The story of PAT BIRD:
Back in 2017, Theo-Donald (TD), a filmmaker and lifelong fellow surfer from the Strand, approached me to see if he could possibly film me for something short, wine related. I wasn’t sure if I was his guy, but I invited him to jump into my bakkie.
3 years and plenty of km’s later he got out of the bakkie with a 30-min documentary about BLANKBOTTLE called EPILEPTIC INSPIRATION on a memory stick. Some filmmakers from the US had heard of the film and stopped by the cellar. They watched it and before you could say “Yank”, my winery was full of them. They wanted to do business… One month later Theo-Donald and I were sitting on a plane to Hollywood – all expenses paid. Arriving at the airport in Los Angeles, a girl in an orange Jeep picked us up. It was ours to drive while there.
The next 5 days were crazy. I could write a book… Their idea was to show the film to various investors and role players in Hollywood, promoting the possibility of a wine-related series with Epileptic Inspiration as the pilot program. Just to warm up we screened the film in their film studio in downtown LA. The next morning we surfed Malibu on longboards and then a whirlwind of events coincided with insider local connections to all. Not really my cup of tea, but “what the heck!” I thought – while in LA, do as they do. We saw a live recording of Idols, attended a proper American house party (plastic cups, pink drinks and all) and surfed a bucket list surf break called Trestles in San Clemente. We ate at great restaurants and celebrity hangout private clubs, met loads and loads of big money investor producers and, of course, a fair amount of desperate actors looking for a gap to start a career in celebrity-ism.
Besides the fact that I surfed Trestles, my 2 personal highlights of the trip were screenings of our film at a venue on the most famous Hollywood street – Sunset Boulevard – and another screening at a private residence in Beverly Hills – and I mean the hills of Beverly hills – proper.
James, my importer from Chicago, jumped on a plane to come help protect our BLANKBOTTLE business interests in a country with WAY different value systems when it comes to hardcore business deals. After the first negotiations we dubbed him B-2 bomber (could also have been a nice name for the wine).
Which brings me to PAT BIRD. Every time a screening ended, everybody in the room would approach me to chat. What nobody of course realised, was that TD was the man behind the camera, and as a result he got very little attention. B-2 Bomber also went undetected, just circling the scene. Now TD’s uncle is a keen movie man, but he had one weakness – names; with his most famous faux pas calling Brad Pitt, PAT BIRD. It was at one of these screenings when TD started calling me PAT BIRD and of course it stuck.
For years B-2 Bomber (my American agent) had been bugging me to make a 100% Petit Verdot – one of his all time favourite varieties. So a few years later, I saw it fit to call this Helderberg Petit Verdot PAT BIRD. The label is a spray-painted outline of Pat, TD and B2 Bomber on a Hollywood star – inspired by a picture taken of us at the private residence Beverly Hills spot.
The wine – The Syrah of Bordeaux varietals. Perfumy and fresh, produced from 2 different sites. A super lower-Helderberg, decomposed granite property combined with a heavier, more extracted site in the Blaauwklippen Valley.
To mix it up – EPILEPTIC Inspiration 2022 – Picked a bit later than the 2021 – 100% single vineyard Elgin Sémillon.
Why does a Helderberg wine taste the way it does?
I don’t have the answer for you. But as you’ve heard me quote before: “the most courageous thing in life is still to think for yourself”. So today I’m releasing a range of 7 Bordeaux-style wines made from Helderberg grapes – not single vineyard wines, but rather multi-varietal single farm blends. Wines which represent the farms they are from.
I’ve always believed that when my bakkie’s wheels are turning, things are happening – it’s the diesel to our story-generator.
So naturally, my grape hunting grounds started far, far away from here. The more I suffered, the more kilometers I drove – the more it felt like I was earning my living. But as wisdom piled up, I realised that my doorstep is paved with gold. In 2013 my journey in the Helderberg began when I produced my first vintage of “CONFESSIONS OF A WHITE GLOVE CHASER”. And just like that I was lured into the maize of valleys and outcrops of the Helderberg!
On the back of this, I decided to produce a wine called EMPIRE in 2017 – a multi-farm/vineyard Bordeaux-style wine that gives tribute to what Stellenbosch did for me and where everything began – The EMPIRE of South African wine. The old-style label shows a crest I designed which combines the crest of Stellenbosch University and Elsenburg College – the 2 Empires when it comes to wine education. I studied at both…
In order to achieve complexity for the EMPIRE wine, I had to make wine from as many sites as possible. I did a quick count now and up to date I’ve made wine from 43 different vineyards on the Helderberg – with some of them in their 10th vintage to date. What fascinates me is that each of these 43 sites have their own character – expressed in every vintage, regardless of the ever-changing climate.
This made me think: why not have a bit of fun and bottle single vineyard wines? Which I did in 2015. Presenting these wines I was faced with the question: how do I explain the differences?
Is it the water holding capacity of the clay content generated from weathered scale? the dry harsh granitic outcrops? the aspect? Is it because some vineyards hide in valleys and some grow high on the mountain, unprotected against the mighty force of the South Easter? Maybe it’s the age of the vines or the clones? The presence or absence of leaf roll virus, the warra warra warra… the list goes on and on.
Enters the X-factor – The PIERRE-LE-COIS-EFFECT as I call it. The guy or (nowadays often) the girl in the bakkie who cares for the vines. The eyes who look holistically at the big picture and apply knowledge and experience in the company of like-minded wise minds. They apply practices to guide these vines to the ultimate expression of themselves. Season upon season.
I came to realise: I want to make single FARM wines from the Helderberg, not single vineyard wines.
The 7 wines I’m releasing today (starting from Somerset West’s direction):
1. SCARED IS WHAT YOU FEEL, BRAVE IS WHAT YOU DO 2021 – Planted in decomposed Granite at 190 meters above sea level, mildly protected against the South Easter. A Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet franc blend.
2. ISA – 42 2021 – a straight Merlot on the edge of Somerset West town, 240 meters above sea level, exposed to the elements and planted in decomposed granite.
3. PIERRE LE COIS 2021 – Deep clay and scale in a well protected area 200m above sea level on the mountain. Huge canopies with little wind. Cabernet franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Organically farmed.
4. CONFESSIONS OF A WHITE GLOVE CHASER 2021 – Cabernet Franc-driven with a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon. 100 meters above sea level. The first vineyards where I found the ever-so-famous “WHITE GLOVES”.
5. ENGELESIG 2021 – A Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet franc blend from the farm of South African legend singer/songwriter Lesley Ray Dowling. 290 meters above sea level.
6. The BOMB 2021 – A Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet franc and Petit Verdot blend of the Blaauwklippen Road at 300 meters above sea level.
And then last but not least…
7. EMPIRE 2021 – A combination of vineyards all over the Helderberg.
Hannibal of the A-TEAM loves it when a plan comes together. Personally I love it more when NOT planning, comes together. Like Little William.
I like to think that Little William planned to be and was just looking for a suitable maker. Everything about this wine came together. The area is remote, rugged and raw, the wine (Ceres Plateau Shiraz) expressive, and the story as real as all the people involved in farming this wine. This story just proves again that truth is stranger than fiction.
For the story I am going to refer you to the website – there is no short way to tell this. For the non-readers please see the voice note option. You can just click on it and listen.
DISCLAIMER: I am no activist and I don’t belong to any kind of organisation. I pick grapes from everywhere and respect each area for its contribution to a specific wine. In this newsletter however, I’m focusing on what Elgin does well and exploring the possible relevance of the Autumn Equinox theory.
The Autumn Equinox theory…
The more I learn about farming and wine, the more I wonder how the olden-day farmers decided what to plant where.
Nowadays, before planting, farmers make use of professionals who scan the soil and dissect and analyse the different soil layers, physically as well as chemically. They study topographical data and in some cases make use of satellites and even drones. They construct terroir models in order to understand…
Viticulturists (like Jaco Engelbrecht who works for me on a consultancy basis) also map the great Grand Cru vineyards of Europe which enables them to compare our new sites to the greats of the world.
All this is done with one goal in mind: figuring out what to plant where! Ultimately, however, they feed from decisions made in ancient times. Times when they got it right without satellites, drones and engineering surveyors. Times when they had time to observe…
One such approach that was often used, is the Autumn Equinox theory.
In the Northern Hemisphere the autumnal equinox falls on 22/23 September, as the sun crosses the celestial equator on its way south. In the Southern Hemisphere the Autumn equinox occurs on 20/21 March, when the sun moves back north across the equator – otherwise known as the “Harvest moon”.
Traditionally it marked the end of the harvest season, where they took stock of what was grown and gathered and gave thanks for what they had received.
So their theory was very simple: plant whatever crop ripens a few days before, on, or after (basically as close as possible to) the Autumn Equinox.
And that got me thinking about Elgin. During February and early March when the heat waves hit the Western Cape, grapes in Elgin are still green, with sugars around 16° Balling. The vines have plenty of energy to sustain the heat and by the time the heat waves have passed, moderate temperatures take the grapes through a mild, slow ripening phase. This enables the vines to produce fully ripe grapes. And then, on the Autumn Equinox, the grapes usually have a sugar content of 21 – 23° balling, which is when we pick.
So today I decided to release a mixed case of ELGIN wines (including a brand new wine in our portfolio) – stuff that ripened on 23 March, 28 March and a blend with a average picking time at the Autumn Equinox:
BLANKBOTTLE Autumn Equinox 2022 x 2 bottles: ELGIN white blend of 46% Semillon, 36% Weisser Riesling, and 18 % Sauvignon blanc – Average picking date – Autumn Equinox…
BLANKBOTTLE Im Hinterhofkabuff 2022 x 2 bottles: ELGIN Weisser Riesling – Picking date: 28 March 2022
BLANKBOTTLE Epileptic Inspiration 2022 x 2 bottles – ELGIN Semillon – Picking date: 23 March 2022.
This case of 6 wines sells for R1320. To order, or for a complete list of wines selling now, reply to this mail now or mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each of the wines included in the mixed case have their own unique story, so click on the links to listen to the voice notes.
I’m back on South African soil and amped to tell you the rest of the story of how I ended up in the Dolomite mountains of Italy. By now you’ve probably guessed that I was there to visit my coopers.
In Episode 1 – 2 weeks ago (click here if you missed it), I invited you to order a mixed case of 3 vintages of Confessions of a White Glove Chaser. This gives you the opportunity to taste the 3 wines, all with varying percentages of this specific oak exposure, next to each other. If you still want to join in, we do have a few more cases available, so you’re welcome to email Aneen@blankbottle.co.za to order. For my suggested step-by-step approach to tasting these wines, see below.
But first, Chapter 2 of the story…
Spending 5 days in the Dolomites tasting (so many) wines and comparing fermentation vessels is an experience I can best describe by sharing the picture below:
It turns out that buying trees is very much like buying grapes – it’s all about terroir. I was presented with a cross section of a tree that was cut down in 2021. That specific tree was planted in 1818. Jip, 204 years ago! WWHHAAT!!? my brain shouts. This means that when the Eiffel Tower was constructed in Paris this tree was a young adult. World War I and World War II bomb fragments stuck in these trees is a real issue when they cut these trees into staves.
This family-run cooperage is driven by generations of experience. The process is fascinating to put it mildly. They hand-pick the best trees from the best forests. Once the tree is cut down the leaves and branches stay intact for as long as possible. They kind of suck the sap from the tree to remove as much moisture as possible.
The wood is then transported as huge trunks to a site 1400 meters above sea-level. The cooperage down in the town at 260 meters above sea-level goes on skeleton staff as the team heads up the mountain for a couple of weeks. Then begins the careful measurement and cutting – there’s absolutely no margin for error. You are working with a 200 year plus tree.
These staves are stacked in heaps like you would stack a fire (see photo below). They then stay outside, exposed to the extreme mountain elements for 4 – 6 years. The rain/sun/snow comes and goes and the wood gradually becomes dryer and dryer. Not too long but not too short – depending very much on the characteristics of each individual tree. You need to get rid of all green flavoured sap but still need flexibility.
Once a year these coopers pack their bags to come to South Africa. They view themselves as kind of partners in the wine. For them to do their job best they need to know as much as possible about my wines. We taste and taste… the topic – they blend a barrel to best suit your style of wine. It goes something like this (seriously, no kidding): A few planks from a German tree with low tannin levels dried for 3 years, some planks from a 4-year aged French oak tree and the barrel heads from 6-year old mountain-aged heavy tannic wood.
The goal – to create a barrel where the wood will not overpower the wine but rather become part of the foundation of the wine. To best showcase the vineyard, not their barrels. Underlying spice rather than dry tannins.
It was harvest 2020 when my first Dolomite casks arrived in the Cape and, on top of a full load of grapes, I transported the first 2 barriques to the BLANKBOTTLE mothership. The result: for you to decide.
So if you have received a case that contains 2019, 2020 and 2021 Confessions of a White Glove Chaser, this is how I suggest you approach it: open a bottle of each Monday evening and each night drink one glass of each. The wine should keep you going until the weekend but to play it safe, make sure that by day 4 you’ve drunk them all. They will be on their peak by day 3-4.
And now over to you. Open those wines.
Confessions of a White Glove Chaser 2019 – No new oak.
Confessions of a White Glove Chaser 2020 – 20% new oak.
Confessions of a White Glove Chaser 2021 – 34% new oak.
Awaiting you feedback (this time of year I don’t have plenty time to respond but I can assure you I will read all your feedback).
Today I’d like to invite you to partake in my most recent adventure, the one which catapulted me onto the train where I find myself typing this newsletter.
I left the Dolomite mountains (South Tirol – Italy) early this morning and I’m on route to Innsbruck, Austria. How I ended up in Italy is, as always, a multi-layered story which started way back in 2011 when I met a very eccentric farmer.
So, in honour of the story and to give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in this journey, I suggest you taste the 2019, 2020 and 2021 Confessions of a White Glove Chaser side by side. To understand why you’ll have to wait for chapter 2. We’ve therefore put together a mixed case of 6 bottles: 1 sold-out 2019, 4 sold-out 2020’s and 1 pre-release unlabelled 2021. Unfortunately we only have 30 of these cases available.
You’re welcome to mail email@example.com to reserve a case or ask for a list of all the wines selling now and then see below for Chapter 1. By the time you receive your wine, Chapter 2 will be in your inbox.
In the beginning years of Blankbottle (roughly the first 15), people assumed we had a winemaking philosophy. The philosophy to make use of older oak in order to produce elegant, fruit-driven wines – wines which show the character of the vineyards in Africa rather than the oak trees of France. They were right, when it came to wines like Familiemoord and My Koffer, but it was never a blanket approach, methodology or stylistic conviction. It was a budget thing. As in, there was none. So however much I loved the freshness and vibrancy PROPER oak brings to Bordeaux varietals, it was just not an option for me at the time.
Then in 2011 I started buying grapes from this farmer guy. Besides being a viticulturist and winemaker, he is also a carpenter by trade, making him very probably the most well-rounded wine person I know. As a day job, he’s involved with the family’s commercial farm, but as a sideline he cares for a couple of special vines which he makes wine of. Every action when it comes to these vines he physically does by hand. Then, after harvest, he packs his bags for Europe to work in wine shops and wineries and to travel.
In 2017 he set off once again, but this time round to go and make his own wine barrels. Whhhaaatttt??? was my first reaction, but low and behold, just before pruning time he was back in South Africa. Mission completed. And by the time the new vintage was ready to be put to barrel, his own 2 handcrafted 500L wine barrels arrived – made from a combination of German and French oak.
From time to time I visited him on the farm – each time tasting his wine and each and every time driving away completely baffled. The way the wood integrated in his wines just didn’t make sense to me. New wood can be harsh and overpowering, but in this instance the wine kind of absorbed the wood to become so integrated it felt like the wine had a new foundation, a foundation and platform to showcase fruit. The wines became fresher with this underlying spicy tannin coming from the wood in a way I had never experienced before. It fascinated me.
So when he mentioned that he considered bringing in some of the barrels of his connection cooper friend in the Dolomite mountains of Italy, my hand was up!
I have to stop writing now, I am one stop away from my destination.
Until next week for Chapter 2.
Hope you have an exciting day!
As a rule, we don’t enter wine competitions, but every now and then our wines end up at random tasting events (entered by our agents). On 21 September, a group of five UK wine writers (all Cinsault enthusiasts) gathered in North London for a blind tasting of 37 Cinsaults from five countries. South Africa was the most represented country followed by Chile, France, the US and Lebanon. The wines were scored individually with scores averaged out to give an overall ranking.
Pseudonym got 3rd and Retirement@65 2020 – 9th.
In 2012, I was introduced to a lonely, newly-established 3-clone-combination Pinot Noir Vineyard (12.2km North of Kleinmond as the crow flies). Little did I know what lay ahead for me and this little vineyard.
I started with a clear vision for this wine – only to miss it completely… hence the original name of the wine: 2-CLICKS-OFF. The ‘13 and ‘14 vintages came and went – either down the drain or to a blend. The vineyard then changed ownership and I was out. Lost the vineyard. It happens from time to time. I’m a firm believer in letting things takes its natural course but this time round it was different. I had the conviction that the vineyard was mine to make wine of. It just needed to mature a bit. So I decided to fight for it. Like back in the day when my now wife dated one of my friends…
I didn’t give up and in harvest 2016 I received the long-awaited phone call: do I still want the Pinot? Being so late in the season, the grapes were over-ripe and the vineyard was in a neglected state. But I knew that it was my chance to get my foot back in the door.
After harvest, when the dust had settled, we sat down and had a chat. I immediately sensed a change of heart. André van Wyk, the now fully-committed sole owner, had a vision but wasn’t sure how to go about it. He was also aiming for a classic Pinot. So I took my cue from George Clooney in the OCEAN-8 movie: I needed a team. I approached a guy called Jaco Engelbrecht of Visual Viticulture – an intensely articulated and passionate guy. I introduced Jaco and Andre and immediately there was the proverbial magic in the air. The game was on!
Andre got so excited that he employed Marthinus and Patric to spend 100% of their time in the vineyard. We started to farm (or rather groom) the vineyard intensely. What a journey… In Jaco’s opinion it was going to take 3 years to see results. The goal? To take that 2-clicks-off cannon and slowly pull it into place. Little by little, we nourished the struggling plants by removing any possible competition and nursed them back to life. Reserves were building up bit by bit and in 2020 we picked the best crop to date. When it landed in the winery, we threw everything at it.
The OCEANS-8 team is of the opinion that we’ve nailed it. But I disagree. I have a feeling that we are yet to reach the full potential of this prodigal vineyard – and the name of the wine therefore – 1-CLICK-OFF…
We only have one shot per year.
For the first 13 years of my adult working life, I was all over the place; trying to figure out what I liked. It was only after my 2nd and 3rd kids were born that it hit me: Each time a wine presented some sort of unique character, I was impressed – exposed honesty in a way. It’s the sort of x-factor that can’t be created by the hand of man, but comes from a deeper place, somewhere unexplainable. The variety or style wasn’t what was intriguing me, it was all about exposing true character.
So I embarked on a journey through styles, areas and varieties. And this stumbled-upon revelation became our own blueprint.
But in the business of nature, there’s an inherent catch. My daughter likes baking. She produces at the speed of light and could potentially nail a specific style in a few days. Nature, on the other hand, produces a crop but once a year. If you miss the mark, you have to take another trip around the sun before you can try again – and hopefully reach your goal when you’re still relevant in the marketplace! The ever so slow turning wheel of a business who lives by the seasons.
So my quest to make a characterful Pinotage started at the tender age of 43. A bit of a late start. I call it Project Saint Rand.
To experience some of the first chapters of this journey, see below for 3 stylistic-different, but honest, characterful wines selling now.
Saint Rand 2019
A Darling old bush-vine vineyard picked ripe but not overly ripe. Aimed for freshness but with structure and depth. We ended up with an alcohol of 13.5 – Perfectly matured grapes.
The same Darling vineyard, but this time picked very early – fresh and lighter – an alcohol of 12.51%.
Saint Rand 2020 – Stellenbosch bottling
One has to give Stellenbosch a chance, so we did the first Stellenbosch picking – Here we went ripe and ended with a big fellow. Lekke extraction with a hefty alcohol of 15%.
So here we go. You’re welcome to join in on the journey without any preconceived destination.
I like to refer to what we do as journeys within each wine. Our destination we sort of figure out as we go along. This is the VERY CONDENSED life cycle of The Spaniard:
My introduction to Mourvedre, Carignan, Cinsaut and Grenache was in 2007. With most of these cultivars hailing from ancient Spain, I decided to dub the wine – The Spaniard 2007. The wine was an unexpected hit.
In order to experience what each of the individual components of The Spaniard could do on its own, I then bottled The Educational range 1 – 4 the following year; Again a hit!
This led to my second attempt at The Spaniard – with the end result a bit off the mark and released as the BIG Spaniard 2009. The wine was indeed big: larger in frame, alcohol and extraction.
My 3rd attempt (the 2011 vintage) was again a bit off the mark, but this time round more to the elegant side of things – it was released as The Little Spaniard 2011. And then came the knock on my little Hinterhofkabuff’s office door – my cashflow survival knight-in-shining-armour. Woolworths decided that they wanted to take The Little Spaniard on as a once-off special exclusive. Grateful for the relief, I decided that the wine will leave the BLANKBOTTLE stable to stand on its own 4 legs. I even had a label designed by the best design firm in Stellenbosch. A never-to-be-repeated act on my behalf.
2 years after my WW stint, under the BLANKBOTTLE umbrella, I still wanted to try the original style of the Mourvedre, Grenache and Carignan version – an Original Spaniard, so to speak. So I was back at it with the release of The Original Spaniard 2013 – an all-out SWARTLAND combination. And just as I thought I was back in the game, a larger producer muscled me out of the vineyards. Not knowing where to turn to next, I basically just left it there until further notice.
Fast-track 7 years to 2020 and my day finally came – in the form of a beautiful little bush vine Swartland vineyard – planted in pure rugged Schist on the Riebeeck mountain. Unfortunately I was only allowed to buy 1 ton, so I made 3 barrels. The Spaniard 2020 – the pure-elegance, soft-juicy-roundness is mouth-watering … with 30% of the wine aged in new oak – 100% Mourvedre.
And this, my friends, is the closest version to the waaaay back The Spaniard 2007, which I’ve been aiming to repeat ever since.
In October 2019, my wife and I were sitting at a cosy little restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal. We were on our way to meet friends and decided to make a quick stop on the way for a glass of wine. I asked the owner if he might have an open bottle of something local and good. Knowing what I know now, I mean Covid and all, I should’ve ordered a 1.5L and stayed another week.
Anyhow, the chubby owner returned with a little bottle that looked like a big bottle, only a mini version. A half bottle (375ml) of proper wine presented in a proper way. I immediately sent my agent in the UK a photo and asked if he would throw some support my way if I bottle some of my best in little bottles.
And here we are: Orbitofrontal Cortex 2020 bottled in it’s normal bottle (750ml), half bottle (375ml) and (while I was at it) 1.5 liters as well.
I do not have a photo on hand, see below for my UK agent’s Instagram post as the wines arrived in the UK.
This wine is a blend of Verdelho (from 2 different vineyards), Palomino, Weisser Riesling, Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Chenin blanc (from 3 different vineyards), Chardonnay and Viognier.
In short, the idea is to select the white components in the winery we like most and to assemble a blend that represents that particular vintage in an honest and pure way. This is a combination of our favourite barrels/tanks/pots, not necessarily the best, just the ones we liked most. It is not bound to an area or varietal – it’s an assembly of interesting things that differ from year to year according to whatever performed well that specific season.
Late one night, in November 2017, we were busy with some preparations for a bottling the following day. We had a request from the marketplace. Something we felt we could adhere to – producing a red wine partner for Moment of Silence. Apparently people find most of our range a bit intimidating at first. Moment of Silence does a great job at easing new buyers into the range, but it needed an accomplice, someone in the red wine ranks who could have its back. But although we had the wine, we didn’t have the name yet.
Working in the winery in the evenings doesn’t happen too often (except in harvest), and so this inevitably leads to having a glass of wine whilst working. So there we were, drinking German Riesling, getting all philosophical and having a very relevant debate. Is it possible to be an expert in each and every cultivar if you are making 38 varietals from more than 60 different vineyards – all under the same roof?
The truth is that the idea never was to be a specialist in anything, we just wanted to tell stories – real stories – and the conclusion was that maybe we are simply a Master of None.
Today we’re releasing our second vintage of Master of None. The 2019 – A lighter style red blend of 4 varietals – Grenache Noir from Wellington, Cinsaut from the Breedekloof, Pinot Noir from Elgin and some Chardonnay (no, it is not a typo) from Robertson.
Master of None is normally all taken by our UK, Ireland and Norwegian agents, but they’ve asked for a second bottling, so we’ve kept some out for you.
It was the vision of Marguerite Mavros Macdonald to plant vines in the Witzenberg mountains on her husband, Dugald’s family farm. I got involved in 2015 and this wine has become my favourite expression of South African Shiraz.
In South Africa we have the luxury of mountains. These mountains separate desert from coastal areas and create valleys and different exposures – enabling grape growers the opportunity to grow a wide range of varietals in a very small area. One aspect of South African terroir that still needs to be explored fully is height above sea level. And this wine is a great example of what Shiraz at 750 m above sea level can do.
The wine is named after my chance meeting with a little boy called William on the Witzenberg mountains. It’s been a fascinating story from the start, but became even more bizarre at the end of last year, with another chance meeting. I want to share the story with you today, but unfortunately the 2018 vintage is completely sold out. So I am pre-releasing the 2019 vintage. I will be bottling the wine on 3 June and immediately after labelling we can deliver. You can place your order today. Just drop firstname.lastname@example.org an email for pricing / allocations and other wines now selling. She will sort you out.
Little William reloaded!
In January 2016, I was driving back from a tiny little vineyard in the Koue Bokkeveld (Ceres Plateau). Cruising along at the 100km/h speed limit, I came to a very winding stretch of road leading towards the Witzenberg pass. Suddenly, for a split second, I thought I saw something in the middle of the road. I had just come through a super sharp bend and had to jump on the brakes with both feet. When I finally got my 470 000-km-on-the-clock Toyota to stop, there, on the white line in the middle of the road, stood a little blonde boy. I guessed him around a year and a half old. He was in his nappies and had a white T-shirt on, perfectly camouflaged on the white line. Unsure of what to do once I’d taken him out of the road, I thought it a good plan to prompt him and see which direction he takes off in (with myself of course right behind).
About 200 meters further along the road he (we) crossed a little bridge heading towards the other side of the canal. He turned up a dirt road which led to a farmhouse about 300 meters up a hill. Keeping up to his snail-like pace, we arrived at the house more or less 10 minutes later (in my experience with farm dogs, it wouldn’t have been wise to carry him). When the gardener saw us approaching, he called out to a woman at the house and judging by her reaction, she must’ve been his mom and he must’ve been missing for a while.
It was a bit of an emotional and chaotic environment so, knowing he was safe, I just turned around and left without introducing myself.
So each time I present a tasting with Little William wine as part of the line-up, I get the same question: “Why is it called, Little William?”, followed almost without fail by: “What does the family have to say about you calling a wine, Little William?” My answer is always the same: “I never went back, they don’t even know the wine exists. But I am convinced there will be this one day where I’d be sitting at some local bar in Knysna, drinking a beer all by myself when the young guy next to me turns to me and introduces himself as William from Ceres.” And I’ll be able to tell him: “Eendag, lank, lank gelede het hierdie oom jou lewe gered!”
For 4 years I had the privilege of telling the story of little William. Until last year. When Chapter 2 happened.
In November, we took our youngest son for a minor operation at Panorama Mediclinic, Tygerberg, Cape Town. The lady at reception looked at us with a puzzled look on her face. We later learnt that there had been a mistake on the paperwork and they were under the impression that he was an adult. They had subsequently booked him into an adult ward. The man next to him had drunk a cup of coffee at 6:00am that morning with milk in. His operation therefore had to be postponed and he obviously missed his theatre time slot. He had to wait almost the whole day for the next slot. He and Sebastian eventually left for the theatre at more or less the same time. I went to get us a cup of coffee, and as she always does, Aneen started making conversation with the milk-in-the-coffee guy’s wife. On my return Aneen said: ”They are from Ceres, tell her the little William story.” I cringed, thinking: “Why would I do that??” I tried to let her comment slide and filled the awkward silence with useless words. We carried on with the small talk and she ended up telling us that she is a vet and her husband is a farmer. “Where do you farm in Ceres?”, I asked. “In the Witzenberg mountains, on a farm called Blah-blah-blah”, she answered.
And, as you’ve probably guessed by now, that was the name of the farm where I dropped little William that morning. It started dawning on me that it might be my Knysna-bar-thing moment happening in a totally bizarre, different way. “Do you have a son called William?” I asked. “No”, she replied, “but my nephew is called William and they live on the same farm, in the house next to the road.” We did the sums and he would’ve been exactly 1 and a half years at the time. So it turns out it wasn’t a beer-in-hand pub in Knysna, but a coffee-in-hand hospital in Cape Town. I should’ve listened to Aneen right from the start… so I told her the whole story and she phoned her sister-in-law. “Did you ever lose William on the farm?” she asked (I don’t think that’s the type of story you volunteer to tell your extended family if not prompted). “Yes”, she said. “There was this one day…”
PS: This incident made me think about everyone’s life stories. I’m convinced that these kind of things happen to everyone. The difference is that I just happened to call a wine Little William, and I have a reason to re-tell this story. If I didn’t, I would’ve possibly only re-told the story once or twice, but I can imagine how the finer details could’ve gotten lost between profit margins and VAT. I have a responsibility to convey the story in an honest and factual way. You know how easily a story gets blurry. So each time I drive the road, I recheck my facts: Where exactly did William stand? Distances? The name of the farm? The story then became part of our story. And that day when the lady mentioned Ceres, the first thing Aneen thought about was the boy in the road.
Before harvest I sent you the first chapter of Searching for L’Estrange – the story about my search for the mystery creator of the serendipitous stoneware clay pots I bought for the cellar. As promised – a little later than planned – please see the next chapter of the story below.
So there in my winery, I had 11 small 330 liter and 2 large 1600 litre clay pots. Pots like these are made from soil and you need them to seal 100% while baking at over 1200 degree celsius. Unfortunately, this does not always happen and every now and then there might be a pore that is not completely sealed. Which is preferably not something you want to discover AFTER you fill it with your valuable juice. So I filled them with water first (something I should’ve done BEFORE I bought the pots!) and left it overnight.
The next morning, I discovered that 5 of the 11 pots were sweating – not leaking as such, but they were definitely not dry from the outside.
I was totally devastated. One of those times where the reality was such a shock, that I could almost convince myself that my eyes were playing tricks on me. I mean, yes, I got them at a bargain price in comparison to brand new ones, but if they were leaking they were completely useless to me. Except maybe as extremely overpriced decorative garden pots. It’s times like these (yes it has happened before), that I feel I am letting my family down. And there’s no better motivation than that to try and fix them.
As some of you might recall from Chapter 1, I had climbed into the large 1600 liter pots from the top and sealed them with beeswax, but the hole at the top of the smaller pots is too small for even my arm to reach in.
It was at that stage that I got hold of the number for Andrew L’Estrange – the elusive creator of my “precious” pots. The large ones were full of fermenting juice when I called Andrew for the first time. “Do you know they leak?” were his first words! I went on to explain to him how I fixed the large ones. As he lives in Limpopo and couldn’t come to the cellar, we started these daily long phone conversations where we devised all sorts of little plans to seal the pores. We started off by trying Tartaric acid solutions in the hopes of getting the tartaric to crystallise in the pores and also tried Bentonite clay solutions. But nothing worked and eventually the only plan left was the most radical one.
So I lit a (very) huge fire. I then attached a small pot as securely as possible to the forklift and lowered it into the fire. We heated the pot until it was so hot that you could not touch it with your bare hands. I then took blocks of beeswax and chucked it into the vessels, waited until it was fully melted into a water-like runny state and then lowered the pot onto the grass. I covered my hands with huge welding gloves and started rolling the egg-shaped pots up and down a little hill in order to spread the melted beeswax on the inside walls of the pot. It was quite a challenge to make sure that the wax reached every part of the inside of these pots. We then turned the pot upside down so that the excess beeswax could run out. We were hoping that as the clay cooled down, the open pores would suck the melted beeswax into them and subsequently block all the little leaking holes. When the process was done, I filled them with water again and VOILA! our plan worked.
So why would I put my valuable juice inside these clay vessels? I am no physics guy and it is hard to get hold of science based info, so in circumstances like these, I always feel it’s best to speak to older people. I met up with a chicken egg farmer and this is what I learned: The egg shape stimulates a natural vortex-like movement of the substance within the egg and keeps the contents fresh for longer. He also mentioned to me that his grandfather believed that if you store a chicken egg with the pointy side to the bottom it lasts longer than if you store it the other way around. Concrete egg-shaped tanks (modern technology, I also use them) are a very popular tank to make wine in these days. These tanks have the pointy side of the egg to the top, but the clay pots (made with 2000 year old technology) have the point to the bottom.
He then said that the moon moves the contents of the egg. Now, even as a surfer who knows the effect of the moon on water, I was sceptical about this one. That was until after fermentation when I opened the first pots. I compared the wine from the pots with the wine from the exact same vineyard which fermented in an old French oak barrel. The wine in the barrel was perfectly clean, but the juice in the pots were murky with fine leese – all in suspension. I found it so fascinating that I showed it to everyone who came to the cellar. And each time I opened a pot it was the same…until, to my amazement, this one particular day when the pot and the barrel wine were both clean. Totally confused, I turned to the lunar calendar and it was a new moon. So, full moon the tides are super high and my pots are…dirty!
We now apply this act of nature in a very practical way in the cellar. After fermentation I want the fine leese to be suspended in the wine for ageing. So I wait for the full moon and pump the wine from one pot to the next, when I know the fine leese is in suspension. On the other hand, if I want to remove the wine for bottling, I wait for the new moon when it is as clean as possible.
This is not where me and Andrew’s chapter ends as I still need to tell you of my remote Limpopo farm visit, but that is a story for another day. The next chapter to follow shortly.
This is the second release of Smaug the Magnificent. Like with most great things in life – this wine originated with a really bad experience where the liquor board stopped the sales of the 2011 vintage. Smaug is back and it’s all about showing what age can do to a South African white blend. I bottled this wine in 2017 and have been ageing it ever since. Not great for cash-flow but very promising for the wine! The 2017 vintage is just about to start showing it’s true colours. A super cool, nutty, grippy mineral, yet fresh 3-year old South African white. Made to age for another 5 to 7 years. Only for the adventurous wine drinker. A blend of Roussanne, Chenin blanc, Verdelho and Palomino.
How it all started back in 2011:
At the back of my warehouse, way into the corner, I have what I call The Drinking Stash. This is where you would want to be left unsupervised if there was any specific sold-out BLANKBOTTLE wine you liked. The last 24 bottles of almost every wine I produce go there (except the ones I over-sell by mistake and end up having to buy a bottle back from my agents overseas).
So, in that drinking stash you would for instance find wines like the very first bottling of Moment of Silence (2007). Whenever I drink an older white like that I am blown away by the ability of South African whites to age.
In 2011, I bottled a white wine – a blend of Roussanne, Chenin blanc, Verdelho and Palomino. In South Africa, all wines have to go to the regulatory board/control agency after bottling, where they go through 3 checks. Firstly they check the paper trail to confirm that what’s in the bottle is what you claim it to be. They then analyse the wine for all sorts of much-too-complicated-to-explain stuff and it finally gets tasted by a board of winemakers who then approves or rejects the wine for export.
This specific wine, the 2011 vintage, was initially approved. After a year the approval expired and at that stage I still had at least 500 bottles to sell. I then had to re-submit, which I did, but at that point the wine was rejected by the tasting board. Now, you have the option to appeal, but at the time, I had much more pressing issues on my plate, so I transferred the bin towards my drinking stash to deal with later. As the years went by, I would grab a bottle to drink at home every once in a while, and each time I opened a bottle, I liked it more. November 2016, 5 years after bottling, I showed my UK agents the wine. They loved it and wanted to buy it all. So I took a chance and re-submitted the wine to the board – it was approved! I then urgently needed a label for the wine, I mean, a sale is a sale… My son Luca drew a picture of the dragon of Lord of the Rings, “Smaug the Magnificent”. So I made him an offer: a retainer per bottle I sell in exchange for the use of his sketch. He accepted and I released a 5 year old white blend with super success!
So, in 2017 I decided to make this wine with the objective of ageing it in bottle until it starts to show that nutty, grippy texture the 2011 vintage did. It’s happened and it’s time to release the wine. This wine is meant to age. Drink now or age in your cellar for another 5 to 7 years.
For many years I’ve known that if I wanted to take my wines to the next level, I needed to build layers into them. A great way to do this is to ferment juice from the same block of grapes in different fermentation vessels – clay (pots), cement (tanks) and wood (barrels) respectively. Each one enhances a specific characteristic and, when blended, creates a multi-dimensional portrayal of that particular vineyard site. I had the cement tanks and wood barrels in my cellar, but pots were lacking. But pots are expensive. Way too expensive for me. Then in October 2018, I got a call about some winery equipment that was possibly up for sale. A local farm had just been sold to a Joburg businessman and rumour had it that he wasn’t planning to continue with winemaking. And amongst all the stuff there were…. POTS! – eleven 330L pots and two very large 1600L pots to be precise. I knew if I didn’t act fast, it would be gone in a second – every winemaker I know wants pots.
The true origin of making wine in huge clay pots is in a country just north of Turkey and Armenia, called Georgia – arguably the oldest wine producing country in the world. They call the pots “qvevri” and bury them in the ground. The style of wines they produce are also unique. They throw everything in the pots: whole bunches of weird white varietals – stems, pips, skins and all. The product is tannic, natural and interesting – very specific wines – the modern Orange Wine for lack of a better description.
But my hopes were soon shattered when I called him up. He wanted to keep the winery intact as an additional asset to the farm. After I explained to him the intricate winemaking required when working with these pots and that it would probably just be better for him to use it in his garden for decoration, he told me to phone him in a week. Exactly a week later with fresh hope, I phoned and asked if I could meet with him – he said he would give me only 5 minutes. I arrived at the farm and distinctly remember that from entering his gate until leaving again, exactly 5 minutes had transpired. I had to put an offer on the table. When I logged into my bank, my balance was very clear about what I could offer but he just laughed and said I should triple it. I asked for terms and we had a deal. What followed was a week of snail-like driving between my winery and his, transporting these very fragile pieces of clay.
How was I meant to go about making wine in these pots? And do I risk putting my very valuable juice in the pots and hope for the best, when I already know the outcome in barrels? So I decided to start by searching for the potter. My only clue was a little stamp-like inclusion on the side of the pot stating “La France” and I started my hunt – on google of course. These particular pots have a very clever patent – you use a forklift to turn them upside down for effective cleaning – something I had never seen before. I searched for French pottery guys. NOTHING! Then one day my wife Aneen arrived at the winery and took a piece of chalk, rubbed it onto the stamp-like logo in the clay and gently dusted it off. The chalk residue to our amazement clearly revealed, not La France, but L’Estrange! Back to Google – again NOTHING. Finally I got hold of the contact details of the previous owner of the farm – the guy who commissioned the pots. Further disappointment and confusion: he didn’t want to disclose any information. However, during one of our casual conversations, one thing struck me. He mentioned something about the potter being in South Africa!
In the meantime, I started preparing the pots for harvest. In Georgia, the standard practice would be to paint these pots with beeswax as they exit the Kiln in the baking process. The melted beeswax gets sucked into the pores of the terracotta, blocking and sealing every possible too-porous cavity. So I thought it a good idea to do the same. But beeswax has a smell to it and in my mind a smell produces a taste. So I read up on wine made in beeswax and found basically nothing. The only info I got was that a transfer of taste was possible, depending on where the bees got hold of the nectar they use to produce honey from. For instance: if the bees lived in an Eucalyptus Bush, your wine could taste like eucalyptus. I then phoned the wax guy, but he couldn’t help me with the origin – he gets his wax from various suppliers, puts everything together and melts and sells off blocks of the mix. So I took the risk and bought some. I took the large pots (and by large I mean HUGE, the biggest I’ve ever seen – 1600 litre man-height clay vessels) and put it in the boiling February sun for about 3 days in a row. In the process the pots dried out and started to gain a captured heat. I then climbed inside with a pot of melted beeswax and a heat gun and painted the inside of the pot. I spent 7 (excruciatingly hot!) hours inside each pot, slowly heating the clay and melting the beeswax into the micropores of the clay and sealed them completely.
As I finished sealing the big pots, we picked a first for us – Palomino, a white grape varietal also called Fransdruif from a little 1965 bush-vine vineyard growing in Piekenierskloof, 550 meters above sea level. I took the plunge and chucked everything (everything meaning whole bunches, stems, skins, pips, juice) into the large clay vessel, washed my feet and then broke the berries with my feet by means of “foot stomping”.
During harvest I normally drive in the region of 13000 km in 3 months. So I had time to phone around and continue my search for a South African potmaker who has the capacity (size of kiln) and ability to produce pots the size I have. I stopped searching for L’Estrange and started searching for the kiln. I phoned random potters in South Africa, which brought me to the famous potter, Digby Hoets. As he was not available, I spoke to his wife. Again the same reply: Digby’s oven is too small. But just before she hung up, she casually mentioned: “If there is someone who has the capability to do something like that, it’s a guy called Andrew L’Estrange, but it wouldn’t be him because he stopped making pots years ago”. Now you can just imagine my excitement! “ But I’ve been all over Google trying to find someone called L’Estrange..” I replied. “ No”, she interrupted me, “Google wouldn’t know of Andrew – he despises technology and lives off the grid somewhere up north. You will never find him, but I can get a number for you. Just give me a couple of days”.
She phoned back and this story gets a whole lot more interesting. However, I am busy with bottling so this is the end of Chapter 1 of Searching for L’Estrange. The rest will have to wait until the new year. BUT the end product is in the bottle so….
Today I release the whole-bunch, clay pot, bees-waxy Palomino. The wine is true to it’s name – (L’E) STRANGE! It’s made from humble Palomino, which originated in the Sherry producing areas of Spain. The cuttings were brought to the African continent by ship and planted in 1965 on the mountain in Piekenierskloof, 550 meters above sea level. The 54-year old bush-vine vineyard, grown in African soil was made in African pots made from Limpopo clay, enhanced by the wax of African bees producing honey from African flora – meticulously guided, bottled and labelled by the colourful hands of the African people: Searching for L’Estrange…
I know this is a more lengthy newsletter release than usual, but this is one story that needs to be told in detail – it’s one of those that, looking back, I can just shake my head in disbelief at how it turned out. In short – today I am releasing 2 new wines:
Manon des Sources – a 2010 (yes a 9 year old!) bottle aged white blend of Weisser Riesling, Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc.
In the Elgin Valley, as a passion project, the owner of a mainly fruit farm planted 3 vineyards – Weisser Riesling Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc.
In 2012 I took over the grapes from the previous buyer and made my DOC – a white blend of Weisser Riesling, Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc – a wine which represents this little mountainous outcrop. The soil varies immensely from reddish sandstone to granite and clay. After bottling my version (DOC 2012) the owner of the farm asked me if I could bottle a version of the same wine for him for his private consumption or to sell to his friends. Fast forward 7 years and he never got round to selling a bottle. So I bought it all back. I released it and it sold out in a flash. I mean, where do you find a 7-year old bottle-aged white from South Africa? Andre then told me that he had more. The previous buyer of the grapes had also made a white blend for him. A 2010! A dense, rich but fresh 9 year old white wine. What an experience! To taste a 2010 Weisser Riesling blend from South Africa is priceless. And this is the wine I’m releasing today. “But isn’t it way too risky to name a wine Manon des Sources?” my wife asked me. Of course she was right. It’s a brand name owned by somebody somewhere, but the chances of me, here at the tip of Africa with a small batch of wine registering on their radar was very slim. So slim that I was willing to take the risk… read the story below.
Air Carrots of Pagnol 2018 – a blend of Grenache blanc from Paarl/Swartland and Wellington, with a dash of Grenache Gris.
Grenache prefers warmer climates, but the building of layers into Grenache is something that I enjoy immensely. This wine was taken to tank and fermented in old French Oak barrels. But then, to add some extra kick in the wine, we also allowed a few days of skin contact on a portion of the grapes. In future I think we will add even more of these components, giving the wine extra grip and texture.
A short, 2 chapter story of both wines:
Manon des Sources (Manon of the Spring) is a 1966 two-volume novel by Marcel Pagnol and tells the story of a lady living in a small village on the outskirts of Marseille. It’s a very famous story and they subsequently made 2 films about the book. I would never have known about the book if it wasn’t for my Swiss friend, Eric, who started calling our daughter, Alexa, Manon des Sources.
Alexa and the main character looked so alike: you see, for the first six years of Alexa’s life she did not like to have any fabric in contact with her skin. So my mother-in-law started making these long dresses of very thin soft material. She would wear one dress for about 6 months (day and night), then some nights she’d allow us to wash it and we had to make sure it’s ready for the next morning. Once that particular dress was completely worn out, full of holes, we had to get her into a new one – which was a nightmare to adjust to. She also never combed her hair and never wore shoes. In short: Alexa looked exactly like the lead actress in Manon des Sources.
After this particular wine had been bottled, it was Alexa’s turn to design a label (they all get a turn to design a label and I pay them per bottle sold) and she subsequently made a self-sketch with her in her dress and wild hair flying all over. The name of the wine could not have been anything other than Manon des Sources.
Air Carrots of Pagnol – Fast forward 2 years and we’re in Marseilles, as a documentary about BLANKBOTTLE had been selected as a finalist in a French Film Festival. The evening after our film was screened, we were invited to dinner with all the judges. My French-speaking Swiss friend, Eric, (the guy who nicknamed my daughter as Manon) came all the way from Geneva to join us for the screening – which was fantastic as we really struggled to communicate with the French! On our way from the museum where the film Festival took place, Eric proceeded to explain to them in French what BLANKBOTTLE is all about. He also mentioned that I make a wine called Manon des Sources. They stopped in their tracks… one of the judges immediately looked a bit more interested…turns out he is Nicola Pagnol – the grandson of Marcel Pagnol, the writer of the original story Manon des Sources. He is also the owner of the brand Manon des Sources and his full-time occupation is to run the brand. He owns the rights to all the books, film, souvenirs etc and turns out it is a huge business in Marseille.
So what are the chances? Here’s Eric, who introduced me to the Manon des Sources name, explaining the intricacies of BLANKBOTTLE to Nicola Pagnol himself? Just shows – my wife is always right!
The label of this wine is a map of Marseille, the roots of the Pagnol family.
STELLENBOSCH. Silently, she’s been re-aligning her troops and now strikes back at the Swartland to establish herself yet again as a formidable force. The two wines I’m releasing today are:
The Empire Strikes Back 2018 – An all-STELLENBOSCH white blend of Verdelho, Pinot blanc, Sauvignon blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Chardonnay, Chenin blanc and Viognier
Just for the record – I am a huge fan of Swartland white blends. The image of South African wines has changed dramatically over the past 10 years and the Swartland played a huge part in this. Their wines, especially the Rhône-style white blends are top notch. They are fun, young, energetic, unique and started to gain international fame.
Stellenbosch, however (where I studied winemaking), is the original EMPIRE of South African wine. Like most of us, I like to support the underdog, and in the case of white blends, the Empire became exactly that. So I created a white blend based on similar varieties – a combination that could give some of the Swartland white blends a go. The empire is therefore now striking back at the Swartland with a blend of an all-Stellenbosch Verdelho, Pinot blanc, Sauvignon blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Chardonnay, Chenin blanc and Viognier.
The label consists of two sections. On the left part of the label you will see a half star, which was the logo for the “Swartland Revolution”. And on the right – stripes that represent a traditional and conservative EMPIRE.
And the red brother of Empire Strikes Back is EMPIRE 2017 – not striking back but just being himself. With Petit Verdot as driver and bits of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet franc to compliment.
I am launching my new website today! And to celebrate this, we have an offer for sold-out older vintage wines. Go to the website (www.blankbottle.co.za) and have a look around. The 2017 reds and the 2018 wines are now selling, but we also have a drinking stash of around 3000 bottles in the cellar. The drinking stash consists of the last few bottles of every wine we’ve ever made. If there’s any of the older vintage sold out wines that tickles your fancy, let us know and we’ll see if we can sell you a bottle or two! No promises, as there really are wines I don’t have a single bottle of left!
The new site:
When it comes to BLANKbottle, the story of each wine is as much a part of the experience as the liquid itself. And the way we communicate this is through the label and our website. BUT, I never dreamed we’d end up with so many different wines – and the website most definitely wasn’t designed with that in mind! So for the past few months we’ve been busy with the design of a new one.
Today is the launch of the new BLANKbottle site. It’s a simple layout, and it enables the bottle to speak for itself. It’s all there – every bottle from the 1st vintage in 2003 to the very latest release (and first of the 2019 vintage) “Searching for L’ESTRANGE”.
We like talking to people, so we’ve dropped the web shop. The only way to know what’s available for sale is to subscribe to our newsletter, phone or email us and we’ll send you a list of wines now selling and their prices. Tell us what you have in mind, and we can also give you our recommendations. We’ve bottled 47 different wines so far this year alone, so there’s a lot to choose from. For the 2017 reds and all the 2018’s, I’ve added a personal voice recording, for those of you who don’t like reading.
Of course, any feedback – be it spelling mistakes or the site’s efficiency – will be greatly appreciated!
Every year when I travel to Europe to sell wine, I try and fit in a short visit to a wine area for inspiration. Last year I had an opportunity to go to the Rhone, Southern France. Normally, I purposefully avoid imitating what’s out there, but it does sometimes happen that one of the European greats remind me of nuances I’ve picked up in some of my vineyards in the past. This then fuels a drive to enhance these unique characteristics into something that still represents the vineyard and area, but is inspired by the wine rulers of Europe. Today I am releasing 2 of these inspired drinks.
BLANKBOTTLE OPPIE-KOPPIE 2017 – a Voor-Paardeberg Shiraz – R210 a bottle
BLANKBOTTLE TBC – A non-vintage, Stellenbosch Viognier – R190 a bottle
Please note that we are currently in the process of creating a new website. With the amount of past and present wines and vintages, the old site became increasing more difficult to navigate your way around in search of specific wine info. We’ll also be changing the ordering procedure, but for now please e-mail us with your order or questions, and we’ll reply with a e-mail and invoice. Also see below for other wines that’s available and selling now. You are welcome to make up mixed cases if you like.
OPPIE-KOPPIE – The story
Back in 2014, I was walking through an organically-farmed Shiraz vineyard in the Voor-Paardeberg. It was close to brunch time, so I picked a bunch of grapes and stripped the berries off the stem. I was left with a clean stem. I then ate the stem. Pure pepper spice!
It immediately triggered an idea: if I ferment the wine without removing the stems (a.k.a. whole bunch fermentation), chances were that I could possibly extract some of that exciting spice. So I chucked 33.33333% of the total volume of grapes into a fermentation vessel (stems and all) and crushed it with my feet. With the balance of the grapes, I removed the stems using a de-stemmer and filled the tank. All the grapes then underwent spontaneous fermentation. After 4 weeks, I pressed the grapes and the wine aged in barrel for a year. When the time came for label design, I did a pencil drawing of an old-fashioned film camera taking a photo of a grape-stem. I blackened the camera lens in such a way that only one third of the stem was exposed to the camera. I then called the wine 33.3333.
In 2015, the stems were super ripe and I decided to do 100% whole bunch fermentation. On the label I altered the sketch in order for the camera lens to have a 100% exposure to the stem.
2016, the stems were ripe, but not as ripe as the 2015 vintage, so I went for 70% exposure.
When it came to the 2017 vintage I decided that, in order for this wine to get to the next level, it needed more complexity. The only way to gain complexity is to add vineyards with flavour profiles that would enhance and add layers to the original wine. A little bit of Shiraz from the Swartland and a tad Cinsaut from the Breedekloof did the trick. Having had 80% whole cluster fermentation, I initially called the wine 80.0000 (referring to the percentage exposure to stems as in previous years), but this was confusing to my clients. I then changed the name to Oppie-Koppie, the name the farmer calls the vineyard – a 2017 Voor-Paardeberg Shiraz (my 4th vintage from this block of grapes). Northern Rhône-like in style, super spicy with nice grip. Ageing will only do this wine great but you can also drink it now.
TBC 2018 – The story
I spent 4 days driving from Avignon all along the Rhône river through Hermitage, Crozes Hermitage, Condrieu to Côte Rôtie. It was fascinating and invigorating. Condrieu’s wines (or rather the ones I tasted), were mineral, fresh and lean with depth in character and complexity – and made from Viognier – a varietal we struggle with in South Africa.
SA Viognier are mostly over extracted, rich, sweet and floral. I have access to a really nice block of Viognier on the slopes of the Helderberg mountain facing Stellenbosch. I have been making wine from that block since 2012, but, up until today have only used it in blends. So I decided to do an experiment. We picked the vineyard in two sections. The first picking on a relatively low sugar and a second picking as a ripe component. A combination of the two were aged for 2 years in old small barrel French Oak – 50% of the final blend. The other 50% was an early picking of the same vineyard the following year. In other words; the final wine is 50% early picking that spent one year in barrel (2018 vintage) and the other 50% a combination of early and late picking aged 2 years in barrel (2017 vintage).
And I had no name for the wine. You know, it does happen that sometimes the name and label of a wine just doesn’t happen when it should… My distributers pressured me to get the wine out and after a suggestion by one of the reps, the name became TBC – To Be Confirmed.
The label: my youngest son had his 7th birthday party and wanted me to make him a leopard cake – in 3D of course… To shape a leopard body is easy, but a head of a leopard is massively difficult to do. So, I made a paper mache head of a leopard and painted it. And the label became the infamous leopard cake head.
Back in 2015 an old varsity friend referred me to a farmer called Boetie van Reenen. Not long thereafter a farmer whom I buy grapes from, as well as a fellow winemaker, referred me to the same guy. So with 3 solid referrals, I met with this Darling farmer who apparently had some really interesting opportunities when it came to varietals like Cinsaut and Chenin. In year 1, I bought some Chenin from him. Then, in year 2 (2016), the Retirement@65 vineyard came on board and finally, in 2017, a Pinotage vineyard.
The 2017 was in barrel when we received the tragic news. Boetie had passed away after a fatal car crash. He was a keen fisherman and was on his way home from Ganzekraal. So today I’m releasing the BLANKBOTTLE B.O.E.T 2017 – mainly Pinotage with bits of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, as a dedication to BOETIE. For those of you who don’t know, Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (also known as Hermitage), hence the name Pino-tage.
When it comes to reds, Pinotage is the first to ripen. Unfortunately, its early sweetness attract birds from the mountain and they feast on the grapes. In the past, the farmer had therefore been forced to pick the 37-year old vineyard early, on a low sugar, before the birds came. But that meant that the grapes were not ripe yet and could only be used for the making of rosé. To prevent the bird-fest, I then purchased some bird nets and the farmer covered the little bush vines with it – it worked.
The second wine I am releasing today, is BLANKBOTTLE Saint Rand 2018 – my first straight Pinotage. You all know the story of our recent trip to Marseille with our film Epileptic Inspiration. To solidify our memories and to keep us going until the awards ceremony on 14 October in Paris, I thought it good to name a wine after our adventure. Saint Rand is the registered name of our PTY Ltd. – Saint Rand Productions (tongue-in-cheek upper class name for our very humble but wonderful home town – the Strand). I appreciate the new lighter styles currently emerging in the marketplace, but deep down I like the heavier, old-style Pinotages way more. So with BLANKBOTTLE Saint Rand 2018, I aimed for something in between – not as heavy as the older styles and not as light as the modern versions.
Just to clarify; the Pinotage in both B.O.E.T. 2017 and Saint Rand 2018 comes from the same vineyard in Darling.
In 2013, I released a wine called Familiemoord – a wine about the extraordinary but true story of how the police thought I killed my son and buried him in a shallow grave in the vacant property next to our house. The Cape Argus’ article on 11 May 2013 about the incident titled “The mystery of the boy in the sandpit” serves as this wine’s label.
Don’t worry, my son is alive and well and is turning 13 in September – 6 years after I “killed” him. This wine has generated the most reaction of any wine I have ever produced – and not for any of the reasons a winemaker would hope for. In fact, most people were totally oblivious as to the terroir (Swartland) or cultivar (Grenache noir) of the 2013 vintage! Some countries were uncomfortable with the name, so in 2015 I stopped producing it.
But now that the dust has settled Familiemoord is back – BLANKBOTTLE Familiemoord 2018 – Wellington Grenache, Elgin Pinot and Darling Cinsaut
Being in Marseille at the film festival was like watching the French rugby team jog onto the field to play the Springboks in a jam-packed Stade de France. There’s a full French squad on the field, exclusively French supporters on the stands, a French referee and French touch judges – and then only 2 Springboks appear…
In short, an almost insurmountable situation – pretty much all the odds against us. How do you compete with the French on a subject like wine, with a French crowd and French judges? And did I mention everything is in French?
And so 4 very long and stressful days started. On the social side of things, the fact that our film was screened on day 1 helped a lot. Our French guardian angel appeared in the form of a lady called Nelly. She took the 2 non-French speaking Springboks under her wing and from there on we were pulled along to lunches and dinners, drinking and eating with super friendly people – her translating all the way.
Our days were filled with movie after movie shown in the brand new modern MuCEM (The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) built on the water in Marseille. A total of 39 finalist films were screened.
Then it was D-day – Day 4 – the day of the prize giving. Our nerves were shattered. After all, we didn’t really go there for sightseeing. We got up at 5am and headed for the old city. We tried to keep our thoughts occupied and as far removed from the coming award ceremony – our strategy did not work.
The ceremony started at noon and we soon realised that the two of us handle stress in 2 very different ways. Theo-Donald fidgets, and I turn into a pillar of salt. After the first section of mentions and trophies, the Grand Jury stepped onto the stage to present the main prizes – there were 8 Trophies up for grabs. Of course, it was all presented in French and it was when they handed the microphone to a UK-born Master of Wine (and French citizen) that my heart stopped. She asked the crowd’s permission to proceed in English before resuming in French.
For the next bit, please forgive me if I get one or 2 things wrong but this is what I recall from my pillar-of-salt brain. She started off by saying that there was one film that did not fit into any of the criteria for the top 8 trophies, that although it was about wine, it crossed the line into other worlds – that it was personal, full of emotion and touched the judges in a human way. They felt it was a multi-layered film and they, as the Grand Jury, decided to add a category to the competition at their initiative called the “Coup de Coeur” Trophy – literally it means “blow to the heart” but are used by the French as “love at first sight” or “falling for something”. And that the Coup de Coeur Trophy goes to “Epileptic Inspiration”.
And the fun continues – The awards ceremony is 14 October at the Palais du Luxembourg (French Senate) – Paris, France.
This year has a mind of it’s own. My 2019 overseas sales trips had been planned to a T – 2 trips, 6 countries. But a documentary film we recently completed about Blankbottle, called EPILEPTIC INSPIRATION, resulted in 2 additional trips – firstly to Hollywood last month and then next week to Marseilles, France…
Unknowingly, this journey started 3 years ago. I was still battling it out, making 85 tons in the old 160 square meter winery. It was a mess. My wife asked me if I was willing to help a friend of hers’ brother. He is a filmmaker and spent 4 years making films on cruise ships. He had recently returned to SA and was looking to make a documentary about someone. A sort of passion project, something he could use on his CV.
So I met the familiar face of Theo-Donald Stewart – I’m 11 years his senior and although we had never formally met, we’d shared plenty of waves at our local surf spot for many many years.
He asked me if he could possibly make a very short (as in 3-minute) film about BLANKBOTTLE. I told him that I will happily give my time but I don’t have cash to invest.
So we started filming – a little bit here and a little bit there. Then harvest struck and every morning between 3 and 4:30am, I would pick him up at his house and he would go wherever I went, filming all the way. So he shot footage and then some more. Harvest came and went and we were still going. The more we spoke, the more he filmed. And before long the next harvest was upon us again, and I moved into my new cellar. And he then filmed some more until May 2018 when we had our first edit.
Both of us were very much pleased with the result at that point, until we showed it to my older brother, Xaver who is a filmmaker in Zurich Switzerland with a lifetime of experience. The feedback: shocking to say the very least. So we had to start over with the editing. The footage was fantastic but what we’ve learnt is that the art of storytelling is indeed that – an art.
Once we were done licking our wounds, the game was on again. Theo-Donald filmed some more, dissected and dug deeper into happenings of the past, professionally but also on a personal level. Interview upon interview, from graphic designers to winemakers, my wife or whoever had something to do with BLANKBOTTLE. Even digging through old footage of the family etc. And so, the “3 week” project became edit number 5 then 6, and then 8, 9 and 10. Each time back and forth between Theo-Donald, me and Xaver. And now, 3 years later we are on edit number 15. A 31 minute episode – EPILEPTIC INSPIRATION – Only time will tell if this is the final one!
And then our first opportunity came. A very good friend and winemaker Alex Starey (he features in the film) from Keermont told us of this film competition in France. Only wine related films were allowed to enter. In Theo-Donald’s words – “This competition was designed for us”. After the registration of our PTY Ltd. – Saint Rand Productions (tongue-in-cheeck upper class name for our very humble but wonderful home town – the Strand) and 250 EUROS later we were in the mix alongside famous Hollywood directors like Ridley Scott.
And before the French revealed the finalists, the Americans rocked up. They want to buy the film. So before we really knew what we were in for, we were sitting on a plane crossing the Atlantic to Hollywood…
Just after we got back we received the news that our film was selected as one of the 30 finalists of all the entries worldwide! They will be screening all of the finalists from Wednesday to Saturday next week at the Mucem in Marseille as part of the Oenovideo film festival (http://www.oenovideo.com/) and the winners will be announced on Sunday.
And, as from the very beginning of this fun journey, again, we have no idea what to expect; maybe a sightseeing trip or maybe, just maybe, we’ll be taking this to the next level…
As we move along in this adventure called life, we’re (hopefully) increasingly exposed to fine and fascinating wines. We forget quickly and the days of getting excited when opening a bottle of Tassenberg is long gone. So it was then, that in February 1994 I walked into Western Cape Liquor Store in Stellenbosch and bought my first bottle of TAS for R3.50. In the (student) years to follow, I partook in a lot of Tassenberg drinking (to put it mildly).
All that drinking gave me ample opportunity for reflection and I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t particularly fond of the whole wine, but there was one flavour component in the wine which I loved. That flavour component reminded me of fresh strawberries – a sweet, green, wholesome sort of freshness.
In 1997 I completed a month-long harvest stint in the (then) capital city of Tassenberg – Eersterivier Wine Cellar, Stellenbosch. We literally made hundreds of thousands of litres of Tassenberg. This is where the light went on for me and I finally identified the grape which produces my mysterious fresh strawberry component. It was Cinsaut! Ever since then I’d had the dream of producing a Cinsaut that tastes exactly the way I would like to remember TAS. The first straight Cinsaut I bottled was in 2007 – a Wellington Cinsaut as part of the Educational Range. The wine was good but not exactly the style I was after.
Not long thereafter, I received a tip-off from a well-respected winemaker friend about a little Cinsaut vineyard located in the lesser-known Breedekloof Valley. At that stage, the grapes went to a big cooperative winery where it basically disappeared into cheap red blends. So I took the plunge and bought some grapes.
Cinsaut is known as a varietal which produces lots of grapes per hectare. Besides the fact that Cinsaut has huge bunches, it also has massive berries. You therefore have much less skin-versus-juice contact and therefore end up with a lighter coloured (red) wine. I had the grapes ferment in small open-top French oak barrels and aged it in the same barrels for a year before being bottled.
Today, 7 vintages down the line, I’m releasing the new Mykoffer 2018 – a straight Breedekloof Cinsaut – with cherries and strawberries, it has a feminine elegance to it with a surprisingly intense personality – So with all the emotions connected to a first love, I present “My TASSENBERG”, “My TAS” – BLANKbottle Mykoffer 2018 – a suitcase full of memories.
Today I am releasing the new 2017 vintage of Retirement@65 – a blend of mainly Cinsaut with a dash of its neighbouring Syrah vineyard.
The 2016 vintage was so well received that this wine is now officially part of our ongoing range. The 2017 vintage though, is next level! A wine I can highly recommend you try. I prefer it to the 2016. To read the unique story of how this vineyard survived the onslaught of nature and beast to eventually, and quite ironically come of age at the retirement age of 65, see below:
Retirement@65 2017 – Far removed from the style the new world is typically known for, this wine is elegant, balanced, fresh and drinkable – driven by perfume rather than fruit. The first time wine from this block ever made it into bottle in its 65 years of existence, was in 2016. Then in 2017, as every year, we tried to improve our management of the vineyard as well as the facilitation process of the grapes turning themselves into wine. The result is yours for the tasting.The label is a linocut I made to celebrate the fact that we won and the sheep lost.
The Story behind Retirement@65:
In June 2014, I arrived at a farm in Darling where I was met by a very grumpy farmer. And for good reason I soon learnt. I had bought bits of grapes from the farmer during that year’s harvest (which all turned out really promising) and was doing my annual post-harvest farm visit with a fresh barrel sample for the farmer to taste.
One of his grape clients had previously persuaded him to farm a little Cinsaut vineyard by method of minimum intervention. Not in a organic kind of a way, but more towards a 300% leave-the-vineyard-to-be kind of way.
To make a long story short, due to many contributing factors, all the grapes of this little Cinsaut vineyard ended up going to the pigs and he was blaming his minimum intervention 300% leave-the-vineyard-to-be client for all of this. To make matters worse, for the 62 years prior to this, the vineyard hardly produced grapes sufficient to produce wine with. You see, his grandfather planted the vineyard in 1951 and had still used a horse to plough the land. The vineyard is on the edge of the mountain in a little valley and the only food source around. So as the berries accumulated sugar, the birds would hop from bunch to bunch pricking the berries with their beaks, causing them to rot. And by the time the grapes ripened there weren’t much left. Now things like this interest me. I asked him if we could give it one more try.
He reluctantly agreed on the basis that he farms the block the way he believes one should. I, in turn, agreed to buy bird nets to cover the vines and we had a deal. So mid 2014 the vines were neatly pruned and he took care of the weeds. That spring, after bud break, the first soft green shoots appeared. Everything looked good! Then, one Sunday afternoon, I received a photo on whatsapp. It was the vineyard in question with about 20 odd sheep feeding in the vineyard and no sign of the newly formed soft shoots – only brown stumps remaining as the vineyard celebrated it’s 64th birthday. Late that Friday night his sheep had broken through the fence and ate everything green in colour. So there went another crop and the farmer got even more despondent.
But he didn’t give up and so, in June 2015, he raised the fence. In early November we covered the whole vineyard in bird nets. Finally, in February 2016 (for the first time in 65 years!) the vineyard survived the onslaught of wild animals roaming the hillsides of Darling and we picked a very small, but healthy, crop.
The result was the 2016 vintage of Retirement@65. Who said life stops at retirement?
About midway through harvest this year, I happened to drop by a winery where husband Roland Peens was busy sorting through his wife, Jessica Saurwein’s Pinot Noir grapes from Kaaimansgat. Quite randomly he asked me if I would like to be a Young Gun in their nationwide tasting tour. Me, being more of a Midlife Gun, brushed the offer off at first.
Roland is the owner of a company called Winecellar in Cape Town. For the past number of years they have had an annual tasting event called the Young Guns tasting. Every year they select 6 new kids on the winemaking block to showcase their wines in a country-wide tour.
But, when he started explaining that this year is a Young-gun-at-heart tasting, not a Young-gun-in-age tasting and that I would have the honour to share the stage with absolute legends Beyers Truter, Niels Verburg, Duncan Savage, David Nieuwoudt and Adi Badenhorst, it was a no-brainer and I said yes. So we have 2 events:
Date: Thursday, 21 June
Venue: The Barnyard Theatre, Rivonia Crossing 2, Witkoppen Road and Rivonia Road, Rivonia
Date: Friday, 22 June
Venue: Century City Conference Centre, Hall D, Century City Conference Centre, 4 Energy Lane, Century City
Arrival: 18:00 for 18:30
Ticket price: R 595 (includes a light dinner and a Gabriel-Glas Standard 2-pack valued at R 395)
Limited to 200 seats.
Wine Cellar suggests using Uber, taxis or drivers to make sure you are safe on the evening.
To book click on the image below.
You might be wondering what the effect of the current drought in the Western Cape has had on our harvest and the vines. Seeing that we are now (at long last) done with harvest 2018, I’ll do my best at summing it up for you.
Ample amounts of water creates a happy vine – a vine that doesn’t care about the future and lives for the now. It’s a lavish lifestyle of growing long shoots with huge leaves and massive bunches with average-flavoured, big, thin-skinned berries. A lifestyle that results in a show-off plant with very little personality – each one trying to outdo its peers. The wines made from these grapes are often generic and suburban with non-distinct personalities. And if you then top-up the indulgence by adding a bit of rain in the late-ripening stage, the grapes rot. And that was harvest 2014 . (A bit like a first-year student with too much money who spends it all on booze and the wrong girls)
In 2015, the rains did not come as expected and it started getting drier and a bit tougher for the vines. The vine suddenly starts to think about life and realises that the only chance it has to produce a heritage of his own is to get a head start by ensuring that his grapes taste the best and ripens first (in comparison to those of his peers). The birds need to eat his grapes, which gives him the advantage of spreading his seed via the bird droppings… creating the next generation. So he starts pumping all his available resources towards his bunches. He starts to care less what everyone thinks of him and his appearance. This results in shorter shoots with smaller leaves. He naturally reduces his crop slightly and starts focusing on quality rather than quantity. With the spared energy, he produces smaller, thick-skinned berries with tannins ripening just a tad earlier than his rivals. The berries have a lower juice vs skin ratio resulting in a wine with deep colour, layers of flavour and ripe tannins – super balanced extraction. The vine feeds off the (just enough) water in the soil and refrains from taking the acid in the berries. It is this acid that ultimately creates the backbone in a wine. 2015 and 2017 were years like that. Stellar vintages! (In 2016 there were still enough water but we had a curve ball in the form of a 5 week heatwave – but that’s a newsletter on its own so let’s not go there for now.)
Then, in winter 2017, for the 3rd year in a row, the rain did not come. The soil became drier and drier and the vine did everything in its power to get its grapes to be the best it can be. But 3/4 into the ripening phase it ran out of water. So the berries became even smaller than the previous year, which resulted in a lighter crop in 2018. The vine knows the birds don’t care much about the acid levels in the berries, so the plant focused on getting the berries as sweet as possible. When it ran out of water completely, it shut down and in order to survive, it started feeding on the acid stored in the berries. This, in turn, resulted in a drop in acid in the last few days of ripening. Now, bear in mind, this all only applies to the vine that had a little bit of water to start off with. The vine in the soil that started off with no water, however, went into early shut-down and basically only focused on survival. Its seeds were the least of its worries and it shut production down completely in order to stay alive – no grapes as a result. And in cases where the soil got even drier, the vines simply died.
And this, sadly, is the influence the drought has had on the 2018 harvest. So, next year when the time comes for releasing the 2018’s, you’ll notice lower alcohols as a result of much earlier pickings (just before the plant started feeding on the acid in the berries), a missing vintage here and there with all volumes down quite a bit and some wines never to be repeated ever again. But such is the life of vines. And then of course, as usual, we are continually running plenty experiments which could result in some very interesting new wines to come.
This is the release of Little William Syrah 2016.
In March 2015 harvest was in full swing in my old little super-cramped winery. I had already exceeded the tonnage fitted for a 160 square meter building the year before, but now things were just out of hand – I was beyond maxed-out – I was overstretched, overloaded, overflowing and all the other “over” words you can think of in order to compensate for my impending future growth.
So there, in the midst of my trapeze acts in my cellar, in walks a wine making friend with 2 Pick&Pay bags full of grapes. Shoving it in my hands, he tells me about this lady that was given a bakkie-load of vine plantings as a gift. On her farm in the Koue Bokkeveld (755 meters above sea-level on top of the Witzenberg), they then stuck it in the soil and it started growing. Most vines in South Africa are grafted on American roots as they are not susceptible to a dreaded disease called Phylloxera – which basically wiped out the world’s vines in the late 19th century. But these Syrah grapes in the Koue Bokkeveld were in fact growing on their original Syrah roots (we call this “makstok”) – a very rare set of circumstances found not many places in the world. The little vineyard looks more like a garden than a vineyard. So there they’d been growing for a number of years. No one was really interested in them at the time so I committed to buying the grapes, inspired purely by the story, not the quality, as none of us knew what to expect…
When it comes to new vineyards like these with no track record, picking time is very difficult to establish. So we just tasted the grapes and looked at the vines. The average temperature at that height above sea-level – 755 meters – is rather low in the growing and ripening season, so the grapes accumulate sugar slowly. We decided to pick when the leaves of the vines started yellowing, showing that optimal ripeness was reached. The first vintage ever (now sold out) was the 2015 – fresh, but with a rather large frame, deep red in colour and plenty of fruit – an alcohol of 14%.
So today I am releasing the totally different-in-style 2016 Little William Syrah. It was a tough harvest with heatwaves hitting the Cape one after the other for weeks on end. Nights never cooled down and the vines struggled, natural acidity declined early and the vines showed signs of weakness sooner than expected. So we picked much earlier than the previous year, which resulted in a completely different wine. With an alcohol of 12.5%, the wine is stylistically more towards Pinot Noir than Syrah. An awesome, super elegant wine. We fermented all the grapes 100% whole bunch. This means that we chucked whole clusters of grapes into the tank, not removing stems/stalks, retaining as much of the terroir/vineyard as possible. I gave my feet a good-old (soapless) scrub and then trampled the grapes, squashing only the berries. The juice underwent spontaneous fermentation and was left on the skins for 2 weeks – pressed into older French oak barrels and aged for a year. For those of you that like Pinot Noir-styled wines, this is the closest Syrah to this you’ll find – at extreme height above sea-level!!! – Wine of Origin: Ceres Plateau!
The Story of the name Little William:
The wine is named after a little boy called William (or this is what I recall hearing…)
In January 2016, I was driving back from this little vineyard in the Koue Bokkeveld/Ceres Plateau. I was speeding through a very winding stretch of road leading towards the Witzenberg pass, when I saw something in the middle of the road. I had just come through a super sharp bend and had to jump on the brakes with both feet. When I finally got my 470 000-km-on-the-clock Toyota to stop, there, in the middle of nowhere, on the white line in the middle of the road, stood a little blond boy, maybe 1 year old. He was in nappies and had a white T-shirt on; making him almost impossible to see as he stood there on the white line. Not quite knowing what to do with him after I got him out the road, I thought it a good plan to prompt him and see what direction he takes off in (me of course just behind him).
Then about 200 meters down the road he (we) crossed a little bridge heading towards the other side of the canal. He headed towards a farmhouse another 300 meters up that road on a little hill. Keeping up to his snail-like pace we arrived at the house more or less 10 minutes later. The gardener, who saw us approaching, called a woman and judging by her reaction, she must’ve been his mom and he must’ve been missing for a while…his name is William.
The original artwork was done from a photo I took at a specific place in the Witzenberg pass. I did the first hills with lino but the hills looked too hilly…I needed a rough moon-type, rocky landscape, so I took wooden blocks and carved the mountains from wood. I then added ink to it and did the prints, then drew the road by hand.
Today I am releasing 7 new wines: The main one is the B.I.G. Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 – a blend of 6 Cabernet vineyards, from 3 areas, vineyard sites ranging from 116 meters above sea level to 755m. I then also bottled all the components that went into B.I.G. separately – UNITY, HBK, TOOLBAG, Mr. VILLA, But Why? And LEAVING THE TABLE. So you can now buy the South African red blend B.I.G. 2015 and then also taste through its components experiencing the effect that height above sea level and proximity towards the ocean have on Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Swartland Revolution was exactly that: a revolution initiated by Swartland farmers which turned the premium wine market upside down. Suddenly premium higher-priced Bordeaux-style Stellenbosch wines had to share the stage with premium Rhone-style Swartland blends. And so it happened then, that for the past 8 years, the media stuck Cabernet Sauvignon in a dark and dusty corner – not “cool” enough.
As some of you might know, at the moment I make wine from 35 varieties. Harvest 2015, I thought it a bright idea to do something for the neglected, fallen-from-grace Cabernet Sauvignon. I subsequently identified 6 Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards from 3 different wine areas, at 5 different heights above sea level: 2 near Somerset West (at 116 and 215 m), 2 on the outskirts of Tulbagh (both at 310 m) and 2 in the Witzenberg’s Koue Bokkeveld (at 734 and 755m).
When I first started speaking to the masters of Cabernet here at the Southernmost tip of Africa, the first thing mentioned by most was the dreaded Greenness in Cabernet Sauvignon – a very unwelcome herbaceous / vegetative character. This develops due to high levels of Pyrazines
present in the wine – something that’s determined by the ripeness level of the grapes. The longer the grape bunches get exposed to sunlight during the growing period, the less Pyrazines – resulting in less greenness in the end product – reducing herbaceousness and amplifying fruit.
Here in South Africa we have a unique situation: although we have plenty of sunshine, it is hot and dry. In most instances, by the time the grapes are ripe for picking, it hasn’t had long enough sun exposure for the Pyrazines to get to an acceptable level. And if you leave it on the vine for longer, the sugar level gets too high. These sugars are then transformed during fermentation into alcohol resulting in rather high alcoholic wines – commonly tagged as “overripe wines”.
So in general, Cabernet creators are in fact chased by the Green Monster. Defended by some, feared by most. What confuses me, though, is that one could argue that this greenness is a stylistic characteristic of wines closer to the ocean, which makes it acceptable. Or does it? Where the exact point lies where herbaceousness turns into greenness – I am not sure.
That’s why I decided to make Cabernets from more than one area and different height levels. I chose the following 6 vineyards:
UNITY: Somerset West – 116 meters above sea-level.
HBK: Helderberg mountain – 215 meters above sea-level
TOOLBAG: Tulbagh – 310 meters above sea-level
Mr VILLA: Tulbagh – 310 meters above sea-level
BUT WHY?: Ceres Plateau – 734 meters above sea-level
LEAVING THE TABLE: Ceres Plateau – 755 meters above sea-level
We made them all separately and aged them all in French oak for one and a half years – picked mainly when we thought the grapes tasted best. Interestingly enough, the first vineyard on the Helderberg ripened in late February whereas the last vineyard in Ceres Plateau (about 3 hours drive from the first) reached optimum ripeness on 22 April – 100 days into harvest and also the very last grapes to hit the cellar.
I assumed that UNITY and HBK would be more herbaceous in character, growing so close to the ocean and at a lower sea level. We picked UNITY at a general ripeness level, keeping in mind that we wanted to end up with a balanced wine. HBK, on the other hand, we picked completely ripe.
With the 2 Tulbagh components, we picked the same vineyard on the same day. We made TOOLBAG the way we usually make our wines. No additions like yeast, enzymes etc. Au Naturel. We left the wine on the skins for 3 weeks after fermentation, pressed into old oak barrels. With Mr VILLA, on the other hand, we manipulated the winemaking process by adding a bit of acid, enzymes to extract colour, 2 strains of specific yeast cultures, a limited time on the skins and aged in the newest oak we had in the cellar.
BUT WHY grows at 734 meters above sea-level and I was concerned that ripening would be a challenge. My initial thoughts were that the wines would be green. BUT WHY grows on sandy soils whereas LEAVING THE TABLE grows on rocky clay soils, at the highest elevation of them all. What we did not realize at the time was that the site’s radiation levels (sunlight) were off-the-charts high and the average temperature is low during summer. The grapes could therefore stay on the vines much longer, absorbing massive amounts of sunlight, whilst growing in maturity and getting rid of greenness. Resulting in ripe grapes with lower sugar levels. Sandy soils are also famous for producing more elegant wines…
To really get a true representation of a South African Cabernet Sauvignon, we then made a blend of all 6 wines. Not in equal percentages of the components, but rather a carefully worked out blend in order to get the best of them all together. We named it the B.I.G. Cabernet Sauvignon 2015. We then also decided to bottle them all separately as single vineyard bottlings – each a wine in their own right. So you can now buy a mixed case of 6 bottles where you can taste each component separately plus a bottle of B.I.G Cabernet Sauvignon as the blend of them all. Cabernet Sauvignon from sea-level all the way to 755 meters above sea-level.
B.I.G. 2015 – R210 a bottle.
MAGNUM (1.5 liter) B.I.G. 2015 – R420 a bottle
Mixed case of 6 – UNITY, HBK, TOOLBAG, Mr. VILLA, But Why? And LEAVING THE TABLE – R1200 a case of 6.
3 MAGNUMS (1.5 liter) B.I.G. 2015 in a wooden box – R1600