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A Sit Down With Kevin Arnold of South Africa

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 20, 2007 11:42am ET

I sat down with Kevin Arnold, winemaker and co-owner at South Africa’s Waterford winery, the other day in Wine Spectator's New York office. Arnold, 52, is one of the many Cape winemakers who are making a real effort to work the U.S. market personally these days. He has the elegant white hair of experience, but is still youthfully handsome. He’s quite energetic, too, with several new wines and a mélange of varieties in the pipeline.

While he may not be a household name here, Arnold is one of the Cape’s most respected winemakers, having fashioned the wines at Rust en Vrede from 1987 through 1997 before starting Waterford along with his partners. 1998 was Waterford's first commercial vintage, and today the winery produces 35,000 cases a year from its 123 acres of vines.

“I had a free hand to plant what I wanted and build the winery I wanted,” says Arnold, describing what has to be the dream set up for any winemaker. Located down the hill from de Trafford winery, Waterford features similar terrain of rocky, clay/iron soils. But instead of just focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon, Arnold has also planted Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Barbera, Grenache and Sangiovese.

“Cabernet is basically the same wherever it’s grown,” says Arnold. “But Syrah is a grape that really shows its terroir. If we want to make our own style of wine [in South Africa] we need to look at it, along with Mourvèdre and other grapes.”

On the surface, his grapes are a varied mix of Bordeaux, Rhône and Italian varieties, but they're not totally foreign to Arnold—he combined Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz to make the flagship red at Rust en Vrede.

“I’m looking for finesse and refinement now,” says Arnold. “Along with spice,” he adds, as he explains the reasoning behind his latest wine, called the Jem. It's a blend of the five classic Bordeaux varieties, along with Shiraz, Mourvèdre and Barbera.

The addition of Mourvèdre to the Jem is an interesting one, as Arnold, like his South African colleagues, is beginning to take Rhône varieties very seriously. Charles Back of the Fairview, Goats do Roam and Spice Route wineries is generally credited with being the first to bring Mourvèdre into South Africa, and there’s still very little of it around, but the bits I’ve tasted have shown a lot of promise. Arnold has just over 11 acres of Mourvèdre planted, which is a big number for the grape in terms of plantings right now (though I expect that figure to grow quickly).

“I understand from a marketing view that it’s easier to sell a varietal wine,” says Arnold. “But to push the envelope you have to have diversity. And the soils in Spain and around the Mediterranean are similar to the soils we have, so we need to explore this. Just Cabernet has been done. Just Syrah has been done already.”

“It’s a hell of a headache,” he says, referring to putting the mix of varieties together. “It takes months and months to put the blend together, but it’s a great challenge.”

The debut ’04 vintage of the Jem is to be released in the near future, and it will carry an ambitious price tag of $100 at retail, making it one of the Cape’s most expensive wines. (I will be tasting the wine blind and publishing a review in a future issue of Wine Spectator.)

“It’s a scary thing to be honest, after 30 years in the business,” says Arnold when I ask him if he thinks the price is a bit of a stretch for a South African wine in the U.S. market. “But if they reckon it’s worth it, than I’ll go with it,” he adds, referring to the decision his importer and distributor have made in regards to setting the price point.

I’ve liked the recent releases from Waterford: The reds are bright and racy, and the whites rich but pure. (Prices for most of the wines are quite moderate, in the $20 to $25 range.) It seems as if Arnold’s experience is combining with his experimental side to help ratchet up both the quality and diversity at this winery—which is great. I’d just hate to see an overly ambitious price point prevent folks from trying his latest wine.

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