From workhorse to showhorse

by | Nov 28, 2020 | Article

Photo caption: Bertie Coetzee and his dad Hennie inspect the Colombard vineyards at Lowerland in Prieska, Northern Cape.

Some say Lowerland’s Bertie Coetzee – local frontman turned farmer – has a nose for opportunity. With his Vaalkameel 2018, he has transformed the oh-so-humble Colombard grape variety into an ultra-premium brand.

The Northern Cape is known for two things: Droughts, and people who live by the mantra of ’n boer maak ‘n plan (where there’s a will, there’s a way). Hennie Coetzee, and his son, Bertie (former frontman for Afrikaans alternative rock group Zinkplaat) are good examples of the latter.

Their farm, Lowerland, in the Prieska region, was originally a Merino and horse farm, but now boasts some of the best wines on the international market.

After completing his studies at Stellenbosch University, Bertie, urged on by his wife Alette, wanted to practice organic farming. Eventually his dad gave in and handed over the reigns to him. The farm now sports nine registered organic hectares thriving in the Northern Cape sun.

Bertie sells most of the crop to the local co-op, but about a tenth of the grapes get trucked far south to Stellenbosch where they are vinified in appropriate hands-off fashion by renowned winemaker Lukas van Loggerenberg.

Bertie’s Lowerland Vaalkameel 2018 has attracted serious attention in international wine circles, where it is lyrically praised and raved about in Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, USA and even Brazil.

Lowerland’s Vaalkameel trades at a whopping £30 (roughly R600) per bottle in the United Kingdom. But what’s even more impressive is that this wine is made from the oh-so-humble workhorse grape Colombard – historically used for volume-driven distilling wine.

Bertie agrees that there’s no reason why Colombard cannot be South Africa’s next Big Thing. Think Cinsault and Chenin Blanc, both deemed workhorse varieties 20 years ago, and now, trendier than a skinny jeans hipster at a Bree street coffee shop. And thanks to Northern Cape producers like Bertie, South Africa might rediscover the beauty of Colombard.

The Lowerland Vaalkameel Colombard 2018 trades for £30 (roughly R600) in the UK.

Q: What makes the Vaalkameel so special?

It’s one of the few single-variety Colombard wines in South Africa (and probably the world!). What makes it special is Colombard has always been considered the workhorse of white cultivars (high yields, robust, good pH levels, perfect for distilling wine). It’s a tonnage-chaser in the cooperative cellar. The Orange River is also perceived as a bulk wine production area, so I feel this wine begs the all-important question: Is this really all Colombard, the Orange River and the Northern Cape are good for? For us, the answer is a resounding ‘no’! We hope this wine will do the (poetic) talking for our region, and for the cultivar.

Q: Some say you achieved the impossible, by transforming this volume-driven variety into a premium single-variety wine brand (trading at £30 per bottle). What do you attribute this to?

I don’t necessarily think the price of the bottle is relevant, but rather the effort that goes into the process and the faith we have in the wine. Before embarking on such a project, it’s important for us to believe in the idea and the quality. For years, my dad’s been saying there’s no reason why Prieska and the Orange River should not produce world-class wines. There were many who supported his vision, and many who didn’t. Since 2006, we’ve been experimenting with cultivars, blends and harvest dates. When Alette and I came to the farm in 2013, the wines were high on our priority list, and we were confident that these wines will make its mark on the global wine scene. It’s important to convey the uniqueness of our area, our vineyards, our farming practices and our people behind the products, in quality, taste, packaging and the subsequent brand. The time is rife for a hard-working outsider like Colombard to enter the market as a single-variety wine. We’ve already established a strong foundation with our Tolbos Tannat, so Colombard was the next logical step.

 Q: Is there an international demand for single-variety Colombard wines?

I believe there’s a market for distinctive, quality and natural wines, and Colombard ticks all those boxes. Internationally, there’s a demand for natural wines with minimal interference in the winemaking process and with little to no sulphur added. I believe this will only increase in popularity going forward. Colombard is known for its high levels of acidity and the perfect candidate for making natural wines. Low pH levels ensure that the wine stays fresh and clean without additives.

 Q: Tell us more about the vineyards where the Vaalkameel wine is sourced from?

The vineyard block is a mere 0.5 ha and grows at 1 000 m above sea level on river silt and red Kalahari sand on top of crumbling limestone. Day and night temperatures vary significantly due to the microclimates along the Orange River. We try to cool the microclimate in the vineyard by leaving the shoots open and managing the natural weeds together with cover crops to have 100% (or close enough) ground cover at all times. The block has been organically certified since 2013 and we try to keep it as natural as possible.

Q: What’s your partnership with Lukas van Loggerenberg?

We heard a lot about Lukas, and in 2015 we met him while he was working at Druk-My-Niet in Paarl where he worked extensively with Tannat. I was eager to watch and learn from him. After a barrel tasting session, we decided to give him one tonne of our Tolbos Tannat to test the waters. After a long, philosophical conversation, his last words to us just before we left were: ‘Can’t we just make a great wine?’ (Laughs). I still think the 2015 Tannat was an exceptional wine. In 2017, he said we should try Colombard, and so the first Vaalkameel was born.

Q: Your philosophy in the vineyard?

My philosophy is the same as with music: Sit on the backbeat on the tip of your toes. In other words, minimal interference but with optimal focus. In the vineyard, we try to guide processes without forcing them. It’s a hands-off approach, but timing and observation is important.  Our input is minimal, but we use our pigs, sheep, goats and cattle at certain times to fulfil various roles in production, in terms of cover crop management or to fertilise our soils. We then use legumes and other cover crops to change the ratio of nutrients in the fertiliser to make it more suitable for vineyards. With music, it’s difficult to make a good recording of a bad song. It’s our duty to deliver the best possible grapes so Lukas can make his magic happen in the cellar. We therefore do not use any synthetic inputs and we do not force the vineyard to produce a harvest.

Q: The challenges and advantages of farming in the Northern Cape?

We’re fortunate to be situated along the Orange River and therefore, we’re able to irrigate. We have deep, fertile soils, a lot of sun and very cold conditions, which means a very low disease-pressure. I feel that if you have a good October in Prieska, you can basically plant anything here. We’re currently in the midst of a nine-year drought, but the veld responds quickly to rain when it does come. We’re far from markets and harbours for export, but on the other hand, we’re exactly in the centre of everything, and nothing!

Quick #DidYouKnow:

  • The farm sports one of the biggest Vaalkameel (or Grey Camelthorn) forests in Africa (nearly 100 ha). “It’s a place where bushman- and gha-grass grows underfoot and where Kudus roam stealthily. I call it the eighth wonder of the world, because I’ve never seen it anywhere else, not even in the deep heart of the Kalahari.”
  • Prieska derives from the local Koranna language and means “place of the lost she-goat” (plek van die verlore bokooi).
  • Lowerland’s vineyards have been organically certified since 2013. “The kudus prune the vineyards, the jackals and owls do pest control and the pecan nutshells [part of their farming operation] as well as the Bonsmara cattle provide fertilisation,” says Bertie.

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