Top 10 South African winemakers to watch
South Africa is teeming with fresh young winemaking talent.
From the wheat field dotted plains of the Swartland to the cool climate, mountain framed Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, enthusiastic young winemakers are springing up in every corner of the Cape.
Many of the country’s most promising stars were pouring their wines at the Cape Wine 2012 fair in Cape Town last month. Their knowledge, passion and energy is an exciting sign of things to come for South African wine, with many clocking up vintages in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and California before returning home to put their skills into practice.
There’s a palpable sense of unity among the new generation, and a fierce desire to make elegant, refined wines with a true sense of place. Read on for our top 10 Cape crusaders shaping the future of South African wine.
10: Alex Starey, Keermont
Surfing winemaker Alex Starey is in charge of viticulture and winemaking at Keermont, a boutique winery set in an amphitheatre between the Helderberg and Stellenbosch mountain ranges. The fledgling 27-hectare estate, on the site of a former mineral water bottling plant, was acquired by Mark Wraith in 2003.
Having studied oenology at the University of Stellenbosch, Starey set his sites on Europe, working harvests in Priorat, Bordeaux and the Rhône. Returning home to South Africa inspired by the elegant Syrahs of the Rhône Valley, Starey was determined to make wine with a distinctly South African stamp. “We’re in a very special part of the woods here, so we’re committed to the estate concept,” he says.
Formed of 8ha of established vines, including Chenin Blanc planted in 1971, the majority of plantings at the estate took place between 2005 and 2009. Producing just five barrels in his inaugural 2007 vintage, Starey currently makes four wines: a flagship red blend made up of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot; a Syrah; Terrasse – a barrel fermented white blend featuring Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc; and, in exceptional vintages, dessert wine Fleurfontein. His minimum intervention philosophy eschews both fining and filtration.
9: Gunter Schultz, Kleinood
Like Starey, winemaker Gunter Schultz is passionate about surfing, and is known to catch a few waves before work in the summer months. The youngest of five brothers, all of whom make wine for different estates, including Carl Schultz of Hartenberg, Schulz worked harvests in Australia, New Zealand and California, where he surfed his way down the coast to Mexico, before heading back to his homeland to make wine at Kleinood, meaning “something small and precious,” in Afrikaans.
Bought by Gerard de Villiers in 2000, the estate is nestled in the Blaauwklippen Valley on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountain outside Stellenbosch. Schultz makes just two wines at the 12-hectare estate: Tamboerskloof Syrah and Tamboerskloof Viognier, along with De Boerin extra virgin olive oil.
Striving to make honest, complex and elegant wines, Schultz cultivates, harvests, crushes, ferments and matures grapes from half-hectare units separately. Only at blending does he decide which parcels are to form the building blocks for Tamboerskloof. “I’m a romantic. As with the great French wines, wine must taste of where it comes from, not of what you have done to it,” says Schultz, who harbours ambitions to work in Chile with terroirist Pedro Parra.
8: Johan Meyer, JH Meyer Signature Wines
At the tender age of 28, Mick Hucknall doppelganger Johan Meyer shares his time between Mount Abora Vineyards in the Swartland – named after the mountain in the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem Kubla Kahn, and his own boutique project, JH Meyer Signature Wines in Elgin. Part of the Swartland Revolution, at Mount Abora, the ever-enthusiastic Meyer makes a pair of Chenin Blancs and a Cinsault rosé. “I’m trying to make a seriously good pink,” he insists.
His Koggelbos Chenin is deliberately made in an oxidative style from low-yielding old vines, then fermented in French oak and kept on its lees for four months. Over at JH Meyer, which sprang into existence in 2011, Meyer makes just 1,000 bottles of Pinot Noir and 1,000 bottles of Chardonnay a year, selecting grapes from small vineyards in the cool climate Elgin region and operating out of Meerhof Winery in Riebeek Casteel.
“I fell in love with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay while working in New Zealand and Santa Barbara. There’s great potential for both grapes in South Africa, and, as they are less widely planted, you have a chance to put your own stamp on the wines if you do a good job,” he says.
7: Jurgen Gouws, Intellego
Another young gun to have recently burst onto the Swartland scene is 24-year-old Jurgen Gouws. Having completed a vintage at Domaine Michele et Stéphane Ogier in Côte Rôtie, Gouws worked with Swartland pioneer Eben Sadie in 2008, where he developed a passion for old bush vines. His boutique brand Intellego, meaning, “I understand” in Latin, features a pair of scales on the label in a nod to Gouws’ quest for balance.
Starting with just one barrel of old vine Chenin, Gouws’ maiden 2009 vintage was made in an oxidative style and matured in old barrels. The energetic young winemaker believes bush vines help to maintain the structure and purity of the wine, allowing him to keep winemaking as natural as possible. Like Nicolas Joly in the Loire, Gouws shuns the term “winemaker”, believing he merely guides the wine in a certain direction, allowing mother nature to do the rest.
His Elementis Skin Contact Chenin Blanc spends three weeks on its skins, resulting in intense baked apple aromatics. He also makes a Syrah/Mourvèdre blend from 30-year-old bush vines. “Wine is alive. You have to make an effort to understand it, but once you do, you can truly enjoy it,” he says.
6: Howard Booysen, Howard Booysen Wines
Charismatic, 29-year-old Howard Booysen is on a mission to make the best Riesling in South Africa. Born in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, Booysen trained as a deep sea engineer before embarking on a career in wine. Gaining a degree in cellar technology and viticulture from Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch, Booysen was selected as the Cape Winemakers Guild’s first apprentice in its protégé programme, giving him the opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade under various mentors at different estates, including Bruce Jack of Flagstone, Carl Schultz of Hartenberg and Gary Jordan of Jordan.
Booysen’s debut Riesling was released in 2010 to critical acclaim. Striving to make approachable Riesling with ageing potential, Booysen sources grapes from across the Cape. “I lean towards a more oxidative style, but try to capture the freshness off the fruit by fermenting in stainless steel,” he says.
He makes a dry (Pegasus) and an off-dry style, the latter he believes to be a great match for spicy food. “Making top quality Riesling in South Africa is a challenge, but I enjoy it for exactly that reason. Riesling is one of the most terroir-expressive varieties and ages like an elegant woman,” he says.
5: Chris and Suzaan Alheit, Alheit Vineyards
Affable husband and wife winemaking duo Chris and Suzaan Alheit use traditional Cape varieties to make authentic Cape whites. They’re passionate about old vines, preferring to let the terroir talk by keeping cellar work simple. “Fine wine is grown, not made,” says Chris. Having worked harvests together in California’s Napa Valley, Western Australia, St Emilion, the Clare Valley in South Australia and the Mosel in Germany, the well-travelled pair made a base at Alheit Vineyards, high on the Hemel-and-Aarde Ridge in Walker Bay.
Their debut, Cartology 2011, is intended to be a picture of the Cape as seen through the lens of its mature vineyards. Composed of rare parcels of mature bush vines from Perdeberg, Kasteelberg and Franschhoek, the Chenin Blanc/Semillon blend is naturally fermented and aged in old French oak barrels.
Sulphur is only added following the completion of fermentation, when the wine is stable of its own accord. The result is a rich, mineral wine with notes of stone fruits, lime and honey. “We hope to find the voice of the land itself, whether it be a choir of amazing blocks blended into one bottle, or the purity and beauty of a single vineyard soloist,” says Suzaan.
4: Matthew Day, Klein Constantia
Fresh faced 27-year-old Matthew Day has big shoes to fill, having been made winemaker at Klein Constantia in the Constantia Valley, makers of Napoleon’s favourite sweet wine, Vin de Constance, which appears in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Baudelaire’s poem Les Fleurs du Mal.
Day grew up in Johannesburg, but an interest in winemaking saw him relocate to the Cape to pursue his passion. After graduating form Stellenbosch University with a degree in viticulture and oenology, he flew the nest to work harvests at Château Bellefont Belcier and Château Trianon in St Emilion, Elderton Estate in the Barossa Valley and Dancing Hares Estate in the Napa Valley, before returning home to work at Meerlust.
Matt joined Klein Constantia, which recently merged with Anwilka, owned by Hubert de Bouard, co-owner of Château Angélus, and former Cos d’Estournal owner Bruno Prats, as assistant winemaker in 2008, becoming winemaker in 2010. Day is keen to build on Vin de Constance’s reputation rather than take the wine in a radical direction. He has started maturing it in acacia barrels, which is helping to accentuate the floral and exotic fruit characteristics of the wine.
3: Peter-Allan Finlayson, Crystallum
Tall, dark and handsome, Peter-Allan Finlayson’s wine roots run deep. Son of South African Pinot Noir pioneer Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson, Peter Jr has branched out and set up his own boutique Pinot project, Crystallum, where he makes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from prime parcels grown on deep clay soils in the Walker Bay.
Part of The Hundred Club, along with the aforementioned Chris Alheit and Donovan Rall of Vuurberg, Finlayson studied philosophy and economics in Stellenbosch before moving back to Hermanus to satiate his passion for wine, founding Crystallum in 2007 with his brother Andrew, having first clocked up numerous harvests in Pinot’s heartland, Burgundy. Fruit is sourced from four vineyard sites in Hemel-en-Aarde. “We nurture what comes off the vines rather than manipulating it to fit a predetermined outcome,” says Finlayson, whose next focus is single vineyard wines.
Both the Chardonnay and Pinot are fermented in French oak and aged for at least a year before bottling at Crystallum’s straw bale winery made from recycled steel, clay and stone. Wine writer Matthew Jukes has described the Pinot as, “a future cult wine in the making.” Finlayson meanwhile, believes it’s “more restrained and elegant” than his father’s concentrated Pinots.
2: Callie Louw, Porseleinberg
Bearded, baseball cap-wearing renegade Callie Louw, described by South African wine writer Neil Pendock as, “the Che Guevara of the Swartland”, is causing a stir in the region with his elegant Syrah from boutique winery Porseleinberg; the Swartland project of established Franschhoek estate Boekenhoutskloof. Louw works with up-and-coming viticulturist Rosa Kruger at the organically run, 2.5-hectare estate boasting shale heavy soils where the roots penetrate deep.
He picks early and practises whole bunch pressing, relying on the grapes’ natural yeast for fermentation. Replanting widely at the estate, Louw declares much modern winemaking to be, “just a cover-up for bad farming.” Seeking freshness, elegance and wines that can age, he feels he has solved the issue of over-ripeness in South Africa.
His debut 2010 vintage produced just 3,500 bottles of Rhône-like Syrah full of rosemary, lavender, spice, and red and black fruit. Porseleinberg’s beautiful raised white labels are made on a 1940s printing press. “I love the rusticity of Mediterranean grapes. The Swartland Revolution is too honest to be trendy. I’m just a farmer hoping to redefine my origins,” he says. His 2011 release, crafted from 100% Syrah, has been entirely fermented in concrete eggs.
1: Craig Hawkins, Testalonga
Topping our list of hot shots to watch is envelope-pushing enfant terrible Craig Hawkins, chief winemaker of organic Swartland estate Lammershoek. Born in KwaZulu-Natal, the ever-ambitious Hawkins also makes daring natural wines under his own Testalonga label, founded in 2008, including El Bandito old bush vine Chenin Blanc.
Inspired by the skin contact wines of Friuli and Slovenia, the wine spends six weeks on its skins before being aged in French oak for two years, while his zero sulphur Cortez Chenin Blanc spends two years on its lees. The result is a pair of inimitable wines with a wild nature, bold aromatics and rich flavours. Hawkins’ ultimate goal is to work biodynamically. “I’m an idealist, so I‘m drawn to the purity of natural wine,” he says.
Before Lammershoek, Hawkins spent four years working for the Swartland’s spiritual leader Eben Sadie and travelling around Europe, working harvests at Sadie’s Priorat property Dits del Terra and Niepoort in Portugal. He also has a side project making Blaufränkisch for Dirk Niepoort’s Austrian venture Muhr-van der Niepoort. “I like to challenge people’s ideas of what they believe wine should be; I’m constantly searching for new ways of doing things,” he says.