Stellenbosch and specifically the Helderberg’s superiority as Cabernet country, as well as the recent influx of quality Chardonnay were reflected in the results of this year’s Diners Club Winemaker of the Year awards.

Rust en Vrede’s Coenie Snyman took the honours in the senior category with his 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, while Clayton Reabow came out tops with the Moreson Chardonnay 2007 in the junior winemaker division. Both wines were the maiden vintages for the winemakers at these cellars.

The runner-up for the Winemaker of the Year award was Werner Engelbrecht from Waterkloof with the 2007 Circumstance Cabernet Sauvignon, while Kleine Zalze’s Johan Joubert slotted in at third place with the Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the same vintage. Remarkably all three Cabernet Sauvignons were 2007’s from the Helderberg ward.

Chardonnay dominated the junior battle of the dry whites, with four of the top six wines being Chardonnay. De Wetshof’s Peter de Wet and Nadia Newton Johnson were second and third respectively, both with Chardonnays.

As Winemaker of the Year 2009, Coenie will be going on a trip to any wine destination of his choice with R30 000 prize money to spend, while the junior prize money was tripled from R5 000 to R15 000.

Perfection and punchdowns

South African winemakers are now starting to better understand Cabernet Sauvignon as a varietal – with more focus on balance and tannin management. This is, according to Coenie, the reason for the renewed interest and recent international praise for Cape Cabernet – which was the category for this year’s competition.

He says that Cabernet is not making a comeback as such, but rather just put on a new suit. “South Africa is definitely moving in the right direction – and that is producing wines with juicy tannins and more fruit. Especially the guys who travel a lot will tell you that South African white wines can compete with the best, but that a lot of the reds are still too hard without any real fruit,” explains Coenie. At Rust en Vrede a lot of this focus has been in the vineyard and extensive replantings are now paying dividends. The ages of the Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards that yielded Coenie’s winning wine were between five and twelve years. These vines replaced older virus infected plants and, according to Coenie, generations of experience on the farm now sees the ideal vineyard lay-out, with the variety of soils on the estate planted to the most suited clones and cultivars.

We started with NDVI analyses (viticultural management with the aid of aerial photos) in 2009. Although we harvested batches according to the results, the main goal of these proofs is rather to manage and correct weaker spots in the vineyard,” explains Coenie. As 2007 was his first vintage at Rust en Vrede, Coenie didn’t make any drastic changes in the cellar. He says that winemakers tend to do less pump overs or punchdowns in persuit of making softer wines, but are getting the opposite result. “I find that if you work the grapes more, you get a softer wine. You need to get that complexity through regular punchdowns. By slacking on punchdowns, or pumpovers – the latter is not a method used at Rust en Vrede – you are still getting tannins, without the intended advantages of complexity and structure. With Rust en Vrede’s new flagship Bordeaux style blend, The 1694, carrying an alcohol of 16% on the label, this is clearly not something that puts Coenie off. “We are a small estate, with a small production of only red wine. The goal is to make superb wines that are big and impressive. Although there is pressure on cellars to produce wines with a lower alcohol, there will always be a market for big reds, despite the alcohol they tend to have,” states Coenie.

He adds that he will not make inferior wines just to get a lower alcohol and that chances are even slimmer that he will consider removing alcohol.

“Besides, these wines are in perfect balance. The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is a well structured, good Cabernet. I wouldn’t regard it as a “showy” wine, but rather a classical reflection of Rust en Vrede.”

Following last years debacle regarding the volumes of the winning wine, with 42 000 bottles of 2007 still pending to be released by the end of this month, there is no doubt about the validity of Coenie’s award. When asked about international influences on the style of his wine, Coenie responds that the Helderberg terroir is unlike that of Napa or Bordeaux and that the wines should be just as unique. He does, however, add that owner Jean Engelbrecht is a great fan of Napa Cabernet.

“At the end of the day Jean is my biggest client and I need to make wines that he enjoys – luckily the Diners Club judges and a great Rust en Vrede following seem to have similar tastes!” quipped Coenie.

The King of Cab will be heading to the Rhene Valley with his prize flight. Although it is close call, he admits that Shiraz is his favourite variety, “especially because of the variety of styles that can be produced with Shiraz”. I wonder when Shiraz is the Winemaker of the Year category again

Franschhoek’s next big thing

The younger generation seems to have refined the use of wood in Chardonnay, with examples from all over the winelands impressing the judges and making it to the top-three podium. While both Robertson and Walker Bay (the origins of the two runner-up wines) are recognised as Chardonnay hotspots, junior winemaker of the year, Clayton Reabow, believes that Chardonnay should become Franschhoek’s flagship. Chamonix’s Gotfried Mocke has proven what his high altitude Chardonnay is capable of, while La Motte’s 2007 was the top South African wine at Chardonnay du Monde. Add this to Moreson’s growing stature as a top Chardonnay producer, and Clayton’s suggestion makes perfect sense.

“They aren’t necessarily making the same style, but there are several winemakers in the valley who are putting their hands up with wooded Chardonnay,” explains Clayton.

The Moreson Chardonnay is a 100% Estate wine. According to Clayton, the cellar’s aim is to focus more on Chardonnay and Cap Classique. “If you taste through the cellar it just makes sense. We are pulling out some Sauvignon – which has its place in cooler areas – and have planted three new Chardonnay blocks.

Clayton started working at Moreson in May 2007, just in time to work his magic in what he regards as his favourite playground – the barrel maturation cellar. He makes wine in a more oxidative style, with limited use of SO2.

“I allow some of the barrels complete wild ferments and would like to push this fraction up to be the majority. It adds character to the wine and makes it less linear. We are not organic or bio-dinamic, but our approach is simple – with little interference.”

This simple approach entails whole bunch pressing, after which the half-clear juice remains in barrels for one year. “Some batches go through malo, others don’t – this all adds to complexity. In this way of winemaking the lees plays a major role – not only as a preservative, but a source of flavour and fullness.”

The limited use of SO2 also doesn’t mean that the wine won’t age well. As Clayton draws a glass from one of the 2009 barrels and shows it against the light, a yellow hue already shows in this young wine. “That’s a key to oxidative wine: although it already shows hints of age in its colour, the fruit is still there and will mature slower than in linear, reductive wines. It’s all there – naturally.”

THE NEXT THREE CATEGORIES FOR THE DINERS CLUB WINEMAKER OF THE YEAR ARE:

2010 – Sauvignon Blanc;
2011 – Bordeaux-style red blends;
2012 – Dessert Wines (unfortified)

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