All posts by outofthepress

The promise of pinot

Camaraderie may be a significant part of Hemel-en-Aarde valley wine producers’ success. When the communal focus is on quality, the philosophy of support your neighbour and reap your own rewards, is self-fulfilling. Welcome confirmation of this came during a recent visit to Hemel-en-Aarde, mainly to further an earlier discussion about pinot noir and climate change in the region.

The variety accounts for 118 ha of the valley’s approximate 350 ha under vine and is grown in all three Wards. This might sound substantial, but vines have to compete with the more profitable apples and other fruit; land isn’t cheap either. Properties that sold for tens of thousands back in the day, would now cost millions. The valley’s producers are also on a mission to circle the land with indigenous vegetation to lessen the effects of fire and conserve water.

The division of this relatively small area into Wards – Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Hemel-en-Aarde Valley – occasioned much discussion and disagreement; but, given the goals of quality and distinction, every effort is made to highlight differences. It also keeps the valley’s name to the fore, as there is no Wine of Origin Hemel-en-Aarde; without the Wards, the wines would fall under WO Walker Bay (the over-arching district).

Quality applies across the many varieties grown. ‘Everyone talks pinot and chardonnay,’ says JC Martin, co-owner of Creation with his wife, Carolyn, ‘but the valley does well with several other varieties.’ This includes sauvignon blanc, which, some nine years ago, was a dominant grape, probably when Stellenbosch consultants were more active in the valley. Notable sauvignons still exist, though many vineyards are making way for pinot.

Cabernet is perhaps a less likely success story. It was Tim Hamilton Russell’s initial focus, when he came to the valley, along with other Bordeaux varieties on his property higher up, which had quota.  A wine, Grand Cru Noir, was made from this fruit, until the mid-May harvest and wind eventually rendered it financially unviable.

Now, thanks to Restless River in particular, Lords and Creation, the last in a blend, cabernet has found a niche in the higher reaches of the valley. It reflects advances in viticulture and the benefits of working together. As Peter Finlayson, the pioneer winemaker at Hamilton Russell, pointed out to me; ‘Back in the 1970s, we were the first in the valley, there was no other support. Strength came from thinking out of the box.’

View from N-J’s Sandford vineyard looking towards Restless River & their new Clouds vineyard on hillside

If cabernet has taken time to prove its mettle, the results with pinot were more immediate and positive. It was thanks to Desiderius Pongracz, Tim’s mentor, that pinot was introduced to Hemel en Aarde on Braemar. Peter remembers identifying its promise during that first fermentation. ‘Looking back,’ he remarked, ‘virus was such a limiting factor.’ Virus and the Swiss BK5 clone, one better suited to bubbly.

Thank goodness wine can defy less than favourable circumstances. Last October at Cape Wine, I had the privilege of tasting the first bottling of HRV pinot, a 1981, though not labelled as such due to legalities; still with sweet fruit and a decent structure, it was more than an historic relic. During my November trip, Anthony Hamilton Russell kindly opened an unlabelled, but circa early 1980s’ bottle; it too was in equally agreeable shape. Somewhat later in 1998, this unlikely clone also provided Gordy Newton Johnson with his maiden pinot ‘lightbulb’ moment.

Hamilton Russell Vineyards pinot circa 1983

If Hemel-en-Aarde’s climate – maritime with the sea breeze – and soils – decomposed granite and clay – are drivers in pinot’s success, virus and clonal issues are ongoing. Sea Dragon, the vineyard that produced Newton Johnson’s first 2008 pinot, lost 50% to leafroll virus over 20 years.

Eradication is the goal. Vititech, who supplied virus-free material to JC Martin when he planted Creation’s initial 22 ha in 2002, monitor the vines and take shoots for reproduction. Today, JC reckons he’ll remove maybe 10 virused vines in a year over his now approximate 50 ha.

Virus-free is a common goal. ‘In four years, we will have 21ha in production; I want to leave healthy 20-30 year old vines,’ avers Craig Wessels. This will include the new 10 ha on Clouds, a property a bit above the home farm, where cabernet, pinot and chardonnay will be equally shared. Like his colleagues, Craig spends as much time as possible in the vineyards, ‘where I always find something new, be it a broken pipe or collapsed trellising; it all keeps my eyes open to problems and how the vines are progressing.’ Everyone agrees time spent in the vineyards cannot be overestimated.

The Martins, Newton-Johnsons, Wessels and Hamilton Russells are long-established in Hemel-en-Aarde, with 20 years or more of experience. More recent introductions are  Boekenhoutskloof/Cape Maritime, Hasher Family Estate (formerly Sumaridge) and the new owners of Moya’s Vineyards; I’m told all are of similar mind and serious in their approach.

View from Sandford vineyard towards Newton-Johnson home farm vineyaards & hillside cellar

If virus is one issue, clones are another. Gordy N-J recalls; ‘Twenty years ago, there was a rush for virus-free pinot and new Dijon clones but they weren’t so great. Then, we rather planted syrah, but now with better pinot clones available, syrah is making space for pinot.’ One grape that is not making way for pinot is albarino, the Newton-Johnson’s a first, which has become very popular with consumers. There are plans to plant more on the Sandford property.

As this still-young area evolves, so there are changes in viticulture. Some tackle climate change, others are designed to increase yield, of pinot especially. ‘Re-orientating rows from north-south to east-west has caused less wind damage and less direct sun,’ Gordy mentions. Rootstock too has been adjusted for acid soils and deeper roots, while guyot rather than cordon training is used for better balance and fertility, a change Craig Wessels and JC Martin have also employed. Irrigation is generally used only as a supplement from boreholes.

Over time, the Newton-Johnsons and other long-term producers have learned is that their distinct styles are dictated by individual vineyards with vinification adapted accordingly. This hasn’t happened overnight; the Art pinot block on Creation was ten years old before JC was satisfied it would deliver the correct quality. The Newton-Johnson’s first single vineyard wine, then a barrel selection, was in 2010. The single vineyard Windansea followed in 2012, a great vintage.

A study of Hamilton Russell Vineyards illustrates how far the valley has come with pinot in a relatively short time. Of the farm’s 52 ha under vine, pinot noir accounts for 11 blocks, chardonnay, 17; the oldest chardonnay is 17 years, the oldest pinot 15. Anthony first replanted the farm in 1992 with vines from KWV. Much replanting has taken place since, attention being paid to matching soil, clone and variety. Some pinot blocks are being replanted with chardonnay; experiments with rootstocks on different soils continue; pinot clone 777 has been discarded as having too tight bunches.

South African pinots and those from Hemel-en-Aarde in particular, are doing well internationally as well as on the local market. Bevan Newton-Johnson explains; ‘New World pinots are getting sucked into market, because Burgundy prices have risen four or five times on wines costing $35 or $50, an increase too much for most consumers, who are now asking what other quality pinots they can buy.’

Undoubtedly local pinot prices will rise incrementally but like the winemakers’ philosophy of support your neighbour and reap your own rewards, it equally applies to valuing their customers’ support and taking care to offer quality and value.


3 ages of innocence

A glass of wine is just a glass of wine; a story brings it to life, a story that interweaves the people behind it as well as the wine itself. The more unusual or seemingly ridiculous the story, the more it’s likely to catch the attention and remain in the memory.

Unusual? Yes. Ridiculous? Yes, initially.  Perhaps not so much now.

(l-R) Pieter Lemmer, Thian Fick & Francois Viviers, founders of Draaiboek Wines

The script of Draaiboek Wines incorporates some of both. It all started in 2005 when friends, Pieter Lemmer, Francois Viviers and Thian Fick were in res together at Stellenbosch University. As do so many of the students, they enjoyed going around to wine farms tasting; from a consumer point-of-view, they were enthusiastic.

Their diverse careers led them to write their own stories, while remaining friends and continuing to add to the investment club they had started. At some point, another idea, a break-out idea for that money, was needed. What’s the most irrational thing we can do? Those student visits to wine farms has much to answer for; producing wine was their totally irrational – yet potentially wonderful – idea. It rings of ‘how to make a small fortune in the wine industry’ – start with a large one!

Once the decision to go into wine was made, the next question was, what? That decision took a year before they settled on chardonnay, but chardonnay from where? Experiments ensued with grapes from all over, but their Eureka moment came from a block in Hemel en Aarde Ridge. It fitted the style they were after, a fresher, tighter wine, subtly oaked. A style interpreted by their highly-regarded winemaker, Stephanie Wiid of Thistle and Weed; a tie-up thanks to her husband being in res with the Draaiboek trio.

Onskuld label is full of imagary referring to each of the team; the leaves representing a book

Onskuld Chardonnay 2019 was the first chapter in this new story. It must’ve felt as though fate was against this new team when launching a new wine in 2020 during the chaos of Covid. Reaching this point after many years, they were not to be deterred: friends, contacts and a good review or two ensured all 1300 bottles sold.

The opportunity to taste this, as well as the two younger vintages of innocence (Onskuld in English) provided their own story of progress when enjoyed by a small group of us last week at the most popular venue in town these days, Culture Club.

Like a taut spring, full of energy, freshness, mouth-watering citrus riding on a wave of creamy lees, the cool Hemel en Aarde Ridge shines through each vintage. Progress and vintage variation are what one hopes to find, indeed we did; 2019, which will benefit greater harmony with a few years, was surpassed by 2020’s greater refinement and complexity, with smooth harmony linking creamy waves and toasty, lemony zest. That’s not the end of the story; Chapter 3, 2021, lives up to the vintage’s stellar reputation. Riper, fuller yet bright and intense – is this the point Onskuld loses innocence? Oak in all is a subtle background amplifier. The best news is quantity has increased to 3670 bottles; the price, a not-over-the-top R390.

Draaiboek isn’t proving to be such a ridiculous break-away idea. In fact, courage has emboldened a dip into experiments with pinot. But that’s another story.

The answer is cabernet

South African wine can be such an enigma.

Think of our success stories; chenin blanc, a variety once viewed as a cheap, easy-drinking white or base for brandy, has been reinvented and reinvigorated by imaginative winemakers; the buzz is palpable. The Old Vine Project is a success story on its own, but allied to chenin blanc, South Africa has stepped further into the limelight. Authentication via the Heritage seal bearing the year of planting on a bottle of Old Vines wine, whether chenin or any other variety, adds further credibility to the project and South Africa’s image. The latest OVP Academy, described on the website as: ‘an online platform aimed at educating the wine industry, trade, consumers, and media on the value of Certified Heritage Vineyards and the wines that they produce,’ strikes another first for South Africa. Like the Wine of Origin Scheme, the Wine & Biodiversity initiative and sustainability, South Africa continues to lead the world in many ways.

Diversity isn’t restricted to our flora. Colombar, palomino and cinsaut, all sidelined as the Big Five began to dominate (colombar covers the second greatest vineyard area after chenin but is mainly used for distilling and brandy), are now being given a new lease of life, alongside other trendy, niche wines like semillon gris (not an official variety due to lack of stability, so labelled semillon or red greengrape) and grenache gris. These Cinderella grapes (one colombar is even named Aspoestertjie, Afrikaans for Cinderella) gain further distinction from innovative winemaking methods: skin contact, flor and, with a greater emphasis on texture, the use of clay amphora or concrete eggs. At the other end of the winemaking journey, South African wine in cans is getting more than its fair share of good reviews for its excellent quality.

All this activity keeps winemakers, media and the more involved wine lovers interested and enthusiastic.

Why would someone as esteemed as Jancis Robinson claim South Africa deserves more respect for its innovation and quality? That’s the gist of what she told Jason Haas, proprietor of Tablas Creek in California’s Paso Robles region, on a recent Instagram live chat.

The first-visit enthusiasm of American reviewer, Alder Yarrow with a sizeable 30000+ followers on Twitter, is also noteworthy. Two quotes from his tweets on 6th October: ‘There is no more exciting wine region in the world right now than South Africa.’ ‘South Africa is the next Etna, the next Jura, the next region that everyone interested in drinking on the cutting edge of wine should be exploring.’

It’s easy to enthuse but sales need to result for both Jancis and Alder’s endorsements to prove their worth.  

Innovation, even chenin blanc, draws more of a niche audience, but for South Africa as a wine producing country to be taken seriously, I believe a reputation for classic, fine wine is required; I’d suggest cabernet sauvignon is the most suitable variety.

The definition of fine wine is an ongoing project carried out under the auspices of Areni Global; the Third Edition of Define Fine Wine White Paper, written by Pauline Vicard.

Why is such a definition necessary? Vicard writes: ‘…  a clear and transparent definition of Fine Wine is essential to its development, reach, future success and, to some extent, its survival.’

To summarise the definition as per this White Paper. Quality is the prerequisite for Fine Wine, which; it must have harmony and balance, engaging both the nose and palate with its complexity, these elements require the ability to evolve and improve with time, but remain interesting right through the wine’s life-cycle.

Interestingly, there is also the comment that Fine Wine is distinguished from mere ‘wine’ by the winemaker’s intent.

Tempting as it might be to think of Stellenbosch only as cabernet country, there are great cabernets from other areas: Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon, Franschhoek; Restless River Main Road & Dignity, Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley; Nederburg R163 Cabernet Sauvignon, Paarl are just three recognised examples.

The key element, as far as my proposition is concerned, is ‘the ability to evolve and improve with time’; ie, the wine has to be able to mature. Which variety is better recognised as improving with age than classic cabernet?

It was a recent taste of two older cabernets that prompted these thoughts. Thelema Cabernet 1995, probably the best vintage in a decade not renowned for great wines, but a perfect example of complexity with balance and trademark Thelema note of mint. Meerlust 1980 Cabernet was presented one evening during Cape Wine, as part of a multi-decade tasting of Seven Wineries. Its ethereal air belied the concentration of ripe fruit and still firm structure. Two memorable experiences

If South Africa today can produce cabernets that mature as well as that 27- or 42-year-old, surely they will establish our reputation as a serious, fine wine country, deserving of prices to match.

Sadie by Sadie

Tasting Eben Sadie and David and Nadia Sadie’s latest releases wasn’t quite a side-by-side affair, being just two weeks apart, and close enough to get an idea of how 2021 has treated these two established producers.

Eben Sadie presenting his latest vintages

It is a fascinating vintage, one reason being it was out of the ordinary. Eben and David made two points which highlight this.

It is around April that Eben and winemaker, Paul Jordaan, assess the wines due for release later in the year, before writing up their always comprehensive notes. Speaking about the 2021 Ouwingerds range (signature wines, Columella and Palladius are released a year older), Eben said ‘We were stunned, the wines were completely silent.  We had to leave them 24 hours before they opened up.’ Their initial silence, Eben happily noted, ‘are usually wines with great potential.’

David & Nadia Sadie looking happy about their new releases

David introduced 2021 noting; ‘It was a vintage of patience. We started in March for the first time; we’ve usually finished by then.’

Good things came out of this much cooler year with its longer ripening time; low pHs, high acid and great concentration. The last of these, especially, confuses often expressing itself clearly in some wines and not at all in others. If David’s remark on 2021 being a vintage of patience, it needs patience from wine lovers too.

Chenin blanc is a theme common to both Sadies, though it will be only next year that the first Sadie Family Wines Swartland chenin, Rotsbank will make an appearance.

Ouwingerds Skurfberg and Mev Kirsten 2021 will both please those who like to know what they’ve got in their glass. The former concentrated, generous flavours, layered texture and a limey freshness. Mev Kirsten a feeling of suspended lightness with power, purity & endless length.

The Sadie Family Wines line up

David and Nadia Chenin Blanc is also richly aromatic, green and red apples and a stony note (from the granite soil?), the ripe flavours concentrated backed by a tight core.

If Rondervlei and Plat’bos have riper profiles and viscosity, they reveal nowhere as much as the straight chenin. Meanwhile Hoë-Steen and Skaliekop are reluctant debutants, saying very little for now; their undoubted character will unfold with time.

So it goes. Even though David and Nadia’s Aristagos has winning charm now with its pure, broad flavours, that intense core reminds it still has so much to give.  This doesn’t come by chance, even in a great vintage. The figures: nine varieties, 17 vineyards, 27 pickings, 15% in concrete for freshness, the rest in old oak.

Palladius might be a year older but relevant to vineyard care, understanding the end goal with varieties and winemaking, in a very different vintage, it captures richness, texture with a taut limey thread and no sense of heaviness. Eben believes this wine has seen the biggest paradigm shift. Like Columella, it expresses somewhereness rather than a blend of many varieties.

The variety probably causing the most conversation about 2021, at least in Eben’s case, is grenache noir or his Ouwingerds Soldaat. It’s been described as light and lean, unlike other vintages. Last year, my Platter description read; ‘concentrated with dense ripe flesh & fine tannins supporting vivid wild strawberry, earthy depths.’

This year’s non-Platter notes read: lighter, bright colour but intense, good ruby. Contained yet deep aromas; core intensity of wild strawberries and spice, lots of energy and freshness if still tightly coiled; dry, insistent fine tannins.’

Eben’s April notes remark on opening up the leaves around the overtly shaded bunches to avoid some of the greener, vegetal characteristics of the past. Also it has the brightest, most transparent colour to date, the freshness suggested by the colour carries through to the wine. The tannin is much more grippy than anticipated and this dense texture suggests the wine will need some aging.

David & Nadia Sadie’s new releases

Different from Soldaat 2020 and from David and Nadia’s 2021; this, a blend of five vineyards, provides aromatic depth and notable acidity with more ample texture, the two still needing to resolve; they surely will and become another Swartland stalwart.

I like to believe Soldaat will too, as well as all the other retiring quality 2021 youngsters (of course, not every wine is living up to this vintage hype).

The main point of these scribblings is don’t be impatient and don’t be disappointed if the wine says nothing on first taste. The best have so much going for them.

Old vine project

The end might not seem like a logical place to start, but the nine wines presented at the culmination of the recent Old Vine Project seminar spoke to what the whole morning’s discussion was about.

Old Vine Project seal

In order, these were: L’Ormarins Ou Bosstok Chenin Blanc 2020; Cape of Good Hope van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc 2017 and Laing Groendruif 2020;

Bellingham the Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2021; Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2019 and 2009; AA Badenhorst Family Wines Keller Steen 2021, Klipkop Steen 2021 and Raaigras Grenache Noir 2021.

Each has a sense of effortlessness, being comfortable within its own identity and a compelling one too.

The winemakers, Mark van Buren, Richard Duckitt, Gottfried Mocke and Adi Badenhorst with Hanneke Kruger respectively, play no small role; they respect the fruit from these old vines, letting the wine express itself without unnecessary adornments. Winelovers are not buying just an old vine wine but an individual.

This tasting closed the circle on the many topics presented and discussed during the morning to the 120 attendees present; a full house. The mix of farmers, winemakers, marketing folk, retailers and a few media confirmed the broad interest in old vines and the work being done by André Morgenthal, Rosa Kruger with their team.

There’s Interest too from members of the OVP, which started with eight in 2017, increasing to 130 today. The area under vines over 35 years, the qualifying age for old vines, has also increased to just over 4000ha (the total area under vine around 92 000ha), though it might come as a surprise to many that Stellenbosch rather than Swartland boasts the greatest area of old vines – 958ha vs 778ha.

Rosa was her usual forceful self when discussing climate change, how to manage and prune old vines, do’s and don’ts of vineyard design when planting new vines ‘to grow old’. As it should, water is pivotal. The wonderful tools, such as Cape Farm Mapper, now available to help farmers plan their farms to best advantage. The selection of specific vines from old vines, multiplying and eventually making them available for planting,

The work being done at the UCT Business School by Jonathan Steyn and others gave valuable insight to how old vine wines are viewed in the market. The words Old Vine on the front label suggests a discount wine, on the back label it adds a premium. The seal itself is an attribute which adds to price of the wine, according to area of origin.

Bellingham’s The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc has carved its own reputation in the category with many awards, both local and international since the maiden 2002 when named The Maverick. Andrew Harris, Marketing Manager of DGB, producer of Bellingham and Old Road Wine Company, confirms the seal ‘helps to get the ear of the gatekeeper’, in retail, tavern etc but is aware of the need for ongoing leverage of the value of the Old Vine seal.  Certainly, the Old Road wines deserve to be better known and appreciated.

Old Vine Project seal

Which brings me to Francois Rautenbach, General Manager of Singita’s Premier Wine Direct and someone who sells important quantities of premium South African wines to the group’s wealthy and high-profile guests. The point he made after scrolling over 20 websites of wineries who have Old Vine wines in their range, is that not one had anything about the project or how it benefits these wines. After the other detailed presentations covering such a wide spectrum of issues associated with the OVP, this was a gap that shouldn’t have caused much research.

Would such a section dedicated to the OVP leave the other, non-Old Vine wines in the range seen as lesser quality, as someone suggested. Lesser because the vines aren’t old, or lesser in quality? There are many high-quality and frequently awarded wines from vines under 35 years. A well-designed website, with an explanation of the OVP and details of the OV wines alongside the others should leave no suggestion of lesser quality; Ian Naudé’s site is an excellent example.

Until Francois’s presentation, the vital piece missing from this seminar was the consumer, without them all this effort would be without meaning.

Growing together Part 2

Would it be a surprise to learn there are 92 grape varieties permitted for the production of wine? These 2021 figures do not include assyrtiko, made by Gary & Kathy Jordan this year, and may be more by now.

The possibilities for field blends are extensive and local, innovative winemakers are making the most of them.

Still thinking of Larry Jacobs as a local (!), I received an excited note from this founder of Mulderbosch and now, long crafting classy wines at Hahndorf Hill in the Adelaide Hills; he told me of the first field blend, Brother Nature, he and partner, Marc, are releasing later this year. The interplanted mix of gruner veltliner, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, savagnin, pinot blanc, chenin blanc, welsch riesling, riesling, harslevelu with a little gewürztraminer, muscat blanc and muscadel is unoaked ‘to emphasise what that patch of dirt represents in the bottle.’ Like others, Larry hopes ripening will eventually harmonise; for the first vintage his imagined ideal saw earlier varieties harvested ripe, the others when ‘potentially making different contributions.’

Brookdale’s field blend vineyard

The field blend movement isn’t contained to whites.  Brookdale’s Field Blend Twenty, a red partner to the white, should be released sometime during the coming year.

Going a step further, encouraged by viticulturist, Jaco Engelbrecht, The Blacksmith owner/winemaker Tremayne Smith, is producing one white and two red field blends. Harvesting in all is decided by taste and balance. Winemaking is kept simple with whole bunch pressing, ferment and aging in older, neutral French oak.

A 1977-established Voor Paardeberg bush-vine block, compromises around 10 to 13 varieties, mainly chenin, semillon, crouchen blanc and palomino. Labelled as The Blacksmith These Old Bones, it’s simply described as Dry White Wine. Tremayne and Jaco surmise the farmer thought ‘waste not, want not’, inter-planting these vines left over from other projects.

Both red blocks also hail from Voor Paardeberg and were custom-planted in 2017 and 2019 respectively.

Tremayne chose carignan, cinsault and grenache, planted as bush vines ‘for a Mediterranean style red’. Old oak and olive trees and granite boulders share space with the vines, planted in different sections but each variety occasionally merges with others in The Vine Garden block. Destemmed whole bunch fermentation, around 14 days on skins is followed by nearly  a year in large French oak. Named Third Sight, with Dry Red Wine on the back label, there’s no reference to field blend.

In the third and youngest vineyard the bush vines are head trained, except for syrah, which is grown en echelas, or one vine to one pole. Carignan, grenache noir, durif, mourvèdre and zinfandel complete the varietal sextet. Huge granite boulders dominate the centre of the block, hence The Rock Garden. A first vintage Rosé Méthode Ancestrale has yet to be named.

Tremayne is hoping: ‘to capture the essence of both vintage and terroir, rather than blending across regions.’

Alan Cook’s baker’s dozen field blend on his Riebeek’s River Road property was established in 2017 with the hope of making ‘something resembling a Chateauneuf du Pape in a Swartland style’. His Aspoestertjie Red is mainly grenache with small amounts of cinsault, mourvèdre, shiraz & a sprinkle of Alicante bouchet, bastardo, counoise, carignan, tinta amarela, tempranillo, touriga nacional, souzao. Concrete tank ferment, with small amount of stems, is followed by ageing in large Stockinger foudres.

Field blends come from cooler climates too. Wanderlust suggests a desire to break away from the everyday and undertake an exciting, new challenge. It pretty well sums up Craig and Anne Wessels Wanderlust label, which annually features something new in style or variety.  

The story behind Wanderlust 2020 is unique. The Bosman clone garden was established in 2006 on a 22ha block of the family farm in the Upper Hemel en Aarde, the same Ward as Restless River. Today, after consolidation and focus on varieties preferring cooler climes, there still remain 37 varieties, with many clones; all are grouped together in rows.

‘I could not ignore this vineyard, knowing that some was going to be pulled out the following year; this was my one opportunity to make a field blend from a selection of these grapes.’ Later this year, Craig Wessels’ determination will see Restless River Wanderlust 2020 (the name yet to be revealed) released and unique for several reasons.

The tricky decision of when to harvest due to varying ripening times was solved in a practical way by Craig: he decided on a day that would suit him in the cellar, then pick everything that seemed to be close to similar ripeness. That’s how Wanderlust 2020 came to be harvested on 6th March, a blend of cinsault, malbec, petit verdot cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, ruby cabernet, alicante bouchet, barbera, sangiovese and, one white, roussanne.

Co-fermentation with spontaneous yeast in an open-top oak vat, four weeks on skins, then basket pressed into older small and larger oak for 18 months was followed by six months in tank, before bottling.

To briefly complete the circle; Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel have a Stellenbosch red Field Blend under The Fledge & Co brand; Neil & Warren Ellis do a field blend in conjunction with Alex Volkwyn.

What can field blends offer, apart from ‘something new’? It’s been suggested they spread the risk, any problems in a single varietal vineyard leaves all your eggs in one basket. Climate change is always front of mind; the sizable mix in some of the above vineyards, albeit selected on the area’s natural aptitude for certain varieties, could offer help in finding those that could perform even better under heat and drought conditions.

David Trafford has some cogent thoughts on reasons why field blends might not be such a good idea, but those will have to wait for another time and, maybe the further research and study this topic deserves.

There will be discussion as to what constitutes a true field blend, but it’s early days and vine lay-out may change over time. I, for one, would be against any legislation for the Field Blend certification. Get consumers excited about them first and foremost, bearing in mind varietal wine is still king.

Growing together

Vineyards have existed since the times of the Pharaohs, between 3000 and 5000 years ago and even before then; vineyards as blocks of land but unlike today, tomb paintings show the vines growing in troughs and trained in arbours. Much detail was recorded of vine growing and wine making and, according to Hugh Johnson ‘By … 1550BC …. The labelling of wine jars was almost as precise as, say, California labelling today – with the exception of the grape variety.’ (Johnson’s book was published in 1989).

Today, thanks to DNA, identification of grape varieties and their parentage has reached levels undreamt as recent as 160 years ago, when phylloxera started wreaking havoc in European vineyards. It has been suggested to me that prior to this devastating louse, vineyards were far more varietaly mixed with marcottage, or layering, one method of adding new vines. Views from those with extensive knowledge on French vineyards also suggest  that post-phylloxera, when rootstocks began to be used, not all varieties reacted well to them, hence vineyards became more ordered, a process formalised by the AOC rules in the 1930s.

Fortunately, phylloxera didn’t wipe out all these randomly vine-populated vineyards; there are many worldwide producing memorable wines. Portugal’s Quinta do Crasto Maria Teresa in the Douro is a celebrated, nearly five hectare, one hundred-year plus old block of terraces. More fascinating, it is planted to over 50 varieties, mainly red, a few white and, at least one, yet to be identified. Such arrangement was not unusual, as the grapes were originally destined for Port.

Not all these old field-blend vineyards were randomly established, some were created with forethought as to how the varieties would produce a balanced wine. Ridge Pagani Vineyard in California was planted over 100 years ago with complementary varieties: mainly zinfandel, which ripens at higher sugar levels; alicante and petite sirah, ripening at lower levels plus a little carignan and whites for acidity.

But what of terroir in these multi-varietal vineyards? Domaine Deiss in Alsace tells a fascinating story of their Altenberg de Bergheim Grand Cru blend. In 1990 they established the first, modern Alsace vineyard totally planted and mixed without order of the area’s 13 grape varieties; these are harvested and pressed together and vinified without inputs. ‘Little by little, this model of winegrowing is imposing itself in our eyes as the means to allow the terroir to dominate the grape varieties and to impose its taste and tactile architecture in a sovereign way.’   

If expression of terroir offers contemplation, so does ripeness; how to judge when to harvest with varieties ripening at different times. Alsace’s Agathe Bursin has apparently noted varieties planted in field blends often ripen together as opposed to when planted separately; such symbiosis is not something that happens overnight.

These few of many international examples pave the way to explore the growing interest here in field blends.

There is no official designation of a field blend, though both Stark-Condé and the new Brookdale add the descriptor on their labels. Purists maintain the varieties should be inter-planted rather than kept separate within the block but harvested and vinified together. Stark-Condé take this latter approach, winemaker Rudger van Wyk contending it allows for better control.

These are relatively young enterprises. Eben Sadie’s Ouwingerds ‘T Voetpad  (chenin blanc, semillon blanc/gris, palomino and muscat d’Alexandrie) and Skerpioen (chenin blanc and palomino) are two of South Africa’s long-time and highly-regarded field blends dating back to the early 20th century.

Consulting winemaker, Duncan Savage with Brookdale winemaker, Kiara Scott

What’s the attraction of field blends today? I asked Jaco Engelbrecht, viticulture consultant to Brookdale Estate at the launch. ‘It’s something different and fun,’ he jokingly offers, adding, more seriously, the opportunity offered when starting the property from scratch and owner, Tim Rudd bought into the idea. There are two field blend vineyards, one of 16 different white varieties covering 2.3ha, the other of 20 different red varieties of 2.8ha. In neither is the varietal make-up disclosed, though it’s clear, at least after tasting the white wine, that varieties compatible with the warmer Paarl area have been selected, ‘but no viognier’, Jaco grins.

The question of when to harvest was an issue winemaker, Kiara Scott and consultant, Duncan Savage had to tackle on a trial and error basis the first year. In future, decisions will be made easier through experience and, perhaps, the vines ripening closer together.

Trial and error have produced a charming first wine, Brookdale Sixteen 2021. It conveys a sense of style – effortless in its textural breadth, flavours (rather than fruit) of grapes relishing warmer climes without losing their innate freshness. I like the idea there’s no varietal disclosure, as this makes one focus on the wine as a whole. Unfortunately, the first vintage has already sold out; only one barrel was made but Kiara assures there’s considerably more of this year’s wine.

One other benefit, which must be back of mind for the Brookdale team and anyone who establishes a multi-varietal vineyard, is climate change. At least some of the many varieties act as a hedge against this. Then one never underestimates the entrepreneurial spirit of today’s winemakers; field blends are another innovation to keep the buzz of excitement in South Africa front of mind.

Other South African producers and their field blends will be discussed in a follow-up piece.

Rocking with Thorne & Daughters

 It is quite a while since I tasted through John Seccombe’s Thorne & Daughters’ range; yesterday’s opportunity to catch up with what now totals eight wines, was very welcome.

John Seccombe with new Menagerie Chardonnay

Again, we’re in 2021 territory, apart from a new wine, 2020 Menagerie Chardonnay, a Piekenierskloof and Ceres Plateau WO. First, my overall impression is that the wines have become more refined since John’s maiden 2013 vintage (can he already have completed 10 harvests?) and the first two wines, Rocking Horse and Tin Soldier.

Before I enthuse about these, the chardonnay is the first John has made since Zoetrope. He admits it’s difficult to find top quality chardonnay; his determination has paid rewards. Koelfontein in the Warm Bokkeveld is one source. Chardonnay from the Conradie’s farm sticks in my memory as the wine made by Eben Sadie when he was at the then Romansrivier Co-op in the 1990s, a wine that alerted John Platter to his talents. His talents but also the quality of the fruit, which John describes as linear, more mineral and is harvested three weeks earlier than Tierhoek in Piekenierskloof, the other source of Menagerie Chardonnay, with a softer, more spicy profile.

As with the rest of his wines, this chardonnay is naturally fermented and aged in older oak only (there’s one new exception, see below). The butterscotch aromatic and textural note with contrasting linearity and notably acidity still need to achieve full integration; this should be achieved over the next year. The attractive label owes much to John’s artistic wife, Tasha.

The original pair are still important members of the range. The roussanne-fronted (with semillon) Rocking Horse is rightly regarded in the top tier of Cape white blends. Chardonnay, chenin and clairette blanche drawn from across the winelands, forge a most compelling unison; ’21 is balanced, ripe but not heavy, has texture with a light feel and freshness at its core. It will delight as always.

Tin Soldier is likely unique in that it comes from a 100% gris vineyard, the vines carefully selected from Franziska Wickens’ mixed semillon vineyard on the Paardeberg, which itself produces Paper Kite. The seven to 10 days’ skin contact on Tin Soldier yields a bright honey orange hue, a ruby grapefruit, pomegranate fragrance and not so much tannin but textured squeeze, its savoury length ensuring an authentic yet unintimidating orange wine. I find this and Paper Kite have gained the most refinement over the years.

The original 2015 Paper Kite fruit came from the late Basil Landau’s farm; various factors meant the following year it was no longer available and this is when John, thanks to a producer who couldn’t take his allocation, tied up with Franziska Wickens and her mixed Paardeberg semillon vineyard. In ’21 Paper Kite there is only 5% semillon gris and, a first for John, a portion of new oak (all his other wines see older oak only), just 40% and 600 litre barrels, where, over its three-month sojourn, a whisper of oak spice complements semillon’s more usual lemony lanolin features; these accompany a flowing fluidity and upbeat, finishing zest.

Both these semillons are distinctly different, choice is down to personal preference; their balance and refinement ensure enjoyable drinking now, but should gain interest over three or four years.

John Seccombe with his distributor, David Clarke of Ex Animo,

I’m fairly new to both Cat’s Cradle Old vine Chenin off Swartland granite and Snakes & Ladders Sauvignon Blanc from Citrusdal Mountain. The chenin has that typical old vine concentrated aromatic generosity, think ripe red apples, with a taut energy. This will definitely benefit from a year or few.

Can there be a tamed sauvignon? If so, this is it. Snakes has energy but wrapped in a waxy, diffuse veil, which cuts through the often overly sauvage nature of the variety. On the other hand, the aromatic herbs do lend a slightly wild touch.

Copper Port Pinot Noir is trendy in its alcoholic lightness, John admits it was difficult to get sugar ripeness with none of the grapes – from Elgin, Overberg and Hemel en Aarde – coming in over 13.1% potential alcohol. Some whole bunch ferment and extended 35-40 days on skins develops a light-bodied, elegantly firm wine, with aromatic dark fruit and full flavours.

Wanderer’s Heart Cape Red illustrates how well we do Côtes du Rhône style blends. John threw out cinsaut from the original blend; syrah (almost 50% in ’21, all whole bunch ferment), grenache, mourvèdre and a barrel of carignan create an aromatic, delicious, velvety textured wine, both ripe and firm.

The difficulty is which to buy, but how delightful to be able to recommend each and every wine in this distinctive range.

Scions of Sinai

Bredell and the Helderberg are as synonymous a wine family and area as they come. Bernhard Bredell represents the seventh generation of wine farmers in the area; many grapes come from his late grandfather’s vineyards, also from cousin, Peter Bredell on Rusthof close by on the Helderberg.

Bernhard Bredell

Wishing this particular area on the Helderberg receives better recognition than the usual reference to Firgrove or Faure, Bernhard introduced Sinai hill, a granite rise at the lower part of the Helderberg and close to False Bay, into his brand name. Scion has a dual meaning, both relevant; one being the top and bearing part of the vine grafted on to the rootstock; the other a descendant, which ties into his story. One he related at a tasting to launch his latest releases earlier this week.

Production might remain small, his crush is around 35 tons, limited by cellar space, but each of the wines is worth hunting down, such is their individual character, precision and unmanipulated feel. The latest releases are all from 2021, which again is showing wonderful balance and purity.

Much of the fruit comes from the granite soils around the Sinai hill, but Voor Paardeberg supplied grenache and roussanne to go with Helderberg 1972-planted chenin bush vines are equally blended in the new Rocinante. An overnight on skins for the destemmed grapes, spontaneous fermentation (as in the entire range) and ageing in 400 litre older oak results in this aromatically rich and broad blend with its earthy, waxy tones and multi-layered texture. Underlying acid and freshening grip ensure there’s no sense of heaviness. Very, very moreish! Not at all what the name suggests, as fans of Don Quixote will attest. Sadly, there’s very, very little. Sadly, very, very little.

Bernhard is now giving a lot of focus to single vineyards, as in his Gramadoelas Grenache Blanc, Granietsteen Chenin Blanc, Heldervallei Cinsaut, Feniks Pinotage and Swanesang Syrah.

Gramadoelas Grenache Blanc comes from a schist vineyard near Meiringspoort in the Klein Karoo. It’s full of energy, tension and zesty lime, fresh hay features, complemented by just 11.5% alcohol.

Bernhard puts great store by having a hand in the farming, which he does with the Meiringspoort and Voor Paardeberg vineyards.

Scions of Sinai range

Planted on the Helderberg in 1978, Granietsteen Chenin Blanc is fermented in large concrete eggs and aged a further nine months on lees. Aromatically quite introvert to begin with, a sprightly, lightish body is then revealed, powering through to the briskly dry,, tuck-of-tannin tail. Texture is the main story with flavour rather than overt fruit.

One wine that needs and will benefit from time is Heldervallei Cinsaut. Think tannin, compact core and a saline edge for extra puckering. Yet Bernhard treated the juice with kid gloves. Some whole bunches were placed on top of destemmed berries and submerged over the two-week fermentation; a daily run over of juice kept things healthy and moving.  A gentle squeeze through a basket press and a spell in old 400 litre oak produces this punchy wine. Time promises to release the full spiced blueberry concentration. It is very good but I’m sure most will prefer Feniks Pinotage, a name which reflects his cousin’s threat to chop out the 46-year-old vines every year; thankfully, Bernhard ensures this doesn’t happen. Bright and eye-catching purple ruby, an entrancing pinot-like perfume, sweet fruit and freshness (some carbonic maceration helps) with pinotage announced in the clip of edgy tannins, Feniks pretty much says ‘drink me now’.

Swanesang Syrah commemorates the last vineyard Bernhard’s grandfather planted in the late 1990s, just .7ha of close-planted (treinspoor = train track) bush vines, producing an aromatic, pure, fresh syrah with red fruit, black pepper and fine, gentle grip. Cooler-climate syrah lovers, this is for you.

There is always a time to enjoy what I call a country-style red, one that’s unpretentious and unrestrained in its fruit and freshness. Nomadis Cinsaut-Pinotage well fits that description. The fruit is brightened thanks to half the cinsaut undergoing some carbonic maceration, concentration deriving from these old vines, planted at the bottom of Sinai hill in mid-1970s.

Vintage 2021

Early showings of vintage 2021 are extremely promising. This is the news from two top producers who are always early out of the blocks with their wines. The first suggestion of 2021’s excellence was in November 2021, when Craig Hawkins presented his recently bottled Testalonga range at Wine Cellar. He noted; ‘2021 is an awesome vintage, after good winter rains. The wines have density and prominent acidity.’ So it proved throughout the numerous and diverse range, which impressed all of us there.

Mick and Jeanine Craven

Earlier this week, Mick and Jeanine Craven presented their small six-wine 2021 range at Wine Cellar. It was the first they made in their new cellar, a utilitarian space part of a group of new buildings next to Stellenbosch Vineyards. If Mick describes the vintage and harvest as exciting, smooth with few heat spikes, little rot or disease and delivering exceptional red wines, there were some concerns and issues to grapple with as far as the actual winemaking.

The Cravens allow a natural ferment, ie no inoculation; this was no problem at their previous cellar, Mulderbosch, where Mick worked. Here, there was plenty of ambient yeast; in their new cellar, there was no yeast of any kind; would the first grapes of 2021, pinot gris, struggle to ferment? Not at all, the grapes’ indigenous yeasts immediately got to work.

Since their first harvest, the Cravens have followed their philosophy of early harvesting for lower alcohols without sacrificing ripeness, and retaining natural acidity. Oak, when used, is larger, 500 litre, and older. Their wines are typically full of energy, freshness and dry, a theme they are now able to pursue to a greater degree in their own cellar. Much oak is now giving way to concrete (getting enough of the desired containers was one of last year’s struggles); from 2022, chardonnay, chenin and the two lighter reds, pinot gris and cinsaut will be 100% concrete fermented and aged. Mick explains how concrete creates much tighter and fresher wines, precisely what they’re looking for.

I’ve followed the Craven’s progress since their first vintage in 2013 – so 2022 was their 10th – and so enjoy these lighter wines. Many think of lighter as less of everything, not only alcohol. But back in the 1970s and ‘80s, 11.5-12.5% alcohol was the norm. Neither those older wines nor today’s at a similar alcohol level lack anything in substance and are more digestible than the heavy, less lively wines with their evident oak accompaniment. Some of those are well made and balanced but even a glass at 15% alcohol is tiring, either from the wine’s sweetness or glow of alcohol.

The beauty that is Craven Pinot Gris

What immediately stands out for me throughout these 2021s is their aromatic expression, pure yet not one-dimensional. Cinsaut is possibly the most charming with its heady, but not at all blowsy, dark red fruit perfume. The cabernet’s aromas are vibrant, an explosion of blackcurrants and blackberries but, yet again, not overdone or out of place with the rest of the wine. Such bright winter melon, wild herb aromas in the chenin, plus a distinct salty tail, make this stand out in this crowded category.

Ripe generosity of flavour is invariably underpinned by bright acidity, lending energy and persistence, particularly in the chardonnay (the best to date), pinot gris, cinsaut and syrah; ripe grape tannins in the latter three introducing grip with freshness.

Ageing any of the range shouldn’t be a worry thanks to balance and structure but should be of most benefit to syrah and cabernet. But, there’s not one of these wines I wouldn’t enjoy now. Sadly, not much of the pinot gris and cinsaut (+-R230 each) are available and some speed will help secure chardonnay and chenin (R230 each), syrah and cabernet (R300).

Craven 2021 range with their delightful, descriptive labels

New vintages of course present their own set of challenges and 2022 hasn’t been without them but with familiarity with their new cellar, now kitted out as they wish for their style of wine, the Cravens and those who enjoy their wines, have much to look forward to.