It’s been two years since the wines of South Africa’s De Wetshof Estate were in the U.S. market. Following an importer change, the winery is back; I sat down with the winery's current generation, Peter de Wet, here at my office last week to get caught up.
De Wet, 26, is working alongside his father, the well-respected Dannie, who helped turn the winery into one synonymous with crystal clear, Chablis-like Chardonnay. Located in the Robertson district, well east of the better-known Stellenbosch, De Wetshof has 200 hectares of vines, two-thirds of which are planted to Chardonnay (the winery produces about 155,000 cases annually).
The area, though off the beaten track, is ideally suited to Chardonnay, thanks to its limestone and chalk soils. And those soils feature a unique quality too, explains De Wet.
“In Robertson, the earth is actually turned on a 90 degree axis, it sticks up instead of spreading out. That is, instead of soil changes occurring as you move across the property, our soils change quickly depending on how deep you go. Moving down every several meters, there’s a new soil type,” he said.
As the vine roots dig down through differing areas, with varying compositions of chalk and limestone and thus, varying degrees of water retention, working the vineyards is an exercise in micro-management.
“But once you get them dialed in, spot by spot, that’s where you really get all the complexity,” said de Wet.
The De Wetshof Chardonnays typically feature bright acidity and citrus fruit-dominant profiles. No malolactic fermentation takes place on any of the wines, despite varying amounts of oak élevage depending on the cuvées: the top Bateleur and D’Honneur cuvées see 12 months in new oak; the Lesca bottling receives six months aging in mostly used oak; the Bon Vallon is fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. It’s a style the younger de Wet prefers to a fuller blown, tropical fruit profile, and so he intends to accentuate it a bit more as he slowly takes over from his father, who is now 62.
“I really liked what we made in the '90s, when the wines we were really lean styled. In recent years the wines trended to a little more modern style,” said de Wet. “But since winemakers make the wines they like to drink, I suspect we’ll move back to that fresh, minerally style even more in the coming years.”
The younger de Wet is a typical representation of his generation’s winemaking class in South Africa—he’s studied and worked abroad, earning a viticulture and enology degree at Geisenheim in Germany (turning down UC Davis since "it didn't seem productive to study wine in a country where I couldn't drink," being under 21 at the time) before helping on harvests in St.-Emilion, Chablis and Champagne in France, along with Germany’s Pfalz regions. He’s just winding up a tasting trip through California, one that left him impressed with Cabernet Sauvignon but admittedly still looking for top-flight Chardonnays made in the fresher, unadorned style that he prefers.
As it returns to this market, the De Wetshof Estate has its work cut out for it. Frankly, the pressure is on. De Wet noted that while Europe in general has been solid, the British market in particular has fallen off, so the winery is eager to reestablish a presence here. That may not be so easy for a Chardonnay-based winery coming from a still-emerging region such as South Africa, despite the wines’ quality.
“It’s a disadvantage and an advantage at the same time,” said de Wet. “Sure, Chardonnay can be a crowded market. But we’re really known for it, because our stuff is really great,” he added with a smile.
[Note: As always, reviews of the newest vintages from De Wetshof, based on blind tastings of samples, will appear in the near future.]
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.]
Richard C Peterson — Chicago, Illinois, U.S. — February 27, 2012 7:40pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — February 28, 2012 9:34am ET
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