After finishing up in the warm Swartland it was time to take in some ocean-fed breezes in one of South Africa's cooler wine regions, Walker Bay. Located less than a two-hour drive east from Cape Town, along a beautiful coastal road and over a dramatic mountain pass, Walker Bay is the home of the Cape's best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers. Among them, Bouchard Finlayson.
With his white beard and slow cadence, Peter Finlayson, 64, easily evokes the persona of one of the Cape's elder statesmen. He earned his stripes at next door's Hamilton Russell as that winery's first winemaker starting in 1979, at just 31 years of age and working alongside Tim Hamilton Russell.
"Coming from Germany, I said, if you can grow grapes there, you can grow them here," said Finlayson of his decision to set up shop in what was then a viticultural outpost. At that time, most people in the South African wine industry said Walker Bay was too cool to ripen grapes and the thought of leaving the friendly confines of the established Stellenbosch area was a foreign concept.
After vinifying 10 vintages at Hamilton Russell, Finlayson saw a neighboring piece of property advertised in the local paper. "I saw the ad on Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday morning I was signing papers," he said in a droll tone that belied the excitement of a new venture. "It was a bungee jump."
With 18 shareholders that he quickly cobbled together, including Paul Bouchard of Bouchard-Aîné & Fils in Burgundy, Finlayson founded his winery. The first vintage was 1991, and since then he's built it up to over 300 acres (54 acres under vine) with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay joined by smaller amounts of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Today, the winery produces 18,000 cases annually and it has maxed out its current facility's space.
"The owner wants to go to 25,000 cases, but we clearly need a cellar upgrade for that," said Finlayson, who sold his ownership to the Tollman hotel family in 2000, but has remained on as general director via a series of 5-year contracts since then. There have been investments made here since my last visit in 2007, including a new bottling line. "Frankly, one of the most crucial aspects of the process," said Finlayson.
In the vineyards, the site is generally more uniform than the farms in other regions. Tucked up against hillsides just a stone's throw from the coast, cool air spills down over the north-south vineyard rows.
"The Cape generally has enormously varied soils within a particular site. But here, it's basically a clay base with broken shale on top," said Finlayson, who has favored high-density plantings and low canopies since he began developing the site in the early 1990s, viticulture practices that were not in vogue then.
"To chase the Pinot dream, it just made sense to do what the Burgundians did," said Finlayson. "Studies show a clear connection to density of fruit and color with higher-density plantings. It was awkward at the time for sure, and the cost was also 50 percent higher [to plant]. But if quality is 50 percent higher, you simply have to do it."
The Pinot Noirs here are made with a small amount of stems (10 percent), fermented in closed stainless steel vats and then moved to barrel for malo (which is inoculated). There's been a ratcheting back on new oak, just 30 percent now for the Galpin Peak cuvée, while the Tête de Cuvée bottling is aged a bit longer (16 months) with 70 percent new oak.
The 2011 Pinot Noir Walker Bay Galpin Peak shows delightful rooibos tea and lightly mulled spice aromas, with supple red cherry fruit that is perfumy but persistent. It's a very elegantly styled wine alongside the 2010 Pinot Noir Walker Bay Galpin Peak, which is denser and chewier in feel, with red currant and cherry paste, roasted spice notes and a long, tannin-driven finish.
"2010 was a very dry year and small crop while '11 was a wet year," said Finlayson, noting the difference between the two wines. "In the early years, I thought in wet years to try and extract more, to get what I could from the fruit and make up for any weakness. But now I realize it's the opposite. You need to be more gentle in those types of vintages."
The 2010 Pinot Noir Walker Bay Galpin Peak Tête de Cuvée is a culling of the estate's best barrels during the élevage, though it winds up often coming from the same vineyard block when all is said and done. The wine is lush and flattering but stays well-defined with lovely cherry compote, plum and raspberry notes and lots of well-embedded spice on the lengthy finish. It's a powerful style of Pinot, which has been the trend here in recent vintages.
"The trick here is the very rapid ripening we get at the end of the growing season," said Finlayson. "I used to think it was the vines themselves, but now I think it's more of an Amarone-like shriveling effect, caused by the wine. So sometimes, with the thicker skins we typically get, the later-picked fruit can show a slightly roasted edge, especially in dry years like '09 and '10. Now '11 is a year where the Pinot is more like what you expect from Pinot, but in general, here we probably get a more robust style overall."
The Chardonnay lineup is led off by the 2010 Chardonnay Walker Bay Missionvale, which delivers bright melon, pear and piecrust notes. Barrel-fermented, but with just 30 percent new oak, it shows subtle spice notes through the plump but fresh finish. The 2011 Chardonnay Overberg Crocodile's Lair is also barrel-fermented, but just 25 percent new oak. There are an ample 2,500 cases of the wine, which shows more melon rind, pear and honeysuckle notes with an even gentler, more stylish finish. The fruit comes from a leased vineyard that Finlayson has been using since '92. At 2,300 feet of elevation, the closed-end valley the vineyard is on is markedly cool and the fruit ripens a full month after the fruit at the Bouchard Finlayson estate.
The same vineyard provides fruit for the 2010 Chardonnay Overberg Kaaimansgat Limited Edition, an outstanding wine that is toastier than the other two bottlings (it sees half new oak, but only half the wine goes through malolactic), along with extra layers of Jonagold apple, creamed melon and fig, all staying graceful through the finish as the toasty edge melds wonderfully, showing juicy cut and definition.
Finlayson is just a couple of years away from the end of his current 5-year contract, but the future hasn't been decided. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," he said. In the meantime, for lovers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this winery has become a reference point on the Cape.