Mon 14 Jan 2013
About two weeks ago German wine writer Mario Scheuermann put out an appeal to his local connections, requesting that top Pinot Noir winemaker in Germany, Bernhard Huber of Weingut Huber in Breisgau in Baden, be looked after over his two week holiday in the Winelands. We offered to show off Franschhoek, and Bernhard and his wife Barbara were blown away by the quality of the wines in Franschhoek, and the generosity and friendliness extended to them. The flagship wine of Weingut Huber, in a region that has a 700 year history of growing Pinot Noir, is their Pinot Noir, of which only 2500 bottles are produced, and sell at €120 each.
We started our journey at our Whale Cottage Franschhoek with a glass of sparkling wine, explaining some background to the village and the influence left by the French Huguenots, in naming their farms after the towns and districts they had come from in France, and planting the first vines in the valley. Restaurant recommendations were provided, should the Hubers have time to come back for another visit to Franschhoek. We talked through the Platter guide, which Bernhard knew, but he had not seen the 2013 edition, so we gave him our copy as a present, to accompany him on the remainder of his holiday. We described how Franschhoek’s reputation as a wine-producing region has grown, having been mocked until a few years ago for having such poor terroir that farmers had to buy in grapes to make excellent wines, to now having a Platter Winery of the Year in the valley two years running!
We visited Boekenhoutskloof first, the Platter Winery of the Year 2012, and having collected the most 5-star wines of all the Franschhoek wine estates over the history of the Platter guide. The wine farm is one of the oldest in Franschhoek, having been awarded in 1776. Innocent Mpahleni was our host, and led a winetasting for the Hubers, pulling out a number of wines, including Boekenhoutskloof wines, which are rarely offered in a tasting. Innocent did a Cape Wine Academy course while he worked at Caroline’s, and has been at Boekenhoutskloof for five years already, he shared proudly. Boekenhoutskloof produces a total of 4 million bottles per year, of which 4% are made from grapes grown in their own 22 ha vineyard in Franschhoek. The wine estate was bought in 1992 by six directors from the marketing industry, and its winemaker Marc Kent was added as the seventh director, explaining the seven chairs on the label. Between 1994 - 1997 the fruit trees were removed from the farm, and vines were planted, pears, apples, oranges, limes, and stock farming having been practised before. The Wolftrap is the entry level wine (with a range consisting of Viognier, Chenin Blanc, and Grenache Blanc blend; Rosé; and a Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier blend), and is named after the jackals, lynx, leopards, and wolves believed to have been responsible for the loss of cattle on the farm, necessitating a trap. The farm is home to porcupines, and the farm tagged some of these and one can track their movement on their website. Porcupine Ridge is the mid-range wine range of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Grenache Blanc blend, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Syrah/Viognier blend. The Chocolate Block is a blend made of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsaut, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Viognier grapes coming from different vineyards. Wolftrap and Porcupine Ridge are made at the Helderberg Winery, which belongs to Boekenhoutskloof too. The Chocolate Block and Boekenhoutskloof wines are made on the Franschhoek farm. They have recently started making the Porseleinberg Shiraz, which is exported to Sweden, and has a label made to resemble porcelain, receiving acclaim at CapeWine 2012 last September. We found some bottles of a new brand Le Cap Maritime, made from grapes from the Hemel en Aarde valley, at Lizette’s KItchen in Hermanus, which is an airline brand too.
In 1996 the first 6000 bottles of Boekenhoutskloof were produced, from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes brought in from Eikehof in Franschhoek, and from Syrah grapes bought from Schalk Burger Snr’s Welbedacht in Wellington. In 1997 the first Semillon was produced, the grapes coming from bushvines planted in 1899 at Eikehof. Two years ago Marc uprooted most of his vines, and planted new ones, the Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon, Merlot, and Viognier being planted in the lower sections of the farm, and more planting to be done of Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier higher up on the farm. The grapes are grown organically, but not marketed as such due to the mix with grapes from other wine estates.
We tasted the Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc, and Innocent described it as ‘one of the best selling Sauvignon Blancs in the country‘, and as a ‘poolside drink’, drunk young. The grapes come from Robertson, Citrusdal, Malmesbury, and Franschhoek. One million bottles are made in the Porcupine Ridge range. They made a Viognier Grenache blend four years ago for the first time, sourcing the Viognier from Malmesbury and the Grenache from Citrusdal, and being oaked for 13 months. Next up was The Wolftrap, a blend of 46% Viognier from Malmesbury, 28% Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, and 26% Grenache from Citrusdal, 600 litres of each being matured in their 24 cement egg tanks, as well as in French oak. Chocolate Block was first produced in 2002, a mere 12 barrels, and its current production has grown to 1432 barrels, or 400000 bottles in 2011. Grapes are hand picked, and they use interns, mainly from overseas, for the picking. Innocent said it is the ‘best selling wine in the country’ in terms of the speed at which it sells out, five months after production.
Innocent told us that the Boekenhoutskloof annual production of 6000 bottles is sold out in advance, and initially he received no stock for the tasting room. That has changed, and he has at least one bottle in the range to offer for tasting every day. Every year one can order one or more of the 2000 mixed Boekenhoutskloof cases of 3 Semillon, 3 Cabernet Sauvignon, 3 Syrah, and one The Journeyman (a Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blend), at R4000. The bulk of the Boekenhoutskloof wine production goes to Caroline’s, Vaughn Johnson’s Wine Shop, La Cotte Wine Sales, and the directors of Boekenhoutskloof. All labelling is hand applied, and the best quality cork and bottles are used. The Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon cost R380 each, and 1100 and 1500 cases are made annually, respectively. The Syrah grapes are hand picked over four days, and the wine spends 27 months in Barrique barrels, and egg white is added. 2400 bottles of Noble Late Harvest are produced, spending 30 months in new oak. Innocent shared that a Pinot Noir is planned.
We had time for a quick stop at Haute Cabriere, and Hildegard von Arnim impressed in juggling a tasting in French with French winelovers, whilst paying attention to the Hubers in German, sharing that her husband Achim had studied winemaking at Geisenheim, and had pioneered growing Pinot Noir locally. Over a glass of Pinot Noir 2009 (R160 per bottle), she animatedly told the story of how Achim had started a revolution in vinegrowing in our country. Together with a number of winemaking colleagues, including Hungarian Count Desiderius Poncrácz, they worked around a government quarantine of 9 - 12 years of imported grape varieties, to prevent importing viruses. They decided to smuggle in some Pinot Noir on a truck via the then Rhodesia, and were eventually reported to the authorities by a ‘colleague’. Before they got to court, Pongracz died in a car crash, leaving Achim and the other farmers to face the judge. He was a ‘good judge‘, Hildegard said, finding for the wine farmers, and instead of having them locked up, he had the quarantine law changed!
We were invited for lunch by Hannelie and Hein Koegelenberg at their new The Rotisserie at Leopard’s Leap (photograph above), which has a salad bar made from vegetables and herbs picked fresh out of their garden, to which one can add a wrap, a piece of chicken, and/or pork. Chef Pieter de Jager sent a new creation to the table, beef topside rolled with a feta and pesto filling, which met with approval. We tasted a Leopard’s Leap unoaked Chardonnay, of which 120000 bottles are made annually, by winemaker Eugene van Zyl, with grapes from Robertson, spending three months on the lees, and costing R42. Hein explained that Leopard’s Leap was a second label for left-over Rupert wine estate grapes, but since 2005 it is a stand alone brand. They produce 4,2 million bottles in total, and export to 40 countries. L’Huguenot is a brand which was created for their alliance with Perfect China, and 3 million bottles are exported to that country, representing 50% of our country’s exports to Asia. Having created a tasting room for the Leopard’s Leap brand just over a year ago, Hein feels that he needs one for L’Huguenot too, for Asian visitors, 600 - 1000 expected annually via an incentive program. Hein shared that the market in Europe is difficult currently, with consumers buying down. They are selling La Motte at €9.99 and Leopard’s Leap at €4.99. The increasing excise duty, in the UK in particular, influences wine sales, representing R5,70 per bottle in that country. The Leopard’s Leap Merlot is made from grapes coming from Agter Paarl and the Swartland, 60% being barrel fermented in French oak, and 80000 bottles are produced annually. Organic farming at La Motte commenced ten years ago, which has brought balance to their vines, the acid is stable, the pH is low, they use less sulphur, and their yield is lower, reducing their carbon footprint. Hein enthused about the 2013 vintage, given the winter rains, and the long late start to summer. The Koegelenbergs and Hubers will see each other at ProWein in Düsseldorf in March, agreeing that it is the best wine show in the world. We ended off the lunch with a tasting of the recently launched Leopard’s Leap MCC from the new Culinaria Collection, a 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir blend. Hein shared that Chile and Argentinia are fierce competition to South African wines internationally, given that their price points are lower. Given the small harvests in Europe, South Africa will be pushed to export more of its bulk wine this year. Bernhard said that 85% of wines drunk by Germans is from Germany, the balance being from Italy and France. Bernhard was astounded at the volumes Hein was sharing about Leopard’s Leap, compared to his own small production runs.
The generosity of time astounded the Hubers, as Hein had returned to the office from holiday that morning, and was flying out to London that evening, generously spending time with us for the lunch, and then personally taking us around La Motte and doing a tasting of their wines. The wine farm was awarded to a French Huguenot in 1695, and the original wine cellar and manor house were built around 1750. La Motte is 169ha in size, of which about half is planted to vine. In relaunching La Motte, they built a new winetasting centre, a museum, and a farm shop, as well as the Pierneef à La Motte restaurant, starting with 3000 visitors a month, which has grown to 8000 - 10000 per month now. Hein shared the link to late artist JH Pierneef, whose family collection hangs in the museum, and after whom the Pierneef à La Motte restaurant was named, and their new vegetable and herb garden, their policy being to source organic and free range meat too. We were shown the separated red and white wine facilities, 600000 cases of red wine being produced. They double sort their grapes, and have a mobile bottling plant which can do 3600 bottles per hour. The barrels are kept at low temperature and high humidity. The Sauvignon Blanc 2012 production is just over half a million bottles per year and is the focus of the white wine winery, and 30 - 40% of the fruit comes from La Motte, the balance coming from Nieuwoudtville, Lutzville, Elands Bay, Elgin, Darling, Bot River, and Elim. We then tasted the Pierneef Collection Sauvignon Blanc 2012, an organic wine, made from Bot River grapes. Its production of 36000 bottles sells out quickly on allocation. The Chardonnay is made from Franschhoek grapes, and 18000 bottles are produced. The Millenium 2010 is a Bordeaux Blend to which they have added Shiraz, 180000 bottles being produced. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 is made from grapes coming from the Swartland, Bot River, and Darling. The Shiraz 2009 is an excellent vintage, with just over 100000 bottles produced. Grapes come from La Motte, Bot River, Agter Paarl, and Elim, and the wine reflects the La Motte style of red berry and black berry, with white peppery spices. The La Motte Pierneef Shiraz Viognier 2009 is more feminine in character, Hein said, and its production of 36000 bottles is therefore made in a lighter and lower alcohol style. Grapes come from Bot River and La Motte. Only 12000 bottles of the La Motte Pierneef Shiraz Grenache 2008 were produced, the Grenache coming from 30 year old bush vines in Darling, and is more masculine in character. The Hannelie R is the pinnacle of their range, being ‘the best wine which we can make’, Hein said. It is released five years after it is made, and only when the fruit is excellent. So far the wine has been made in 2005, 2007, and in 2009. Only 3000 bottles are produced, the wine spending 48 months on wood and a year in the bottle. Each production sees a change in the blend composition. Michael Fridjhon and Carrie Adams (of retailer Norman Goodfellows) sit on a panel to help decide which fruit should go into the blend, Hein shared. It is sold at $100 per bottle. Hein presented the Hubers with a copy, signed by Chef Chris Erasmus, of their ‘Cape Winelands Cuisine’ cookbook.
We made a quick stop at Grande Provence, showing the Hubers the impressive tasting room, restaurant and art gallery. We were delighted to bump into GM Karl Lambour, and to discover that Grande Provence makes a Pinot Noir too, which he invited the Hubers to taste.
Our final stop was at Platter Winery of the Year 2013 Chamonix, an interesting experience. Winemaker Gottfried Mocke was still on leave, but maverick owner Chris Hellinger welcomed us in his recently opened safari lodge perched high up the Mont Rochelle mountain overlooking Franschhoek, being 540 m above sea level. The lodge was filled with stuffed animals which Mr Hellinger has hunted around the world. We were invited to taste the noble 5-star Pinot Noir Reserve 2011 (costing R240 per bottle), the only Pinot Noir to achieve this quality in Franschhoek. Mr Hellinger has been in South Africa for 44 years already, and bought Chamonix in 1991, a farm of 265ha, of which 55ha has been planted to vines, and also contains a game nature reserve. Mr Hellinger explained that their wines have become consistently better, and their higher vines get the sun later in the morning, and the temperature is cooler in the afternoon. Their use of compost is minimal. The farm had fruit trees, which they removed to plant vines. They only make wines from their own grapes. He has invested R40 million in his estate. Mr Hellinger said that they will work on reducing their wine range, but there is another ‘more exclusive wine to be created’‘. He praised his winemaker, who has been with him for more than ten years, and he gives him a free hand in what to grow and to produce. They use cement egg fermentation tanks too.
We received feedback subsequently that the Hubers thoroughly enjoyed their day in Franschhoek, and they graciously handed over a bottle of their noble Pinot Noir to each wine estate that hosted them. We thank Boekenhoutskloof, Haute Cabriere, Leopard’s Leap, La Motte, Grande Provence, and Chamonix for their time and information shared with this important winemaking couple from Germany, and for growing my own knowledge about the Franschhoek Wine Valley too.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage