Zevenwacht Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa
A Reintroduction to South African Wine
It had been quite some time since I sipped a South African wine. The last one was in a gimmicky bottle with bright colors and an animal name marketed to compete against the fruit bombs that were all the rage coming out of Australia. I remember preferring the South African juice to the Australian as it was more nuanced. Yet, for some reason, I stopped buying South African wines. In my subconscious mind, I probably packaged them with what I didn’t like from Australia, ignoring the Pinotages and Chenin Blancs that I fell in love with.
Noticed I said Chenin Blanc? It had been so long since we dabbled in South African wine that Chenin Blanc was still hashtag trending (before hashtags even existed). Ten years ticked by before I was immersed back into South African wines through our Culinary and Wine Immersion in Cape Town through Le Calabash Cooking School. Why oh why had I let so much time slip by? I mean, Malbec and Pinot Noir, I love you, but there’s a world of wine out there to enjoy. Zevenwacht Wine Estate, where we stayed for the first three nights of our tour, was a great reintroduction into what I’ve been missing over the past decade and a look into what we’d be enjoying over the next two weeks.
I think the problem with South African wines is that they get blended into the battle of New World Versus Old World War amongst wine critics. There’s pretty much a hate-hate relationship between the two. Just check out the wine blogs where debates rage between terroir driven wines and modern techniques. Between fruit bombs and wines that taste like petrol (some say that’s a good thing). Then there’s South Africa labelled as New World but producing wine in very much the Old World manner. Thus, their wines get overlooked because of geography by one half of the argument and because of style by the other half. Whereas I think the region is a diamond in the rough waiting to get discovered.
Zevenwacht Wine Estate
Zevenwacht Wine Estate is a pioneer in the South African wine industry, but not in the sense of trying cutting edge, technologically driven techniques to produce wine. Please don’t misunderstand me. They produce a very terroir based wine. Zevenwacht is cutting edge in embracing what a winery can become from a tourist point of view as one of the earliest estates to offer resort amenities of a hotel, restaurant, and a spa, all tucked amongst 120 hectares of vineyards. Zevenwacht even houses a residential development for that true wino lifestyle. At one point, Zevenwacht even housed a cheesery, which is now defunct.
Our tour was privileged enough to be led by Sidney and Alison Bond who had a touch in turning the property from a once run-down wine farm into all the grandeur it became. The Bonds helped transform the century old farmhouse into the restaurant that it is today featuring fresh South African entrees with a touch of classic technique (the oxtail stew I ate was amazing).
Enough of an Advertisement on Zevenwacht Wine Estate. Tell me about the Wines Already!
We were fortunate enough (because of our super-rad connections from Sidney and Alison) to have a private tasting with Winemaker Jacques Viljoen. I’ve been through several wine tastings at wineries all over the world and find them lackluster and rather uninformative. The tasting room attendant simply tells you what you should be tasting as printed on the sheet of paper right in front you (showing proof that he or she can read). If you opt for the winery tour, it’s kind of like hearing the birds and the bees talk over and over. Once you’ve heard it, you know how it’s done. Grapes are grown and then picked, etc, etc. Jacques’ tasting went deeper than any previous wine tasting or tour I’ve attended.
You’ll notice a lot of mention to wind and elevation below. There’s a reason. Due to the high temperatures in the Cape Town, winemakers take much care to create ideal growing conditions by studying topography and planting vines on slopes and at angles suitable to the best conditions for the fruit.
The first of the four featured wines on our tasting was the 2013 360 Degree Sauvignon Blanc from the Z Collection. The secret to the wine is the steep, southern facing slope that the grapes are planted on in east west rows. The high elevation creates a cool climate for the ideal ripening of the berries and the direction of the rows shades the fruit from direct sunlight and prevents the grapes from cooking on the vine.
Once the Winemaker determines that the grapes are ready for harvesting, a team comes in at 3am hoping for an ideal temperature to harvest the grapes for optimal flavor preservation. The grapes are then pressed with dry ice to act as an anti-oxidant. Like most Sauvignon Blancs in South Africa, the juice is 10% barrel aged for what I have deemed a much needed mouth-feel.
I found the nose to be a nice balance of passion fruit and granite from the soil with slight hints of oak and a spice which I couldn’t place (Could be the fig leaf mentioned in the tasting notes, but since I’ve never sniffed a fig leaf, I can’t confirm.). On the palate, I tasted notes of passion fruit, white pepper, and granite with a medium mouth-feel propped up by just the slightest hints of oak. There was just enough acidity to balance out the wine and not turn it into sugarless lemonade like most Sauvignon Blancs tend to be. As a non-white wine drinker, I was impressed by the unique approach to producing a varietal I think is overplayed in the marketplace.
Next was the 2013 Chardonnay from the Flagship line. A little about the wine before my tasting notes. Zevenwacht quit producing Chardonnay in 2002 because of the leaf roll virus and because most of the Chardonnay produced in the region wasn’t known for the characteristics of the grape but instead for having the shit oaked out of it (California take note). After three years, the winery replanted Chardonnay in very small numbers mostly for blending purposes. What they found was a wine that could easily stand up on it’s own without being oaked to shit.
The juice rests for nine months in 20% first run and 80% second run French 500L barrels lending just the right amount of oak to balance out the wine. The nose was a pleasant blend of pear, citrus, apricot, oak, and stone. Nothing fights each other for the prominent role. The palate was a blend of the above mentioned fruits and a flinty minerality. Prominent notes of butterscotch from the oak nicely held up the wine but didn’t overpower the fruit. Instead, the buttershotch acted as a binding agent bringing together fruit, terrior, and barrel. Overall the wine was very pleasant with a medium mouth feel that felt almost silky.
Third on our tasting was another wine from the Flagship line – the 2011 Syrah. The vines are planted at 250 meters above sea level and are kept well-trimmed with several stages of suckering (It sounds dirty, but it’s really just plucking off excess leaves) to allow for proper sunlight. Jacques emphasized that 70% of his time producing this wine is spent in the vineyard tasting the grapes and making sure they are developing the proper flavors and ripeness. He’s tasting for grapes that will produce a Syrah that isn’t too peppery but in the style of a Rhone. The grapes are then aged for 18 months in French oak barrels.
Syrah isn’t a wine I typically (read ever) buy. Mostly because those damn Aussies have ruined it for me. This Syrah has me re-thinking my future wine buying decisions by opening up to both the Rhone and Stellenbosch vintages. The nose contained big red fruit with strong references to plum, a subtle peppery spice, leather, and oak. On the tongue the wine was a perfect blend of red fruit and spice, and floral to a point. The structure was medium bodied with almost a lacey feel from the leather and oak notes. This Syrah is like the Polo Green of wine.
Last, Jacques uncorked a bottle of the 2012 Z Grenache from the Z Collection. This wine wasn’t included in the original plan, but he was feeling generous, even though his bicycle was waiting outside for his evening exercise. (Doesn’t that make you jealous? His evening exercise is biking the hills of the vineyard. We toasted him as we were drinking later when he pedaled by…) The grapes for this wine are not grown on the estate but closer to Franschoek. With an altitude of 500 meters above sea level, the conditions are prefect for growing really concentrated berries.
Jacques is a hands on winemaker, inspecting his fields daily for the right growing conditions. While Franschoek is not far away, it is out of his watchful eyes which is why he employs a team of baboons to keep the vines well pruned of excess grapes (True story. Well, maybe he doesn’t “employ” the baboons.). What the baboons leave behind is aged in French oak barrels for 16 months. This is a very small bottle run producing only 1,000 liters, or 1,333 bottles.
The nose on the Syrah was an interesting combination of raspberry and pencil lint which led to a wine that is both odd and pleasant. On the tongue I tasted the raspberry again but this time the fruit invited its friend strawberry to join the party. The flint was back again with a green herbaceousness and spice that I couldn’t place (Fig leaf again?).
All in All a Great Introduction to Cape Town Wine
For those of you who stuck it out and read this entire post, bravo! For those of you who didn’t, I understand. It was long. You missed out on some funny one-liners though that you may want to go back and read (they’re often in parenthesis). Either way, I hope the point came across that we were quite pleased by Zevenwacht. If they were an example of what was to come from other vineyard visits, then I knew we were in for a real treat. Here’s a look to the future. We were!
Each winery we visited was unique in their philosophy but always heralding the traditions of wine-making (with the exception of one). The wines were very similar to Old World counterparts produced with a South African flair and sold at low (cheap) new world prices. South Africa is definitely a region to consider on your next wine buying trip.
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