10 November Winemakers

It’s interesting how often a change of winemaker transforms the wines coming from a producer’s cellars. On the surface this seems like a contradiction of the perennial message about how the “wines are made in the vineyard.” You might expect a result like this following a change in the viticulturist, or a different farming regime – but if the winemaker is simply the midwife (which is the standing myth) why should the baby emerge any differently?

There’s much that this debate shares in common with any discussion around the importance of the role of the Formula One driver – who stands to win the driving championship – and the marque (which wins the Constructor’s championship). The car is the car, it’s the same raw material, but a different hand guides the outcome. Nowhere has this been more evident than at Gabrielskloof where Peter-Allan Finlayson has tweaked the already fine wines produced at this Botrivier property so that they are palpably different.

A few years back the cellar’s two Bordeaux blend landed up amongst the highest scoring wines in their class at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Their identity was, of course, unknown to the judges and in the end one finished on gold (and won the Trophy) whereas the other finished in high silver, effectively the runner up. When the results were announced, it transpired that the ultra premium wine had been beaten by the less expensive release. As show chairman I was a little nonplussed, so I tasted both wines together at the first possible occasion – and I had no difficulty agreeing with the panel’s decision. The Five Arches was over-oaked (so it tasted expensive) but it lacked the purity of fruit of the standard Blend.

Peter-Allan Finlayson, whose own Crystallum wines are an industry benchmark when it comes to pinot noir, has exactly the lightness of touch which fine wine needs. This is immediately obvious in the whites (where his vintages are already in the trade). The Magdalena (semillon-sauvignon blend) is textured and harmonious while the Elodie (chenin blanc made from Swartland grapes) balances the natural richness of old vine fruit with a delicacy that spares it any lugubriousness.

Among the reds in the ultra-premium Landscape series, both the Syrah on Sandstone and the Syrah on Shale are worth tracking down (and comparing). Both are savoury rather than plush, but the soil differences express themselves in a surprisingly marked way: the Sandstone being more perfumed, the Shale denser and more intense. However, the real hand of the winemaker is to be found in the Landscape Cabernet Franc: here freshness comes with an almost pinot-like spice, and with real precision to the finish.

There’s been an equally interesting change in the feel of Glen Carlou wines with the arrival of Johnnie Calitz to manage the 2017 vintage. Arco Laarman, his predecessor, had been in charge of the cellar since 2000 and was looking for a change – so there was ample time for Laarman to share with Calitz the key coding of the wines’ DNA. On paper therefore there should be very little difference between Laarman’s vintages (up to 2016) and Johnny Calitz’s 2017s.

My first impression – having tasted the 2017 Curator’s Collection range (small batch production where the winemaker can make a statement outside the more commercial range) – is that there will be a distinct shift in time at Glen Carlou. The 2017 whites are impressive – a function of the vintage itself, which was very good, but also of Calitz’s approach. The Sauvignon Blanc is dense and textured, while the Chenin is intense, very fine, and with lovely compote notes. There’s also a clue as to what to expect of the reds in the next few years – at least to judge from the 2016 standard release merlot, a wine that Calitz would have finished-off and bottled. It is soft, plush, juicy and definitely not simple: a real achievement with Cape merlot, and a bargain at under R100 per bottle retail.

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