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10 Cape winemakers to watch

db picks out some rising South African stars who are bringing their own fresh ideas to reveal an exciting new slant to the country’s wine scene.

The other Zoo Biscuits

Among the numerous small groups of like-minded wineries, whether the Pinotage Association, PIWOSA, Swartland Independent Producers or recently created Cape Vintner Classification, lies a bunch of young producers keen to add their own twist to South Africa’s 350-year wine history.

Collectives like Zoo Biscuits may sound more like an indie band than a winemaker group, but don’t confuse these guys’ (and girls’) almost aggressive lack of pretension with an absence of quality or ambition.

Without the security – or confines – of their own estate, many of South Africa’s younger winemakers are scouring the Cape for special sites, adding a whole new angle to the country’s wine scene.

Over the following pages we pick out just a small sample of these rising stars who, in very different ways, are working towards the common goal of creating a strong, uniquely South African identity for their wines.

John Seccombe, Thorne & Daughters

Many winemakers in South Africa these days have travelled the world, gaining valuable experience in great wine regions, and John Seccombe is no exception. What does make him stand out from the crowd is that fact that much of this foreign perspective comes from the English wine industry: he has previously worked at Ridgeview after studying at Plumpton College.

Despite this international background, it is very much the character of the Cape that Seccombe is now working to capture in his wines. “We’re not trying to dress things up in international styles,” he explains. “We wanted to make a solid Cape wine with a modern edge.”

Made with grapes drawn from across the Western Cape, his current portfolio – the first vintage arrived as recently as 2013 – comprises Rocking Horse, a Roussanne/Chenin/Semillon/Chardonnay blend; Tin Soldier, a Semillon Blanc/Semillon Gris blend from Franschhoek; and Zoetrope, a Chardonnay made from bush vines planted above Botriver.

In common with many of the country’s other young producers, Seccombe does not let the absence of his own wine estate hold him back. “I’ve not been very exclusive about where I work,” he admits. “I don’t think we’re really hidebound here to do anything fixed – it’s an open road, we can just do what’s intellectually appealing.”

Gavin Bruwer, B-Vintners

Cousins Gavin Bruwer and Bruwer Raats of Raats Family Wines set up this Stellenbosch-based venture in 2013 with a mission to celebrate two things: heritage and terroir.

In practice that means shining a light on some of South Africa’s most historic grapes and single vineyard sites. So far that focus has created B de Alexandrie, a dry Muscat from a 0.7ha plot; Haarlem to Hope, a blend of the Chenin, Semillon and Muscat grapes that were first to be planted by Dutch settlers in the 17th century; Liberté, a celebration of South Africa’s homegrown Pinotage variety; Strandwolf Chardonnay, from vineyards overlooking False Bay; and Reservoir Road Pinot Noir from a windswept parcel of low-yielding bush vines.

“We’re very keen on staying true to what we have in Africa and sharing that vision with the world,” outlines Bruwer. “We’re working with what are as close to African varieties as possible.”

Describing himself as “passionate about our country,” he feels “the Cape has a lot of good stories to tell.” When it comes to channeling those tales through this particular project Bruwer observes: “There are a lot of things in life that inspire you, but wine does that on a different level. Our long term goal is to work with suppliers who share our vision and passion for their soils.”

Johan Meyer, JH Meyer Signature Wines

After travelling through New Zealand, California and Burgundy, it’s hardly surprising to learn that Johan Meyer has caught a severe case of the Pinot Noir bug.

Having come home and set up his own winemaking venture in 2011 – he also makes wine for Mount Abora in Swartland – Meyer is keen to shine a brighter spotlight on the heights that South Africa can achieve with this notoriously sensitive grape.

From 2014 this goal has evolved into a trio of single vineyard expressions of Pinot Noir: Palmiet, named after the river in Elgin; Cradock Peak from along the south coast in George; and Elands River from Kaaimansgat near Villiersdorp.

“Everyone misjudges Pinot Noir and they don’t think about Pinot Noir when they think South Africa,” laments Meyer. “I think there’s huge scope for Pinot Noir in South Africa, but it needs the right spot. All three of these spots are quite secluded.”

 Alexander Milner, Natte Valleij

“When I graduated from Stellenbosch everyone wanted to make the next rock star wine, those big Shirazes,” recalls Alexander Milner, who has taken on winemaking duties at his family’s farm on the edge of the Simonsberg.

After working a vintage in Provence, however, his ambitions today are a world away from those blockbuster styles. Alongside Natte Valleij’s more traditional Bordeaux-style blend POW, Milner nods to South Africa’s earlier history with “Dry Hanepoot”, a Muscat of Alexandria; but much of his energy is channeled via his love of cycling into hunting down precious parcels of Cinsault.

“I’ve got this obsession with finding the best blocks,” he admits. “I’ll go past a farm worker and ask him who’s growing Cinsault, then I’ll knock on their door. People are usually very open because Cinsault’s a heavy bearer so there are always quite a few tonnes going around.”

The result is a blend that draws on fruit from Darling, Swartland, Wellington and Stellenbosch, which is then matured for two years in used barrels, with the second year seeing the wine racked into larger format 500-litre barrels. The result, believes Milner, is an expression that offers refreshment over power.

“In the early 2000s in South Africa Cinsault was seen as a weed, but it offers so much,” Milner says of the variety that he calls “poor man’s Pinot Noir”. “I would never have thought I’d be making Cinsault but it’s all about the drinkability.”

 Craig Sheard, Elemental Bob

Adding a South African accent to the natural wine movement is Craig Sheard, better known to his friends and followers as Elemental Bob.

After tinkering away with his own project for a decade while holding down a day job with other wineries, 2015 is the first vintage where quantities have been big enough – 17 barrels of white and 10 of red – to justify exploring export markets.

This expansion has been aided by the steady development of a more receptive audience for this type of minimal intervention winemaking. “Ten years ago people didn’t really understand what I was doing,” recalls Sheard. “But then they wanted to understand where their food came from and now it’s the same for wine.”

With names such as “My Chair” – a Verdelho/Chenin/Viognier/Semillon blend from several cooler sites in the Western Cape – and “Cosmic Flower” – a Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Hemel en Aarde – it should come as no surprise that these wines are a philosophical world away from the big brands.

“I want my wines to show a bit of soul,” muses the softly spoken Sheard, who is not averse to trying his hand at creating Madeira-style wines using an incubator or drying grapes on his roof. “I don’t want clinical wines, but I don’t want faulty wines either.”

With only small quantities produced and variable availability of certain vineyards, don’t expect to be able to track down the same wine every vintage. Looking ahead, Sheard outlines plans for a slightly different approach, saying: “Eventually when I find the right place I want to make single vineyard wines – but a little left-field.”

Donovan Rall, Rall Wines

Easily distinguished by his blonde mop of hair, Donovan Rall has been pursuing a love of Mediterranean grape varieties since returning via a stint in Swartland from a three-year world tour of wine regions to set up his own operation in 2008.

Having made his name with a red and white blend, Rall is now broadening his scope to introduce single varietal Grenache Blanc and Cinsault expressions from the 2015 vintage.

No-one was really making Grenache Blanc but I thought we needed to have a few good examples so I might as well try it,” he says modestly of the decision to shine a light on this grape. His maiden release combines concrete eggs, some whole bunch fermentation and extended skin contact on the grounds that, believes Rall, “Grenache Blanc can be so boring and bland, you have to do something funky with it.”

As for the Cinsault, which comes from 50-year old vines in Darling, Rall echoes several of his peers in praising its “drinkable” character and relatively hassle free, inexpensive vinification requirements.

“It’s so easy to make and there are so many Cinsault vineyards out there that no-one is taking any notice of,” he remarks. “People are still under the perception that wine has to be big, red and inky, but to me this is the way South African reds are going.”

Duncan Savage, Savage Wines

One of the few winemakers who manages to switch between the “establishment” and “maverick” camps with apparent ease, Duncan Savage balances his day job heading up Cape Point Vineyards’ impressive operation with his own enterprise, Savage Wines – not to mention a fair bit of time indulging his second love, surfing.

Having built up something of a cult following for his Savage red, a Syrah/Grenache/Cinsault blend first made in 2011, he has now added a straight Syrah called Girl Next Door, and a Cinsault-led Rhône blend called Follow The Line to the range.

“I’ve done whites for so long at Cape Point that it’s been such a challenge to figure this red thing out,” remarks Savage.

Explaining the thought behind Follow The Line – a name that refers to the telegraph wires he was told to use in order to track down the vineyard – Savage comments: “A lot of people are focusing on Cinsault again. On its own it can be a bit limiting but in a blend it’s amazing. It’s light in colour but it ages brilliantly – you see a lot of those big, ripe styles fall apart after five or six years.”

As for Girl Next Door, whose maiden 2014 vintage was released in June and has already sold out “to good homes”, Savage explains its name by describing the 3.5ha vineyard’s straggly, wind swept vines surrounded by a housing estate on the Cape Peninsula, just up the road from his home. Following the success of its first year, he’s now secured a 20-year lease on the plot.

Savage notes that challenge of continuity as a major difference between producers who work on the traditional estate model and many of these younger winemakers. “They’re completely different camps but they feed off each other in the market,” he suggests. “They’re so different that they actually complement each other.”

Peter-Allan Finlayson, Crystallum

Another winemaker who has been building his own stellar reputation is Peter-Allan Finlayson, who set up Cristallum with his brother Andrew nearly a decade ago.

With their father at Bouchard Finlayson recognised as a major pioneer of Pinot Noir and Hemel en Aarde Valley, the duo have dedicated Cristallum to pursuing high quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with a focus on single vineyard plots around the wider Walker Bay region.

The latest addition to this portfolio is Mabalel Pinot Noir, which comes from a rocky quartz vineyard 60km inland and at 600m altitude. A number of disinterested parties at last week’s Cape Wine were volunteering this wine as South Africa’s finest expression of Pinot Noir, so its future looks bright.

“There aren’t a lot of guys doing single vineyard Pinot Noir yet but there are so many sites,” comments Finlayson. “I look at what those Swartland guys like Eben Sadie and Mullineux have done. Ten years ago it was all about the estate model, but now that’s all fallen away. It’s changed the rules and opened things up a lot.”

Chris & Suzaan Alheit, Alheit Vineyards

If you were looking for a wine that encapsulates what the new generation of South Africa is all about, then Chris and Suzaan Alheit’s white blend Cartology would be a pretty fine example. From their base near Hermanus, he and his wife draw on parcels of Chenin and old vine Semillon from a host of different regions to create a wine that Alheit describes as being “as Cape as possible.”

“With Cartology we’re trying to make a South African heritage white, something that can’t be repeated in other parts of the world,” he sets out. “We don’t want to look to somewhere else for inspiration and the grape sites we have here are pretty enticing.”

Building on that desire to show off the best of South Africa, Alheit has introduced a new project from the 2015 vintage that aims to show off and thereby preserve the country’s host of old vine plantings. Called Flotsam & Jetsam, the collection’s first expression is a Cinsault from a grower in Darling and the plan is to add a further two wines to the range in 2016.

Alheit stresses the urgency behind this venture, observing: “You can pick up Cinsault for R5,000 (£240) a tonne, or even a lot less, like R3,000. That’s just unethical – we’re paying R10,000.”

Showing off the first result from the initiative, he confirms: “It’s going to be a volume driven business in the end because the margins are quite small, but that’s cool. It’s lekker, it’s refreshing – you want to brush your teeth with it.”

Marelise Niemann, Momento Wines

Female winemakers remain a striking rarity in South Africa, but since breaking out from her job at Botriver producer Beaumont Wines to set up her own venture, Momento Wines in 2011, Marelise Niemann is busy carving out her own distinct path.

Her white blend uses Verdelho, a recent arrival in the Cape, to bring a racier, more focused edge to South African stalwart Chenin Blanc. However, when you talk to Marelise it quickly becomes clear that her first passion is a rather different grape.

“I did a harvest in Priorat and really fell in love with Grenache,” she explains. “It’s my personal love.”

Looking at how the variety has generally been handled in South Africa – and indeed many other parts of the world – Niemann observes: “People think the wine needs to be darker so they add Shiraz and make it more extracted, but to me it is already complete. In South Africa people aren’t used to lightness.”

She draws a comparison with Chenin Blanc, noting: “Grenache is a very versatile grape; it can be unwooded and fruity or wooded with lots of texture and tannin.”

Although Grenache remains outside the limelight, Niemann feels she is at the tip of a potential zeitgeist. “It’s young days but it’s definitely starting to happen,” she reports. “Two years ago people were saying ‘Who makes Grenache on its own?’ but it’s now a trending thing so it’s great timing.”

For Niemann, that shift in attitude is being driven in part by commentators and trade outside South Africa. Having recently joined the Armit portfolio she confirms: “The UK is really supporting what we’re doing in South Africa.”

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