I am standing 400m up on a mountain overlooking the town of Stellenbosch, Table Mountain lurking in the distance. The steep slopes are covered with vines, as are those on the other side of the Jonkershoek Valley. Directly below, the white-washed old buildings of Lanzerac hotel and winery sparkle in the midday sun. I brace myself for the wine maker’s viticulture insights, notebook poised for words on soil types, harvest yields, vine-spacing and average daytime temperatures.
“Over there,” says the wine maker, Wynand Lategan, pointing away from the vineyards to the town. “That’s where I was born, right there in Stellenbosch Hospital.”
Lategan is serious about his Stellenbosch roots, an origin he is proud to share with Lanzerac, where he has been wine maker since 2005, a tad younger, thus, than the famous Stellenbosch wine estate with a history going back to 1692.
“Ja, I am pretty much a Stellenbosch acolyte and drum-beater,” says Lategan, whose distinguished career as wine maker was preceded by a stint as financial journalist with Cape Town-based daily newspaper Die Burger.
“Working as wine maker at a place with the history and tradition of Lanzerac has made me more devoted to my birth-town. The place has grown and expanded, and has long lost the village atmosphere it had when I was a kid. But you can never change the quality of the wines that come from Stellenbosch. Wine-wise, it will always be the foremost address in South Africa.
He points towards the vineyards to the south across the valley. “This is where it happens, where everything comes together. Climate, soils, the effects of False Bay to the south and Table Bay to the west….the unique terrain of the Jonkershoek Valley….this is geography that allows one the privilege of making great wine. And as younger wine makers we are committed to honouring the legacy of the previous generations who paved the way and introduced the world to the quality of wines made in Stellenbosch.”
This talk of wine legends of the past aptly occurs a stone’s throw-away from a Pinotage vineyard. And if there is one wine Lanzerac is these days synonymous with, it is that made from South Africa’s home-grown grape.
It is not legend but fact that in 1925 Professor Abraham Izak Perold, then from the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Viticulture, crossed two grape varieties, namely the royal Burgundian Pinot Noir with the somewhat more workhorse grape Hermitage (Cinsaut).
The goal was seen to be one of providing a grape suitable for making a wine showing the elegance of Pinot Noir while being able to withstand warmer weather and bear high yields, something Hermitage has always shown to do well in the south of France.
A few decades – as well as Perold himself – passed on before the fruits of his vision found their way into the bottle. And that was with the Lanzerac 1959 Pinotage, the first-ever commercially bottled wine of this variety that has survived controversy, debates and the acerbic pens of critics to become South Africa’s most famous wine offering.
“Ironically, that wine was made before Lanzerac had any Pinotage vines,” explains Lategan. “Although Perold did his crossing in 1925, the first Pinotage vineyards were only planted in 1953 on the Bellevue farm out in the Bottelary part of Stellenbosch. I think it was a stroke of genius for Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, who then owned the Lanzerac wine brand, to bottle Pinotage under our label. It has, now almost sixty years later, led to us being seen as the pioneers of Pinotage, an association for which we are as grateful in marketing terms as we are proud.”
Having cemented its reputation with the ground-breaking Pinotage, Lanzerac has gone on to produce a comprehensive range of wines including impressive Chardonnay and a spectacular red blend named Le Général. Pinotage might be a prominent feature, but Lanzerac is no one-trick pony.
Back down from the mountain, and Wynand’s cellar is abuzz with harvest noise and the pungent, vivid aroma of young wines being born filling the air. We find a quiet spot, a bottle and glasses.
The bottle is Pinotage, the one Lanzerac quite aptly named Pionier in honour of Professor Perold but a name that could, in Pinotage terms, also be applied to the winery itself.
That Wynand and his team have a ballsy confidence in Pinotage is underscored by the fact that the Lanzerac Pionier Pinotage commands a price of R850 a bottle, a price level where it does very well, thank you very much.
“I am not even going to get into the storm in a teacup that foreign wine writers and critics created a few years back about Pinotage,” says Lategan splashing a dollop of black-purple liquid from the bottle of Pionier and giving it a sniff of approval. “If you find something you don’t like about a wine, look to the geography of the vineyard or the wine making. Why blame the grape itself?”
Lategan does admit that the Pinotage grape is unique, and that’s what he loves about it.
“Remember, as an industry we have only been making Pinotage for close on sixty years, a blip on the radar,” he says. “We are still learning about the best sites for Pinotage vineyards, its reaction with wood and yeast, and that notorious fermentation period which at between five and seven days is very short for a red wine.”
The Pionier Pinotage we are drinking is from the comet 2015 vintage. Along with the Kanonkop Black Label, Francois Naudé’s Le Vin de François and Ashbourne from Hamilton Russell this wine is proof that the variety is capable of making some of the world’s finest reds. Period.
“That steep price-tag is earned,” says Lategan. High mountain vineyards, modest yield. Meticulous selection of berries. Natural ferment. Just shy of two years in Franch oak, new and second-fill. And then each barrel is scrutinised, only 4 700 bottles making the cut.
The pioneer Perold would have approved, and how. Muscular, yet supple with sensually plush tannins complemented by a bright freshness and flavours of cherry and blue-berry. As the wine takes a hold of the senses, the dense palate-weight bears exotic notes of all-spice dried flowers, with a lengthy finish commanding awe and giving an impression of plain deliciousness.
“Great thing about Pinotage – one of the great things – is that you get a serious wine, such as this, and it is approachable and drinkable within two to three years of vintage,” says Lategan. “But it also has the ability to go on improving for decades, gaining complexity and a whole new set of flavours for those willing to give it time.”
I am led to the Lanzerac wine library, home of hidden gems and mysterious unlabelled wine boxes. Wynand pulls out a bottle, Lanzerac Pinotage 1959. “This is the original,” he says, “first bottled Pinotage ever and the only one we have here on the property.”
That first wine is to be commemorated in 2019 when Wynand will make a special wine to celebrate sixty years of Lanzerac Pinotage.
“The original vines are still on Bellevue, although their yields are tiny,” he says. “We’ll make the wine from them, again, and put it into a bottle similar to this one.” He returns the prized piece of history to the wine-rack. “You can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you came from,” he says. “And here at Lanzerac, we have always had a pretty good idea.”
- For VISIO Magazine, June 2018
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