When a South African wine receives a perfect 100-point score, it’s often the winemaker who basks in the glory. Where does the grape producer fit in, the farmer who toils away quietly, day after day, season after season, often under tough conditions to ensure these grapes are world-class?
Anyone with an interest in South African wine would have read about Tim Atkin (MW)’s eighth South African Special Report where he awarded perfect 100-point scores to two South African wines: Porseleinberg’s 2018 Syrah and Sadie Family’s Skurfberg Chenin Blanc 2019.
In a post-report interview with Tim, he told WineLand that if any white wine was going to get 100 points in South Africa, “it should be Chenin”, and if any winemaker/producer was going to get it, “it should be Eben Sadie or Chris Alheit”. [Ed – catch the full interview with Tim Atkin in our November 2020 print issue.]
Although a 100-point score means a lot to most winemakers, Eben Sadie refuses to be swept up by the pageantry, including the accompanying digital-media firestorm.
“Points are points,” Eben says. “It’s not something I set out to achieve when I make wine. It means nothing to me. The problem with achieving a 100-point score is that it makes no difference to what happens in the vineyard or what’s in the bottle.”
Winemakers often become the centre of attention when high scores and award stickers are handed out (and rightly so!), but it’s the hard work of grape producers that’s often overlooked. Because, let’s face it, without good grapes, there’ll be no good wines.
In his report, Tim did however laud certain producers responsible for the grapes that go into these high-scoring wines, including people like Henk Laing, Joshua Visser and Basie van Lill.
The grapes for Eben’s 100-point Skurfberg Chenin Blanc, as well as Chris Alheit’s Magnetic North (which received 99 points in Tim’s report), are all from Basie’s farm Arbeidseind, which is located high up on the slopes of the Skurfberg in the Olifants River region.
The magic of the mountain
Eben, who has the world’s respect for Basie, describes him as friendly and humble. “Not only that, but Basie has incredible integrity. He’s an absolute legend, and a phenomenal farmer.” Yet, after speaking to Basie and his son Christiaan, you get the sense that farming at Arbeidseind is not for the faint of heart.
“Tough environments breed tough people,” says Eben. The Skurfberg is a rather scruffy outcrop between Clanwilliam and the Atlantic Ocean in the Citrusdal Mountain ward of the Olifants River region. Vineyards are planted roughly 530 metres above sea level, and are west-facing towards the Atlantic Ocean.
The soil is decomposed Table Mountain sandstone, which Christiaan describes as “sandy, with a reddish colour, due to the clay”. “This is not what you’d call Stellenbosch soil,” he says with a wry smile.
Perhaps a decade ago, serious wine drinkers would not have given this area a second thought. The grapes from these arid dryland vineyards would disappear into the high-blending vats of big producer cellars, along with less-promising grapes off amply irrigated, mass-cropping vines on the valley floor.
Christiaan’s grandfather, CJ van Lill, bought the farm during the late 1960s. “Our business was all about chasing tonnages.” Christiaan says back then, they were ‘co-operative-centred’. “We went to the big producer cellars, and asked them what should we plant?”
Even then, the farm showed potential for delivering golden grapes. When CJ planted Hanepoot (Muscat d’Alexandrie) vines in 1979, Klawer Wine Cellar was so impressed with the quality it produced, they used Arbeidseind’s grapes exclusively for their once-popular Stroh wine range.
A new dawn
In 2009 Rosa Kruger, renowned local viticulturist, was searching for old vineyards for her then employer, Anthonij Rupert Wines. Rosa was also working with Eben Sadie, and it was two wines in his Old Vineyards Series – Skurfberg (from a mountain-wide vineyard blend of Chenin Blanc) and Kokerboom (single-vineyard Sémillon) – which first alerted the world to the magic of this mountain.
“Rosa Kruger changed our lives,” says Christiaan. “When she came here and started working with our old vineyards, everything changed.” Eben recollects that first visit to Arbeidseind, “It was clear that the suckering has been meticulously done for many years.”
“For us, suckering is important. It’s something that Rosa and Jeff Joubert taught us. Our vineyards were initially shaped for high production with plenty of shoots and arms. Once we started cutting back, we notice bunches were fuller with more intense flavours.”
Eben’s Skurfberg Chenin Blanc comes from Arbeidseind’s block number 9, planted in 1990 – only five years short of being officially certified by the Old Vine Project (OVP). “In the past, we had a certain mind set. We tried to keep overheads low and grape production high, despite this being a very low-producing area.” The average yield for Eben’s block 9 is a meagre 6 tonnes per hectare.
The Van Lills follow a simple and natural philosophy in the vineyard. “We farm the way nature guides us. If there’s no rain, there’s no rain. If there’s a bit more rain than usual, then we adjust our practices in the vineyard.”
Tough terrain, exceptional wine
While Capetonians considers the water shortage a thing of the past, Skurfberg is still gripped by a crippling drought that’s been pestering the region for six years. The average rainfall over the past five years barely made the 200 mm-mark, resulting in Basie and Christiaan losing nearly 60% of their crop in 2019.
Tim says the crop loss resulted in a 2019 old-vine Chenin of “mind-blowing focus, depth and concentration”.
“There’s no place in South Africa where you’d find grapes of such high quality,” says Eben. “Despite Skurfberg having, in actual fact, very little vineyards (no more than 50 hectares), it’s geared towards producing ultra-premium wines.
He specifically chose block 9, because of the soil and the vine’s growth patterns. “I look at a vineyard holistically. From the distance between internodes, the thickness of its shoots, the way it carries its grapes, how the leaves are formed. All these things form part of the vine’s complex formula. Once you understand this formula, you can look at a vine and know that it’s perfect for the wine you want to make.”
He also adds that some vines might grow perfectly, but won’t necessarily produce a great wine. “However, once you spot a vine with an exceptional growth pattern, you’re that much closer to producing a world-class wine. And the vines on Skurfberg have exactly that.”
For Alheit Vineyard’s Magnetic North, the grapes come from blocks 10 and 13, planted by Basie in 1984 and 1981 respectively. Christiaan says, because of tough financial times, the vines were planted without any rootstocks. “Its makstok (own-rooted vines) and a pain in the ass to keep happy,” he says with a chuckle.
Value in old vine?
With predominately old vines in a low-yielding region, the Van Lills had to really think about how to make the sums add up. Christiaan says private producers like Eben and Chris are happy to pay for grape quality instead of volume. “During tough times, we decided to charge them a price per hectare, whether they took three tonnes or only three crates.”
The Van Lills have definitely spotted a gap in the market for cultivating old vines for smaller, established wine producers looking for selected and prized sites. “It’s a growing trend, and we’ve identified potential for such partnerships going forward.”
Eben says there’s definitely an opportunity for producers with old vines, yet most producers are not interested. “Our industry’s not competitive enough. The work that goes into cultivating old vines is too much hassle for producers. Farming with old vines require a complete mind shift.”