I caught up today with Marc Kent, owner and winemaker of South Africa's Boekenhoutskloof winery, a top producer of high-end Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sémillon, as well as several value brands such as Chocolate Block, Wolftrap and Helderberg Wijnmakerij. The vintner has a new Syrah to add to his lineup and, as is usual with Kent, he's got a good story to go with it (you can read my previous blog entry on the genesis of another such wine called The Journeyman).
Kent is part of the growing cadre of winemakers plumbing the terroir of the Swartland, where Rhȏne varieties, and Syrah in particular, seem to thrive. The mountainous area has windswept, schist covered hillsides and producers such as A.A. Badenhorst Family, Sadie Family and Mullineux are making some of South Africa's most exciting wines from the area.
In 2009, Kent bought a 173-acre wine farm that he prized for a 10-acre parcel of Syrah vines. The fruit had gone into Sadie's Columella in its first two vintages and Kent had used some for his own Cape Winemakers Guild Auction wine. So when the farm came up for sale, he couldn't let the opportunity slip by.
"I actually wish I had done this sooner," said Kent, who has since replanted 100 additional acres on the estate to Syrah, Cinsault and other varieties. "It's really helped secure an important fruit source for the value brands we have. And then I think we can really do something special with that [10-acre] block."
"The site is really windy, and so the berries are small and the skins thick, so the fruit comes in with amazing concentration. But then the alcohol is just 13.5 and the natural acidity high, which makes a great combination. The vines are old too and we really had to prune them, taking off dead arms and such as they needed some care. So the result is we get very little wine. But it really allows us to focus on every little aspect of the wine, and I think we can really do something that shows how South Africa can get to that next level."
The 10-acre block will go into a single bottling labelled Porseleinberg (porcelain mountain), which debuts in the 2010 vintage. In addition to the terroir, Kent will help differentiate the wine from his flagship Syrah bottling at Boekenhoutskloof by fermenting entirely whole cluster in concrete vats and then aging in cement eggs and large foudres (as opposed to destemming and aging in smaller barrels, as he does with the other bottling). It's a distinctly Old World-style approach for Kent, who is a lover of Rhȏnes in general and the wines of Cornas in particular.
The wine shows stunning purity, with sleek blueberry, raspberry and loganberry fruit laced with mouthwatering acidity and a very bright iron edge that drives the finish along. The finish also lets savory hints of bay seasoning chime in, but the fruit remains in control throughout, with great precision all along the way. It's on a level, qualitatively, with the country's best reds from de Trafford and Sadie Family, but it's very distinctive, showing a much racier profile than the more muscular de Trafford or lush Columella from Sadie.
Alas, like many great wines, it comes in a small package. There are just 300 cases of the debut 2010 (and there will only be 100 cases of the 2011). A scant 15 cases of the 2010 have arrived in the U.S., and the wine is slated to retail for $100 per bottle. On the surface, it seems high for a South African wine, as the category in general doesn't have the cachet here of other more prominent wine regions. But the price is much less than many other wines of comparable quality. And it is compelling proof of what the combination of South African terroir, good vine material and experienced winemaking can do.
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