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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Seven Take-outs from Prowein 2023

After 20 years of enjoying a peaceful week in March at home while all his PR clients jetted off to the Prowein show in Düsseldorf, Germany, it was time for Emile Joubert to join the fray. Here are his top impressions of the world’s largest wine trade fair.

  • The vastness of it all. This is truly something to behold. On paper the facts of 6 000 exhibitors from over 40 countries showing their liquid-wares to 50 000 people from all over the world does not begin to do justice to the real-life experience of three days at Prowein. The 13 halls, some inter-connected, others detached demanding a few hundred metres’ trek across a glum tarmac, are each at least twice the size of the Cape Town International Centre. Each hall is filled to the brim with stands of various sizes, colours and dimensions representing producers of wine and other beverages from all corners of the globe. From 09:00 to 18:00 the exhibition centres buzz as sections of the aforementioned 50 000 visitors move around the stands to conduct business, meet-and-greet and to pursue that shared inbred trait of satisfying curiosity. Pausing to take a breath while walking the 1 200m from Hall 14 – where the South African delegation camped-out – to my German mates in Hall 1 – I could not but philosophically reflect on how big the wine world actually seems. How small South Africa is. How challenging the prospect of, among all these vast vinous offerings, getting one’s wines into the global market-place. Wine gladiators, we salute you.
  • It’s all business. For the opening hours of the show, that is. While some cruisers who managed to score a Prowein ticket are happy to aimlessly waltz about tippling a drop of Uruguay Alvarinho or sculling a glass of golden Commanderia from Cyprus before attempting to swop phone numbers with one of the ice-queens on the Moldovia stand, most people attend Prowein for business. Importers, distributors and buyers from over 140 countries flit from one scheduled meeting to another reconnecting with familiar suppliers or filling an appointment with a new winery from a new country which has been identified as being, possibly, the next big thing. Down where the South African exhibitors were strutting their stuff it was impressive to see local wineries such as De Wetshof, Chamonix, Diemersdal, Kanonkop, Delheim and Kleine Zalze hosting back-to-back meetings with clients from all over the world. Making deals. Fielding queries on the general state of play back in South Africa. Providing updates on their respective farms and wineries and families, with which many of the international buyers appeared to be reassuringly familiar.
  • South African wine is on the map. Introducing myself and chatting down the diverse halls of collected nationalities, it was apparent that South Africa is seen as a major wine player and an inextricable part of the global wine space. From the more familiar wine countries of Germany, France and Italy to the exhibitors from Serbia, Ecuador and Macedonia, everybody knows of South Africa. Not all of them might be able to point-out the country on the map – or find the African continent, even – but an awareness of South African wine was evident among everyone I spoke to. Granted, most wine professionals – i.e. everyone attending Prowein – would have come across the name South Africa in their business reading and statistics lists, but the tone of familiarity shown about the country as a wine producer was pretty awesome to experience. Stellenbosch is recognised as a top region. South Africa’s hosting of the international Concours Mondial du Sauvignon Blanc was noted. Robertson has limestone and Chardonnay. And Kanonkop is one of the world’s best wineries. Familiarity, yes, and not the kind breeding any contempt as far as I could tell.

Maryna Calow from Wosa and Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof Estate.

  • South Africa has a sellable varietal mix. Moseying around the South African hall and eavesdropping in on the conversations and hustling, it is clear that the selection of Cape wine is appealing in its uncomplicated yet interesting spread. Unlike countries offering wine varieties such as Tamjanika (Serbia), Mavrud (Romania) and Malagousia (Greece), the South Africa selection represents a smorgasbord of want and familiarity: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot do not have to be explained, not even to wine-buyers from Kazakhstan or Albania. As exotics, Chenin Blanc and Pinotage have built-up an identifiable international presence with just the correct degree of curiosity-inducing edginess to round-off a undaunting, yet exciting palette of wine offerings. To this must be added the fact that Cape wines are deemed generally well-made, structurally sound and delicious, with accurate displays of varietal character. This is something the buyers at Prowein want. As one representative from a Belgian supermarket chain told me, “I am here to buy wine for my paying customers, not for impressing wine critics”.
  • We are a Vibe. As a collective of producers and marketers representing their country’s brand, South Africans are a discernibly effervescent, vivacious and spirited lot. Traipsing the Prowein halls I was on a daily basis exposed to restrained yet polite Germans, surly Eastern European wine reps who eyed you as if you owed them something, vacuously smiling Spaniards and over made-up Californians more intent on showing their dental-work than the wines before them. The South African contingent, however, greeted known and unknown visitors with hearty guffaws, spirited smiles and that “I am genuinely glad to see you” look. A shared spirit prevailed, one of warmth and confidence and genuine pride in what the gaggle of Cape wine producers have to offer.
  • It’s tough out there. To quote the great Steely Dan song – “The world that we used to know, people tell me it don’t turn not more.” Speaking to wine marketers, from those representing small producers in Alicante to French behemoths it is clear that the current global wine market is a tough one. Energy crisis in Europe. Rampant inflation. Cost-of-living. Long-term effects of Ukraine-Russia….belts are tightened and the European supermarket space is about as friendly to a wine producer as a Macedonian bouncer is to a late-night post Prowein reveller in downtown Düsseldorf’s Altstadt. Average wine prices per bottle in Europe remain shy of 2.5 euro per bottle amidst an environment where beer, ciders and non-alcohols are aggressively invading shelf-space. South African exports of packaged wine for February 2023 are 40% down on the same month’s reportage for last year, an indication of the current international environment. Suffice to say that this global market uncertainty, which is set to hang around for a while yet, is not conducive for a major overhauling of the Cape wine industry in terms of investing in the large-scale replanting of vineyards from Chenin Blanc and Colombard to more profitable varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Trendspotting among this gargantuan display of drinks offerings was about as challenging as trying to find a vegan curry-wurst, but with keen foresight and an accurate fashion sense a few focus points of attention were identified. Fizz is going great guns, for one. Champagne houses are not meeting the incredible demand for the real stuff. Prosecco is going ballistic, Spanish Cava is on the rise and even German producers of carbonated sparkling wine can’t find enough order-books to fill. Rosé is huge, with the French putting themselves forward as the only makers of pink wine worth indulging in. And brace yourselves, inky black sweet wines made from Primitivo are continuing to take European markets by storm. Wine nations stepping to the fore appear to be Portugal and Greece, both taking-up huge Prowein space with EU subsidised stalls. Although as far as the New World goes, it must be said that South Africa has an edge in terms of grabbing the imagination. Opportunity beckons, awaiting to be unleashed.

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Snoek: Classic Fish of the Cape

Snoek is not so much a fish as it is a Cape cultural phenomenon. When the large shoals comprising thousands of these lean, torpedo-shaped marine creatures begin to run around the West and South Coast of the Western Cape, there is a buzz in the air. A tangible energy and, for a while, joy and blessing, and that feeling of achievement by the fishermen who set-off on their boats, the mornings dark and kelpy, to catch the snoek. For them it is a livelihood, and a good seasonal one when the snoek shoals run thick and long, as they have done over the past three weeks. And continue to do so.

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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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De Wetshof Bateleur and the Blue Blood of Burgundy

Napoleon ordered his troops to salute the vineyards of Chambertin whenever they passed – such was his reverence for the patch of Burgundian soil that delivered his favourite wine. I get the same urge when stopping at a specific rocky lay of land on the De Wetshof Estate in Robertson and seeing that piece of earth where the gnarled Chardonnay vines stand used for creating the estate’s Bateleur Chardonnay.

And let’s face it, in these claustrophobic times of shut-down, anything named after a magnificent free-flying eagle has a particular allure.

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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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The Thrill of Un-wooded Chardonnay

I remember being put down by the late great Graham Beck whilst my admitting an appreciation for the crisp, steely wines of Chablis. “Waste of good Chardonnay, is Chablis,” said Graham, gruffly, while lifting the tumbler of Dimple Haig to his broad mouth, ice chiming in the crystal. “In Chardonnay it’s a case of no wood, no good. A waste of time.”

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Summer-wine and the living is Breezy

While there is more than enough action on the South African wine scene in terms of things new, alternative, fresh and different, it is the tried-and-trusted, classical stuff we do best. On the red wine side, this be the royal wine that is Cabernet Sauvignon which has always delivered and will always deliver the finest local reds. And when it comes to white grape varieties, South African Chardonnay is now recognised as the best in the so-called New World with many international critics reckoning the best Chardonnays outside of Burgundy – Ground Zero for this grape – are indeed from our land down south.

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