One of the most energetic wine-tasting experiences, for me, is a visit to Welbedacht in Wellington, home to one Schalk Burger and family, as well as a range of wines individual in style portraying an exciting uniqueness and true taste-of-place. And then, of course there is Schalk senior himself, one of the industry’s great conversationalists who also happens to have an exceptional knowledge of wine, geography, soil, botany and chemistry.
As Michael Caine would say, “Not a lot of people know that.”
Already during his school-years at Paarl Gymnasium, Schalk went by the unassuming nick-name of “Pages”. Because in those days if you wanted to know something, one just had to refer to the Yellow Pages telephone directory and you’d find it. Schalk’s famous general knowledge was on a par.
So while I particularly enjoy swopping rugby stories with this former Springbok lock of the bruiser variety, he often draws you back to the wine glass and its contents. And from which patch of turf on his beloved Welbedacht the wine originated, his fascination with the soil, aspect and climate of the Groenberg, Wellington’s Côte d’Or. How the flavours express site, and how non-negotiable terroir is.
It was Schalk who told me that South African wine-farmers are held in such high regard by the French because like them, “we are sons of the soil” with turf and nature and element being seen as the primary influencers upon the end-product.
I recently found myself at Schalk’s table in Welbedacht’s new tasting room built in the farm’s original old cellar, and despite my host’s effusive narrative on South African rugby, the state of the local wine industry, the coming harvest and the uncharacteristic facial features of his new Sharpei dog, the wines did the talking.
This was a long day, and the Welbedacht range is expansive, but a couple of wines really hit the spot.
Extraordinary Chardonnays seem to follow me around, and strike me with a pap snoek but I found one of the most exceptional Chardonnays this year at Welbedacht. The 2015 Chardonnay is barrel-fermented and aged, but no amount of wood-marrying, judicious lees contact and skilled management by the cellar master can rein-in the taste of place that features so strikingly in this wine.
Soils are sandstone and granite, bringing a tight, edgy shiver to the wine which I found totally engrossing. With many South African Chardonnays expressing a well-mannered linear purity and agreeable varietal expression on a balanced sweet core, I enjoyed the vivid, engaging feral-character of the Welbedacht. It reminded me an awful lot of the white wines in the Beaune area in Burgundy where fruit lies on the mid-palate, the wine’s initial attack being all rock, wild sagebrush and hay.
On the nose the wine has hints of broken stones, chopped wood and those wild Cape sour-figs one finds growing in coastal areas. Entering the mouth with a cool, piercing and almost steely forcefulness, the liquid immediately broadens on the palate revealing jasmine and saffron-cream with a bracing burst of Key lime, ruby grape-fruit and loquats. To end, a graceful floral wetness and the ever-so tiniest hint of burnt butter. Stupendous, thought-provoking and delicious.
I tried for local references, but after a few days of mental anguish and inner torment have to state that stylistically, Welbedacht’s Chardonnay is one-of-a-kind.
From the same vintage came the farm’s Bohemian Syrah, and before tasting the wine Schalk presented a lavish description of what bohemian means. I remember the bits about socially unconventional and artistic and individual, me thinking I am not surprised to see a wine with such a name in the Burger repertoire.
Everyone knows how much Shiraz loves Wellington. The hot summer days. Temperate nights. Cold winters. And the soil composition. The Bohemian Syrah 2015 made me, as mentioned in previous missives, determined to get myself more familiar with this variety, including thoughts of a possible long-term relationship.
The Bohemian wine is dark and bloody to the eye, which for one moment had me remembering 1984 when England toured South Africa and one British Chris Butcher found himself on the wrong end of a Schalk Burger boot. The red stuff gushed.
But now it is about the wine, which lies solemnly in the glass offering aromas of charcuterie, black pepper and diced wild strawberry with a hint of Partagas Series 4 cigar box. On the mouth, it is all about pleasure and pleasure only. The fruit is opulent and promiscuous, teasing the palate with a soft, enticing, velvety texturally decadent mouth-feel on the one hand and on the other a melange of sensual flavours. Dried Turkish fig and rich cigar smoke. Crab-apple jam and black honeycomb. A slow-cooked dish of oxtail topped with a handful of red grapes. Juicy maraschino cherries and rum-and-raisin ice-cream.
Yet, all in unison and remarkably fresh and clean on the after-taste.
The Welbedacht range is broad, varied and exciting, and are worth scrumming down for – it you’re on the same page.