By Malu Lambert
The Zoo Biscuits are a gang of like-minded wine producers passionate about making handcrafted wines—without the backing of big wine estates.
The group initially got together for the inaugural Cape Wine 2015 in an effort to showcase their own-label wines as a collective. It worked. The Zoo Biscuits were the talking point of the event, which saw trade and media from all over the globe attending.
Their set-up also stood out from the rest of the glossy stands manned by suit-wearing representatives. Along with a red Combi, green plants and various bits of zoo paraphernalia; the winemaker uniform of choice was shorts and flip-flops.
The Zoo Biscuits clearly like to colour outside of the lines. There’s no limit for them in winemaking; be it in vineyard, method or cultivar.
Take JH Meyer Wines. Meyer is making three single vineyard Pinot Noirs, from three separate appellations. Which happen to be nowhere near one another (Elgin, Elandskloof and Craddock Peak).
“They saw the need to get a good crowd together to showcase a range of different wines at Cape Wine. “But like most domestic disputes, and long drawn out wars, the true origin of the ZBs are lost somewhere in time. With a sneaky suspicion that Peter-Allan will one day claim it was his idea.”
Why did they feel the need to create this collective? “Because trade shows can be very boring if you stand on your own for three days. And when you have safety in numbers, you’ll always pull more people to events. On a more practical note, it also gives you a lot more bang for your buck, when you look at floor space and so on.”
There are no criteria to becoming a Zoo Biscuit. “It helps to be a lekker guy or girl, with lekker wines. Added bonus if you own the brand, and can then determine the outfits you wear to public tastings without fear of what the boss might say.”
Why not work for a wine estate?
“Been there, done that,” says Francois Haasbroek (Blackwater Wines). “I did my decade stint working on a lovely estate, including rolling lawns, ducks and all the toys I could wish for. I always knew that I wanted to do my own thing, being in creative control of not just the wine but also packaging, method of marketing—the whole spectrum. It’s not for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with working for an estate or larger producer, I think you need to before starting out on your own.”
Haasbroek says that growing up in the Boland inspired the name ‘Blackwater’. He spent a lot of his time in the mountains, noticing the dark colour of the rivers, which were stained by fynbos tannins and nutrients leaching into the water. “For outsiders the almost black tea-like colour is strange and they wonder what’s wrong with it; yet you taste it and it's the best tasting water ever.”
Blackwater produces a variety of wines from single vineyards across the Western Cape, but there’s one that tells the story of the smaller producer best, the Underdog Chenin.
“It’s double tongue-in-cheek,” explains Haasbroek. “One for the ‘go on your own’ producers being underdogs, as well as for Chenin being the perennial underdog against the general consumer favourites of Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay.”
Creative control is important to John Seccombe (Thorne & Daughters) too.
“I felt that I wouldn’t be able to balance a day job and still have the creative freedom to make wine the way I wanted to.
“Plus, my wife [Tasha Seccombe] is really understanding and supportive. We felt we would be able to give more to the wines if I was exclusively focused on them.”
Seccombe is putting his unique stamp on his wines by sourcing grapes from older parcels of vines (mostly Semillon, Chardonnay, Chenin blanc and Clairette). “These are grape varieties that have a long heritage in the Cape. I've added Roussanne to the blend in ‘Rocking Horse’ as it’s a relative newcomer in the Cape. I believe it has a great future here. The idea was to draw on our historic old parcels while still looking towards the future of our vineyards. For me, this sums up where we are with viticulture and winemaking in the Cape.
“We are going to see the South African wine scene become much richer and more varied than it has been before. We’ll see a lot more smaller and niche producers coming to the party, even as the revolutionaries of last decade become established players. As competition increases, I think all producers will be forced to focus on what they are really good at, rather than trying to be a one-stop shop for a whole range of wine styles.”
That’s just the thinking behind Craven Wines. Both Mick and Jeanine Craven are still employed by wine estates (Mulderbosch and Dornier respectively) though they also have the freedom to pursue their own wine brand.
“Essentially you have complete creative control,” says Mick. “As the vigneron/winemaker you get to decide where to take your business and also what you want to make. At times it is of course rather daunting as most of us are trained in making wine, not running businesses. The great thing about the group [Zoo Biscuits] is the wealth of knowledge we share. All of us are very open to giving advice and chatting so we’re learning from each other as we go along.”
The Cravens have steered their winemaking to more unusual cultivars, such as Clairette Blanche and Pinot Gris. “We like to work with cultivars that we find interesting and make wines we want to drink. In actual fact Clairette Blanche is one of those varieties that may be unusual for most but in essence it is very 'normal' here in South Africa. It used to be one of the most widely planted grape varieties [mainly for brandy and base wine] but has been pulled out a lot in recent times. Especially in Stellenbosch as the fashion of Bordeaux varieties and Sauvignon Blanc increased.
“Pinot Gris is different. Not the most widely planted and more so there aren’t a lot of Pinot Gris bottlings. To make it even it even more 'unusual' we make it in the ramato/skin-fermented style, which is rather uncommon here.”
For Duncan Savage (Savage Wines) it was his dream to have his own wine brand before he turned 35. “It was a goal I had set myself when I started at Elsenburg. With a great surname there was no option other than to do something family orientated!”
Another thing Savage is doing differently is using amphorae in his winemaking.
“We started the amphora project with Cape Point Vineyards in 2006 with the desire to use South African made pots as opposed to French oak barrels. We went through years of experimentation and paid lots of school fees but arrived at the right pots through meeting an incredible artist, Yogi De Beer. The pots are quite oxidative, making them fantastic for fermentation and for a style less focused on upfront aromatics. The pots are also great conductors, which makes managing ferment temperatures and the like really easy. For years we have fermented Cape Point Semillon in the pots and continue to do so but I have started working with Grenache and Cinsaut on the skins in amphorae for up to four months at a time. The results are amazing and gave birth to ‘Follow the Line’.”
Another winemaker working out of Cape Point Vineyards, Trizanne Barnard (Trizanne Signature Wines) says: “I wanted to be able to create wines from grapes that I chose. Not make wine from grapes that were planted on an estate that might not have been the best choice for that site. I love diversity, change and a challenge—and working for myself I'm faced with this all the time.”
“The future for South African wine is very, very bright,” enthuses Barnard. “We're the next exciting chapter in the world of wine. The world is starting to realise this. We have such diversity in terms of vineyards and are meticulous with our site selection and winemaking. Our producers are not boring!”
If everyone's an animal in the zoo, who's who?
“Does a dolphin count? Ponders Johan Meyer. “I don't know if they’re in the zoo, but I just love the ocean and surfing. Otherwise I’ll settle for a monkey...”
The ocean-loving winemaker names Thinus Krüger as the lion. “That's quite obvious with the hair and all.” Moving onto Francois Haasbroek he gets assigned ‘the leopard’ “or some kind of smooth cat, he’s quite a smooth guy!”
And of course, when it comes to Mick Craven: “He’s an Aussie, so he’s the kangaroo!” Being a giraffe is bestowed upon Peter-Allan Finlayson as “he’s very laid back.”
Chris Alheit is apparently the elephant, “he has a soft heart, but can dominate in a crowd. He’s also a smart animal.”
John Seccombe is “definitely like a big cuddly bear” while Marelise Niemaan (Momento Wines ) Meyer says is more of a cute Koala bear; while “small and elegant” Jeanine Craven is just like “Bambi”; and finally Trizanne Barnard is given the category of penguin as “she loves the ocean like me, but I all ready chose dolphin!”
Visit www.zoobiscuits.co.za to keep updated with the goings-on in the zoo.