The South African wine industry still has the ability to surprise.
Having been reporting and writing about the local wine scene for nearly 30 years there are few places I haven’t been. (Ok, Koekenaap way up the West Coast is one but that’s on my post-lockdown radar…)
So it was genuinely surprising to head out to Franschhoek for a meticulously organised and socially distant wine event for the first time since March – and be treated to a perspective of the familiar town and valley that I’d never seen before.
Before the coronavirus hit, I’d last been in the winelands in early March – when harvest was in full swing. Where tractors hauled wagons of grapes between rows of lush green vines, now naked canes were visible, some having already undergone a brush cut pruning. The cover crops between the rows were already well established.
Chamonix is one of the places that I have been to multiple times – but a week ago five of us penetrated a bit deeper, going beyond the old blacksmith’s workshop to the former home of Chris Hellinger who died in December 2018.
Big game trophy hunter Hellinger was a larger than life character – and his home turned guest lodge is literally stuffed full of those trophies. From the Marco Polo sheep above a fireplace to lion, leopard, buffalo, giraffe and elephant tusks!
But pass through the foyer and onto the deck or verandah and Franschhoek sprawls magnificently below. The view is majestic: with the Wemmershoek mountain’s Du Toitskop peak behind and the Middelberg across the valley hiding the Berg River dam and the Franschhoek mountains overlooking Boekenhoutskloof, Stony Brook and Holden Manz away to the left. Immediately below some zebra, wildebeest, springbok and eland hove into view after some freshly deposited hay.
“The sun only starts to shine her around 10am in winter because of the mountain behind – and it’s occasionally topped with snow,” said winemaker Neil Bruwer. He’s the “new” winemaker at Chamonix and is beginning to make his presence felt after a year in the job. And the “new” is in inverted commas because he served as the assistant winemaker to the previous incumber for two-and-a-half years before heading abroad to gain experience in the United States (Oregon) and in Australia.
The automatic association with Chamonix is Chardonnay – particularly the Reserve, Pinot Noir and then Troika, the Cabernet Franc led Bordeaux-style blend. And this was the next surprise: the Greywacke Pinotage, Chamonix White (Sauvignon/Semillon blend) and unoaked Chardonnay are also impressive – but there’s a new, as yet unlabelled and unreleased, Chenin Blanc to look forward to as well.
The Chenin is from 65-year-old vines which are being lovingly nursed back to commercial production – although that production will always be very small. Bruwer took his first crop off them in 2020 and kept it simple, making the wine in glass demi-johns. Total production ran to just 600 bottles. The wine is delicious with trademark stonefruit but the real revelation is the bright acidity. I was not the only one taken aback at the vivacity and freshness of the wine, especially in view of the fact that it’s from such old vines! Nothing was overplayed, there was a confidence about the wine which was impressive for a first effort.
To use an analogy which Hellinger would have appreciated, Bruwer has set his sights on Chenin, taken aim and is right on target.
- Fiona McDonald