Spotlight on site

An ever-shrinking pie is being cut into smaller and smaller segements. That’s the broad picture of South Africa’s area under vine and the number of producers making wine from those vines.

Figures just released show a decrease of 7601 ha since 2007, leaving an official 2017 total of 94 545 ha under wine vines; many believe the true figure is much lower.

Lack of profitability and drought are among reasons for this steady decline. Not all is doom and gloom; new vineyards are being planted, today with much more attention being paid to new areas and sites in the search for wines of distinction and a sense of place.

Stephanie Wiid, Johan Kruger and Arco Laarman are all names that are, in Wiid’s case, or were, in the others, associated with well-known producers: Fairview, Sterhuis and Glen Carlou respectively. Both Kruger and Laarman have started labels under their own names, while Wiid, in partnership with friends, has the Thistle and Weed brand. All focus on site and producing wines with a sense of place.

Wiid makes her Duwweltjie Chenin Blanc from a block of heritage bush vines planted in 1956. Named after the Duwweltjies or Devil’s thorns that grow in the vineyard and stick to the soles of one’s shoes, the wine itself is far more friendly and delightful – but then it is a 2017. Full of natural vibrancy and fresh, crunchy red apple flavours with the promise of more floral and wild herb complexity in store; the patient will be rewarded. For a wine of this quality, R185 isn’t exorbitant these days.

Both Kruger and Laarman have worked extensively with chardonnay; their love of the variety is now encouraging them to explore way beyond their original boundaries of Stellenbosch and Paarl respectively.

The family behind Kruger Family Wines.

Piekernierskloof is not a spot I’d associate with chardonnay; indeed, it yields a quite unusual wine, especially Kruger Family Wines Sans Chêne 2017 (R125) (unoaked but the term also means ‘no chains’, appropriate for this solo-flyer). A riot of spice, fynbos with a suggestion of eucalyptus aren’t traditional chardonnay descriptors, though it is well-structured and really dry. I think it’ll be a love it or hate it wine. The oaked version, from the same Klipkop vineyard (R275) has some of the unoaked version’s character but more typicity thanks to (well-judged) oak and a creamy texture. Perhaps a more acceptably distinctive style.

With Walker Bay Chardonnay 2017 (R225) we’re back in very familiar chardonnay territory; gentle lemony, nutty notes lifted by fresh, natural acid and supportive oaking, none new. An elegant wine, my pick of the chardonnays described here.

Should you wonder why Kruger chose to spend much time in his bakkie travelling between Piekenierskloof and Walker Bay (he also makes a smart pinot noir called Pearly Gates from Upper Hemel en Aarde (R175)), one reason is that they’re linked by granite soils. This offers an opportunity to learn how the same soils in different regions creates diverse wines.

Striking packaging on Arco Laarman new wines; each line represents facet of viti/viniculture culminating in Focal Point of wine’s distinction

Laarman’s Focal Point Chardonnay 2017 (R305) comes from further along the South coast, Vermaaklikheid to be tongue-twistingly precise (near Riversdale). I admit the new oak vanillins ring too loudly for me, but it also enjoys good vigour and underlying creaminess, so maybe time will forge greater harmony with the bright, citrusy fruit.

Cinsaut (cinsault in Laarman’s case) is another fashionable addition in each winemaker’s range; Kruger’s Old Vines 2017 from Piekernierskloof (R175), Laarman’s Focal Point 2017 from Bottelary Hills (R210). They share some whole bunch, spontaneous fermentation and ageing in French oak, but Laarman’s edges it as the more subtle and elegant. There’s much discussion on the profit of ageing cinsaut; frankly, these two are enjoyable now, perfect for warm weather, white fish and lightly spiced dishes.

On the subject of food, what to pair with sauvignon blanc is often a challenge, at least those examples with showy fruit and hint of residual sweetness, which is what most sauvignon drinkers expect.

Winemaker, Matt Day explaining details of his Metis Sauvignon Blanc

That’s not the goal of Matt Day, winemaker at highly-regarded sauvignon producer, Klein Constantia. A working visit to Sancerre’s Pascal Jolivet in 2012 inspired Day’s Metis. It was here he learned the importance of soil in the expression of place.

The Metis joint venture between KC and Jolivet began the following vintage, the fruit sourced from one of the highest blocks on decomposed granite; further blocks have been added since.

The winemaking approach is totally different from the sauvignon norm: oxidised juice, natural ferment, a year on lees in 500 litre neutral French oak and a little sulphur added prior to bottling. Pascal’s son, Clement, who was here to share the experience of a vertical of the first four vintages of Metis, advised ‘The best way to work with sauvignon blanc is to forget it’s sauvignon.’ Suggesting it can be much more interesting than just sauvage flavours.

Line up of Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, New Zealand & Klein Constantia Metis tasting

After re-tuning our palates with two Jolivet wines, an edgy Sancerre 2016 and broader Pouilly-Fumé 2014, Didier Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly 2014 and completely atypical New Zealand sauvignon from Greywacke, we were ready for Metis 2013 – 2016.

The youngest and current release, suggests time is a requirement of this more structured, high acid style; 2013 confirms such recommendation. Still youthful, it showed outstanding evolution after an hour in the glass. Fruit? Yes, but delivered more with a sense of ripeness than overt tropical or green tones. Alcohol? Yes, there’s that too; over 14% in the youngest two, but never a niggling intrusion, mainly thanks to the wine being bone dry.

As this description might suggest, Metis is no aperitif wine, but has many possibilities as a food partner. So far, and it’s early days yet, Metis’ distinction by a similarity of style derived from site.

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