Diemersdal’s 2020 harvest assistant from Sancerre almost did not make it out of the Cape before Covid lockdown, but back in France Alice Caillat appears to be wanting to get back to South Africa as soon as possible. “My two-and-a-half months on Diemersdal was an amazing experience – not only from a winemaking point of view which is so different to France, but also because of your majestic winelands,” says Alice. “While working in Durbanville I was fortunate to make detailed visits to Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The diversity of the wines and the landscapes are breath-taking.”
With a Bachelor of Wine Business from the University of Tours in France and an Advanced Technician’s Certificate in Viticulture and Oenology from the Wine School of Beaune in Burgundy, the 22 year old native of Sancerre arrived in South Africa at the beginning of this year’s harvest.
“I’ve had good experience working in Sancerre and Burgundy, but have always wanted to travel the New World,” says Alice. “I thought about New Zealand and Australia, but the cellars there are so big and you end-up working shifts on the same tasks. I wanted to get involved with everything at the winery, and being from Sancerre with its focus on Sauvignon Blanc, Diemersdal came up. And I’ve not looked back. Plus, ever since I was a kid there was something about South Africa that sounded exciting, making me want to visit.”
The Diemersdal connection came through Jean-Christophe Bourgeois from the eponymous Famille Bourgeois in Sancerre and a friend of Thys Louw, owner-winemaker at Diemersdal.
“At the Diemersdal cellar I was set on doing as much of everything during harvest as possible,” says Alice. “I was following the fermentation of the young wines every morning and evening, doing yeast and other additions, helping with the sorting of berries, punch-downs… the lot. And what a great team with Thys, Juandré Bruwer, Mari Branders and Janeke Beck. We became best of colleagues, and best of friends. I can’t wait to show them Sancerre!”
Having worked in cellars in Burgundy and Sancerre, Alice is quick to point out differences between her experiences in France and South Africa. “The first main difference is the size of the farms – they are bigger in South Africa,” she says. “In Sancerre the average is 20 hectares of vineyard for an estate. Another difference would be that at Diemersdal all the vines are on one property, while in France the vines are usually in different villages. You have two hectares this way and one hectare the other way. Other than that, I would say the winemaking is the same, just not the same volume. I think SA winemakers are free to experiment on different grape varieties and blends because the Wine of Origin system is not as restrictive as the AOC’s in France. France loves its rules and regulations.”
This freer hand crosses over to the winemaking, where Alice found the Cape winemakers’ adventurous end inquiring spirit a welcoming feature. “There is this wish to try new things, to improve with different yeasts and fermentation in barrels, amphora, open tank and stainless steel tanks. That’s one thing I really appreciated at Diemersdal, they are always trying to improve their winemaking, to be one step forward and to surprise consumers with amazing and different wines, like with the winter ferment.”
And comparing Cape Sauvignon Blanc to Sancerre? “The difference comes first from the terroir and climate. Sancerre is in the centre of France so it’s a continental climate (with cold winters and two months of hot summer) while in South Africa its more of an oceanic climate because of the proximity with the ocean. In Sancerre we have clay, silex and chalky-clay soils which makes very different type of wines, from fruity and light to mineral. In SA its more Sandstone, clay or shale, it will have an impact on the Sauvignon. The Cape Sauvignons are distinctive and superb.”
Besides the wines, South Africa’s culinary offerings also appealed to Alice’s French gastronomy pedigree. “I was really spoilt living with Thys and his wife Ladine!” she says. “The best braais, ever. Game, which I love. And lekker spicy food, like bobotie. I came back to France carrying plenty of biltong and rooibos tea. It’s almost finished, and I’ll definitely be back.”