Every wine country has characters; every wine country needs characters. South Africa has its own original in Koen Roose, who decamped from Belgium in the early 2000s after encouragement from L’Avenir’s then winemaker, Francois Naudé. Originally studying to be an engineer, Roose soon realised this wasn’t a career for him; he went on to be a highly-regarded sommelier then an importer, his portfolio including many South African producers, including L’Avenir.
Roose’s training on the ground began at L’Avenir, ‘where Francois taught me everything about pinotage,’ then followed harvests at Tokara and several in Burgundy, where he worked in the vineyards rather than cellars.
During this period, he purchased 47 hectares of virgin land in Elgin that was to be Spioenkop. Just 10 hectares are planted to vines only; ‘No apples, I’m not a f…king apple farmer.’ Roose’s Flemish-accented English, littered with such colourful terms, is delivered at speed and length and with great enthusiasm.
If a lack of apple orchards is one area he differs from many of his Elgin colleagues, another is his approach to viticulture, specifically his pruning regime, which begins a month earlier than anyone else. Other Elgin farmers think he’s mad, as growth also starts a month earlier, with the risk of frost, but Roose defends his methods and his unirrigated vines with their low-growing canopy; these are spread out around the hill, composed mainly of ferricrete, a hard, erosion-resistant, sedimentary rock, brown-rust in colour. The vines roots struggle to get past this rock to find any moisture below. Stress makes the vines concentrate on producing and ripening fruit rather than ‘pretty canopies’.
Once we’re through the viticultural exposé (and I’ve not touched on half of Roose’s lesson), it’s on to the main purpose of the morning, tasting his latest releases. Bar one wine, all the grapes for both the 1900 and Spioenkop ranges come from the farm.
Roose is no less a maverick in the cellar than in the vineyards; ‘I’m an alchemist, I love to do everything with feeling rather than by any book.’ The first glass contains 1900 Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (R160); he’s even sorry he’s had to release it so young! Texture and dimension are essentials in Roose’s wines. To achieve this in his sauvignon, he designed tanks with sieves, giving skin contact for 24/48 hours before drawing off the free-run juice, leaving the skins on the sieves then pressing them in a basket press. Naturally fermented, aged on gross lees with no additions, this is the antithesis of a simple, fruity, young sauvignon. But does a three-year-old sauvignon sell, I asked? Apparently, the good sommeliers understand and are willing to list it, but not so much the average winelover. The newly-named Sauvignon Blanc SA would do well to give the ageing aspect of sauvignon more attention, as an increasing number are made with this in mind. Roose’s 1900 illustrates the potential.
Newcomer, Queen Manthatisi Sauvignon Blanc 92% -Chenin Blanc 8% 2016 (R175) is a riper style with more general appeal, the sauvignon gaining richness from six months in 300 litre older oak. Queen Manthatisi, who llived during the 18th and 19th centuries was known as a brave and capable leader of her tribes, who ensured they stayed together during peace and war. Roose loves history, hence the variety of historical names.
The star of Roose’s white wines and for me, the whole range, is his Spioenkop Riesling, arguably the best in South Africa. ‘Everything I do for sauvignon and chenin, I don’t do for this queen of grapes,’ he asserts. The current 2017 (R263) is unusually expressive for so young a Spioenkop wine; fragrant spicy, flea powder aromas; elegant, lightish-bodied (12.5% alc), with rivetting fruity acids and zingy length. Well worth tucking away a few bottles.
That’s not to downplay the quality of Spioenkop Sarah Raal 2018 (R283) and Johanna Brandt 2017 (R263), a splendid pair of chenin blancs, quite a rarity in Elgin, where Roose was the first to plant the variety. They come from different elevations in two vineyards; Sarah from the upper part showing riper, red apple charm; Johanna from the lower with fresher green apple tones and a suggestion of oak spice, 10% new admits Roose almost under his breath; he says he hates the taste of new oak and doesn’t generally use it.
In honour of his pinotage guru, Francois Naudé, Roose goes against all his principles of making wine from only Elgin fruit. 1900 Pinotage 2018 (R263) comes from and has typical raspberry perfume, ripe fruity flavours and gentle tannins. A readily recognisable and enjoyable pinotage but Roose’s Elgin Spioenkop Pinotage 2018 (R425) takes the grape to a different level and style. More spice and liquorice than traditional aromas, there is also intense cool climate freshness more reflective of the area’s pinot noirs. Only the dark, crimson-rimmed colour gives a clue to its real varietal origin. For me, Roose’s 1900 Pinot Noir (R202) is unlike its Elgin counterparts being denser, more firmly structured with dark spice and a whiff of smoky oak. For something interesting and different, I’d opt for the Pinotage.
Nothing can replace visiting a wine farm to better understand the wines; a visit to Spioenkop with a tour led by Koen Roose gives one a better understanding not only of the wines but this individual, opinionated winemaker, a welcome addition to the Cape’s wine scene.