Finding the Burgundian Heart of a Cape Wine Legend

Spring has broken in Burgundy, the cool air scented not by blossom or sun but by broken earth which is the very scent of life itself. From Gevrey-Chambertin, south through the vineyards of Musigny, Nuits-Saint-George, all the way down to Puligny-Montrachet, here soil is being broken between the vines. Magnificent gargantuan cart-horses walk sagely between the vineyards’ narrow rows drawing a plough that makes calm scraping sounds as the instrument’s single human driver follows behind.

I open the window on my side of the car, and the smell of wet, rich, ancient, live-giving soils of clay and marl and limestone is overwhelming. It smells of iron and stone, of cool and wet. Of goodness, and of peace. This extraordinary land, the most famous wine land in the world, is quiet. It is only the horses. And two, three individuals seated on benches among the vines, tending and caring and loving these magical mystical plants that, in six months’ time will give birth to the greatest of wines.

We cut back at the village of Puligny-Montrachet, taking a bead up the slope of the Côte-d’Or, heading back north along a narrow road. Before us lie the vineyards of Montrachet, and Bâtard-Montrachet, then Chevalier-Montrachet, open-air cathedrals of vinous glory. The stumps are short and low, the guyot-style tendrils creeping like witches’ fingers along a taut wire. Soil is russet, with chalkstone and darker clods and, in places, a powdery gravel. Marine green moss grows on some of the older, thicker vine stumps. Beneath a broad, cool grey spring sky, it is all enchanting. Glorious, in fact, as man’s intimate nurturing of nature is presented at its very best among these vineyards.

The journey is dream-like, but not without destination or purpose. For it is the Clos des Mouches that must be found. The vineyard of the honey-bees.

Back in the town of Beaune, we cut west along a winding road between vines that are now set on steeper slopes than those further south. At the top of a hill, there is a place to pull over at, and there is a map of the Beaune vineyards, for such places of geographical importance must be referenced.

And referencing is important, for we – four of us – are on a mission. A mission of paying homage to the transcendental power of the spirit of wine, one that knows no boundary in its quest to enrich kindred spirits around the world. Such as what the Clos des Mouches vineyard did.

The team finds the vineyard, and we stop at its ancient border wall. This is a high place, 280m above the sea’s level, and like the other vineyards, the 25ha Clos des Mouches is empty and it is quiet. The air is still, and the only sound is that of our feet crunching on the earth, which here is paler in colour and drier and hardier than down below Montrachet way.

We are Team De Wetshof. Johann de Wet, Bennie Stipp and Heinrich Bothman and myself, standing in the vineyard that gave birth to a South African legend.

Some 14ha of the Clos des Mouches belongs to Maison Joseph Drouhin, the iconic Burgundy house based in Beaune. This 14ha spread was the first vineyard land Drouhin acquired back in 1921, and the red and white wines made under its classic distinctive label are some of the very best from Beaune. Both Premier Cru wines, but widely regarded by those in the know as worthy of Grand Cru status.

The connection between Clos des Mouches and South Africa began in 1981 when Jan Boland Coetzee, the South African son of wine and soil, was living in Burgundy and working for Drouhin. He was here to unravel the mysteries of vine and earth, culture and history and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Experiencing Chardonnay was vital and a lesser-known pursuit for Cape winemakers, as the grape was not much known back in South Africa. The confines of wine industry legislation made the introduction of Chardonnay laborious and time-consuming. If the official route were to be followed, it would take Cape producers between 10 and 15 years to legally establish the noble white Burgundian beauty into the country.

But Danie de Wet wanted Chardonnay. And was willing to go to surreptitious lengths to establish his beloved grape variety in the limestone soils of De Wetshof, Robertson. And what a friend did Danie not have in Jan Boland Coetzee.

So it came in the raw cold months of 1981 that Jan Boland went to the Clos des Mouches vineyard and cut a few bunches of shoots from the dormant Chardonnay vines. These shoots were wrapped in newspaper, dampened. And carried back to South Africa by Fritz Joubert, a journalist and friend of Jan who had come to visit and to see Burgundy for himself.

Back on De Wetshof, Danie took those precious shoots that still smelled of Burgundy earth and of the Clos des Mouches. He propagated these, and in 1987 planted the Bateleur vineyard on De Wetshof. A vineyard planted to the exact same material as the vines we are now in 2023 standing among. Here, on the slope above Beaune looking north-east above wide-open silver skies where one truly has the world at your feet.

Each of us is busy with our own thoughts. Me, I am having visions. Of Cistercian monks tending vineyards right here some 900 years ago. The men are humming choral tunes. For despite it being a hard life, the monks are at peace, for they live by the credo that the more one suffers, the closer thou be to God. And each year, there will be a time to rejoice in the beauty and the grace of these vineyards’ ripe grapes, and then the tasting of the young wines providing joy and rewarding the toil and sombre, cold monastic life.

And now the Brothers would be looking down, perhaps. With blessing and goodwill at the way we four men from a faraway southern African land acknowledge and love the soul of all that is wine, the heart which allowed the spirit of Burgundy and the Clos des Mouches to be carried to our country. To our place. Where we hold it so very dear to our hearts, while always, just always, honouring Burgundy. Forever Burgundy.

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Pinot Noir Concert becomes a Symphony

One of the many wine events stalled by the current C-crisis was the annual Chefs’ Lunch hosted by De Wetshof Estate. The De Wet family shares the opinion that the chef community plays a profound role in promoting the wine industry, and therefore deserves all the acknowledgement it can get from those producing el vino. Thus, since 2011 De Wetshof has annually hosted a dining and wining event for between 30 and 40 chefs. It selects a different restaurant for each occasion, and it is just a kick-back, eat-and-drink affair, usually turning into an early-evening party.

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Harvest Time: It’s a Wonderful World

Harvest time in the winelands thrusts emotions to the fore, memories of pain and feelings of joy and wonder. Admiration and respect, mucho. This time of year also has me convinced that the bringing in of the grapes, the crush and the seeing of new wines on their way, this is what forges the vocation and skill of a winemaker. Every harvest past and that of now and of each following year, combined into a knotted string or collection of notches, this determines a winemaker’s destiny, will define the legacy they leave behind.

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KWV Knocks 100 in Style and with Fine Wine

I had scarcely mentioned my attendance at the KWV’s recent swanky 100th birthday party in its Cathedral Cellar when I was reminded from some circles of all the bad things the KWV had apparently committed in the South African wine industry. As usual, these comments were devoid of any fact or substance, purely wishing to remind me that the KWV was “a monopoly”, had a “tarnished legacy” and was “broederbond”, the latter being an organisation of which most who throw its name around know about as much as Patricia de Lille is familiar with the domestic water systems of ancient Rome.

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Springfield’s World of Time and Rock

Robertson Wine Region supremo Danie de Wet calls him the Salvador Dali of winemakers, but Abrie Bruwer is not that weird. The proprietor and cellar-master of Springfield Estate, just down the road from Danie, is one of those enigmatic silent forces found lurking about the silent depths of the South African wine industry. Abrie’s idea of social media is allowing a neighbour to borrow that day’s copy of Die Burger newspaper. Twitter is something a bird makes before you shoot it. And I quite honestly believe he would rather choose to never go out on the sea to fish again, ever, than to post a selfie of himself smiling next to a bottle of one of his wines or thumbs-upping the harvest.

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Watching Chardonnay Artists at Work

Anybody doubting whether wine is art should be a fly on the wall when winemakers get together to ascertain the merits and the components for making up a certain blend. I always find this an enriching experience, validating my conviction that wine does and always should stand apart from all other alcoholic elixirs.

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Jay McInerney Speech at Celebration of Chardonnay

The sixth De Wetshof Celebration of Chardonnay was held last week on De Wetshof Estate in Robertson. Now one of the world’s leading Chardonnay events, this year’s occasion was addressed by American novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney. Herewith his complete speech on Chardonnay, terroir, Marilyn Monroe and Cape wine quality.

 Chardonnay is the great chameleon of viticulture, or to put it in a slightly less flattering light, more than a bit of a trollop. It’s the world’s most famous and beloved white wine grape. It’s a superstar, beloved of drinkers and growers, famous all over the world. But it’s also an enigma wrapped in a mystery.   

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Between a Rock and a Chablis Place

I am having a slight disagreement with Danie de Wet about limestone, that integral soil component needed for the growing of great Chardonnay grapes. And the debate’s gist involves creepy-crawlies and seashells.

Robertson, home to Danie and De Wetshof, also has the highest limestone content of any South African wine-producing region. Like Burgundy and Champagne has shown, Chardonnay comes to the fore in chalky lands. It has to do with pH and balance in the wines; structure and verve and longevity.

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