There are winemakers who court the media and there are winemakers who don’t – but are still noticed, their wines’ excellence acknowledged.
Blackwater Wines’ Francois Haasbroek fits in the latter category. This prompted my opening question, ‘So, what’s your strategy?’, as we sat under the oaks at De Meye, where he currently makes his own wines as well as theirs.
It elicited a spluttering laugh; ‘I’m driven by my personal preference of living life. I enjoy flexibility, being able to read books every day; picking up Daniël (his son) from school and so on.’
He believes ‘if I increased my prices ‘to the R350 level, it might stroke my ego, but then my life would be spent doing PR, looking for more importers.’ Then the crunch statement: ‘I make wine because I enjoy it.’ His enjoyment is reflected in the wines, but pragmatism is also required. He has a new, actually former, cellar for harvest 2022, one that he’s financially involved in, ‘it required a new strategy for the cost,’ he explains.
Since 2020, he’s made the Jan Harmsgat wines for this Bonnievale Country Guest Lodge and Restaurant’s wine portfolio; he has now added Naked Wines. A chance tweet (if Francois doesn’t court the media, he’s very active on social media, from which one learns much – @blackwaterwine on Twitter, shot_of_time on Instagram) about some prime sauvignon blanc grapes looking for a home just before harvest 2021, was seen by Naked Wines, drew interest and a firm order from them. Next year he’s developing a new brand, Rock View, for them. ‘A technical shift’ is how he describes the approach.*Breaking news: that sauvignon blanc he made under the Rock View label has just been awarded 95 points and a rave review from the IWSC judges, including three MWs.
Another facet to this dynamic winemaker, as his Twitter followers will have learned, is that he started and completed a two-year MBA, ‘Just to do it’, he shrugs at my ‘Why?’ He does admit it was a hugely stressful, 100% demand on his time and especially on his wife and family. It’s business strategy rather than business itself which attracts him and now the ongoing research and writing articles. Reading, of course, too; check out his book deliveries on Twitter, which should confirm his admission that he never stops learning. He quite likes the idea of strategy consulting aimed at the wine industry. I think this could be a case of watch this space.
Around this point, bottles of wine, a Coravin and Zalto glasses are brought out. (Stupidly, I forgot to take a photo until just before I left, when everything bar a few bottles remained – those Zaltos themselves incline one favourably towards the wine.)
Sitting outside on a beautiful, spring day, tasting through his range with the winemaker is a privileged and informative experience, much more so than tasting the wines at home, as is the norm for Platter and which I did some two or three years ago for Blackwater Wine. (Both practical and subjective reasons brought Platter tastings with winemakers to an end.)
As we taste, Francois mentions some of those who’ve influenced his wine journey. Neil Ellis, an important mentor, gave him much advice, including; ‘don’t call yourself a winemaker unless you have worked ten years on a vineyard.’ It was at a tasting with Chateau Margaux’s Paul Pontallier in 2006 that Francois’s thinking about red wine making underwent a fundamental change. The 2005 white and red were poured, the former at 16% alcohol with no comments on imbalance, and red which did not taste so young and unformed. Paul’s message here was a wine which is balanced, integrated and tastes good when young will age. A lesson Francois applies when deciding on bottling; ‘If I can now drink this wine, that’s when I’ll take it to bottle.’
What impressed about every one of the 13 wines Francois poured is their luminosity, a clarity that doesn’t preclude complexity. We spoke about ‘noise’, extraneous matter which confuses and detracts from the focus of discussion or wine. Blackwater wines carry no extraneous noise, excess extraction or oak, and are the more captivating for that.
Notes on a few wines only since they generally follow my above description. Chenin makes a frequent appearance, and is Underdog 2021’s sole variety. I comment it’s now misnamed, as chenin has risen way above underdog status. It comes from a single vineyard planted in 1987, so qualifies for Old Vine status. There’s some consternation about whether a wine that sells for R85 would demean the OV concept; neither Francois nor I believe so. Old Vine chenin with a value price tag should more widely spread appreciation for these old vines beyond the higher priced examples which few can afford.
Thanks to the conversation rapidly veering from one subject to another, I failed to ask why the name Chaos Theory, though I suspect 2017’s 60% chenin, 30% clairette blanche and 10% palomino blend with some skin contact and old-oak fermentation, has something to do with a branch of mathematics where small adjustments can lead to much greater consequences. Whatever adjustments were required here have resulted in highly positive consequences. An oxidative hint, layers of savoury flavour, a nudge of pithy grip, all bound under the spotlight of freshness. My kind of wine.
As is Pleasure Garden, no need for further sell with that name, one of the earliest iterations of ‘re-discovered’ palomino, from 91-year-old vines down Ashton way. Texture is the focus, drawn from skin contact and fermentation in concrete egg.
It was interesting to hear Francois is dropping pinot from 2020, ‘too much competition for top grapes and, frankly it doesn’t sit easily in my range.’ I nod in agreement.
The other reds certainly do. For all who enjoy ‘lighter, tighter, brighter’, Francois’s reds hold all that appeal. Although he gave that description to his red-fruited Omerta (carignan), it applies equally to berry-spiced Zeitgeist cinsaut, fragrant and dense Daniël Grenache, meaty, mushroomy and supple Cultellus shiraz (‘17 Platter 5*, ’18 fragrant but still sheathed in youthful tannin),and the new 2020 Sophie (his daughter born that year) cabernet franc and cinsaut, a pairing just made to be together; the epitome of Francois’s reds.
Fragrance in each is an immediate attraction, the flavours endlessly expanding, (think of water when a stone has been thrown into it), the tannins, trim and fresh – these wines are so alive, claiming one’s attention on many levels apart from their pleasure.
Don’t wait for others to tell you, go and pay court to Blackwater wines for yourself; there should be no regrets.