As we gathered to enjoy a 10-year vertical of Niels Verburg’s Luddite Shiraz, I innocently asked for their Twitter handle. Verburg looked puzzled, mumbled and confirmed he doesn’t do technology. Of course not, he’s a Luddite! Though I subsequently discovered Luddite Wines are on Twitter, their profile describes their Luddism as follows: ‘Luddism reflects our belief in winemaking. We choose to practice our craft conscientiously. Technology & mechanization will never be a substitute for passion.’
Neither will they be substitutes for consistency, a most admirable attribute in winemaking, but something that comes with many demands on the winemaker. In his introduction, Niels Verburg gave a few clues as to what consistency requires. Wide experience of wines from around the globe; a clear idea of desired style; a rigorous approach to quality while paying attention to reflect both place and vintage.
He has indeed travelled, made and tasted wine far and wide since leaving Elsenburg in the early 1990s, before returning to South Africa in 1995. The following year he took up the winemaking reins at Beaumont, where he helped plant the first shiraz ‘between Sir Lowry’s Pass and Cape Agulhas.’
His belief in shiraz (‘My cellar is full of Northern Rhône’) and Bot River, saw him, wife Penny and family establish their own vineyards – shiraz, obviously, but also grenache, mourvèdre, cabernet and chenin)- not far from Beaumont. Bought-in shiraz made up the first few vintages, while home-grown fruit gradually came on stream until 2009, the first year Luddite Shiraz was all home-grown and made in the Verburg’s brand new cellar.
That vintages 2005 – 2008 included differing fruit sources and cellars proved no deterrent to Verburg’s constant winemaking approach. Picking dates, determined by flavour; ‘sometimes very ripe’; no added acid, usually around 7 g/l at harvesting and 5.5 g/l in the wine and since 2009, spontaneous fermentation only which he believes imparts a greater sense of place.
Where adjustments are made is with regard to vintage; warmer years will see more punch downs, longer time on skins and a little more new oak; in cooler years, fewer punch downs and a back-off on oak, although the two-year regime in oak remains.
This shouldn’t suggest Luddite Shiraz is made in one batch; there are around seven or eight different portions offering blending choices: clonal, different parts of the vineyard, new/2nd/3rd and 4th year 225 litre barrels. Verburg’s rule for deciding on the final blend is to take a bottle home and finish it one sitting; if he’s satisfied once the last drop is drained that the wine has good drinkability now but also ageing potential – that’s it – bottling follows with a further two-year wait before release.
If this appears an inordinately measured and disciplined approach, it more than pays rich dividends.
There is no denying these are big, dark, brooding wines, but unlike many which exhaust after half a glass, these have energy, layers of flavour and, most positively for me, are delightfully dry. This dryness, Verburg explains, comes down to ‘paying attention to the yeast cell, it has to be comfortable to complete its task’. Whatever, the dry finish aids digestibility, the fine, polished tannins encourage drinkability but as the 2005 illustrates, the wines have staying power. Most are characterised by black spice rather than red berries, though cooler vintages such as 2007 and 2009 do exhibit more elegant floral aromatics.
Only one, 2008 (generally a difficult vintage) was less convincing; a little disjointed with a suggestion of oak not evident in any of the others and alcohol sweetness. The latest, 2014 (R560 ex Wine Cellar), launched at this vertical, deservedly has been awarded Platter 5* rating in the 2019 guide, the fifteenth time Luddite Shiraz had been nominated and the first success – breathe a sigh of relief, Niels! Expressive aromatic breadth, silky texture, supportive structure, concentrated flavour and seamless integrated tannins combine in this balanced wine that meets all Verburg’s demands.
There’s frequent discussion among wine writers about negative reviews. Some feel there are too many good wines to waste space on criticising poor ones, but if the reviewer only ever comments positively, it brings his or her credibility into question. The reader also needs to know any conflict of interest the reviewer might have.
My view is that if I’ve got to know a wine over several vintages, such as Luddite Shiraz after this vertical, and the winemaker’s intentions, then I feel well-placed to better criticize individual vintages. Hence my comments on 2008. Otherwise, with everyday drinking wines that should offer no more than pleasure, I’m more likely to reflect on value than quality.
There’s no doubt about the quality of Luddite Shiraz and I don’t anticipate any change in the consistency either.