Contenders for 2017 SA Winemaker of the Year include great ‘engineers’

“THE 2000 hectares of old vines that South Africa has is important… It’s part of our history, part of our future, but it’s not going to take our industry forward… What about the other 95 000 hectares!” So reasons Bruwer Raats, applauded as top producer in Platter’s SA Wine Guide, champion of the varieties Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc, outspoken winemaker and one of Stellenbosch’s leading proponents of engineering greatness in the vineyard.

“I founded Raats Family Wines on Old Vines Chenin Blanc,” remembers the man who’s been on the lookout for 30-, 40-, 50-year-old plantings for longer than many of his peers, including most of the ‘Swartland Revolutionaries’. Then we all had the belief that old vines are always superior. But down the line, some six-, seven-, eight-year-old vineyards are outperforming some of the old vines.”

The ‘Eden’ project began in 2004 with the purchase of a property alongside the Vlaeberg Road in the Polkadraai area where Raats built his house. Preparation of the ground began in 2005 and continued for three years, involving various cover crops to rejuvenate the soil after a long period of neglect and abuse. Planting of the vines took place in 2009, using the tried-and-trusted Cab Franc clone 214 and the Montpellier Chenin Blanc, a low-yielding clone he hadn’t used before but which showed much promise. (Brought to South Africa in the 1960s, Montpellier typically yields six, seven or eight tons per hectare and wasn’t popular among the majority of farmers who preferred 20 or 30 tons/ha).

The vines are one metre apart within each row, with the rows 1.2 metres apart – the norms being closer to 1.5 and 2.8 respectively, allowing for a tractor to pass through. This ‘high density’ forces the roots of the vine to penetrate deeper into the ground, competing with its neighbours in the search for nutrients. And the vines are individually staked, each bush trained up a pole and managed with the goal of lower yields and smaller berries come harvest time. 8000 vines per hectare. Everything by hand. Expensive to run. The winemaking completed at Landrust in Somerset West, the cellar that was once home to the JP Bredell ports and red wines of big Anton Bredell.

What Raats is doing is not new to the world of wine. They do it in Burgundy and Bordeaux, he says, but it’s fairly new to South Africa. 2014 was the first vintage from the Eden vineyards – too little to speak of. The 2015s from six-year-old vines – just 1000 bottles of the Chenin and only 300 of the Cabernet Franc – were both accorded 5 Stars in Platter’s, as were five other Raats wines. Tiny quantities. R600 and R1500 per bottle respectively.

One wonders about the benefits of such engineering success adapted on a larger scale, and we look forward to the next examples from South Africa’s other great winemakers. Eben Sadie, for instance, having recently received a prestigeous Winemaker’s Winemaker Award from the Masters of Wine institute in the UK, is waiting for the first fruit from new plantings on his farm in the Paardeberg, Swartland – fruit which apparently will be used to enhance his signature blends Palladius (white) and Columella (red) in a few years’ time. And not forgetting that for some years already, Dewaldt Heyns has been working with grapes from vines yet to become teenagers in producing the glorious Shiraz and ‘Full Circle’ blend at Saronsberg in Tulbagh.

The other contenders for SA Winemaker of the Year? Well you’d have to include Abri Beeslaar of Kanonkop on the Simonsberg in Stellenbosch, having won big at the International Wine & Spirit Competition awards in London with Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon. Andries Burger of Paul Cluver Wines in Elgin and Warren Ellis of Neil Ellis Wines on the Helshoogte Paas in Stellenbosch have been extraordinarily successful in 2017, as has Carl van der Merwe of DeMorgenzon, Stellenbosch Kloof, where they go to the lengths of playing music to their vines…

May 2018 be another good year for Wine SA. Despite the drought!

 

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