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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The South Africa Diary: Boekenhoutskloof

At Boekenhoutskloof in Franschoek, the most compelling wine comes from mutated 111-year-old Sémillon vines
Photo by: Courtesy of Boekenhoutskloof
Sémillon from a 111-year-old vineyard has mutated to produce both white and red berries.

Posted: Feb 4, 2013 2:00pm ET

Boekenhoutskloof, despite the tricky name, has become one of the most respected South African wineries in the U.S. market. Owner Marc Kent is a Rhône lover, and his Syrah and other Rhône-style blends display a more Old World profile, while his Cabernet and Sémillon bottlings show how South Africa has an uncanny knack for both diversity and quality.

For background on the winery you can reference my blog from my 2007 visit here in addition to my blogs on Marc Kent's The Journeyman bottling and new project in the Swartland called Porseleinberg. You can also reference a Winemaker Talk with the well-traveled Kent as well.

The winery is located at the far end of the Franschhoek Valley, the historic home of French Huguenots who settled the area, putting down gastronomic roots which grow to this day: The small but busy town is home to several top restaurants.

And while Boekenhoutskloof itself is a relatively small estate of just 10 acres of vines around the winery itself, its production is anything but. In recent years it has grown to a 360,000-case operation thanks in large part to the Porcupine Ridge, Wolftrap and Chocolate Block brands, sourcing fruit from 40 different growers who are contracted so that the Boekenhoutskloof team can control the viticulture.

With Kent on an excursion through the Rhône Valley, I met up with winemaker Jean Smit, who has been at the estate since 2008. Smit has earned his stripes at California's DuMol and Larkmead abroad, and also spent time at the famed Rustenberg estate working alongside Adi Badenhorst before he left to create his own label.

Among the toys in the cellar are two dozen cement eggs, which Smit likes for the extended lees contact he can give some wines without losing minerality or freshness.

"I find it builds up the midpalate, but without the big creaminess you get from stirring lees in barrel," said Smit. "There's some natural movement in the egg shape—the samples drawn from the top have different turbidity than from the bottom so there is a form of lees-stirring going on in there. But it's gentler and seems to enhance minerality more so than in oak."

The 2012 Wolftrap White Western Cape is a blend of Viognier, Chenin Blanc and Grenache Blanc, with 20,000 cases made. It shows green almond, floral fig, pear skin and kafir lime notes for both ample range and freshness.

"We added the Chenin for acidity," said Smit. "We don't acidify any of our wines, so keeping acidity, either through blending or stopping malolactic, is critical."

The most compelling white here is the Sémillon bottling, sourced from three parcels, two farmed by François Malherbe and planted in 1902 and 1942, and a small amount from grower Basil Landau, from vines planted in 1906.

"111-year-old Sémillon vines on sandy soil," said Smit with an air of disbelief. "That's really a bit of wine history on the Cape."

"The first year I came here, the fruit came in and I saw red and white grapes in the same basket, and I thought someone has screwed up really badly. But that was all Sémillon—that's the mutation that exists in the vineyard, giving both color grapes. It's become my favorite block to work with."

The berries are typically small and so they ripen at a lower alcohol level, noted Smit, adding, "the Sémillon that's planted today is a different clone, with lots of pyrazines [green flavor compounds], so it needs 14 degrees or more to ripen fully, which is not the style we're looking for."

The 2010 Sémillon Franschhoek contains 8 percent Sauvignon Blanc and shows a hint of lanolin and toasted brioche before giving way to unadorned blanched almond, chamomile and salted butter notes, with a waxy yet creamy mouthfeel and a very long finish. Smits likes the wine at just about 10 years of age, so he open the 2004 Sémillon Franschhoek as an example. It's still stony and youthful in profile, with white peach, lemon pulp, jasmine and blanched almond notes and a long, minerally finish with lovely focus.

"It's just so much fun to work on that wine," said Smit. "I can ask 1,000 people for advice but no one can help me because no one has old vine material like that. You're on you're own working with this, and you have to figure things out yourself."

For the reds, the 2012 Wolftrap Red Western Cape blends Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier. For now, some of the Mourvèdre comes from outside the Swartland, but Smit wants to eventually get all the fruit from that district, which is rapidly gaining notice for the quality of its Rhône-style wines.

"There's just so little Mourvèdre planted right now, but growers are seeing the demand for it and there will be lots of interesting stuff coming on line in the coming years," he said.

The wine shows fresh cherry, raspberry and bergamot notes with a nice hint of spice and a soft, friendly feel through the finish. At around $11, it's a terrific value.

The 2012 Porcupine Ridge Syrah Coastal Region uses all Swartland fruit, and it shows light-bodied cherry, white pepper and spice notes with a charming finish. At around $12, it's another hard-to-beat value. The wine that has rocketed to popularity here is the 2011 Chocolate Block Western Cape, a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Viognier which features a bit more Grenache (14 percent) in this vintage than usual. It's winey and dark, with sanguine and roasted apple wood notes which permeate the dark blackberry and black cherry fruit, finishing with spice and pepper. The wine has grown to 36,000 cases annually in production. Which Smit recognizes as a good problem to have.

"We're walking a fine line now," he said. "People are asking for more of the wine, but we can just keep growing the production and maintain the quality level. It's been very successful, but we have to be careful with it."

Sourced from a single vineyard in Wellington, the 2010 Syrah Coastal Region is made in a traditional Rhône style, with partially destemmed fruit, natural yeast fermentation in cement vat and then aging in Saury barrels. It's grippy, with mouthwatering olive and savory notes rippling through the blackberry and black cherry fruit, while a strong iron edge takes over on the finish. It's youthful and will need a little time to settle in, despite the generally lighter profile of the vintage. The 2005 Syrah Coastal Region has mellowed and shows the ability of the wine to age well, with elegant red currant, bitter cherry, tapenade and mesquite notes giving way to a lingering echo of black tea and iron on the finish.

The single vineyard–sourced Cabernet Sauvignon Franschhoek is as equally compelling as the Syrah. Sourced from a vineyard planted in 1991 by François Malherbe, the same grower who provides the Sémillon, the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Franschhoek is very silky, with gorgeous cassis, blood orange and mineral notes that give way to a nicely rounded finish. The wine is fermented in stainless steel but then moved to barrel for 27 months, the first 18 of which it just sits on its malolactic lees without racking.

"But there's no reduction, since the barrel is never opened for topping off and thus that vacuum isn't broken," said Smit.

The 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Franschhoek shows some maturity, with tobacco and roasted cedar notes, but is still youthful and defined, with plenty of flesh to the dried currant and dark cherry fruit. The finish is nicely studded with charcoal notes.

The 2009 The Journeyman Franschhoek is only produced in vintages where quality allows. Just as in the previous vintage it was made, 2007, it's a three-barrel blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is very, very suave, with incense, black tea, steeped currant and cherry compote notes and a gorgeous, silky finish that echoes with warm stones and smoldering tobacco leaf. It flirts with classic quality and shows how exciting Cabernet Franc from the area can be (which has also been proven by Johann Rupert's Cabernet Franc at L'Ormarins just down the road). Sourced from vines on weathered granite and sandstone around the winery, Smit said he's been tasked with growing the production of the wine, which will mean new plantings on 20 available acres of vineyard land.

But growth isn't new for the team at Boekenhoutskloof. There's even a new project out in the Swartland, which I'll be checking out later this week as well.

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

Philip A Chauche
Germantown, MD —  February 5, 2013 1:12pm ET
I'm sure I'm not the only one fascinated by the presence of red grapes in the Semillon. How do they establish that it's not some sort of small graft, but rather a legitimate mutation? How common is this in other vines?
James Molesworth
New York —  February 5, 2013 2:00pm ET
Philip: Research is still needed, but it seems likely that the 'red Sémillon' was a mutation that occurred in vineyards in the Western Cape, rather than a variety that was brought in or a bad graft. A century ago, the grape was called 'greenback', now it's called Sémillon Rosé (and there's a Sémillon Gris as well).

In general, while grape mutations are not uncommon - Malbec is notoriously prone to them, for example - a green grape mutating to red is rare.

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