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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The South Africa Diary: Ernie Els Wines

Golfer Ernie Els' Stellenbosch operation is running smoothly on its own now under the day-to-day oversight of winemaker Louis Strydom
Photo by: James Molesworth
At the base of the Helderberg, new plantings are catching up to the existing vineyards at Ernie Els Wines.

Posted: Jan 30, 2013 3:00pm ET

Just next door to Rust en Vrede is Ernie Els Wines, which carries the name of the internationally acclaimed professional golfer. While Els himself likes wine and puts his (slightly more than) 2 cents into the project, the day-to-day work falls to winemaker Louis Strydom.

Strydom was the winemaker at Rust en Vrede previously, and from 2000 through 2005 he worked at both wineries, which were coupled by Jean Englebrecht's helping Ernie Els break into the wine business and some shared fruit sources. But Els has developed and is maturing into its own stand-alone winery, and since 2006 has been running by itself. The 185-acre property now has 94 acres of vines with plans to plant up to 20 more acres. You can reference background on the project from my 2007 visit here.

As at neighboring Rust en Vrede, Strydom has also taken note of the vine's root structures, adding a compost program to boost organic matter in the soil.

"We have a big root system already, But with the extra organic matter, we were able to get those little fine roots to really develop nicely. They increase surface area and pull up any water they can find, which buffers that heat wave that comes sometimes and keeps the ripening going. The cooler the vintage, the better the wine we can make. Managing for that heat is what we have to do, since it can come three or four years out of 10."

Strydom, 44, is a winemaker who makes no bones about what he's trying to do.

"Even though we're 15 kilometers from the ocean, there's very little wind here. Combined with plenty of sun, this is a spot for robust reds, not graceful whites," he said, matter-of-factly. "But we have to be smart too. When we plant, we need to tweak the vine row direction to maximize what breeze we do get. We also need to break parcels into smaller parcels by rootstock and clone. As the vineyard comes on line, I can pick by parcel, by clone and then start playing in the cellar with yeast, maceration time and so on. I want to use terroir and winemaking together. Terroir drives the process, but I think it's OK to use winemaking too."

In the cellar, we tasted some of what Strydom has been up to, starting with a 2012 Syrah fermented on the skins of Viognier, which results in a very soft, charming wine loaded with white cherry, peach and violet notes. A barrel sample of straight 2012 Syrah took the opposite tack, with grippy texture and dark blackberry and briar notes.

Strydom then showed me two Cabernet samples from barrel, starting with a taste of the juice from older clone 4 vines located at the top of the estate that were already planted when the property was bought by Els in 2004. It displays pure cassis—concentrated fruit, but fresh. A sample vinified from younger clone 46 vines, lower down the slope, shows more smoky black tea and dark currant notes with a bigger tannin structure, seemingly contradicting the idea that older vines give more concentrated juice.

"Vine age is important," said Strydom. "Old vines regulate themselves better. But clones are just as important for profile. Again, it's about getting terroir and winemaking to work together. I believe in terroir, and that it should pull the winemaking along. But winemaking, which includes picking the right vine material for your terroir, is really important. And that big tannin structure the clone 46 gives us is really the signature of the estate."

The 2011 Big Easy Red Western Cape is a violet-, plum- and cassis filled, easy-drinking red with a polished feel on the finish. The 2010 Proprietor's Blend Stellenbosch pulls Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec together in a blend that approximates the percentage of plantings on the farm. It delivers lush cassis and blackberry preserve notes, with a sleek, ripe, fleshy, inviting feel. Debuting in the lineup is the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch Proprietor's Blend, a 250-case selection that showcases a very tight structure along with lots of roasted vanilla, cedar, tar and graphite notes and a core of plum and black currant fruit in reserve that will need cellaring to stretch out.

"The Helderberg is tannins and I need to live with that," said Strydom, noting the grippy nature of the wine. "You can't wrestle it. Let the terroir pull the winemaking along, not the other way around."

The top bottling here is the 2009 Signature Stellenbosch, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot blend that is typically marked by a smoldering black tea note, along with noticeably grippy tannins that slowly meld nicely into the core of licorice snap, pastis and steeped plum fruit flavors. It's long and has drive, but isn't shy at all about its tannins. The 2009 comes from a stellar vintage on the Cape, and it stands in marked contrast to the higher-toned 2010 Signature Stellenbosch, which has red fruit notes to match with the  more typical black fruit profile, along with notes of iron, savory and bergamot. There's tannic grip to fill in the back end, though the '09 has extra dimensions of depth and power.

"That's what you get with this level of wine," said Strydom. "You get to see what the farm does from year to year. You see the differences in vintage, you see the terroir, and the winemaking takes a back seat now."

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

Gertrude Hanes
Andover MA USA —  January 30, 2013 4:55pm ET
We will be staying at Spier in September. Your column is most interesting. Looks like many goods things to experience.
James Molesworth
New York —  January 31, 2013 2:20pm ET
Gertrude: The Cape wine and food scene is bigger and better than ever. I was very impressed at the growth of quality restaurants since my '07 visit, as well as with the professionalism of the winery tasting rooms in general. The dollar also goes a long way there. I think you will enjoy your trip...

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