Hot Stuff

“WANTED. Sussed, innovative winemaker. Must be young, open to new ideas, and skilled in working with a variety of grapes and styles. Willingness to work long, physical hours is essential. Should be an expert taster, have familiarity with new technology and an appreciation of old vineyards and terroir.” 

If the advert above ran in the classifieds, the candidates below wouldn’t struggle to make the shortlist. These winemakers have travelled and tasted widely, and hold responsible positions at local farms. Many make their own labels on the side. They are all trendsetting examples of South Africa’s youthful wine energy. 

Let’s start with Johan Meyer, 28, of Mount Abora, with his maiden 2012 Saffronne Cinsaut Blanc de Noir. After the dry, rosé-style wine set off a frenzy of converts during summer, Johan is doubling 2013 production. And, oh, Neal Martin of eParker.com awarded it 90 points. Johan’s studies at Elsenburg were capped with harvests in California, New Zealand, France and Tulbagh. He moved to Mount Abora in Riebeek Kasteel for the 2012 vintage. As a Swartland Independent member, he is committed to natural fermentations, no filtering or acidification. Like many of his Swartland mates, Johan believes “working your grapes right and your wine right” means not having to rely on lots of new wood. 

Johan puts no limits on experimentation. In the Mount Abora Koggelbos Chenin Blanc, he combines three winemaking methods. Unusually for a white, one-third of grapes and stems are fermented hot and quickly for a few weeks, to maximise character. Another third are de-stemmed and chilled for a week to extract the utmost flavour. The last grape batch is whole-bunch pressed. Johan prefers Swartland fruit for his Mount Abora and Antebellum labels—the farm produces Cinsaut, Syrah and Chenin. But his favourite varieties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, two wines he makes under his private JH Meyer Signature Wines label. Grapes from two vineyards in cool-climate Elgin are farmed and made as naturally as possible. The 2011 vintage produced 1 200 bottles apiece of Pinot and Chardonnay. A UK importer took the lot. 

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Matthew Day, 27, clocked up a few overseas harvests before slotting in as assistant, and later winemaker, at one of South Africa’s oldest farms. Since new owners took over Klein Constantia in 2011, Matthew reports investment in the vineyards and cellar is planned, but it’s all focused on practical areas such as streamlining winemaking practices and improving fruit quality. He has free reign to experiment, provided he’s mindful of the farm’s history and keeps within those parameters. With much of this property’s reputation resting on Vin de Constance dessert wine, Matthew has instigated a return to traditional methods of farming. So new Muscat de Frontignan plantings are being planted as bushvines, not supported by trellises. He believes Constantia should be leading South Africa’s charge with Sauvignon Blanc. His out-of-the-box thinking with this grape involves using micro-oxygenation during fermentation. He says it keeps yeasts happy, constantly mixes up the lees, and a happy ferment means the vine doesn’t stress. 

At age 30 Howard Booysen has diverse wine experiences under his belt. His entry into wine was via a three-year Cape Winemakers Guild internship, where he was mentored by some of the best minds in the business. Howard appeared in assorted cellars and vineyards in a 13-episode TV series called Exploring the Vine, with fellow Elsenburg digs-mates winemaker, Stuart Botha, and viticulturist James Corder. Until late 2012, he also moonlighted as a sommelier at Aubergine restaurant, making his own wine on the side. He joined Highlands Road Estate in Elgin for harvest 2013, so his private label production moves there, too. At Highlands Road, Howard has a few experiments on the go. One is making a Sauvignon Blanc MCC. He’s also doing a field blend of Sauvignon with Semillon. Unusually, these two blocks have ripened at parallel times, so they’ll be picked, crushed and blended simultaneously. This German Riesling fanatic makes a jaw-droppingly good, off-dry SA Riesling under the Howard Booysen Boutique Wines label. Also worth trying is his second-tier private label. The drier-style Pegasus Riesling and Pegasus Cinsaut both use Stellenbosch fruit. 

You probably haven’t heard much about Mia Fischer. For the past three years, the 30-year-old winemaker has quietly worked with a manicurist’s obsession to extract maximum vineyard potential for the 4G project. The released G.2010 and G.2011 vintages are meticulously crafted red blends from 12 vineyard blocks. These are South Africa’s priciest wines, 3 410 bottles selling at R3 000 apiece. Ultra-exclusive packaging, overseas consultants and investors all collaborate in this ‘First Growth wine from the Cape’. Says Mia: “We may be the most expensive SA wine currently, but we’re doing some pretty amazing stuff. We spend an immense amount of time in the vineyards—for four months each October we go into every block and look at every vine. We’re literally nurturing our vines, grape for grape, on a daily basis. A lot of winemakers would like to, but don’t have the time or finances to take it to that level.” Extensive grape sorting in the cellar follows, before tank and barrel time. Mia says she relishes the pressure of creating something so good somebody will say: you know what, it’s actually worth that price tag.

Hailing from a sheep farm in the Karoo, Constantia Glen winemaker Justin van Wyk always wanted to work in agriculture. During a high school holiday spent in Groot Constantia’s vineyards, he found his career path. Now 28, this cum laude viticulture and oenology graduate from Stellenbosch University is winemaker for Constantia Glen. He specialises in blends including a white Sauvignon/Semillon called Two, alongside elegant reds called Three and Five (three and five Bordeaux varieties respectively). Justin is precise in his approach, using chemistry to back up his hunches. But there is room for creativity. “The old way is to harvest a whole block. But with our Cab Franc vineyard, I’ll pick a small ripe portion producing only 2,5 tonnes, then return to pick bits again.” Since 2012 he’s introduced an open wooden fermenter for these small parcels of top-notch fruit to enhance the final blend. He also makes wine for neighbour Beau Constantia as a consultant. The project kicked off with the Beau Constantia Viognier in 2010. It’s a cooler-climate mineral-floral style. “Although only three barrels, it was phenomenal, and received fantastic ratings,” he says. 

Jurgen Gouws has a day job at Lammershoek cellar in the Swartland, helping Craig Hawkinscraft distinctive wines. Neighbour Eben Sadie calls Jurgen “solid” and also rates the private Intellego label made by him as solid. Jurgen, 30, assisted Sadie with two different vintages. “At Lammershoek we’re making a fresher style, picking earlier, with lower alcohols. When I worked with Eben in South Africa and in Spain, we picked a bit riper and later. My Intellego wines are probably somewhere in between,” he explains.

Elementis Chenin Blanc is Jurgen’s most groundbreaking wine. It pushes boundaries as a white wine made like a red—the grapes fermenting on their skins for three weeks. One barrel results. His Intellego Chenin Blanc in turn favours Swartland character, the grapes fermented separately to reflect different soils. “The varietal character must show. Somebody in Russia must recognise my wine as Swartland Chenin Blanc,” he says. Like Johan Meyer, Jurgen doesn’t acidify or add yeasts, and spurns new oak so he can retain “the purity” of wine. Intellego Red allows for varietal expression. The 2011 is 12 per cent Mourvèdre and 88 per cent Syrah, the 2012 similar. From the 2012 vintage, expect two different Syrah-dominated Intellego Reds. They were inspired by seven months spent in France’s Côte-Rôtie, where he noted how different appellations produced different-tasting wines, despite using the same variety. Exciting stuff.