-fermented whites. Further inspiration from Tom Lubbe at The Observatory followed. Gouws’ established his Intellego label in 2009; it now numbers seven wines; three individual Swartland chenins – the skin-contact Elementis my favourite; Pink Moustache, described as a light red, rather than rosé, a pair of syrahs (one labelled Kolbroek) and the syrah-based Kedungu.
Many winelovers are cautious about skin-fermented whites, being more used to tannin in reds, but there’s no shortage of chenin fragrance and fruit in Elementis. If there’s uncertainty over grippy whites, lower alcohol reds also challenge today’s norm, though 11-12% was very much the norm for those of us who remember pre-mid 1990’s reds. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying Gouws’s reds (unless new oak and sweetness are your taste), which capture flavour, ripeness of texture with freshness and are appetisingly dry. Pure (forget new oak intrusions) but not simple. The labels on his wines are a delight too.
I came across the more ebullient Meyer at Meerhof in 2012, as he started making Mount Abora wines. His range is larger than Gouws’s and seemingly unstoppable; 15, under both the JH Meyer Signature and Mother Rock labels, tasted at this event. Don’t imagine he’s stopping here; on a recently purchased a 30 hectare, high-lying property in Piketberg, originally planted to citrus and fynbos, the planned 10ha of vineyard will include pinot noir. Yes, he wants to be the first to produce a pinot from the Swartland!
His eponymous chardonnay (two) and pinot noir (four) are approached without exaggeration, to express their diverse origins; my pick are the Palmiet Elgin Chardonnay 2016 and defiantly wild Outeniqua Cradock Peak Pinot 2016, with its attractive fynbos and spice.
We pick up with the more ‘natural’ side (‘It starts in the vineyard, not the cellar’, rightly insists Meyer) in Mother Rock range. From the approving murmurs around me, the white 2016, a juicily delicious blend headed by chenin, could have been the wine of the tasting. With prices bound to rise, R135 is good value. Another plus of lower alcohol, fresher reds is their compatibility with summer heat; the mouthwatering, fruitily fresh Mother Rock Grenache 2016 (+-R182) perfectly fits that bill but there’s much more to explore in Meyer’s range – if you’re quick.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn exports account for 85-90% of Gouws and Meyer’s sales; the local market for wines that push the envelope is limited. In fact, the pair are extremely lucky to be part of the Ex Animo portfolio; David and Jeannette Clarke energetically run an extremely professional business, making sure the media and trade are kept up to date with information and tastings, something these small producers would be hard pressed to achieve at any meaningful level. Ex Animo clearly highlights the need for an equally efficient organisation to represent producers big and small on the local market also acting as a link within the wider industry; a companion body to WOSA internationally. It’s a view voiced many times, one unfortunately landing on deaf ears.
On this topic, there has been much recent discussion between wine commentators about Vinpro, the body representing around 3000 grape growers and producers, which ‘strives (suitable term) to ensure their commercial sustainability’ and much else besides. Among the most important of the services Vinpro offers is that of viticultural consultancy. ‘Great wine starts in the vineyard,’ is by now a common opening remark by a winemaker at a tasting. Yet too many of our vineyards remain beset by the scourge of leafroll virus (those lovely red, autumn leaves, right?) which hinders ripening of the fruit and shortens the life of the vine. (It is no small ask to eradicate virused vines; read the programme run by viticultural consultant, Jaco Engelbrecht) Leafroll isn’t the only threatening disease and drought or no, water is an issue of concern; all make grape growing an increasingly difficult sustainable occupation; no wonder the area under vine decreases annually.
The scope of Vinpro’s interests was evident at their recent Information Day; presentations covered everything from business environment, state of the wine industry, wine’s place in society come 2030, as well the vineyard. Frankly, for anyone who keeps up with the news, whether on radio, TV or social media, much was not new. But the point is Vinpro is spread too wide; there needs to be a greater focus and more resources directed at the vineyards and primary grape growers. There can be no wine industry without them.
Thank goodness, the younger generation, whether winemakers like Gouws and Meyer, or growers, are today giving much needed attention to their vines; wine is no longer the first step to quality.
Can we afford to have less than optimally performing vines, when water, land and economic sustainability are at a premium? I think not.