Carinus Family Vineyards, South Africa

The Carinus Family farms in the Swartland and Stellenbosch regions of the Western Cape, in a country where many wine producers get some, or all, of their fruit from growers. Like many others, the family’s vineyards play this integral part in the South African wine story. I met up by Zoom with cousins Hugo and Danie (right) who began by showing a photograph not of their own farm, but of the Rhône’s Château Rayas.

They explained that they had recently visited and were receiving basically the ‘standard’ tour and tasting, until Rayas discovered that they came from generations of grape farmers, when suddenly the tour took off to the vineyards and rare and special bottles were fetched from the cellar. A poignant reminder of how important the grape farmer is, to even the most famous of wine estates.

The family supplies fruit to many well-known estates in South Africa, including Alheit Vineyards, Crystallum, Craven, Raats Family and many more, but Danie says the decision to start bottling wines under their own name was intended not only to add value, but also so the wines could be used as ‘business cards’ to let other producers see the quality of their fruit they were producing. Carinus Family bottlings account for less than half of one percent of their total grape harvest, most of that coming from a massive 540-hectare vineyard in Swartland owned by Hugo’s family.

Winemakers

Their wines are made by two of South Africa’s most highly-regarded winemakers, Lukas van Loggerenberg and Chris Alheit. Both represent the contemporary, artisan scene in South Africa. I’d be tasting a Chenin Blanc made by Chris Alheit, with fruit from the family’s Polkadraai vineyard in Stellenbosch. It’s a tiny three-hectare vineyard, planted in 2015 with dry-farmed bush vines. Although already producing excellent fruit, it was planted with the intention that it will one day be an old vines vineyard, to be tended by future generations. “With the right rootstocks you can get away with dry farming on a lot of vineyards,” says Danie, “though you then have to focus on quality not on volume.”

Other wines in the small portfolio are made by Lukas van Loggerenberg, some from Polkadraai, some from another single vineyard in Swartland called Rooidraai, which extends to seven hectares and which is an old vine, dry-farmed vineyard, one of the few that were retained by the family when they bought this substantial property in the 1980s.

Farming

Questioned about sustainability and the growth in South Africa of organic farming, the cousins take a pragmatic approach: “We are already doing as much as we can, with cover crops planted in the best part of the old vineyard, and ploughing beneath rows rather than using weed-killers,” Hugo tells me, but ever-pragmatic, Danie chips in: “But there’s a saying – ‘you can’t go green when you are in the red’ – we don’t think organic farming is the best way to farm, we think it’s the only way to farm, but until people are willing to pay a premium for organically-grown fruit, the cost of production means it is not viable for 540 hectares of vineyard.”

Danie is interested in experimenting with everything from Assyrtiko to Furmint, but says it is maybe “a cool dream,” for now, as finding a market for Polkadraai Assyrtiko might be too much of a challenge. Clearly the cousins are still passionate farmers at heart, and see things from that point of view: “There are still a lot of guys who think they are doing you a favour by buying your fruit, but actually it’s the other way around.” Perhaps that’s part of the reason they plan to move some of their much smaller Stellenbosch vineyards over to fruit growing.

The Wine

I tasted only one wine in this session, the Polkadraai Chenin Blanc 2018, being imported by WoodWinters and retailing at £124.13 per case of six, though that is in-bond, so duty and VAT at the prevailing rate will have to be added if taken out of bond. Find other stockists using the wine-searcher link in the tasting note.

(2020) Chris Alheit bought the fruit from this Stellenbosch vineyard with the purpose of using it in one of his blends, but called the Carinus family to say the quality was too good and it should be bottled separately. And so, this first release of the Polkadraai Chenin Blanc, made by Chris for the family, appeared. Chris ferments this with natural yeasts in concrete 'eggs'. It has a beautifully subtle creaminess on the nose, a subtle floral fragrance too, but that stony, dry, lightly earthy character of the natural ferment is there, maybe a touch of honey in the background. In the mouth there is substantial weight, and substantial concentration too, a cool, intense, ripe apple and fat lemony fruit, that saltiness and stony quality pushing through on the acidity in a wine that is subtle and yet concentrated, with the ripeness of the fruit revealed slowly as you sip. The wine is available in-bond at time of review, so an approximate final price per bottle is quoted.

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