South Africa: Day 9—A Family Affair
Posted: Mar 16, 2007 4:41pm ET
Today, I sandwiched visits to two small producers around one big producer—all family-owned. It’s always fun to mix appointments like this and see how different personalities find their own individual space in the wine industry.
The first stop was along the Polkadraai road at Bruwer Raats’ operation, Raats Family Wines. It’s truly a family affair here—Bruwer has his wife and father helping him. He tends 25 hectares of vines, of which he only owns 4; he leases the others and controls their viticulture. Raats focuses on two varieties, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. His Chenin is sourced from the two main soil types that the grape thrives on in the Cape—sandstone and granite. The sandstone produces a fat, lush, melon and tropical fruit styled version, while the granite produces a steely, mineral- and lime-filled wine. Raats takes the two components together and blends them into a complex bottling that features the best of both terroirs. His Cabernet Franc is equally good—a clean, focused, racy version with lots of snappy black cherry, mineral and tobacco flavors. It’s fully ripe too, without the green pepper notes that can creep up in this varietal.
In addition to his own project, Raats also works with fellow winemaker Mzokhona Mvemve to make the top-rated wine in my current South African tasting report, a Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend that has more in common with a St.-Emilion than his Loire-like straight Cabernet Franc. Rounding out Raats’ family is his young son, who was enthralled that a real American had come all the way to South Africa to meet his dad. We exchanged a few high fives, in true American fashion.
Next stop: Rustenberg. Rustenberg is anything but small, a 1,200 hectare estate (about 10 percent under vine) producing 100,000 cases a year. But don’t let its size fool you—this is a top-quality winery, and it’s also family owned. Simon Barlow is the current generation; he pulled his family’s interests out of the industrial sector in the mid-‘80s to focus entirely on the historical property. A massive replanting of the vineyards and rebuilding of the winery during the ‘90s were the first steps, and the hiring of viticulturalist Nico Walters and winemaker Adi Badenhorst in 2000 were the next steps.
Rustenberg has all the qualifications of a world-class wine estate: Ideal terroir
, with deep red, clay-rich granite soils located on a variety of slopes and elevations, tucked up against the base of the Simonsberg mountain and a long history of winemaking that goes back over 100 years. Badenhorst is only the fifth winemaker during that time, and he’s got things headed in the right direction.
He’s dropped the amount of new oak on the estate’s two Chardonnays, and they show a tighter, more minerally profile right now (and also age well). The reds are sleek and focused, but don’t give up their hints of loam, tar and mineral either.
As proof of the property’s potential, Badenhorst and Barlow opened an ’82 and ’57 Rustenberg (the ’82 a 100 percent Cabernet, the ’57 made from Cabernet and Cinsault). The ’82 showed lovely aromas and a supple finish but was perhaps starting to fade a bit. The ’57, though was a revelation, a seamless, graceful beauty with cedar, dried sausage, date, dried currant and tobacco flavors that just glided along endlessly.
“This was the wine that convinced Adi to come on board here,” said Barlow about how he wooed his young, talented winemaker.
“No, you told me all the dams here were stocked with fish, that were trained to be caught,” joked Badenhorst.
I’d love to see the ’57 against a similarly-aged Lafite
, but as Badenhorst noted, he’d like to see more Bordeaux that had traveled across the equator, like all South African wines have to do to get to the U.S. market. In doing so, they invariably get subjected to more heat, and it’s a major problem for the wines and how they show once they get into American consumers' hands. The wineries know they have an issue to deal with here...
|Old wines tasted at Rustenberg
Final stop was back at a small operation, with Teddy Hall of Rudera
. While Jean Engelbrecht took me on the plush, modern-style aerial tour of the vineyards earlier in my trip, Hall took me on the traditional, terroir
-driven aerial tour, in a two-seat, single-engine Cessna 177.
“Don’t worry—in an emergency landing, the plane is usually wrecked, but we always walk away from it,” he said as we bucked a cross-wind on take off.
Hall showed me his vineyards from the air: He owns none himself, instead leasing old Chenin Blanc vines and working the viticulture to his specifications. Hall’s a firm believer in the capability of Chenin on the Cape and I agree with him; it’s really the only varietal here that has some significant old-vine vineyards. It’s sturdy against leaf roll virus, which plagues the Cape’s vineyards, and is planted on some ideal sites.
“We’re playing catch up, but in five years we’ll have a number of wines equal to the best estates in Vouvray and Savennieres,” says Hall.
Over a casual dinner at his home, we tasted some older vintages of his rock-solid, brawny, muscular Cabernet, which is developing a track record for aging well (it only debuted in the ’00 vintage) as well as some of his Noble Late Harvest, made from botrytised Chenin Blanc grapes. This small producer admits he doesn’t have much stomach for travel and marketing, but he knows he needs to get to the States if he wants to sell his wine.
“There are only three of us—me, my wife and another laborer who helps out. So one week away doing marketing means one week where nothing gets done in the cellar,” he says.
That’s the curse of the small estate: They often don't have the resources to get their story out there to the public. What saves them is their quality and the diversity they bring to the marketplace. It’s family-owned wineries—big and small—that are the backbone of the industry.