Coming in from the Old

Wine has a true friend in time, that concept of the aged and old, the historical and antique deemed nothing but beneficial and revered in the halls of wine-speak. A bottle bearing a label attesting to that wine having been made 40 years ago or more is carefully held in hands slightly trembling in awe, the contents spoken of in hushed tones of respect and anticipation. It is the names of wine cellars from Bordeaux to Piedmont, Rioja to Stellenbosch, Napa to Robertson who have been making wines for decades and centuries that command admiration on account of their legacy and reputation, places whose history and generations of cellarmasters underscore and extend the providence of the wines they have made for years, and will be making for years to come.

The old vineyards from which wine is made, too, bear a gravitas. These living plants rooted for years and generations in patches of soil they call home. They have withstood the challenges and tests of time by, year-in and year-out, ripening bunches of fruit from which the wine is made. Stormy winters belted their leafless shoots and gnarled trunks with wind and rain, snow and sleet. They have battled under the sun of scores of hot summers, offering a warrior-like and formidable resistance to the harsh rays’ heat and the parching dryness it brings to the soils, where those life-giving roots lie deep and true. These senior sages have adapted to the heartless vagaries of nature, learnt to exist in its ever-changing rhythms.

South Africa did not invent the concept of recognising and honouring the unique properties of old vineyards and the need to embrace them as an integral part of a country’s wine legacy. Europe, Australia and the Americas have older vineyards than South Africa, and more of them. But through innovation and will, a proud realisation of the role old vineyards offer a country’s legacy as well as current wine profile, South Africa has to a large extent taken charge of a rebirth in the global recognition of the role old vines play in the wine.

That’s why the name Rosa Kruger can be found at the top echelon in terms of South Africa’s most important wine people. Back in 2002 this former lawyer and journalist fell under the spell of the many old vineyards she had encountered during her forays as viticulture consultant.

Timeworn patches of vines, many forgotten, were tracked down in the Swartland, outside Vredendal and in Citrusdal. Spirited place-names such as Piekenierskloof, Skurfberg and Moutonshoek added to the allure. And once rock-star winemakers like Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Chris Alheit showed  – with the inspiration of Kruger – an interest to vinify the fruit from these low-yielding far-flung vineyards, it all began falling together rather nicely as a greater understanding of South Africa’s old vineyard treasures made its way into the public domain. Then in 2016 the Old Vine Project was launched to map all vineyards over 35yrs old and whereby wineries wishing to do so could honour the wines made from these mature vines with an official seal.

Rosa Kruger

The Old Vine Project’s innovative approach to creating a platform from which the magical appeal of old vineyards and their resulting wines could be expressed did not only capture the imagination of the local wine world. Kruger’s brain-child and her unbridled commitment to these vinous treasures in Southern Africa sparked an interest in old vineyards from around the world, and among the many international accolades she has received has been Wine Personality of the Year for 2018 at the International Wine Challenge.

Time and age are synonymous with romance. And for sure, as with any art form, romance has a vital role to play in wine, otherwise it would not be the multi-layered and diverse offering it is – no other consumed product has more labels portraying more countries and areas of origin than wine. Throw-in 6000 years of wine’s presence in the world presided over by humankind, and the romance is unavoidable.

But today is today, with consumers becoming more questioning and discerning. And the ask is, besides all the nostalgia and violin-playing to honour vineyards that have stood in the soils for 40, 50, 60 years, do they make better wines? If not, what is the song and dance all about?

Kruger herself says: “Do old vines make better wine? I believe they very often do. Age in vines brings an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture and a sense of place. They show less fresh fruit and varietal character, and more terroir and soil.”

But it is to the winemakers I want to go to get an explanation, they who oversee the farming of the old vineyards and who at harvest-time must send the bunches of ripe grapes on the road to becoming a bottled wine. And here it is apt to turn to those who make Chenin Blanc, the erstwhile work-horse grape of the Cape wine industry that understandably represents the greatest mass of the country’s Old Vine spread. Of the 4 292ha of vineyards aged 35 years and older, Chenin Blanc represents 2 207ha – the next largest is Sauvignon Blanc at 454ha, to give an idea of Chenin Blanc’s dominance.

Tertius Boshoff

Stellenrust in Stellenbosch is one of the country’s great Chenin Blanc brands  – in 2023 four Stellenrust wines found their way in to the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10, with a wine made from vineyards planted in 1964 being among the farm’s most revered offerings.

Tertius Boshoff, co-owner and winemaker at Stellenrust, is not hesitant to reveal the intoxicating effect of old vineyards, remaining pragmatic before a poetic tone embraces his words.  “It’s not that old vines – 35 years or older – necessarily produce better fruit,” says Boshoff. “Often yields decrease as the vine ages – so it’s not all sunshine and roses. But Old vines are like old people – they have seen good times and bad come and go, and are at peace with themselves, comfortable in the knowledge that they can deal with anything.” 

He fiddles with a cork-screw and smiles. “Young vines, like young people, are often enthusiastic growers and a touch too vigorous. They set more fruit than they can ripen. But as they age, vines learn to self-regulate. Yields come into balance and the grapes ripen slower and more evenly. Older vines produce smaller berries, which leads to powerful fruit concentration and consequently more structured wines; there’s a greater ratio of tannin-packed skin to juice. We see vintage-on-vintage consistent premium quality and beautiful pH levels in the juice.”

Stellenbosch, in fact, is the headquarters of South Africa’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc offering, carrying 558ha of the total national spread of 2 207ha. Kleine Zalze Wines uses the largest portion of Stellenbosch Old Vine Chenin Blanc, the enticement of this category shared by Kleine Zalze’s French owners Advini who deem it a jewel in the Cape wine crown.

RJ Botha in an old Kleine Zalze vineyard.

RJ Botha, cellarmaster at Kleine Zalze, relishes in this offering of Old Vine Chenin, deploying the fruit in a diverse range of the marque’s wines.

“There are two ways of recognising the allure of Old Vine Chenin Blanc,” says Botha. “On the one side, there is the attraction of each vineyard having a story to tell. These are of old, gnarled vineyards growing on tough granite soils that have for over three decades been exposed to stormy winters, breezy spring seasons and sun-drenched summers. Through age, they have become a part of the soils and their environment, able to truly express the world in which they have lived – which we on the outside call terroir.”

This brings Botha to the second beguiling factor of Old Vine Chenin Blanc: and that is, when it comes to working with the grapes in the cellar, the character of the grapes deserves the aforementioned respect they deserve.

“Old Vine Chenin Blanc vineyards express the varietal character and terroir more vividly than younger vines do; it’s as simple as that,” says Botha. “You see it in the tight bunches of small berries. The juice spreads its intoxicating aroma through the cellar at harvest time. And the balance between sugar and acid is tense, almost electric, leading to wines of multi-layered complexity.”

Studies done by the Old Vine Project show that wines from old vineyards have discernible differences to those from younger wines, mainly in terms of concentration, texture and length.

“No-one says old vines make better wines, but that the wines have an own personality and individual finger-print, this is non-negotiable.”

Chenin Blanc might be ruling the roost in the Old Vine scenario, but South Africa’s national red grape of Pinotage delivers two of the country’s greatest red wines made from historical vineyards in the Lanzerac Commemorative Pinotage 2019 and Kanonkop’s perennial iconic Black Label Pinotage. Both wines, incidentally, made from vineyards planted in 1953.

Wynand Lategan, cellarmaster at Lanzerac who had the honour of making the Commemorative Pinotage from an old vineyard planted in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary appellation, says this wine would not have been what it is without the old vineyard fruit.

“I just think old vineyard fruit brings soul to a wine,” he says. “Compared to the other vineyards I use for our Lanzerac wines, I look at an old vineyard as the Chairman of the Board. The grapes don’t always have the virility and up-front fruit you find in younger vines, but the Chairman has seen it all. He isn’t easily affected or influenced by storms, drought or wind, nor the discrepancies of different seasons. There is just that quiet confidence honed by decades of having seen and lived it all. It is almost as if the old vineyard is saying ‘don’t sweat the small stuff in life’. Because the old vines bear fruit that have an immovable gravitas, leading to wines of assured length and substance that will prevail over everything else.”

Gravitas in wine, seemingly, but Old Vines also carry a hefty marketing clout. Few realise this better than Shirley van Wyk, MD of Franschhoek luxury wine destination Terre Paisible which includes a historical vineyard Sauvignon Blanc in its portfolio, Les Dames de 1987 Sauvignon Blanc made from a vineyard planted in 1987.

“Despite being a new destination, I was from the outset adamant about cherishing our old Sauvignon Blanc vineyard through a wine aptly called Le Dames de 1987 in the Terre Paisible line-up,” says Van Wyk. “History, provenance and legacy will always have tremendous marketing appeal, so if you have access to these traits in any of your offerings – use them. For us, an Old Vine Sauvignon Blanc is a major benefit for Terre Paisible, not only honouring our but also the whole of the Cape’s winemaking heritage.”

Known as one of South Africa’s leading wine marketers with a background in advertising and film, Van Wyk talks the Old Vine talk with charming conviction: “Old Vines are like beautiful history books – they carry the stories of all the harvests past and when we take the time to nurture them, they have so much to give back. These vines have survived many seasonal changes and climatic extremes and are now so resilient and adapted that they easily bear fruit each year which carry the nuances they have so carefully cultivated over the year. It is a gift to work with these vines and to capture their essence.

 “In a time where there is such a rush for instant gratification, new technology, innovation etc – it is ever more important to protect, respect and cherish our heritage wherever we can. Our old vines are treasured, and we are doing our best to ensure we look after them for many years to come.”

A search for a pragmatic and less romantic explanation behind the allure of wines made from old vineyards led me to Robertson and De Wetshof where my personal wine sage Danie de Wet planted a block of Chardonnay in 1987, the 37-year-old vineyard still harvested for making De Wetshof’s magnificent Bateleur Chardonnay.

“My answer as to the merits of old vineyards? Well, each year when the De Wetshof team tastes the barrel and tank samples of that season’s harvest it is the Bateleur that comes out as the best wine in the cellar,” says De Wet. “And it is made from the oldest vineyard on the farm, so if you put two-and-two together, the answer could be that more mature vineyards give an added dimension.”

Being a man of science but with enough experience and savvy to realise that vineyards and wine do bear unanswered mysteries, De Wet is not going to pin-point a specific reason for this added dimension. But he turns to the subject of soil, and he goes deep.

“Above the surface, the vineyard changes in each season as shoots are pruned, leaves grow and drop-off, grape-bunches develop and are then removed when ripe,” he says. “But what happens beneath the soil, there where the vines’ roots are, this we never know. An old vineyard can have roots going down to 10, 15 metres beneath the surface, prodding between the soils’ various layers, seeking nutrients and carrying what has been discovered deep below the earth through the vine and into the grapes as they ripen. I can only think that it is what these older roots find deep down below that adds another level of character and personality to the vine itself, which finds its way into the final wine.”

That the time is right to talk of the hot topics that are old and age in vines and wine, this is a given. But the finding of the answers is going to demand a lot more time, and this has still to come. If ever  – sometimes a mystery should remain shrouded, especially one that is as fascinating as this.

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Le Chant: Chenin Blanc to Crow on You

The western Stellenbosch appellation of Polkadraai has leapt to the fore as one of the region’s wine hot-spots, and the origin of its name is as rustically quaint as are the souls farming the koffieklip and dolomite soils. See, in them days of yonder – 17th century – the adventurous colonists, would-be farmers and vagabond Dutch VOC settlers would enter Stellenbosch from the west. Initially a kind of rugged road developed, but one of the ultra-winding kinds, full of turns and switch-backs between the gullies and the bush; the streams and the trees.

Ox-wagons and those on horseback following this road seldom found a straight line along the bends and curves. Subsequently, these travellers said that travelling to Stellenbosch along this way was like doing the twirling “polka” dance. And hey presto – before you could say “pass me a powdered musket”, this access route to Stellenbosch was named Polka-draai (“turn” in Dutch and, also, Afrikaans). And so it stuck, although these days the road runs straight and true along the Stellenbosch Arterial, a gentle sloped koppie to the left and expansive lower vineyard land looking south-east over the False Bay Atlantic.

It is a more open, wide part of Stellenbosch wine country with bright sunlight radiance and tough soils, and a history of grape-farming going back to the early-early days. Of late, formidable wine exponents such as Bruwer Raats and Johan Reyneke have lifted the Polkadraai brand into the sphere of respectability through real wine excellence, offering various wines of accurate geographical expression and true Cape brilliance.

There has been some fervent investment in the region, and more can be expected. One of the major players has been the French Oddo Family of Taaibosch and Pink Valley fame who acquired the Eikenhof Farm where over 100ha of vineyards are planted on what is now known as Le Chant. Reds dominate with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Shiraz, as well as a spread of Chenin Blanc. From these, two wines originate, namely a Le Chant Rouge blend, and a Blanc which is made from the Chenin.

Petri Venter, one of the ebullient young guns of Stellenbosch winemaking, is responsible for the farming and vinification, and I have always liked the man as he is one of the few New Kids on the Block who does not call me “oom”. Actually, I’ve known the dude since his primary school days where he was a champion swimmer with impeccable manners and a smile like a Dachshund who is always glad to see you. He’s also become a pretty solid winemaker having worked at Rupert&Rothschild, as well at stints in France learning the classic ways of wine at the estates owned there by his French bosses.

While lunching at the Pink Valley Restaurant a few days back – 35°C in the shade – Petri must have noticed my uncomfortable relationship with the heat. Over he ambled, plonking down an ice-bucket with a bottle of the Le Chant Blanc 2022, waxing lyrical about what was happening on the Le Chant farm, all organic vineyards and great conditions and stony earth with a comforting presence from the ocean. Yes, he loves the ocean, does Petri, currently preparing for his next swim-crossing from Robben Island to Blouberg.

Petri Venter

The Chenin Blanc used for Le Chant Blanc contains a substantial portion of fruit from vines planted in 1983, harking back to the early days of Eikenhof which was then selling grapes and wine to local co-ops. Now, says Petri, “we get to put the Le Chant finger-print on what goes into the final bottled wine, and in this case it is Chenin Blanc in its purity”.

A portion is fermented and aged in older French oak to lift the grapes’ soul and presence, the rest kept zingy and clear in stainless steel.

But looking at the Le Chant bottle, it is the cock that first attracts attention. “The French rooster – a nod to our owners,” says Petri. “And ‘Le Chant’ is the call, the singing of the cockerel.”

Petri and I don’t do tastes and sips, so he pours the glass half-full of a wine pale-straw in colour through which I can see the green leaves of the Sangiovese vines planted next to the Pink Valley Restaurant.

“Chenin Blanc expresses vintage to the max,” says Petri. “When I began working with Chenin I had more experience with Chardonnay, but the better I got to know this variety, the more respect I have for Chenin Blanc’s ability to show its geographical origin as well as the vagaries of each vintage. And 2022 was a relatively mild year – cool breezes in spring and summer, but plenty of sunshine to get the grapes to ripen. One of the reasons I think Chenin Blanc loves South African turf is because of our sun.”

Despite this reference to sun, the Le Chant Blanc 2022 has an extreme graceful delicacy to it. The first impression on the nose is that of dry rock that has just been splashed with a jet of cool spring water. This is followed by a very Cape wineland scent of dry veld flowers with just a tad of sage.

On the palate, the cool wine hits the spot from the word go. Unlike the common opinion, I feel a good dry white wine can never be too cold – not on a hot day like this, or ever.

This is distinguished Chenin Blanc, the delicate aroma carrying through to its presence in the mouth. No glycerol mouthfeel. No lumpy hint of back-blended over-ripe botrytis fruit in an attempt to add oemf and palate-weight. No, just an extended purity. Long and lean, the muscular cords off-set by some fruity suppleness. Grated yellow apple with a rind of thick-skinned Cape lemon. Some herbed salt on the mid-palate with a softening jasmine-scented, floral layer.

Texturally the wine is both fleeting and assertive, pretty much like a brief seductive smile from Cate Blanchett before she goes all dramatically feminist rogue. It is all remarkably iridescent in the showing of variety and of place, and if the Le Chant cock has any reason to crow, this is it.

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To Hell and Back with Dry January

The concept of Dry January falls strange and incoherent, rings hollow and is met with churlish nonchalance and – despite my respecting the wonts and motives of each and every one – a tad of the absurd. No partaking in the glorious offering of the vine for a month? It just seems incomprehensible in my world, but I suppose it depends on what one’s relationship is with wine.

If it is a physical thing, Dry January can perhaps find purchase among those wishing to cleanse livers, purify colons and align urinary tracts for 31 days, before again exposing them to alcohol for the next 11 months. Only to then repeat the guilt-assuaging, monastic sanitising process. The mind, too, is replenished by the dry-spell with that feeling of having done the right and the good, like ordering Coke Zero with a cheesy carb-heavy sourdough pizza, green salad on the side.

But in my world, eschewing wine means the crass, heartless shunning of culture and beauty; the voluntary rejection of art and the poetic rhythms of daily life.

Tertius Boshoff, Stellenrust.

Just as I will frown upon any fad, trend, or mode that wills me to forgo rock or jazz, films, literature, and art exhibitions for a month, so too can I not partake in this thing of a Dry, wine-less month.

Like art and other elements of culture, wine evokes fascination and curiosity. It inspires and makes me wonder about soils and plants, and about the people driven to transform a derivative of nature into something offering pleasure and light and something which is sensorially uplifting. It makes my world a better place, this partaking of a creation that is the result of so much and so broadly a constituted giving. From the land and from the hand that partakes in all the varying chapters of wine’s making. No, I am not going to deny myself this wonder for a day, never mind a whole month.

Thus, I am upending Dry January by going big and looking for wines offering pleasure that is unbridled in their decadence, almost sluttish in that visceral overpowering of the senses.

An example of this is from the Bottelary producer that is Stellenrust which – by the way – had a formidable run in 2023. Four Chenin Blancs in the Standard Bank Top 10. And Diners Club Winemaker of the Year for Stellenrust padron Tertius Boshoff – not with a Chenin, but a Shiraz.

But it is to a Chenin Blanc I go to poke holes in the rarefied Dry January veneer, namely Stellenrust Barrel Fermented 2022. The bottle bears a gilded “58” which refers to the age – in years – of the Chenin Blanc vines offering their firm, palm-filling grape-bunches for creating vintage 2022.

This fruit originates from Bottelary, always a wonderous and enchanting part of Stellenbosch for its authentic ruralness and undisturbed pastoral rythmns. Grapes bleed from vines that have been rooted in the iron-rich decomposed granite and clay soils for almost six decades, now responsible for classic, regal Chenin Blanc wines instead of the run-of-the mill, unimaginative co-operative juice they were destined for in their first 35 years of life.

Before getting them to the winery, Boshoff gives these grapes extended hang-time, allowing the sun to cure the sap and, when it becomes cooler in March, to develop just a prickle of botrytis to broaden the curves, extend dimension, stir drama.

The juice is fermented and aged for nine months in French oak, 16% of which is new and the rest split equally among barrels up to sixth fill.

Once opened and splashed into the glass, I have even fewer doubts about my aversion to Dry January or any other month of dryness. It is all gorgeous, and it is wine. The colour is of pale gold reflecting a stained-glass window in which emerald is the dominant colour. On the nose, the aromas are lush and rich and decadent, exuding pickled pumpkin, clove and a ripe pear cut into paper-thin wafers with a samurai sword.

O hell, the presence in the mouth is a beautiful thing. And it is presence and structure and texture that cement initial impressions onto the mind like a coiled snake tattoo on the lower back of a Brazilian samba dancer. The wine is unctuous and glides around the mouth, drawing impressions from the tasting machinery with a confident charm and alerting flirtatiousness.

Then comes the taste, commanding and regal and almost vocal in its expression. Yellow quince left to confect sugar in the quiet confines of a sunny wooded loft. Honeycomb plastered by wild bees in the hollow stumps of ancient dead trees. A slight note of lime zest to move the palate along with a sense-alerting energy and briskness. The finish is longer than a Russian ballerina’s quadriceps and as memorable as the last line in a Chekov short story.

I fill the glass again, and drink deeper this time, the only dry thing being my sweatless and refreshed brow and the cuff of the dress-shirt I deemed necessary for donning to experience another piece of never-ending wonder. Day in, day out.

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Kleine Zalze Leads Way with Stellenbosch Old Vine Chenin Blanc

The Chenin Blanc grape has over the past two decades become synonymous with the top wine offerings from South Africa, the country not only having the most extensive plantings of this variety in the world, but also through the fact of Chenin Blanc being interwoven with the history of winemaking at the Cape.

It is assumed that when the first wine grapes were pressed at the southern point of Africa in 1659, Chenin Blanc was – along with various Muscat varieties – part of those initial vinous offerings. And from those early beginnings of the country’s wine industry, Chenin Blanc has played a major role in the history of Cape wine, the variety today still the country’s most widely planted wine grape.

“Chenin Blanc is an integral part of the legacy of Cape wine,” says Carina Gous, GM of Kleine Zalze Wines in Stellenbosch. “Not only for its being planted throughout the Cape winelands, but also due to the fact that – despite its origins in the Loire region of France – South Africa is today seen as the leading producer of quality Chenin Blanc wines. These are made in a diversity of styles reflecting the individual features of the diverse terroir found in the Cape and have become a calling-card for South African wine.”

Carina Gous

Being one of the country’s oldest wine-grape varieties has allowed Chenin Blanc to bring another intriguing aspect to the brand that is South African Wine besides its riveting flavour spectrum ranging from lean, mineral-led wines to oak-matured golden beauties of enormous depth and complexity: This is in allowing Cape wineries access to old Chenin Blanc vines, the fruit of which adds further gravitas and distinction to the wines made from it.

In South Africa, the official Old Vine Project certifies vineyards of 35 years and older as Heritage Vines, with over half of the country’s 4 292ha of official Old Vines being Chenin Blanc and underscoring the variety’s inextricable link to the history of the Cape wine industry. Some 558ha of Old Vine Chenin Blanc is found in Stellenbosch, a factor that has contributed to the region’s status as the country’s foremost appellation.

“As a leading winery in Stellenbosch, with a profound focus on Chenin Blanc wines, Kleine Zalze values the tradition of the Old Vine Chein Blanc offering and has made this an important part of our Chenin Blanc portfolio,” says Gous. “In fact, of the 558ha Old Vine Chenin Blanc found in Stellenbosch, Kleine Zalze manages 95ha of these historical vineyards, making us the largest producer of Stellenbosch Heritage Vineyard Chenin Blanc in the country.”

These Kleine Zalze vineyards of 35 years and older are mainly planted on granite soils in the Stellenbosch sub-regions of Faure, Bottelary and Devon Valley. Most, too, are unirrigated bush-vines, hardy old plants that have over decades perfected the expression of their distinctive terroir in grapes used to make wines for Kleine Zalze’s Chenin Blanc portfolio.

According to RJ Botha, Kleine Zalze cellarmaster who, along with his team, has the privilege of working with these vinous treasures, old vine grapes add an ‘X-factor’ to their Chenin Blanc wines.

“There are two ways of recognising the allure of Old Vine Chenin Blanc,” says Botha. “On the one side, there is the attraction of each vineyard having a story to tell. These are of old, gnarled vineyards growing on tough granite soils that have for over three decades been exposed to stormy winters, breezy spring seasons and sun-drenched summers. Through age, they have become a part of the soils and their environment, able to truly express the world in which they have lived – which we on the outside call terroir. These are vineyards commanding respect.”

This brings Botha to the second beguiling factor of Old Vine Chenin Blanc: and that is, when it comes to working with the grapes in the cellar, the character of the grapes deserves the respect they command.

“Old Vine Chenin Blanc vineyards express the varietal character and terroir more vividly than younger vines do; it’s as simple as that,” says Botha. “You see it in the tight bunches of small berries. The juice spreads its intoxicating aroma through the cellar at harvest time. And the balance between sugar and acid is tense, almost electric, leading to wines of multi-layered complexity.”

Studies done by the Old Vine Project show that wines from old vineyards have discernible differences to those from younger wines, mainly in terms of concentration, texture and length.

“No-one says old vines make better wines, but that the wines have an own personality and individual finger-print, this is non-negotiable,” says Botha.

RJ Botha

Kleine Zalze’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc finds its way into three wines in the portfolio. The critically acclaimed Family Reserve Chenin Blanc as well as the Vineyard Selection are led by old vine fruit. And the Chenin Blancs in Kleine Zalze’s irreverent experimental range of Project Z wines rely on grapes from these mature vineyards. There is, too, bottle-fermented Old Vine Chenin Blanc Cap Classique currently lying on lees that will in due course be added to the Kleine Zalze range.

“The tradition of Old Vine Chenin Blanc at Kleine Zalze is carried through to vinification,” says Botha. “Maturation in French oak casks as well as in terracotta amphora amplifies the gravitas of the wines from these majestic vineyards and further underscores our respect for making wines from these heritage vineyards and contributing to South Africa’s wine legacy.”

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All Rise for the Icon that is Ken Forrester

So it’s official, is it, Ken Forrester is a legend. So named at this year’s Groot Constantia shin-dig to celebrate the local wine industry icons. The powers that be at the HQ of South African wine prefer to term its annually elected industry persona extraordinaire as a “visionary leader”, but for us mere mortals, legend will do just fine. Especially in Ken’s case because this is what he has become, and this is what he will go down as in the annals of Cape wine.

The first thing I ever drank with Ken was at 08.30 in the morning, an espresso strong enough to shrink the balls off a wagyu bull. In his gracious and stately home on Scholtzenhof farm off Stellenbosch’s R44. This was at the beginning of the current millennium, and I had been sent to pick the Forrester brain as to the state-of-play on Stellenbosch’s status and future as a wine region.

At our first meeting, I summed him up as the quintessential no-shit guy. Back then Ken had not yet been living and making wine in Stellenbosch for 10 years. But he spoke with the authority of a pedigreed local who could lay claim to generational experience and expertise. Confidence was clearly not a challenge for him, and everything he said about the industry was backed with an opinion of informed logic and the kind of foresight I found refreshing, far-removed from the stifled, gruff voices one encountered when seeking information from the offices of Cape wine officialdom.

I remember Ken pinning me with that steely gaze and saying: “Wine producers must realise that our interests do not come first in promoting the national wine industry,” he said. “It’s South Africa at number one. Then Stellenbosch. And thirdly comes us wine farmers. We can only make a success of it if our country’s and our respective wine regions’ images and wines are successful. If we don’t all realise this and work together, we’re stuffed.”

While this image of brotherly inclusivity might be seen by some as out of synch with Ken’s relentless promoting and marketing of those millions of wine bottles bearing the name Ken Forrester, people are the oxygen allowing his persona and presence to come to the fore. He loves talking, arguing, joking and opining, dragging you into his aura of robust energy which, however you may encounter it, will leave nobody without an opinion of him or his views concerning the topic of conversation on hand.

Quite a few years back now, Ken hosted the monthly gathering of the Wine Swines of which I chanced to be a member. Of course, it is always a treat when he is the host as few people do a better and more entertaining talk on a range of personally-selected wines. Plus, as a former chef, you know that when lunchtime comes, the grub at Chez Forrester will be a bit of all right.

At this specific Wine Swines gathering, the usual jokes and bantering from the audience began to silence as we realised Ken was treating us to some seriously special and old wines. Châteaneuf-du-Papes and other Rhônes from the seventies. Some Loire whites, fifty years and older. Vintage Billecart Salmon Champagne and killer Grgich Hills Chardonnays from Napa.

As we moved from one awesome wine to another, the late Duimpie Bayly and Swines stalwart asked Ken if he was getting divorced and now having us drink-up his rare vinous assets before the settlement.

Ken laughed with the rest of us, and replied: “Duimpie, for me the only thing better than tasting special wines like these is to drink them in the company of true friends like you bunch of miscreants.”

Of course, one of the more profound features of Ken’s place in the wine world is his role in establishing a formidable position for Chenin Blanc in the modern offering of South African wine. After decades of cheffing in the mosh-pits of Southern Sun Hotels and then stomping a culinary stamp on Johannesburg with restaurant Gatriles, he mosied down to Stellenbosch in 1993 to “make the best white wine in the world”. The seed towards this modest goal had been planted by the effect great white Burgundies had had on him, wines he’d come across during his restaurant days.

With old Chenin Blanc vines growing on the newly-acquired Scholtzenhof spread, and a few individuals such as Irina von Holdt having began to show an interest in reviving the fortunes of an ubiquitous variety that had fallen out of favour thanks to the sudden local interest in Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, Ken went Chenin. “The position of Chenin Blanc acolyte was pretty vacant when I arrived in the Cape,” he told me, “so having seen the quality of the grapes and vineyards, why not go for it?”

Without any formal winemaking training, to boot. He might have been a deft hand with a duck and cherry pie, but viticulture and oenology were things even Ken had to admit to initially being beyond him.

“I had no formal training in the field, which perhaps was a blessing as I had no preconceived ideas of what this or that has to smell or taste like, and under what conventions something had to be made,” he told me. “There was nothing to confine me. Sure, you make mistakes along the way – a lot of them – but there is nothing like making a mistake to force you to learn. Quickly.”

Mates such as Martin Meinert helped, and today I can say from having watched and listened and seen that Ken can truly back-up his talk with prodigious insight in winemaking and viticulture, along with a seemingly natural talent with all things grape. He does old vines and pruning techniques, cover-crops and mulches together with fermenting, lees contact, barrel-selection, understanding of terroir and blending. He knows his stuff in the vineyard and the cellar, as the immense commercial success and critical acclaim shows and continues to show.

And of marketing and promoting, few come close – and I’m talking the world here. “Ken’s an animal,” Mark Norrish, former wine-buyer for Ultra, once said. “The guy just never stops working, doesn’t miss a beat and can sell chopsticks to the Chinese.” And the social stamina, an under-looked requirement in the world of wine promotion, is legendary.

“One ouk you don’t want to end-up with in a contest to see who’ll close the bar, is Ken Forrester,” says Eben Sadie. “He has hollow legs and can party guys half his age under the table.”

Personally, I’ve had my run-ins with Ken, but these have left me with respect rather than the usual petty vindictiveness that is such an unfortunate part of the wine world. For one, he’d just started making his legendary FMC Chenin Blanc when I mentioned to his PR that I found a noticeable dose of botrytis in the wine, which to me was overdone. Obviously, word got to him, and for a few months Ken would look at me as if I had a tarantula on my forehead. Pouring an FMC at a tasting he couldn’t help saying “let’s just have a glass of botrytis juice, shall we?” We both understood each other, with no further talk on the subject needed.

Ken’s crusade against and high-profile admonishment of cork closures continue to be a tad relentlessly tiring to me, seeing as I consult to a cork company and do so with pride. But his conviction is true and real, and can thus be admired, should it not?

In only 30 years, Ken Forrester has founded and created one of South Africa’s great wine brands. With quality in the bottle. He is individual and authentic in character as well as a vocally proud and convincing flag-bearer for the country’s wine industry, the kind of guy anybody who must fight the fight for wine South Africa wants on his or her side. No fools are suffered, no full glass goes untouched, and be assured that there will always only be one Ken Forrester.

And he be legend.

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Born to be Great: The Swartland Sadies

A winemaker’s confidence comes effortlessly if it is earned. During a recent presentation of the new vintages from David & Nadia, the ease David Sadie showed in his own skin bordered on the edge of audaciousness for such a young man and relative newcomer to the South African wine scene. Firm, steady voice seamlessly jumping between English and Afrikaans. A no-nonsense and pared-down description of the vineyards and earth from which he and wife Nadia make their wines, and how they make it. Not a moment’s hesitation shown during question time, steering curve-balls to fine-leg and without an iota of doubt in his answers.

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Jouberts and the Wine Genes

There may have been a few deviations over the past 340 years, but it is with immense pride, humility and gratitude that I can lay claim to my DNA including South Africa’s oldest wine-farming ancestry.

The Joubert side, which arrived at the Cape on 20 August 1688 in the form of Pierre Joubert from La Motte d’Aigues in the Luberon, saw that part of the forebears leading the way in the French Huguenots’ remarkable contribution to South African wine culture. Oupa Pierre had scarcely walked ashore at Table Bay when he was already scoping out the local terroir, reading the winds and deciding that if he was going to continue the family legacy of vinous excellence, he better get hell out of Cape Town. Head north-east to the mountains and valleys of Franschhoek, where he founded La Motte Estate.

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Pick a Chenin Blanc and Meet your Breedekloof Maker

I really thought hell would freeze over before a bunch of rural Breedekloof winemakers would be eating raw fish at an Italian joint in Cape Town while talking about their Chenin Blanc wines. And while hell is still blazing, apparently, it was cold enough to freeze the scrotum on a brass monkey when the Breedekloof Makers – aforementioned group of Chenin Crusaders – hit town to offer their current wares. Raw slices of red roman – Italian style at Riva Restaurant – optional.

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Kleine Zalze and the Sweet-spot

It has now been ten-and-something years since the wines of Stellenbosch property Kleine Zalze first passed my parched lips, and to this day I still have to find a wine under this label that fails to hit the spot. Starting at the entry level Cellar Selection range, made from grapes sourced from around the Coastal Region, to the top-tier Family Reserves from Stellenbosch, Klein Zalze just seems to get it right. Always.

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