In part I of this report from South Africa I visited the Elgin Valley where, although the various estates are competitors, they work closely together so that their collective voice is just a little louder on both the domestic and world stage. Indeed ‘collectivism’ was one of the recurring themes of my 2015 trip, with more and more winemakers forming groups bound by their geography, philosophy, or both.
The Zoo Biscuits
As the Zoo Biscuits branding might suggest, this is an irreverent and youthful bunch of winemakers who are bringing something fresh to the table. With more hipster beards per square meter than any other stand at Cape Wine 2015, you couldn’t really miss them. The bright red VW Campervan and the stuffed alligator told you something was up, but then so too did the crowds perpetually crammed around their stand to taste the wines. The Zoo Biscuits are not quite as subversive a bunch as they might at first seem. For a start, a handful of them have already ‘made it’ on the global stage, their wines already in high demand. Others have held – or continue to hold – responsible winemaking positions in large wineries, but are working here on their personal projects. But there is a collective ethos that binds them: natural winemaking (with a small ‘n’) is the focus of all Zoo Biscuits winemakers, which means sourcing the best old vine fruit from around the Cape, ‘hands-off’ winemaking with minimal intervention, no additions other than minimal sulphur, and an avoidance of too much new oak. And the wines they are producing really do excite. There is no style diktat leading to a homogeneity: wines vary from quite opulent to quite austere, but each shows real energy and life, real freshness. It is a truly high quality and exciting menagerie that says something very positive about South Africa’s winemaking scene. Above: Thinus Zoo-Biscuit of Fram Wines.
I’d visited Chris Alheit on my last visit to the Cape, but since then Peter-Allan Finlayson has moved on from sharing his facility. Now both men seem to be fostering a whole group of artisan winemaking apprentices, making tiny independent productions. The focus for Chris is still white wines and the heritage of South Africa’s grapes. He has long term contracts with growers in some of the oldest vineyards on the most interesting terroirs, and his wines are still in huge demand. Always made with the lightest of touches and minimal winemaker intervention.
(2015) From a single grower, this is 60-year-old Cinsault. It has a beautiful cherry lips sweetie buoyancy with such superb juiciness and length, the pure, dry, nutty and small red fruit finesse. Arguably not his most 'serious' wine, but the genius is in its sheer drinkability.
(2015) Fabulous nose, a Cabernet and Cinsault blend with more black fruits but also that lighter cherry freshness again, a subtle earthiness and briary spice. It also has floral lift and fabulous juiciness. Terrific stuff, with a taut character.
(2015) The white wine that put Chris on the map, a blend of 89% Chenin and 11% Semillon made in a very natural, uncluttered style. Nutty, with lemon and orange and so beautifully subtle and supple with fine earth, salts and gentle tobacco and spice, the palate shimmering with life, with vitality and huge mineral length.
François Haasbroek sources old vine material from across the Western Cape for his range of wines, made with minimal use of new oak and a very hands-off approach to winemaking.
(2015) François named this wine because he is "Sworn to silence on the source," of the Carignan from 28-year-old vines in the Swartland. It has delicious juiciness and finesse, a great juicy fruit quality and lively acid punch, with a beautifully natural sense of concentration and sense of energy. Long.
(2015) From a single vineyard on a steep schist covered slope in Swartland, François describes this as "completely hands-off winemaking," matured in old 800-litre barrels without any movement for 25 months. More meatiness, more woodsmoke and game, peppery but deeply fruity. The palate has more richness and a drier, and again more meaty character that is terrific.
(2015) Syrah makes up 92% of the blend with Carignan and Grenache. Component blended after a year of separate ageing, with a total of 26 months ageing in large, old barrels. The nose has a buoyant, beautifully crunchy and vital fragrance with a big lemony core and tart, cherry skin grip to the black fruit.
(2015) This wine is 20-30% whole bunch fermented and aged in 225-litre barrels for 16 months. Very fine notes of chocolate and soft, smoky oak. Love the soft orange caress of the acidity here, a mellow Pinot.
(2015) Chenin Blanc makes up 80% of the blend here with Semillon from the 2013 vintage and a bit of Bourboulenc. Quite a complicated winemaking recipe with skin contact for the Chenin blanc, the Semillon aged on lees for over a year, then the blend aged for 16 months in old barrels. Really attractive mineral smokiness and ripeness, bursts with really explosive sweetness, but a fine, long finish.
(2015) Only 11.2% alcohol here for a wine again fermented in concrete and this time aged on the lees for 12 months. Nice salty and apple character immediately, understated and not too flamboyant, on the palate bone dry with cool, running mountain stream clarity to the finish.
(2015) Harvested from old bush vines on top slope of Bottelary Hills in Stellenbosch, this was fermented in concrete and aged on the lees for six months. It shows a lovely ripeness from its granite soils, but there's a green apple freshness on the finish too. It has loads of fruit sweetness on the mid-palate, finishing with poise and good length.
Husband and wife team Mick (Australian) and Jeanine (South African) Craven met whilst working the harvest at a winery in Sonoma, California. After a period of travelling and working in wineries around the world they returned to Stellenbosch to set up Craven wines in 2011. Once again the Zoo Biscuits ethos fits perfectly here, with only natural yeasts used, no additions other than minimal sulphur and the use of older, and mostly large format barrels. They source all their fruit from the heartland of Stellenbosch rather than from ‘trendier’ regions, part of their philosophy of rediscovering the quality of fruit here and living amongst the vineyards where they make the wine.
(2015) Just 11% alcohol and 100% Clairette Blanche, this has a lovely perfume with delicate floral notes and gentle apple skin softness and ripeness. Sweetly fruited on the palate, with delicacy again.
(2015) Again, just 11% alcohol for this skin-fermented Pinot Gris which has a definite coppery-pink hue. Beautiful, gentle dry fruit and touches of earthiness. The combination of acidity and the dry tannins is lovely: it's dry in the finish, but has both some mealy texture from some time in older barrels and very good fruit.
(2015) Once again the alcohol is a mere 11% in a Pinot that is whole-bunch fermented with light foot-treading in open fermenters before 10 months in older barrels. It has a really nutty and chestnut character, fabulous minerality and briary qualities, the opposite of blockbuster. The finish is so fresh and juicy, a tight, gentle and sappy tannin quality.
(2015) The alcohol is 11.6% in this Syrah, which was 100% whole bunch fermented with very gentle extraction before spending 10 months in older barrels. Attractive bloody and spicy, gamy nose. Such lovely fruit, the cherry and raspberry lift of the fruit and the fabulous spicy, sappy length of the finish.
Since I last visited Peter-Allan Finlayson he has moved out of the cellar he shared with Chris Alheit into the large Gabrielskloof winery in Bot River, where his ‘day job’ is now making the wines. He is still fully involved with his own Crystallum project, sourcing fruit mostly from Hemel-en-Aarde, whilst mentoring a bunch of small-scale, artisan winemakers who utilise the Gabrielskloof cellar space. Crystallum’s focus is entirely on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
(2015) Whole bunches are pressed into 228-litre French oak barrels, 10% of which are new. Fermentation occurs naturally in barrel, and this has a beautiful complex sulphide nose with notes of flint and a gentle whiff of cordite, before good stone fruit aromas. The palate has minerals and a great sense of tension as well as medium-bodied weight and good fruit sweetness.
(2015) Clay Shales is a single vineyard, and this wine was barrel fermented, though only 17% of barrels were new. Again there's a lovely natural feel to this, with lemony finesse and the sheerness of the acidity. The palate has a lime pith acid structure and an orange touch to the fruit, but it is tight and focused into a long and balanced finish.
(2015) Mostly Hemel-en-Aarde fruit but a quarter from high altitude vineyards inland, at Villiersdorp. Fabulous bright cherry juiciness to this, with briar and a touch of chestnut developing. The palate is savoury but with plenty of fruit, a touch of creaminess rounding the finish.
(2015) High altitude vineyards again for the wine that helped put Crystallum on the map, now with delightful truffle and briar depth, with such a lovely terroir character of sweet earth and mushroom, a good core of taut berry fruit and tight tannins, and delightful acidity keeping it tight and focused.
Fram Fine Wines
And I last met up with winemaker Thinus Krüger (“CEO & President, Winemaker, Grape crusher, Sole employee, #1 Fan of pluralis majestatis.”) when he was making wine for the very corporate Boschendal group. He jumped ship in 2013 and today, sporting his Thor, God of Thunder costume as if unleashed from the very bowels of the earth, he seems very happy making a range of wines once again from fruit sourced widely across the Cape.
(2015) This Chardonnay is joined by 10% of Chenin Blanc, fermented on its skins, helping with the very punchy aromatics of green apples, from soils that have limestone in patches. Really zingy, and vibrant, that extra lift of grip and the Chenin skin edge of tannin makes it fruity, but very tangy with a lick of salt.
(2015) Ripe, with 14.5% alcohol, this is aged only in older oak. Very taut, ebony like nose of concentrated, deep fruit. Meaty, deep, a lot of dark fruit that suggests ripe berries and creamy blue/black fruit. Spicy and lovely in a big-boned, densely layered style.
JH Meyer Signature wines
I last met Johan Meyer up in Swartland where he was making wines for Mount Abora. JH Meyer Signature wines was founded in 2011, farming small vineyard plots of the Western Cape, but “Inspired by many travels to New Zealand, California and Burgundy,” according to Johan, who adds that his wines are “Driven by nature and terroir.” Unfortunately the timing was terrible here: just as I was approaching Johan’s stand, in the distance I saw him dash away to a meeting, so I could taste only one wine from his small portfolio that I could find in the communal Zoo Biscuits ice bucket, even though I know his particular focus is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
(2015) So delicate, with a gentle leafiness and pure lime fruit at the core. Deliciously balanced and long. Quite gentle in the finish but with that mountain stream clarity again.
From her base in the very much up and coming Bot River, Marelise Niemann began using Grenache to make a single wine and now sources fruit from vineyards across the Western Cape, looking especially for older and dry-farmed bush vines. With a natural affinity for ‘Old World’ wines she says her Grenache was “inspired by the great old vineyards of Priorat”, whilst she was delighted to find a parcel of old Tinta Barocca in Bot River, having made wines for a time in the Douro.
(2015) Alcohol is less than 12.5% in this blend of 85% Chenin Blanc and 15% Verdelho from a combination of Bot River and Darling fruit, partly vinified in 400-litre French oak barrels with lees contact. Lovely nose, so creamy and brightly fruity, with a genuine core of minerality and bright green apple fruitiness. It comes through with great clarity and authority.
(2015) One third of the grapes were whole-bunch fermented in open fermenters and minimal punch downs. It saw 16 months only in old barrels. Very fine with no jamminess but a fine juicy character, lots of cherry and a hint of spiciness.
(2015) 40 year old vineyards grown on shale soils, aged in old French oak barrels. Delightful deep colour but light in texture and extract. A plum and liquorice edge of brightness to this, deliciously plummy and high in acid with fantastic energy. Great depth of flavour.
The personal project of long-time winemaker for Cape Point Wines, Duncan Savage. Though still a young, surfing-mad part of the new generation, I guess Duncan, with the phenomenal track record and reputation he has forged for the Cape Point wines, is something of a role model for the Zoo Biscuits group. Savage Wines started in 2011 as his side project, particularly focused on sourcing fruit from vineyards with a strong maritime influence, often at altitude.
(2015) Duncan's take on white Bordeaux using Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon has a beautiful and subtle perfume, not herbaceous fireworks, but an almond richness to waxy fruit and hints of nectarine ripeness. Superb palate, follows that path of matching texture, weight and real verve with easy drinking fruit ripeness - and so fresh.
(2015) A blend of 67% Syrah, the rest Touriga Nacional, Cinsault and Grenache. The juiciness of this is what impresses, with fabulous keen, bright fruit, the red cherry and the liquorice edge of alacrity. Fabulously drinkable stuff.
(2015) From the estate where Duncan lives, this is 100% Syrah. Duncan describes the vineyard as a windswept area on which he has taken a 20-year lease, starting to train the vines to protect the fruit more. Schisty and lifted nose with kirsch and cherry but all so peppery bright and zippy. The touch of saltiness and taut, taut tannins gives it great energy and length.
(2015) A blend of mostly Cinsault, with equal part Grenache and Syrah, this is a terrific new wine from Savage Wines. It has such beautiful lift and perfume, kirsch and flowers and background sandalwood and exotic spice. Lovely sense of natural concentration. Wonderfully firm and taut, with a big thrust of lemony acidity that is so refreshing. The agility and juicy precision is wonderful, dry but so fresh, so precise.
Thorne and Daughters
The 2012 project of John and Tasha Seccombe – and their infant daughters. Though born in Johannesburg, John lived in the UK many years, and learned to make wine at England’s Plumpton College before spending time in the UK wine industry and working stages overseas. John also works the harvest in Alsace every year with Julien Schaal.
(2015) Blended from across the Cape, 37% is Chenin Blanc aged between 20 and 34 years, from the Bottelary hills and Swartland's granite soils. There's also 28% Roussanne, 22% Semillon from old vines in Franschhoek and Chardonnay. There's a lovely natural feel to this, with creaminess and gentle earth and oatmeal. Such a flood of dry apple fruit, tangy and pure, with delicious kick of acidity. Long and beautifully focused.
(2015) Just 12.5% ABV and 100% Chardonnay from old, dry-farmed bush vines. Very lovely crushed oatmeal and gentle earthiness, that dry and mellow concentration again with a blast of cool orange acidity. So juicy and vital, this is a mouth-watering Chardonnay.
Trizanne Signature Wines
The charming Trizanne Bernard worked multiple vintages in Australia, France and Portugal before returning to South Africa to make the wines at Klein Constantia, then taking control of the high profile, Anwilka, a joint project between Klein Constantia and two of Bordeaux’s biggest names, Hubert de Boüard and Bruno Prats. In 2008 she set up on her own, a decision that surprised some given the instant success of Anwilka, but helped by husband Malan, working on various consultancy projects and making her own wines from the cool, remote Elim fruit, she seems very happy.
(2015) 100% Sauvignon Blanc from the cool coastal Elim area, this is bold and juicy stuff with terrific lemon and lime zest - quite different from the 2013 also tasted, with much stricter focus but gorgeous length and authority. A cold mountain shower in a glass.
(2015) Bold cherry and a touch of sweet chocolaty ripeness. Little bloody streak of Syrah character and such a fine, dry but supple tannins in the finish. Delicious stuff, fresh with acidity and energy.
(2015) A 50/50 blend of the two varieties, made in 500-litre barrels. Fabulous nose, I just love the bold citrus and the hints of sweet nectarine flesh and juice, so much juicy freshness and yet delicacy, with gossamer acidity. Deliciously smart winemaking: bursting with easy fruit but tight a drum.