It has only been three decades since attending my last university class, but I can’t remember any of my teachers being quite this engaging and enthusiastic about their subject. But then again, Professor Sanette Ferreira from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, is at the coal-face of arguably the South African wine industry’s hottest topic, namely wine tourism.
It is Waterford Estate, and I’m on a mission. But it’s easy to get side-tracked. The farm lies on the Helderberg-side of Stellenbosch, up Blaauwklippen Valley way and the wine region equivalent of a limited edition Bugatti or pure-bred racing stallion. The scenery of vines, mountain, meadows, pastures and forest makes you feel as if you’re driving in a painting done by an artist who still has to be born.
Entering Waterford Estate itself feels like a movie set, one where a Latin-looking guy on horse-back canters through the citrus orchards, pulls-up before the rural-chic building built from reddish-beige bedrock and dismounts to grab a cool glass of Chardonnay. Someday, I want to be that guy.
The tasting room is welcoming and spacious with young, bright staff appearing genuinely glad to see you, even if you are one of the hundreds of visitors they host per week. A gourmet-looking coffee machine is parked in the corner, and from behind a high counter, relaxed and efficient men and women orchestrate the array of wine-tastings on offer. From experiencing reserve selections to matching wine with tailor-made chocolates, to simply sitting in the courtyard pondering life and time over a glass of Sauvignon Blanc or cup of perfect espresso, the Waterford ambience is not conducive to rushed agendas or the meeting of structured deadlines.
But today my mission is another step in a long-time quest to discover the story of Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon. This quest is not going to be ending anytime soon – if anytime at all – but is one hell of a fascinating journey for someone who like me believes Cabernet to be South Africa’s greatest red wine grape.
Cabernet Sauvignon lies at the heart of Waterford, and in the soul of its cellar-master Kevin Arnold. Of course, Arnold has been around a long time before Waterford.
After studying at Elsenburg, the Bloemfontein-schooled Arnold worked under the legendary Spätz Sperling at Delheim from 1970 to 1987. This was followed with 10 years at another blue-blood Stellenbosch winery, Rust en Vrede, until an opportunity of a lifetime came along in 1998. Businessman Jeremy Ord wanted a wine farm on the Helderberg, a cellar and brilliant wines under the name of Waterford. And the man he wanted to make that happen as his partner in the operation, was Kevin Arnold.
“From our first harvest in 1998 I pretty much had a clean slate,” says Arnold. “With the proviso that the business became cash positive after six years.”
Well, 18 years later and with Waterford comfortably sitting at the rarified top-end of the list of South Africa’s finest wineries. The slate is now well-scribbled, with ticks outnumbering crosses.
The range of wines is extensive, from Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot Noir, Cap Classique and Shiraz, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. But mention Waterford and Cabernet Sauvignon, and tones become hushed, an atmosphere of reverence in the air.
“The Helderberg is not only one of Stellenbosch’s, but one of the world’s great areas to grow Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Arnold. Knowing the more northern region of Simonsberg like the back of his hand, thanks to time at Delheim, he says Stellenbosch is blessed with these two Cabernet Sauvignon power-houses each offering great wines characterised by differences in terroir.
“Helderberg is a rugged, diverse area with valleys and rifts holding huge differences in soils, aspect and exposure to the elements,” says Arnold. “The Simonsberg slopes are more homogenous, even and flowing.”
Mark le Roux, who has been Arnold’s winemaker since 2013, shares Arnold’s fascination with the effect and influence of geography on grapes and wine-making.
“The soils here on Waterford are fascinating,” he says. “They are varied with granite, tukulu and some oakleaf, but when I got to know the farm I was really surprised to see how poor the soils are here and in the general Helderberg. Rocky. Stones. Impenetrable at parts.”
From a way off, the vinelands of Waterford and the Helderberg may look all post-card picturesque. But for a vine and a wine farmer, it is tough territory. And let’s not even mention the “pumping” south-easterly wind.
That is, however, up in the mountains behind the airy comfort of the Waterford courtyard where a few vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon have been opened and decanted.
“Our approach to Cabernet involves serious attention to the role of tannins,” says Arnold. “The vineyards have done the hard work in ripening the grapes to give us the right raw material to work with. Here the approach with Cabernet is gently does-it. Soft pump-overs to ensure sufficient skin contact that draws the desired degree of tannins and colour from the skins to great balance and elegance. No frenetic manual punch-downs or over-extraction.”
Wood maturation of between 18 and 20 months is in 30% new barrel – once again, tannin control – with the balance of the wine going into anything up to 6th fill.
“One thing that impressed my about Waterford when I first got a glimpse of the winery as a student in 2005 was the simple, no-airs approach,” says Le Roux. “There is nothing fancy in the wine-making process, and nothing gets over-talked.”
Before us, it’s the Cabernets are doing the talking. A 2001 is fresh and alive, brimming with crushed berries and carrying a hint of savoury and pine-needle complexity. The wine of 2003, from a hot and stellar vintage, is an indication as to why Arnold compares the Helderberg to Bordeaux’s Pauillac region. The wine has a sculptured, sinewy structure followed by an immense power, a wave of black fruit, cedar and a tangy, perky finish. A world-class wine that makes your ears zing with pride.
What’s more, at 13 years old, the best is still to come from this vintage.
I comment on Waterford’s focus on older vintages. “Great wines are timeless, and longevity is an important part of our wine-making approach,” says Arnold. “To stand up and be counted as a winery, I believe you have to be able to put 10 vintages of the same wine on the table. That is how you judge a producer, on his or her ability to do this and – of course – the quality of the line-up.”
Moving to the Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, it is apparent that the wines are definitely approachable at an age younger than the previous two to which I had been exposed. Here the meticulous approach to tannin control pays off, allowing the wine to show fruit composition complemented by a delectable juiciness with a tight finish giving a glimpse of the greatness to come over a few years’ bottle-aging.
Wine quality has always been a given at Waterford. But what makes a winery succeed in creating a successful brand, something the farm, its wines and people have done in a relatively short lapse of time?
“Consistency,” says Le Roux. “Once people have become accustomed to receiving nothing but quality from your product, then the brand achieves status.”
Arnold, however, says the world’s best brands, from fashion to jewellery to wine, must have custodians. “Excellence is largely created and driven by the people associated with that brand. No matter what the product is, everyone likes to know it has a human face and personality behind it.”
And it is here. In front of me, drinking Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon.
Besides a plethora of industry bodies, the South African wine industry is awash with organisations representing ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ or purporting to represent ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ a specific wine made from one grape. There is a Pinotage Association, a Chardonnay Forum, Just Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group, Pinot Noir Interest Group and even a Merlot Forum. To name but a few.