|Yes you CAN teach an old dog new tricks9 October 2012
Entitled Old Dogs New Tricks and boasting a panel of larger-than-life personalities, it was only a matter of time before one of them - namely Charles Back of Fairview - made an attempt to assign each panellist an appropriate dog breed.
He said Niel Groenewald, chief winemaker at Bellingham, was like "a boerbul, which is a thickset South African breed, quite aggressive but very friendly".
Boekenhoutskloof general manager and chief winemaker, Marc Kent, was compared to "a noble French poodle" (at least partly due to his hairstyle), while Kevin Arnold of Waterford Estate was "sleek, well-groomed, elegant at all times" and therefore a Weimarana.
Leaving it up to the audience to decide on his own canine alter-ego (a cheeky and hyperactive Jack Russell perhaps?), Back was simply described as "the opposite of pompous" by panel chair Lynne Sheriff, a qualified winemaker herself and Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine. "He just gets on with the job and he`s also not afraid to push boundaries or say, sorry, that didn`t work, let`s forget it."
Sheriff was interested in finding out what these four pioneers of the past two decades are currently focusing on; how stylistic and viticultural changes in South African are reflected in their wines; and where they see themselves in 10 years time.
Niel Groenewald, Bellingham
"I`m definitely the youngest dog here," said Groenewald. "But Bellingham was established in 1693 so it`s the oldest farm. Unfortunately in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s it was best known for cheap and cheerful entry-level wines; in the 1990s we decided that was not where the brand belonged."
A phase of experimentation began, with Groenewald given what he describes as a "playpen" in which he was free to be creative. "In 1995 we decided to do something with Cabernet Franc, which was quite radical at that stage, after we got some beautiful virus-free fruit from Bellevue farm."
In 2001 he experimented with Shiraz and Mourvede; also with Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. "Eventually the wines evolved into The Maverick range; no longer just experimental wines made in a tank or barrel stuck somewhere in the cellar, but a cellar within a cellar where we could make anything weird, wacky and wonderful."
The basic idea was to find the best parcels, experiment with the wines, get them to market, and ultimately apply whatever worked to the more mainstream Bellingham brands. "In that way we have reinvented the company from the bottom up."
A first for South Africa, his The Bernard Series Barrel Fermented MMM 2010 is a blend of Malbec, Mourvedre and Merlot. "In the correct areas, South African Malbec gives you a wonderful layer of fruit," said Groenewald. "In time maybe the structure will come as well, but for now we use Mourvedre for tannins that are fine, powdery, mouth-coating like full-cream milk, and Merlot for structure and freshness."
Marc Kent, Boekenhoutskloof
Boekenhoutkloof has become a leading producer of Syrah with Kent at the helm, in no small way also helping to put Franschhoek on the quality wine map, but the Kwazulu-Natal boy who fell in love with wine while working as a waiter has also come under fire over the years for using fruit from Wellington and the Swartland rather than Franschhoek.
"We felt we had outgrown the South Africa estate concept of planting Cabernet next to Pinot Noir and hoping for the best," he said, explaining the rationale for buying in fruit - such as the Shiraz from Schalk Burger`s Welbedacht farm which saw him named Diners Club Winemaker of the Year for his Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2005.
"It also took us a while to determine the best varieties for the estate," said Kent, revealing that the best red is Cabernet Franc (with Gottfried Mocke of Chamonix and Johann Rupert at L`Ormarins sharing his enthusiasm for growing the variety in Franschhoek).
"2005 gave us our first opportunity to make a Cabernet Franc that was proudly Boekenhoutskloof," said Kent, who named the wine The Journeyman after his cockney grandfather, apparently officially described as such on Kent`s father`s birth certificate. "I loved the humility of it," explained Kent, revealing that the wine has never been sold commercially but only given to clients around the world or put it on charity auction.
With Kent describing the Northern Rhone as his "frame of reference from Day One", however, it was only a matter of time before he purchased a property specialising in Shiraz. "In 2009 I was sourcing organic fruit for Johan Reyneke [Boekenhoutskloof and Reyneke Wines are stablemates in specialist wine wholesaler Vinimark`s product range] and I ended up at Porseleinberg. They gave us two tonnes in 2009, which I used it in my Cape Winemakers Guild wine that got R1000/bottle last year, but when I went to pay for the grapes, they said why didn`t I rather just buy the farm!"
So he did, installing former Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards winemaker Callie Louw to run it. "He`s a complete vigneron who farms organically but is moving to biodynamics, and the wine is produced and bottled on the property."
It`s all about being artisanal and sustainable at Porseleinberg, the Shiraz whole bunch fermented in concrete tanks then matured in foudres and concrete eggs.
"We now have 27 600-litre eggs at Boekenhoutskloof," revealed Kent, who particularly loves the even distribution of temperature. "It`s primarily for our white wine because it keeps the lees in suspension for much longer, giving us richer wines without wood influence."
Kevin Arnold, Waterkloof
Having previously worked at Delheim and Rust en Vrede, Arnold said his "new tricks started" 14 years ago when he joined up with IT businessman Jeremy Ord. "We were very fortunate to find land on the Helderberg when it was still quite cheap."
Although a prominent winemaker at the time described the property as "the worst land in Stellenbosch", Arnold knew it was a sub-region where Cabernet Sauvignon had always done very well, so he planted it along with the other four Bordeaux varieties, along with some Syrah and Mourvedre from southern France, and some Sangiovese and Barbera from Italy.
"For me it`s all about mouthfeel and flavour profile," said Arnold presenting his Library Collection 2004 blend of 50% Shiraz, 35% Mourvedre, 10% Petit Verdot and 5% Barbera. "The vines were still relatively young at the time but the wine already had texture, as well as a leatheriness, a garrigue note, that I had never experienced in Stellenbosch before." He included the tiny Barbera component because of the variety`s naturally high acidity - a way to avoid having to add tartaric acid.
Although Arnold said Sangiovese doesn`t have a great record in Stellenbosch, he blended it with Cabernet (45%) and Shiraz (20%) in his Library Collection2008: "It gives a nice spice element."
The Jem 2009 he described as a true reflection of the estate, blending no fewer than seven varieties (36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Shiraz, 9% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot, 5% Mourvedre, 2% Barbera). "I`m in pursuit of food wines," said Arnold. "It`s not what jumps out of the glass that excites me, it`s what develops in the glass."
Charles Back, Fairview
As the banter indicated, Back confirmed that there is "nice friendly competition between all of us to raise the category" and he said there had generally been quantum leap in quality over the past 10 years.
He said Fairview`s "holistic approach" starts on the land, which extends from the "home base" in Paarl to Darling overlooking the Atlantic, through the Swartland ("not sexy when we bought land there because it was so cheap") through the Helderberg and way beyond to sool, southerly Elim - about 500 hectares in all.
"There`s a lot of talk about environmental issues, but for us the primary focus is social issues," said Back, revealing that in addition to Fairview`s Wine Industry Ethical Trading Association (Wieta) accreditation, and its well-established Fairvalley empowerment scheme, the entire company will be Fairtrade accredited by the end of the year.
He described his six-member winemaking team as "garagistes on steroids" with all hands on deck. "And mostly pretty hands, because four of them are ladies..."
The first wine he presented was his Fairview Nurok 2011, a blend of 32% Chenin Blanc, 32% Viognier, 26% Roussanne and 10% Grenache Blanc. "It sums up the philosophy of what we are trying to do - a very minimalist approach with the Chenin giving a South African flavour and feel, the Grenache Blanc bringing focus and minerality. Half is barrel-fermented, half is fermented in stainless steel, and the wine is blended just before bottling."
The name Nurok is his wife`s maiden name: "Her father was from Lithuania, the name means "underwater diver", and the label was painted by wife. The overall result is an exciting and different wine, telling a true and compelling story, with very personal packaging."
He also presented two bed blends - his "edgy" Fairview Extrano 2010 comprising 62% Tempranillo, 22% Grenache Noir and 16% Carignan (the name meaning "stranger"), and the award-winning Spice Route Chakalaka 2011 from his Swartland property, a blend of Shiraz, Mourvedre, Carignan, Tannat, Grenache and Petite Sirah (the name referring to the spicy tomato and onion relish introduced to South Africa by migrant mine workers).
"Coming out of isolation as we did, we only had 12 varieties," explained Back. "Nobody had experimented with what might work better in South Africa. I think I`ve now tried every variety known to man!"
Back said he`s planted Tempranillo "all over the show" in different climates: "It has dry yet powdery tannins, with the Grenache Noir and Carignan adding freshness to the blend which has a subtle Old World rusticity about it."
He said he`s also extremely impressed with Tannat in South Africa: "In Europe it has low acidity and high tannins; the difference here is our abundant sunlight, resulting in plush, lush tannins rather than the aggressive structure you get in Europe. Petite Sirah (Durif) from Malmesbury could also be an impressive showstopper."
In response to a question about the value of competitions to raise South Africa`s profile internationally, Kent proudly claimed to have grown from 6,000 bottles in 1996 to 14 million bottles in 2012 without having entered any competitions (except Diners Club Winemaker of the Year). "Listings at El Bulli or The Fat Duck have meant far more than bronze medal stickers."
But Groenewald said that for Bellingham, suffering from a reputation for cheap wines, it was far more effective to improve Bellingham`s image through competitions than by spending money on marketing. "But you can`t have a shotgun approach and enter everything; you have to decide which competition will have most traction."
The "old dogs" were then asked for their opinions on using modern technology to reduce alcohol, for example.
Arnold said he kept things as old-fashioned as possible on his 50-hectare farm. "I believe alcohol can be managed in the vineyard and I will stay as far away as possible from technology that in our case isn`t necessary."
"It`s about site selection," said Kent whose wines generally hover around 13.5% ABV.
Working for a large company, Groenewald said he had obviously experimented with ways in which to reduce alcohol levels. "Going into barrel with lower alcohol is better because it seems to extract softer, subtler flavours whereas higher alcohol can extract some unpleasant things."
Back also said he was more than happy "to reduce alcohol content within reason" using Reverse Osmosis. "It`s hard to harvest grapes green enough to get low alcohol yet still have ripe tannins and a soft texture and finish, so we pick the grapes when they`re phenolically ripe and then reverse osmosis them into wood."
Anticipating the argument that such manipulation doesn`t truly reflect terroir, he said: "We`ve got global warming as well as better clones - all manmade - so we need manmade solutions too."
Sheriff asked the panel to sum up what they thought had been the most significant changes over the past 20 years, with Ken immediately identifying the exchange of information, and Arnold agreed to a certain extent: "But for me the biggest change is the passion that has developed in the vineyards. Improvements in flavour, mouthfeel, texture - ultimately it`s all determined by what is happening on the land."
Groenewald wondered whether producers were "maybe complicating things too much" by continuing to experiment with different varieties and clones. "Maybe it`s time to choose the three or four we do best."
Back said one significant moment stood out: "Mandela`s cavalcade going by on the N1 past Fairview after his release from prison in 1990. That, and reducing alcohol using Reverse Osmosis," he joked.
Sheriff closed the seminar by describing the wines tasted at Cape Wine 2012 as unrecognisable from those at the first Cape Wine, which was held in 2000. "We`ve made great strides, but I honestly believe the best is yet to come. Come back and follow our progress!"