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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The South Africa Diary: Raats

Bruwer Raats is experimenting with viticultural techniques seen nowhere else on the Cape
Photo by: James Molesworth
At Raats Family, Bruwer Raats has replanted an old clone of Chenin Blanc at high density.

Posted: Jan 25, 2013 5:00pm ET

For some background on Bruwer Raats and Raats Family Winery, you can reference my blog from my 2007 visit here. But there have been some changes since then.

For starters, Raats now has vines literally right next door, as he's planted the parcel that surrounds his house-cum-winery. Raats has sourced Chenin Blanc vines from France, preferring a clone called Montpellier that he found a scant amount of in the Swartland and fell in love with for its naturally low vigor, small berries and loose bunches.

"Chenin can take up water quickly and the berries can swell easily. With the tight bunched clones, those berries can press against each other, sometimes burst or lead to rot," explained the affable Raats, 42. "This clone doesn't do that, and I've been looking for it for years. But no one had planted any on the Cape in 30 years since, historically, producers grew wine grapes for high yields, not low yields."

And Raats has not planted the clone on a typical trellis, either, instead choosing to plant them on a single vertical pole, primarily to increase vine density to 3,200 vines per acre.

"Chenin naturally wants to produce a lot, so you have to work against that. So not only with the clone but with the density. By getting closer proximity of vine to vine I get more root competition and thus less fruit per vine," he said. "So at full ripeness, I still get fantastic acidity."

To demonstrate, he pulled back the leaves around the base of one vine and spent a few moments before actually finding a cluster. "There, see. Just one cluster, but look how beautiful," he said, fondling the loosely-knit cluster with seemingly consistent berry size and uniform color. "And with this system, I get 360 degrees of sun all day, and good air flow at all times. I don't have to handle canopy for morning or afternoon sun."

The new parcel, named Eden Farm, is earmarked for a single-vineyard bottling down the road, if quality gets there, according to Raats. The first crop came off in 2012 and went into the Raats Family Original Chenin Blanc bottling, the workhorse of the winery's portfolio. But Raats is clearly excited by his new project.

"No one in Stellenbosch has really done it this way before, so I had to try it," he said, with boyish energy. "I want to see how I can affect berry size and thus yield through vine competition rather than green harvesting. When you do it this way, the plant finds its balance naturally. One bunch per shoot—no need to green harvest," he said.

The new vineyard is labor intensive though, taking two workers to handle 2 acres as opposed to a more conventionally planted vineyard, where one worker can handle 15 acres with a tractor.

"Everything by hand here," said Raats. "Weeding, tipping, everything."

Raats is less organic in his approach than most of his South African peers, though, noting he's organic to an extent. "I want to be sustainable, but I can't be sustainable without a crop. If there's a major problem and I need to spray, I will. But I'll be honest about it and say so," he said.

The 2012 Raats Family Chenin Blanc Coastal Region Original Unwooded blends fruit from Stellenbosch, Paarl, Swartland and Durbanville to deliver a delicate, floral-filled wine with freshly cut jicama and bright stony notes. The wine blends fruit from granite-based parcels which deliver the citrus, steely acid, along with vines planted on sandstone soils, which delivers the pear fruit. Raats blends the two, in differing percentages every year to offset vintage character, to achieve a consistent wine. At around $15, it's one of the country's best values, and with 6,000 cases sent to the U.S., it's relatively easy to track down.

"It's not a single-vineyard wine, so we want that consistent style from year to year with it. So in warm years, I'll use more fruit from the granite; in cooler years more from the sandstone," he said.

The 2012 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch Old Vine checks in at around $23, still very modest, though there is usually just around 700 cases of the wine. The wine blends three vineyards, all 50 years of age or older, including two parcels of bush vines. It shows vigorous peach, clementine and almond notes, has a rich feel, but stays nervy and fresh through the finish.

"The 2012 vintage was a cooler year, so we got longer hang time but kept the acidity in the whites. Trickier for the reds, but really good for the whites," said Raats.

Along with Teddy Hall and Ken Forrester, Bruwer Raats was one of the pioneers for South African Chenin. 10 years ago, the three of them were pushing the grape for serious production and export, and the rest of the industry was scratching its collective head. Now the category has grown up around them, but they're still the leaders.

"They thought we were crazy," said Raats with a broad grin. "And now they're going to think I'm crazy again. But I want to do for Cabernet Franc what we did for Chenin. I want to make Cabernet Franc sexy too. I've proven I can make quality Chenin at $15 and get people to try it. I need to do the same for Cabernet Franc. People won't take a stab at something for $30. So you have to put that quality into a $15 bottle so they'll try it."

To do that, Raats is introducing a new bottling, the 2010 Cabernet Franc Coastal Region Dolomite, a wine that sees no new oak and a gentle extraction during the vinification.

"I want that fresh herbaceous note with good acidity, for a wine that's drinkable right away," he said. The wine is fresh and open, with cherry pit, red currant and perfumy, savory notes. It shows an herbal edge but isn't overly crisp, angular or green. It's a textbook, light-bodied example of the grape that should be the gateway bottling Raats is hoping it can be in the market.

"But keeping it light and herbaceous, you still have to keep yields low, or it will be too green," said Raats. "I don't want green and mean. But that means you have to run the vineyard the same way we do for the higher-end wines. Cab Franc can easily push out [4 to 4.5 tons per acre], but we keep the vineyards even for the Dolomite bottling at [2.8 tons], just as we do for the higher-end wines."

The 2010 Red Jasper Coastal Region is a Cabernet Franc-dominated (80 percent) blend along with Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec components, which combine to form a wine that shows juicy cassis, tobacco leaf and rooibos tea notes, with a lightly singed vanilla bean hint weaving through the supple finish. The 2010 Cabernet Franc Stellenbosch is juicy and engaging, with solid red licorice and bitter cherry notes and a long, tangy, elegant finish that keeps nice tension all the way through.

Raats has chosen a different path from most by focusing on Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc in a wine world that typically puts an emphasis on other varieties. But he's grown his production from 7,000 cases to 10,000 cases over the last few years and aims to top out at 12,000 cases, a level where he can still keep his hands in all phases of the work, according to Raats. The U.S. has become his primary market, sending half his production there. So he must be doing something right.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

Vicki Carroll
San Luis Obispo, CA, USA —  January 28, 2013 11:02am ET
Thank you for sharing your experiences in South Africa wine country with us. So many great producers there!

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