1.

A love letter to South African Wine


This article originally appeared on Michael Fridjhon’s winewizard.co.za ︎︎︎




We’re in crisis. We know this. The number of jobs that are at stake in the wine industry could be calculated to the size of a small dystopian city. Nowhere I would ever want to visit. Though it’s not just about livelihoods, our very wine culture itself hangs in the balance. But this isn’t a piece about loss; instead, it’s one about love. 

South Africa is making the best wines it ever has—and what a privilege it has been for me to grow up with these wines. I often get the asked the question – ‘what was the wine that lit the flame?’ For me it wasn’t one, there have been many wines that have had an impact on me, whether emotional or cerebral, South African wine is as a part of me as the blood in my veins (and often the two do mix).

Let’s start with my birthday wine, Vin de Constance. When I was a cash-strapped student nice things like a bottle of South Africa’s most famous wine was completely out of my reach. My then-boyfriend (now husband) made it his mission to ensure that every birthday I got a bottle of the precious liquid (this tradition went on for a few years). I savoured every sip; I adored the misshapen bottle weighty with history, which upon being empty would become a holder for flowers. I guess in a way VdC taught me to dream, to reach beyond my current circumstances. Fast-forward many years later, and I found myself in London at the Institute of Masters of Wine, where Klein Constantia’s winemaker Matthew Day presented a four-decade vertical of VdC. The oldest in the line-up was a 1987,
the colour of toffee and sweet dreams realised. I wish I could go back and tell that student holding on to every sip that these were the kinds of experiences that awaited her.

The most immediate emotional response I’ve ever had to a wine was the Huilkrans Chenin Blanc 2017; even thinking about it now gives me goosebumps. This wine helped me understand the concept of luminosity. Pure crystalline fruit with an electric acidity described its place of origin as if it had taken a photograph: old vines in the Skurfberg on an isolated mountainous outpost that has a cliff that weeps when it rains.

Speaking of place, the most unique wine I’ve ever tasted – both local and international – is the Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc (2016), which is grown and vinified by the sea. So distinct is this wine that I have no problems identifying it in a blind tasting. Bamboes Bay (kelp bay) is the smallest Wine of Origin in South Africa, located 500m from the ocean; the vineyard pummelled by salty breezes. The cellar is also located ocean-side on a jetty, and through the winemaking process, the sea continues to influence. Not much can beat sitting on that jetty with a plate of oysters and a glass of the Bamboes Bay—tasting of fresh seaweed, steel and the umami of kelp—while watching the waves crash and roll.

Then there are wines that send me into obsessions. The first of these was the Daschbosch Avon Clairette Blanche 2018.
I was so enchanted by the grape: earthy yet
ethereal, like the memory of a favourite perfume. After tasting it I had to track down every single-varietal bottling of clairette made in the Cape, after which I wrote a story for Jancis Robinson (which won me a rather nice prize!). Wine once again was an engine of positivity for my life.

The next infatuation, which I’m still pretty deep in, is that rare Cape treasure—semillon gris or rooi-groen to the locals. The wine that sent me down the rabbit hole was the Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2017. A blend of 85% Semillon Blanc & 12% Semillon Gris & 3% Muscat de Alexandria. Aromas of white citrus and honeysuckle, white peach and lemony beeswax, with a savoury edge of woolly lanolin. The palate is densely woven and smooth, gingered with bright lemon flesh and lime oil, layered with flavours of just-ripe pear and roasted nuts. And yes I have tracked down every single-varietal bottling of gris as well as the blends—this time was for a story in Decanter.︎︎︎  

Then there are two reds recently that have made an impression on me—both these wines, in my opinion, chart the way forward for modern South African winemaking. Wines that have finesse, elegance and age-worthiness.

Lukas van Loggerenberg’s ‘Breton’ Cabernet Franc 2018 shows that you can have a light touch without sacrificing depth and concentration. He incorporates whole bunch fermentation and old oak maturation for a fresher, more elegant style of cab franc.
And finally the Scions of Sinai Swanesang 2019, for me this wine is an illustration of heritage brought back to life. Made from the last standing bush vines of syrah in the Helderberg. It’s a pure, thrilling, fine-boned expression of syrah; and like all the wines in the range, rooted in history and heart.

And while our wine industry is in great peril, filled with fear, tension and heartbreak. I refuse to visit the city of loss. Why would I? When I’ve built and will continue to build, a palace of South African wine in my own mind, a place of untold riches.︎ 




2.

Semillon Gris: South Africa’s old-vine oddity

There’s something strange happening in South Africa’s Semillon vineyards. Green bunches turn red the one year, then back to green the next. Hung like Christmas baubles on gnarled bushvines, the shapeshifting clusters are an enduring mystery.

Viticultural juggernaut and protector of old vines, Rosa Kruger thought she was losing her mind when she first noticed this phenomenon known as red Semillon or Semillon Gris.

‘I started marking the mutated [red] vines while taking cuttings for planting material,’ she explained when I asked her about the variety. ‘The following year the bunches on the vine would be green again. I thought I was making a mistake, but after a couple of years I realised that Semillon Gris can actually mutate back to Blanc. In general though, the Gris vineyards are fairly consistent once they’ve mutated.’

Semillon Gris is largely unique to the Cape winelands and appears to be an old-vine oddity. One of the Cape’s oldest varieties, Semillon was widely planted in the early 1800s. It was so ubiquitous it was simply called Groen Druif translating to ‘green grape’ from Afrikaans.

These days plantings of Semillon have fallen massively, though there are still pockets of heritage vineyards, some more than 100 years old, carefully guarded by viticulturists and winemakers.

In the early 1800s it’s said that 80% of the vines in South Africa were thought to be Semillon. By the mid-1800s half of these had mutated into Semillon Gris.
By the mid-1800s half of these had mutated into Semillon Gris.

Green and Red

Is the secret the Cape’s sunshine? One such sun-soaked day before the Covid-19 lockdown, I made my way to Swartland for the weekend. My first stop was to track down Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines to pull at the threads of this red-skinned mystery.

It’s big sky and big sun country here, and the aspect of Roundstone Farm – tucked into a mountainside in Swartland’s heartland – is tilted just right to soak up those life-giving rays.

Since purchasing Roundstone in 2014, Andrea and husband Chris have planted Syrah, Chenin Blanc, Cinsault, Clairette Blanche, Roussanne, Maccabeu and Semillon Gris. The vineyards fan over a bedrock of deep schist.

‘It’s all about texture,’ Andrea says of the glass of The Gris Semillon Old Vines 2018 she poured. ‘The vineyard was planted in 1960. It’s from an extremely rare, dry-farmed vineyard planted on the granite soils of the Paardeberg. The grapes were hand-picked and fermented naturally in a single barrel.’

Aromas of pear, orange rind and jasmine tea rise from the glass, but this wine is all about the palate. There’s a tension; a pull between chalkiness and an oily glycerol roundness, with a saline edge and bright, pithy acidity. As I leave, Andrea hands me my next piece of the Semillon Gris puzzle: ‘Get a hold of Jasper Wickens. He has a wine you must try.’

Jean Smit (right) of Damascene

Sun and Latitude

Winemaker Jasper and his viticulturist wife Franziska make wines under their Swerwer label on her family farm in Paardeberg. Jasper thinks the key to the Gris mutation may lie in South Africa’s latitude.

‘For centuries Semillon was the Cape’s most widely planted grape, and as time passed in its new African environment – with hotter, more intense sun and UV conditions than in France – farmers discovered their grapes turning red or pink. My guess is the pigmentation is a way for the grape to protect itself from the sun.

‘It used to be such a common sight that farmers simply referred to it as Rooi-Groendruif or Rooi-Groen [red-green] for short,’ he explains.
‘We have old records which stated the amounts of mutated vines. In certain cases farms were told to harvest and deliver the two colours of grapes to the co-ops separately. This is how common and significant the phenomenon was.’

He pours a bottle of his Swerwer, Rooi-Groen Semillon 2018. Where the Mullineux wine was lemon in colour, Jasper has worked more with the skins to produce a wine that is burnished copper.

There’s gingered peach, orange and blossom aromas. Then nectarine, red apple and grapefruit fill the palate, leading to a gently savoury finish.
Not only is the wine a triumph in taste but so is its genesis: made from a young Gris vineyard planted specifically for the purpose – something not thought possible.

‘Franziska and her father started selecting mutated vineyard material from an old 1960s block,’ explains Jasper. ‘From those propagated cuttings, they then selected the best young vines over a three-year period. The grapes stayed pink-red. From this vineyard only the best material was again used to establish another vineyard close to my cellar. That vineyard is now six years old.’ 

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Ancient Vines

A few hours’ drive from Swartland is Franschhoek, the unofficial capital of old-vine Semillon, with the oldest block dating back to 1902. Surrounded by three mountains, there are more shadows here than in Swartland, but the sun still locks heat into the alluvial soils.

Franschhoek’s most famous Semillon vineyard is called La Colline. Planted in 1936, it’s used by a few lucky winemakers, including Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards.

‘During summer, these tightly planted bushvines form a slightly wild looking mess of life and grapes,’ says Chris. ‘In winter they resemble a crowd of drunkards cartwheeling across the slope. It is a beautiful old thing.’

The Semillon Blanc here is interplanted with the Gris: ‘At this age the vines are very settled, giving a dependable crop of perfect little yellow and pink pearls of flavour,’ he says.

Boekenhoutskloof, hidden away in the furthest corner of Franschhoek, also makes use of La Colline.

Winemaker Gottfried Mocke blends parcels of both Gris and Blanc from the three oldest vineyards in the region: 1902, 1936 and 1942. The grapes are whole-bunch pressed and then spontaneous fermentation takes place in foudres and concrete eggs. To create the oxidative style he is looking for, Mocke ferments the juice at low temperatures to inhibit malolactic activity.

His 2017 Semillon is rich and textured. It has the texture of a red, though its flavours are all white: lemony with waxy lanolin and roasted nuts.

Unique Treasure

It was at Boekenhoutskloof that Jean Smit fell in love with Semillon. Previously winemaker there, he now has a project called Damascene, sourcing grapes from exceptional sites across the Cape.

The Franschhoek vineyards for Damascene’s 2018 Semillon were planted in 1942 and 1962. ‘We are acutely aware of how fortunate we are to be working with this unique piece of South African viticultural history,’ he explains.
A blend of Blanc and Gris, the wine is all about nuance: a tug between density and weightlessness, poise and phenolic grip. Blossom and white peach pull you in to a palate that’s oily and mouthcoating, with an endless luscious finish.

Time, the sun and the latitude of the Cape winelands have all conspired to bring about a grape that, more than its colour-changing skin, has become a national treasure – even if it is an enigma.

From the dry bowl of Swartland, to the mountainous ridges of Franschhoek, Semillon Gris has captured the imagination of some of South Africa’s most talented winemakers, who are nurturing an 18th-century mystery back to life. ︎ 


3.

The future is rosy for Cape roussanne


This article originally appeared on Michael Fridjhon’s winewizard.co.za ︎︎︎




From a distance, vineyards look pretty much the same, seas of green canopies in the summer, or dark cross-hatching frozen on a winter landscape—but zero-in and you’ll see a multitude of differences close-up. Every cultivar has a character unique to it; up in Franschhoek, the treasure trove of semillon gris displays as pearls of pink and gold, to the tight clusters of lemony-green chardonnay in the Hemel-en-Aarde, and to the inky bunches of cab in the Banghoek. The oldest wine route in the country, Stellenbosch, acts as a vault to many viticultural secrets, one of which is roussanne, a white cultivar that blushes as it ripens.



Chris William of The Foundry

The clue is in its name. Originating from the Rhône in France, ‘roussanne’ was likely derivedfrom the French word for russet, ‘roux’
due to the reddish-amber tint it acquires when it’s ready to be picked. It’s historically used as a blending component in France; in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it’s one of several white grapes that may be blended into the red wine. It is also consistently used in field blends across the globe, common bedfellows being marsanne and viognier.

Unlike chenin and semillon, the grape has a relatively short history in the Cape. In 2000, Simon Barlow of Rustenberg was the first to plant it; he is also credited with making the first single varietal bottling. Today, 20 years later, there are still only a few vineyards of this freckled cultivar in South Africa; the majority being in Stellenbosch, followed by Paarl and the Swartland.

We should plant more. When grown on Cape soils it can display both the floral aromatics it shows in cooler climes as well as the rich peaches and cream flavours it develops when things get a bit warmer. Higher elevations, tilted to the sun seems to be the sweet spot. And when it ripens just right, its charm lies in the layers of fruit, savouriness and texture.

Evidence of this is The Foundry Roussanne 2018; the grapes come from a 1-hectare vineyard on the Helderberg, grown on granite soils. A chamomile-blossomy top note, with white peaches, lemon oil and smoky herbs lead to a bright palate; the acidity neatly defined, peach and white pear with a juicy mango tropicality abound; a luscious oiliness and leesy breadiness are tempered by a stony minerality.
The Foundry, established in 2001, is a project between ex-Meerlust winemaker Chris Williams and James Reid, on whose farm in the Voor-Paardeberg they have set up the cellar this year.



Chris has just recently left Meerlust to devote himself entirely to The Foundry.

“I turned 50 in February and I realised that I don't have unlimited time left for my vocation, and there was still so much I wanted to do,” shares Chris. “I love Meerlust and am very proud of the work I did there. Leaving to concentrate on The Foundry has allowed me the opportunity to refine our existing wines and experiment with some very interesting sites, varieties and techniques.”

Along with the roussanne, The Foundry’s range currently consists of a syrah, a grenache blanc, a grenache noir and a viognier. In the works is a pinot noir—Chris’s favourite cultivar.
On the white side, the Rhône interloper is his preferred grape.“Roussanne has huge potential in the Cape and expresses such a distinct, idiosyncratic quality, unlike any other variety. It produces delicious, characterful wines of great poise and depth.”

“And that’s my golden rule—a wine must be delicious. Sometimes I feel that this gets forgotten. That said, I am a terrorist at heart, I think great wines always show a sense of place. I look for the most characterful sites that I can find and then practise a very minimalistic approach to winemaking, trying to strip away that which is not essential, hopefully revealing something of character and beauty.”

Chris understands that getting close to his subject matter is sometimes the only way to see the bigger picture—and in the case of roussanne he’s showing us, just what a rosy future it can have here in the Cape.︎





4.

Clairette – a rising star?


This article originally appeared on www.jancisrobinson.com and won the Mont Blanc Emerging Wine Writer of the Year at the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards 2019 ︎︎︎


In southern France there is evidence of a newfound respect for Clairette. Food and wine writer Malu Lambert suggests the same thing may be happening in South Africa.

It’s harvest time in South Africa. Winemakers have been up to their elbows in grape skins for several months already, and as the intensity of high summer wanes, the late-ripening varieties have been coming into the cellar.

Clairette Blanche, as Clairette is known in South Africa, is one. Tasting a varietal bottling made on Cape soils, I find it difficult to put my finger on the style – earthy yet ethereal, like the memory of a favourite perfume.


One of the first I encountered was Craven Wines Clairette Blanche 2017, which is textured, entrancing, pithy. It’s wine to light up a dark room. The shifting nature of the wine plays into its mystery. Though, to be fair, there’s nothing mysterious about it. Historically Clairette Blanche has been as much of a workhorse as Chenin Blanc in the production of Cape brandy, as well as providing ballast for white blends.
But when it flies solo, it flies straight to the moon. There's a handful of the Cape’s winemakers making it thus, intrigued by fruit found in forgotten vineyards. From a block in Stellenbosch’s Polkadraai Hills, John Seccombe, winemaker-owner of Thorne & Daughters, makes a single bottling he actually calls Man In The Moon.

‘The vineyard is approximately 32 years old now, planted on granite and quartz soils', says Seccombe, pictured below. ‘Clairette has long been blended away, so it’s interesting to see it starting to feature now as a single varietal.’

All of the whites in the Thorne & Daughters’ range take inspiration from childhood stories and objects. Seccombe says that Clairette Blanche means ‘fair or clear white’ just like the moon can be, which made him think of that universal childhood tale which gives the wine its name. ‘I also really love one of the skits in The Mighty Boosh in which Noel Fielding plays the Man in the Moon', he admits.

Seccombe’s Thorne & Daughters, Man in the Moon Clairette Blanche 2017 is as luminous as its inspiration, a discourse between perfume, earth and fruit. In the making, the grapes are whole-bunch pressed in an old Vaslin press.
‘It’s a very old press from France with a large metal screw in the middle of the cage and with two plates that move towards each other to press the grapes', explains Seccombe. ‘It's a lot like an old basket press but much more efficient at getting juice out of white grapes. The juice then settles in a steel tank overnight, after which we rack the juice off its heavy solids and take it to old barrels where it undergoes a spontaneous fermentation. We also skin-ferment a portion of the Clairette Blanche and finish the fermentation in old barrels.’


From the same Stellenbosch vineyard comes another varietal expression of the grape. Radford Dale, Thirst Clairette Blanche 2017 is the other side of the moon, less ethereal, more terrestrial. Jacques de Klerk, director of winemaking and viticulture at Radford Dale, shows just how malleable the variety can be. De Klerk harvests at a relatively low potential alcohol level (approximately 12% to 12.5%) in a bid for freshness. ‘The grapes are hand-picked and sorted, then destemmed and crushed', says De Klerk, explaining his process. ‘A period of skin maceration follows, usually around four to five days. During this time we extract the tannin, which helps to give the Thirst its perceived saltiness.
The higher acid and low alcohol combine with this to create a flinty, stony expression of the grape.’



There’s a counter revolution at play in the Cape. Large co-operatives have acted as unwitting guardians to pockets of old vines, from Chenin to Cinsault and, yes, Clairette. While sending out large volumes of Sauvignon Blanc and other popular cultivars, they tend to overlook smaller pockets of vines that may be all the better for it.

Such is the case with Daschbosch Wines, which is the boutique arm of co-op uniWines, the second-biggest primary producer in South Africa with some 3,000 ha (7,415 acres) of vineyard under cultivation. They were also one of the first members of the Old Vine Project, the programme set out to catalogue and conserve vineyards that are 35 years and older.

‘We accidentally came across this pocket of old bush vines planted on the farm, Avon, in the Breedekloof', says winemaker WS Visagie. ‘The Clairette Blanche bushvines were planted in 1977 and almost forgotten about until we managed to salvage them. We’ve tried to showcase a different side to Clairette,


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which used to be a ubiquitous and pretty innocuous blending ingredient. We wanted to show what could be done with the fruit of these once-untended, unirrigated old bush vines.’

The Daschbosch, Avon Clairette Blanche 2018 is named after the farm it’s grown on on the slopes of the Olifantsberg Mountains in the Breedekloof. Only 900 kg of fruit was harvested in 2018 from the bush vines, and the Avon is silkier, smoother than those mentioned above. This is due in part to its warmer growing region, but also as a result of extended lees contact for about six months with regular bâtonnage. The Avon offers aromas of hay, tea (in a South African context, rooibos) and citrus, while it lies rich yet pithy on the palate.


It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say this style would be closest to that of the Clairette made in the south of France, which tend to be rounder, richer examples of the varietal. What is it that distinguishes South African Clairette from its French counterpart?


Seccombe of Thorne & Daughters has a hunch. ‘I haven't had much experience with single-varietal bottlings from the south of France. What I have seen though were fairly rich, alcoholic wines, which doesn’t fit with the clonal material we have here. We don't seem to be able to achieve that level of ripeness in South Africa with what we have planted. The grapes look the same, but it may be that we are working with very different vine material here.’

This may well be the case, but one thing’s for sure: South Africa’s varietal Clairette Blanche is a rising star. ︎