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I am the Helderberg

“I am the Helderberg!”

I am the Helderberg

Said Wade Metzer when I met him recently for an interview. While I really LIKE Wade I wanted to get up and pat him on the back and whisper: “No my friend, I’M Helderberg.” But you know, being from the Helderberg area also comes with a deep sense of courtesy, and so I let him think that he is Helderberg… Besides he was saying it in reference to WINE, and given his contributions, I’d happily share Helderberg in exchange for his winemaking skills.

He had made the comment about his experience working with Eben Sadie in the Swartland, when Eben was helping him source Shiraz there circa 2006/2007. What he realized is people like Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst ARE the Swartland. They know THAT cloud over THAT outcrop spells wind (not rain – this is the Swartland remember), while his winemaking, then still making wine both in the Helderberg area and the Swartland didn’t allow him enough time to actually BECOME any one place. Since then he has refined his efforts and focused them exclusively on making wine in what was once known as the ‘unfashionable’ side of the Helderberg (viticulturally speaking), the Firgrove, False Bay side. MY valley, now I suppose, OURS.  

The Giver

Wade is a giver. Or at least he aspires to be, as I think we all do? He references Adam Grant and his book ‘Give and Take’ when speaking about the virtues of the new generation of South African winemakers, or the ‘grapevine’ as I have dubbed them. 

“Some people, when they do someone a favour, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren’t, but they’re still aware of it - still regard it as a debt. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return … after helping others… They just go on to something else…We should be like that” – Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor).

The book talks about givers, matchers and takers – ‘matchers’ being givers who are only happy to GIVE if they can expect it back in equal measure. Though, as you can imagine, it is the people who give without a thought of the exchange rate who prove most successful. A theory, I think, best demonstrated in our wine industry today. Metzer speaks enthusiastically about his mentors, winemakers such as Miles Mossop and Eben Sadie. Describing them as completely open, THEIR experience an open book to those who wish to learn something from it. Which if his Tim Atkin ratings are anything to go by, he has. 

Unfashionable Helderberg

I have recently noticed a renewed focus on the unfashionable side of Helderberg winemaking, with people like Erika Obermeyer making wines from Firgrove grapes and being heralded the Best Newcomer in last year’s Platter’s Guide; or Andrea and Chris Mullineux and their Leeu Passant range having recently received 95 point ratings from Greg Sherwood. From a local perspective let me try to explain. You see, all the grand wine estates lie on the other side of the Helderberg, going toward Stellenbosch, while the vines planted on the Firgrove, False Bay side have none of the pomp of those Estates. With the Firgrove train station situated there, right amongst the vines, it was always seen as more of an industrial area, with a number of warehouses leading back into town. Today many of the original farmers on THIS side of Helderberg have folded under the economic pressure and sold the land to development companies, meaning that the flat lands that had, in the past run all the way down to False Bay are now densely populated. There are however a few vinous strongholds yet.  

Old Vine Wine

Wade is about natural winemaking, wines that express Helderberg in all its guises, something he says he’s still discovering every day. As such Wade is a member of the Old Vine Project and a staunch supporter of finding and cultivating old vines. Which as defined by the Old Vine Project are vines over 35 years of age with an astonishing number of these still being cultivated in the Helderberg area. (You will note Wade’s wines wearing Old Vine seals with the planting date indicated as a stamp of authenticity.) One of Wade’s oldest vineyards is the Montane block situated on Klein Helderberg Farm, planted in 1964 and run by a Rupert McNaught Davis. Davis tells of Willem Adriaan van der Stel having been chased up a tree by a Rhinoceros for two days on that very piece of land – immediately making me imagine the densely populated area as it is now in stark contrast to the wilderness it must have been for a Rhinoceros to keep you in a tree for two days. It is growers such as these who are under economic threat of having to pull up their vines, but then as Rosa Kruger notes in her introduction to the Old Vine Project: “Old vines often reflect the lives and the culture of the people – the fishermen on the coast, the sheep farmers inland, the wheat farmers of the Swartland and the fruit farmers of Piekenierskloof – and are often preserved by sentiment rather than budgets.” It is this sentiment that has proven good.


Wade is a man after authenticity. In his vines. In his chosen varietals. And in his winemaking techniques. He names famous music producer Rick Rubin as his inspiration, known for his ‘stripped-down’ sound, eliminating production elements like string sections, backup vocals etc. in an effort to focus on the artist’s (in his case people like AC/DC, Adele, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Metallica, basically anyone who was ever any good) vocals. Honest. With this in mind Metzer aims to work with uniquely South African varietals as he sees it, this area being particularly well-suited to Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Cinsault – each of which he has made beautifully. Some of the Firgrove vineyards are planted only 4km from the ocean, thereby imbuing the wine with the sweet salinity and elegance of the sea. While with the Cinsault he insists on working with only 20 year old vines AT LEAST, and has had the pleasure of working with a 28 year old block that Tim Atkin deems: “Peppery, sappy aromas from 30% whole bunches lead you into a juicy, succulent palate that’s got more tannin than you think.”

More recently Metzer’s delved into what on its surface might seem like a hipster’s foray, but on closer inspection has been revealed to be one of the oldest winemaking techniques there are. Pétillant Naturel, Pét-Nat for short, or Méthode Ancestrale – a precursor to Méthode Champenoise. A Pét-Nat is one of the oldest, simplest ways of making sparkling wine, basically involving the bottling of half fermented wine and letting it complete its fermentation in the bottle, producing carbon dioxide which is then later absorbed into the wine as tiny (or sometimes large) bubbles. Production can be extremely variable and is mostly dependent on the winemaker’s level of skill. In the end however a Pét-Nat is billed as a raw, rustic, and lively wine which is an extreme reflection of its terroir and therefore perhaps one of the most authentic expressions of wine {though I do not wish to be drawn into debate on this point.}  What I CAN tell you, is that Wade shared an unlabelled bottle of his 100% Chenin from 38 year old vines, situated just 4 km from the shores of False Bay, first-ever, Pét-Nat with me and knowing the shores of that Bay as I do, I KNEW it to be true. 

Who would have thought that this first generation, half Swiss, winemaker from Benoni could so fully BECOME the Helderberg.

Published On: 06/05/2019

Daléne Fourie

Twitter @DaleneFourie

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