Meet the man making mind-bending wine.
If you worked at the BBC in the late Nineties, South African Pieter Walser may owe you an apology. After a friend wrote his CV “then spent two weeks explaining to me what was on it”, Walser hooked a job as assistant IT manager of the BBC drama department in London, in charge of all the computers on shoots. He had not the slightest clue what he was doing. “I knew how to double-click,” he offers helpfully. “I’d get to a workstation and call someone to ask what to do.”
It’s quite nice when people don’t know what they’re drinking, they drink it purely on quality, so then I named my wine BLANKbottle
The story of how he came to create the BLANKbottle brand and some of South Africa’s most sought-after wines (including a couple of this year’s most intriguing, Limbic and Orbitofrontal Cortex) has a similar air of blag.
BLANKbottle got its name because Walser, then selling wine to fund his studies, was in a tight spot after being busted by the South African customs and excise. He didn’t have a licence and hadn’t registered for tax, let alone paid any. Most of his stock was impounded. He had just three cases of shiraz at home when a woman turned up wanting to buy “anything but shiraz – I hate that stuff”. The wine was unlabelled, so Walser said “No problem” and gave her a bottle to try. She loved it, and he sold her the lot.
Crushing last grapes today. The end of a 100 day harvest, 47 vineyards in the cellar. “And I thought, it’s quite nice when people don’t know what they’re drinking, they drink it purely on quality, so then I named my wine BLANKbottle. That’s how it started.”
Walser’s operation is unusual because he owns no vineyards and rarely makes the same wine twice. He works only with small batches, buying grapes from around 60 vineyards “on other people’s soil” all over the Western Cape. The whole harvest takes about 100 days to complete. “People say, ‘How can you harvest 58 vineyards?’ But I have 28 different varieties in my cellar. At the start of the year I only look at Wellington, where the grapes ripen first. Then Swartland, and as I pick the first in Swartland, I start to look at Darling, then Elgin, and so on, ending with the cabernet in Ceres Plateau.”
Walser says he always loved (drinking) wine. He left school with poor grades and spent a year living on the beach, surfing and printing clothes to make money. Then he decided to travel. In London he worked as a refuse collector and on a construction site before launching his brief career as an IT expert. Later, he moved on to work vintages in Alsace and Napa before returning to South Africa after he dreamt he was studying oenology at Stellenbosch University and deciding to make it come true.
He notched up his first sales with wines made by other people. “I drove to a winery called Kanu, bought three cases of wine that didn’t have special labels and sold them for twice the price to my brother-in-law.” So he stitched up his brother-in-law to make a profit? “I think he kind of wanted to help. With the money I went back and bought six cases, sold those and bought 12…” He soon built up a network of private clients who were up for the oddments wineries were happy to get rid of. Walser also made a bit of his own wine from bought-in grapes. The customs raid happened at about this time and Walser took the opportunity to set up BLANKbottle properly.
“I didn’t like the whole red-tape thing. They said, ‘Where are your grape varieties on the label?’ And I said I don’t have to – I just gave each wine a batch name. But I stopped making wine myself and just bought it in.” That was 12 years ago. By the time he became interested in making wine again, a few years later, his travels, tastings and chats with winemakers had given him an encyclopedic knowledge of the Cape’s vineyards.
In 2011 he bought half a tonne of cinsault grapes, vinified them, and bottled the result. Once again, the business snowballed; now he crushes 75 tonnes a season and his wines have attracted a cult following.
I met up with Walser at the recent Intrepid tasting in London to try a new duo of white wines he made after chatting to a man on a plane. The man turned out to own a company called Neural Science, and Walser persuaded him into a collaboration. The idea? To compare a wine made with his subconscious to one made with the conscious mind. Walser was strapped up to monitors to measure the arousal levels of his central nervous system, and a camera to record the expressions on his face, as he tasted (blind) through the vats in his cellar. This data was then used to create the first wine, Limbic, which was effectively blended by his subconscious. The second wine, Orbitofrontal Cortex, is the best white he could make using his conscious brain, choosing in the normal way.
Both are excellent – and both sold out to importers immediately. Perhaps it’s just as well, considering it’s how all the other wines are made, that I liked the Orbitofrontal Cortex wine more. It’s beautiful; a blend of high-elevation grenache blanc, clairette blanche, fernão pires from Swartland, semillon from Elgin and verdelho. Swig has it at £22.50. He won’t be making it again.
It takes a certain amount of confidence to believe that new ideas will come, but they always do. This year, this is the one to try.
Wines of the week
BLANKBOTTLE Im hinter- hoff- kabuff Elgin 2015 South Africa, swig.co.uk, £19.95All Pieter Walser’s wines come with a story. This riesling takes its name from a journalist’s description of his house – “back yard shack” in Afrikaans.
Finest Pecorino Terre di Chieti 2015 Italy, 13%, Tesco, £6Sometimes (often, even) all you want from a wine is for it to be white, cold and to taste clean and lemony. That is exactly what this one does. It’s not bone-dry but it’s easy to drink.
Masseria Monaci Copertino 2012 Italy, 13%, Majestic, £8.99 or £7.99 in a mixed sixThe latest vintage of this easy-going red from Puglia is warm and mellow, a little bit like an Italian rioja. Made from negroamaro, it also has a twist of sour cherries.