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The South Africa Diary: Rust en Vrede

One of South Africa's top red wine estates is expanding its exciting lineup of Cabernets and Syrahs into more single-vineyard offerings
Photo by: James Molesworth
At Rust en Vrede, one of the Cape's top restaurants is now housed in the winery's old barrel room.

Posted: Jan 29, 2013 12:00pm ET

From the slopes of the Simonsberg, I swung around from Kanonkop to the other other side of Stellenbosch, up against the Helderberg, an equally dramatic mountain that provides part of the constantly jaw-dropping view around these parts.

At Rust en Vrede (for background, see my March 2007 blog entry from a visit here), decomposed granite from the Helderberg mixes with sandstone from Table Mountain to form a yellowish, fine-pebbled soil. With the site protected from the prevailing sea breeze, it's decidedly warmer than most, so red wines are all that are made here, with an emphasis on Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Winemaker Coenie Snyman has been on board since 2007, and one of the first things he did was a mulching trial in the vineyard. In his office, before and after photos of vine roots are plastered on the wall and the result is startling—a seemingly good root structure before, but a markedly increased root structure after, with numerous fine roots now extending out from bigger ones.

"After 10 years, the vine vigor in a vineyard starts to drop naturally," said Snyman. "A modest drop in yields is OK for quality, but too much and then the vineyard isn't viable. The soils here are low in organic matter, so we had to increase the organic content of the soil by mulching. And what we saw was the soil became naturally more aerated and looser and then the root growth just exploded underneath. And all those extra fine roots increase the surface area and allow the vine to take up more water and nutrients, which is especially critical when we get that heat spell we typically get in February or March."

"Phenolic ripeness is a challenge because of that heat spell as ripening can occur quickly at the end of the season. You don't necessarily lose total acidity, but the pH can go up, which means you need to make an acid adjustment in the winery," said Snyman. "But since the mulching program, we've had to tweak the acidity during the fermentation less, much less, than before. The wines are now better balanced, naturally. And we saw the effects in the wines almost right away."

With the warm microclimate in the vineyard, Snyman manages the vineyards with east-west orientation to maximize the shade on the fruit, leaf pulling only after veraison—a different tactic than Luke O'Cuinneagain's at Glenelly, for example. The winery produces 21,000 cases annually now, up slightly in recent years as the vineyard's health has resulted in slightly higher yields. The reds are fermented in open-top stainless steel vats before being moved to barrel for aging. The style here is bold, muscular fruit, but always offset by racy acidity and mouthwatering savory and tobacco notes.

The 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch is vibrant and energetic, with red currant, savory, iron and a blaze of acidity. The 2011 Shiraz Stellenbosch is sappy and intense, with red currant, crushed cherry and a hint of blood orange laced with Campari and backed by mouthwatering savory and pepper notes. Both feature intense fruit but great cut, an asset that Snyman admitted he's trying to accentuate more.

"Since the restaurant opened here in '07, it's actually made me think about wine differently," said Snyman, referring to the onsite, high-end restaurant which has garnered a reputation for being among the best in the country. "Big and bold might not always work. We've toned down the new oak and the American oak on the wines, and with the better natural acidity, I think these are wines that people will actually want to sit with and enjoy a meal with."

The Rust en Vrede wines do often sport high alcohols, though the balance is there and you don't necessarily feel it. Knowing that there is a push back in some markets against high alcohol, Snyman did trials on alcohol removal from the wines, using reverse osmosis. "But I really didn't like the way the wines turned out. Natural balance at high alcohol is better than unnatural balance at low alcohol. So, if I'm going to look for a lower alcohol red, I'll pick earlier rather than later, but never at the expense of ripeness."

The 2010 Stellenbosch is the estate's typical Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot blend, though a windy spring led to a 40 percent reduction in the crop in 2010. Nonetheless, the vintage has turned out a red licorice, steeped currant, blackberry and grilled savory-filled wine, backed by a bright iron note and ample grip buried on the finish. It's clearly darker in profile than the slightly higher-toned 2011s and should continue this wine's run of consistently outstanding vintages.

The lineup here continues to slowly expand as well, with the addition of some single-vineyard offerings. The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch Single Vineyard makes its commercial debut (the 2009 was a Cape Winemakers Guild Auction wine). Sourced from a single 5-acre parcel on the estate on slightly darker red soil, the wine is very racy and tight, with ample but fine-grained tannins and loads of red and black currant and steeped raspberry fruit, a fresh briary feel and flecks of savory and sage adding extra life on the finish.

"For an old, established winery, the question is how do you introduce new wines, or perhaps reposition yourself," said owner Jean Engelbrecht, regarding the new additions. "A single-vineyard wine said something even to the novice drinker. It's a clear statement of what the winery thinks of the quality, unlike a term such as 'reserve' that has lost meaning."

"And the structure of the wine was clearly different as we vinified the parcel separately," said Snyman. "Each year we would think we need to do something with it, and finally did. It's bold but has extra elegance at the same time."

Joining it is the 2010 Syrah Stellenbosch Single Vineyard, which debuted commercially in the 2007 vintage. The wine is culled from a 5-acre parcel on soils with large baseball-sized rocks known locally as coffee stones, unlike the finer, pebbly soils that dominate the site. It's more polished in feel than the estate's regular Shiraz bottling, with gorgeous melted red licorice, violet, bergamot and cherry preserve notes. It's long and supple but has no lack of power in reserve and looks to be a beauty in the making.

The top bottling at the estate is the limited production 1694 Classification Stellenbosch 2009, a 60/40 blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon that debuted in the 2006 vintage. It's loaded with steeped currant, cherry compote, plum and blackberry fruit, which all blazes along a polished yet racy structure, riveted ultimately to an iron-clad finish that will need some cellaring to unwind fully. It seems poised to join the currently limited number of class-rated wines from South Africa, a group that includes only the 2008, 2007 and 2005 Sadie Family Columella, 2007 de Trafford Syrah and the new Anthonij Rupert blend.

"When I started, I had a hunch Syrah was the better varietal here, even though historically this is a Cabernet property," said Snyman. "And now I believe it, which is why the Syrah is the majority of the 1694 blend."

Seems Snyman's hunch was right.

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

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