Earlier this year, our Head of Wine Louisa Fitzpatrick embarked on a trip to South Africa to visit Riebeek Cellars, a regional winery which produces our own-label South African ranges. Louisa’s trip report gives an insight into challenges of the area along with the wine-making successes…
We visited in the third week of January and the all-consuming conversation topic was the drought situation. As you entered Cape Town airport the wall sized poster that greeted you was about saving water during your stay. They were going to be the first westernised city in history to face a water allocation, and with just 6 weeks to go until the taps were stopped mid-March it was all anyone was talking about. The reservoirs were at 21% fill level and you couldn’t use the last sludgy 10%, leaving a very small amount left to satisfy the population. It was too-little-too-late to set up desalination plants in time.
Riebeek Kasteel is about an hour out of Cape Town, and part of the Swartland wine region. It was one of the first towns in South Africa, founded in 1661 in honour of the administrator of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck. It is a small town with approx. 5000 inhabitants. Afrikaans is the main language although most people spoke some English.
Above: the famous Short Street in Riebeek Kasteel which is celebrated in a wine range of the same name, using classic Rhône grape varieties.
Our host for the week, along with Richard Addison, was Kara van Zyl, Export Manager for Riebeek Cellars. The wine business was much smaller and a lot more personal than I was expecting. André Engelbrecht is the CEO heading up the company which employs around 20 people. They welcomed us openly. Riebeek Cellars don’t own any vineyards per se but have long standing contracts with growers in the area. Throughout the week we bumped into many of the growers who all knew Richard well. They would pass us boxes of table grapes for our journey and spontaneously join us for drinks and Braiis (BBQs) and tell us their stories, mostly related to the water shortage and its effects. It is a close knit community all focused on producing consistently good wine and respecting the environment.
We spent a day with Tharien Hansen, their viticulturalist, who is very knowledgeable and a seriously fierce big strong Afrikaan wine farmer, who makes sure they are producing the best quality grapes for Riebeek. She determines when the grapes from each plot are ready and informs the winery that it is time to prepare for vintage.
The grapes are picked in the early hours and delivered to the winery first thing in the morning. Alecia Boshoff is their Head Winemaker and has Eric and Jacques working with her, Eric is responsible for white wines and Jacques for red wines. At this critical time of year the hours are extremely long but there is no moaning, they are all aware of the gratification of the end result.
We did a full tasting of the wines, and the one that really stood out was Pinotage (our Huntersville). Alecia’s explanation for it being lighter and elegant in style than most Pinotage wines is that it should mirror the character of its parent grape Pinot Noir. Pinotage was a grape created in 1925 in Stellenbosch by crossing Pinot Noir and Hermitage, better known today as Cinsau(l)t. The grapes used for Huntersville Pinotage are cold soaked at 10 degrees for 3-4 days, then 60% are whole bunch pressed. Pinotage is a small berry-sized grape resulting in good colour extraction. The wine is fermented up to 28 degrees to get rid of the acetate (banana character). The wine is then pressed off the skins before being fermented dry. The 2016 vintage shows red plum, raspberry fruit, chocolate and has a soft tannic structure. Delicate, elegant, ripe and rounded.
The Pinotage Rosé (our GoldCoast and Lion Ridge), were the group’s favourite. Riebeek have Pinotage vineyards specifically for rosé production. They pick the grapes earlier for rosé, drain off the free run juice and ensure the wine has minimum skin contact, giving a wine of pale salmon colour in a just off-dry style, with strawberry fruit flavour. In the 30 degree heat it was the go-to wine for Braiis or the fresh local seafood and shellfish. The 2017 vintage won the 2017 Pinotage Rosé Award of Excellence at the Pinotage Associations competition.
Left on the lees as long as possible, this wine is balanced and rounded, fresh and lifted with lots of aromatic and floral character. Peach, apple, lychee fruit flavours.
Chenin Blanc 2017
Fermented on the lees for about 4 weeks, then on fine lees. 50% from bush vines so very labour intensive and lower yields. Bush vine gives the wine more mouthfeel and concentration of flavour. This style of vine growing is also beneficial in the current water situation as they protect themselves. Stone fruit, tropical and pineapple flavours.
Unoaked, no malolactic fermentation. Old vines, low yields. Lees ageing. High alcohol, 14%. Lots of flavour, tropical, melon, creamy, buttery, green apple on finish.
During our visit we also spent time at the beautiful Vondeling Estate near Voor-Paardeburg, Paarl.
Julian Johnsen (an Englishman) and his family own the winery and live on the Estate. Matthew Copeland is the Head Winemaker, and also lives on the Estate. Vondeling own their own vineyards, winery and bottling machinery. It is a much more showy Estate which doubles up as a wedding venue with its own chapel. We did an afternoon’s tour and tasting and then settled in to a poolside Braii with other visitors from the UK, including of course Simon Leschalles and Rupert St Aubyn who support our market in the South West.
We were so fortunate to experience life in a South African valley vineyard and got a true understanding of the producers’ devotion to quality wine and sustainable winemaking for the future. It is a memory never to forget.