African dream

  • Monday 1 September 2003

African dream

South Africa's Veenwouden has won a string of awards for tis Merlot-based wines. JOHN STIMPFIG pays a visit to find out why.

Like many famous wine stories, it begins with a great bottle. The South African operatic tenor Deon van der Walt was having lunch with Billy Hofmeyer, an old friend, vintner and land surveyor, when his host opened a 1982 Château Pétrus. 'I had enjoyed many fabulous wines, but this was quite the most fantastic thing I had ever tasted,' says van der Walt. 'In fact, I was so in awe of it that I asked him what I needed to do to make a wine like this. He told me I had to buy a wine farm.'

So he did. In 1988, with the help of Hofmeyer, van der Walt bought an old, 18ha (hectares) table grape farm just north of Paarl, with stunning views across the valley to the Klein Drakenstein Mountain. He was after more than a pretty view, however. His stated intention was to make a top-quality South African red, fashioned after Pomerol's finest.

Today, many believe he has more than achieved that ambition in surprisingly short order. The facts speak for themselves, with Veenwouden's flagship reds having bagged a sackful of stars, medals and plaudits right around the world. 'I think it helped that we set our stall out so early to make top-class Merlot in a Right Bank style. We wanted to get everything, down to the last detail, absolutely right,' says winemaker and viticulturalist Marcel van der Walt. As you might imagine, he is closely related to the owner. Yes, you've guessed it – they're brothers.

Marcel isn't the only family member involved in the enterprise. With Deon preoccupied with his singing career, he coaxed his father out of retirement to supervise the creation of the vineyard and winery. Charles van der Walt, a former building constructor, began planting in 1989 and finished in 1993.

By another lucky coincidence, Deon is a close friend of Meerlust's owner, Hannes Myburgh. The friendship enabled Deon to secure the services of Georgio Della Ciao, one of South Africa's greatest winemakers, as consultant. Then, in 1993, Marcel joined as winemaker.

'In truth, this was something of a gamble because although Marcel had always been a good taster, he had no practical or technical experience,' says Deon. Instead, he had been the pro at the nearby Paarl Golf Course.

Fortunately, Marcel has turned out to be a better (and more passionate) winemaker than he was a golfer. 'I never trained as a winemaker at oenology school,' he says. 'Instead, I just picked it up by practical experience. Georgio gave me all the dos and don'ts and was a great mentor. But I also worked my bones off. It's physically as well as mentally exhausting because there's so much to absorb – [I felt] like a sponge. But I loved it from the first minute.'

Della Ciao wasn't Marcel's only mentor. In 1994, he worked the harvest with Merlot guru Michel Rolland at his family property Bon Pasteur, in Pomerol. 'We became good friends, partly because we both love golf as well as wine,' says Marcel. 'In fact, I'm probably the only person to get him out on the course during harvest time.'

Not that there's been much driving, chipping or putting of late. (Marcel's handicap has slipped to six.) Since 1997, Marcel has taken on full-time responsibility for the vineyards. And he's as fanatical about viticulture as about winemaking.

'That was another steep learning curve. But as a winemaker, it's so fascinating to get to know a vineyard and how to get the best out of it. I can't understand those winemakers who jump from winery to winery – there's no way that you can know a vineyard after just two years. I'm still learning after 10!'

The warm climate and unique soil at Veenwouden have helped. 'In particular, we spent a lot of time looking for the right soil type. So when we completed all the analyses, we knew we'd found what we were looking for,' says Marcel.

'For a start, there's a lot of clay and ironstone, which is perfect for Merlot. Then there's a gravelly ridge running through the middle of the vineyard, which is ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon.' As a result, about 70% was planted to Merlot and 30% to Cabernet Sauvignon. On top of that, there's about a hectare made up of Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Viticultural and winemaking techniques are everything you would expect from a boutique, quality-focused operation. 'We aim for low yields – around 36–38hl/ha – and invariably we green harvest,' Marcel points out. Fermentation in stainless steel tanks can vary from eight to 18 days on the skins, depending on the vintage. The press wine and free-run juice are, of course, kept separate and both go through malo. Then the wines are tasted, and if necessary, some of the press wine will be blended back. After that, the wines are aged in French oak for up to two years.

'Again, the amount of new oak depends on the vintage,' adds Marcel. 'If you have ripe tannins and big fruit, it can take a lot of new oak. But in cooler vintages such as 1996 and 1997, we only used around 60% new, as opposed to 80–90%. You don't want to kill a subtle, less robust wine with too much oak. Otherwise, you'll end up chewing wood. You have to use what nature gives you.'

The right way

With its Right Bank leanings, it is no surprise that one of Veenwouden's flagship wines is its Merlot, (often with a dash of Cabernet). In contrast, the 'Classic' is an equally serious homage to the Left Bank in general and Ducru Beaucaillou in particular. (Ducru 1990 is one of Marcel's favourite wines.) Consequently, the sumptuous 2000 Classic is a blend of 50% Cabernet and 35% Merlot, with 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Malbec.

'They are two completely different wines in terms of personality and style,' says Marcel. 'The Merlot is more a fleshy, sexy and juicy wine, whereas the Classic is more muscular and tannic.' However, there is a common stylistic theme to both, in so far as Marcel is aiming for a degree of boldness, but never at the expense of finesse and elegance.

'What I am really trying to do is create great food wines which compare with the best in the world. Too many wines are so big that after two glasses, you want to go and lie down.'

Veenwouden also produces a Merlot-dominated blend, Vivat Bacchus – really the estate's second label. Consequently its production varies from year to year. Nevertheless, the wine has developed a substantial following, as has Veenwouden's tiny Chardonnay production, which usually amounts to a measly two barrels.

Without question, the estate's meteoric success has catapulted it into the frame as one of South Africa's hottest cult, boutique wineries. 'Yes, it is more than we expected because we didn't think success would come quite so quickly,' says Deon.

'We thought it might take 15 years, but actually we achieved it within five,' agrees Marcel. 'When we produced our first vintage, Deon's celebrity meant that we weren't taken seriously and were seen as a flash in the pan. The next vintage was better still, but the third, in 1995, was our breakthrough. That was the year I took over the winemaking and fortunately for me, it was a fantastic vintage. The wines were really superb and we picked up five stars from Decanter and The Platter Guide.'

Although 1996 was a cooler vintage, Veenwouden still produced extremely good wines. Then, in 1997, the Classic beat the likes of Opus, Sassicaia, Haut Brion and Latour at the International Wine & Spirit Competition. The following year, Marcel won the Air France trophy for the best red wine and yet more stars. It's been like this ever since.

Fame and success haven't gone to Marcel's head, probably because he's such a perfectionist. (He even checks all labels are straight on the bottles before they leave the winery.)

'We plan to stay at the same size (producing some 5,500 cases annually) and really focus on quality and consistency,' he says. If anything, Marcel believes quality has continued to improve as the vines grow older. 'I think we are getting more complexity and concentration, which is just what we want.'

Not surprisingly, he doesn't regret his decision to change career from golfer to winemaker, even though it's a much tougher and more demanding job. 'The thing about golf is that you always get a second chance to get back on par. With wine, there's only one chance every vintage.' Fortunately though, Marcel hasn't dropped any shots so far. In fact, Veenwouden is proving to be very much ahead of the game.

John Stimpfig is a contributing editor to Decanter, and the 2002 Glenfiddich Wine Writer of the Year.

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