There are 12 varietals planted on the 120 ha Waterford Estate, though only half of the Estate is planted to vine.
Therefore 12 varietals on 60 ha. And not just any varietals, there is the obvious Cabernet Sauvignon, for which Waterford (and by extension, Stellenbosch) is known, but then there is also Mourvedre, Tempranillo, Barbera, Sangiovese… I found it strange. Having recently spoken to winemakers who tend to focus on a small number of varietals, in a bid to get it right. But you see, it’s Stellenbosch. The soils of Stellenbosch, flanked as they are in the West by Papegaaiberg, in the South by Stellenbosch Mountain, in the East and the Southeast by the Jonkershoek, Drakenstein and Simonsberg mountains; the different aspects and terrain provide a diverse selection of terroir suited to a grand number of varietals. An illuminating thought, though one could argue that discovering the very obvious is always a kind of watershed moment, after all there had to be a reason Stellenbosch is credited as our winemaking capital. Having dedicated so much time to the NEW, it occurred to me that it might just be time for us to reassess the OLD (or not so old).
Tim Atkin’s Young Winemaker of the Year, Mark Le Roux, talks (passionately) about the one white varietal they grow on the farm, the 1988 block of Chardonnay. Situated in a little corner, where two mountains meet, creating an unexpected cool climate ’hoekie’ which produces truly iconic Chardonnay from one of the oldest blocks in the country. “You can’t buy time.” he says when I ask about his opinion on old vines. Then there’s the block up on the slopes of Helderberg, which he compares to the Spanish plains: arid, hot, 5% soil with the rest, rocky outcrop, a challenge to any vine that dare survive it. His passion is scientific, and patient. He spends a lot of time with viticulturist and friend, Dawie, discussing and rediscussing what soil should go with what varietal and how to treat it. I ask what, in HIS opinion is the best wine he’s made so far, and he says we have to wait, the Cab is still in the barrel; but for now he’d gladly go with the Chardonnay 2015, which he feels to be a prime South African example.
There is a sense of excitement about the winemaking here and Mark has given it some thought. He explains that winemaking in South Africa has gone through 3 phases (so far). The first phase was when we were starting to establish our individual identities with bodies such as the Cape Winemakers Guild; of which Kevin Arnold, cellar master and managing partner at Waterford Estate, was a founding member. The second was when we focussed on creating BETTER wines by employing technology and using a number of techniques to enhance our wines. The third, which we find ourselves in today, and of which Le Roux is a prime example, is focussed on expressing the soils and character of our South African terroir. Doing less and achieving more. By employing creative winemaking techniques, using open top, egg-shaped and cement fermenters he purposefully stays away from oak where he can, to allow the varietals to express themselves without flavour influence. Did you know that cement is porous and allows the wine to breathe? Or that the shape of the vessel can impart a certain character by allowing less oxygen contact? Le Roux gets to experiment everyday, the point being that there is so much yet to discover. It is their Library Collection, once-off labels, which allows Mark to live out his wine fantasies. Case in point the LC Riesling, made from Elgin grapes, but not as you’d imagine (should you be prone to imagining that sort of thing). Only using the inside bunches, to avoid the petroleum character of most warm South African Rieslings he says. An incredible food wine he says. So much so, he was able to give us a complete pairing, which when referenced by the winemaker, nay REMEMBERED by the winemaker, we’re pretty excited to try. Pulled Pork, Coriander, fresh Chilli and Vietnamese Dressing (you get to put your own spin on it).
The pairing, as he describes it, highlights another aspect of the Estate, the Waterford Way. One of the few farms in the area to offer a number of comprehensive wine experiences, ranging from their signature chocolate pairing, to walking tours, a wine drive, and tastings of both their reserve and library ranges. This is wine education at its finest, getting a feel for not only the place, but the nuances of taste. Like Mark says, your palate is only as good as you train it to be. The whole experience places wine at the centre of a lifestyle, a lifestyle involving a genuine interest and appreciation of the process and the things that complement it. Given the many strands of Waterford: the tell-tale signs of fabled winemaker and cellar master Kevin Arnold, previously winemaker at Rust en Vrede and founding member of the Cape Winemakers Guild; the addition of an internationally recognised young winemaker; the iconic tasting room that practically oozes an unspoken invitation to sit, enjoy and learn; the very many varietals and the passion with which they seem to explore the fertile (poor) soils of Stellenbosch - well, you’d be forgiven for wanting to know just what wine best encapsulates the brand. And unreservedly we’d recommend the Jem. Affectionately named for owner Jeremy Ord, the Jem is made up of 8 red varietals and is a snapshot of the many elements that make-up Waterford Estate. As such we were fortunate to secure you a number of Waterford wines this festive season. Given red wine varietals’ ageing potential, specifically Waterford’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, we thought we’d suggest a big bottle or two to grace your table this season. Remember the advantages of a big bottle format are two-fold: 1. Better ageing conditions. 2. More wine. If you’ve been dabbling in the obscure, we invite you to rediscover Stellenbosch wine this week.