Finally, I’m back in Paris, after being out of the continent for three weeks. I visited Dubai for 3-4 days, and then conducted two weeks of intensive field research of the Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, South Africa. The African portion of my journey was part of my final project for my graduate degree. Sitta Sama, Fabiola and Haitao were all along for the ride, as they are part of our four-person research team. Additionally, a special thanks must go out to our advisor Glen, for putting up with all of our shenanigans for 2 solid weeks.
So what the hell does all of this have to do with wine? Well on Saturday the 16th, just before kicking off our marathon of interviews, I managed to spend a day in Stellenbosch, drinking and chatting with three of the top South African wine producers. I visited Jeff Grier of Villiera / Domaine Grier, Beyers Truter of Beyerskloof, and Thomas Webb of Thelema Mountain Vineyards. This post will be a three-parter, spanning the next three days.
So my first stop was at Villiera. I visited with owner and winemaker, Jeff Grier. Jeff is a veteran of the South African wine industry, but as he puts it he fell in love with wine in France, which is reflected in his philosophy of balancing the freedoms and innovation of New World wine and respecting the traditions of Old World wine. Jeff grew up in a family of poultry famers and began taking courses in poultry sciences at Stellenbosch University in the 1970s. However, he was the only student in his class and was forced to choose another career track. Wine seemed like a good fit and in 1979 Jeff graduated with a degree in enology. At this point Jeff moved to Europe, finding a job at a small-scale German wine producer. He spent his free time travelling, including stops in France, where he learned about the beauties of Old World wine. He also befriended bubbly expert Jean-Louis Denois, who advised Jeff that Stellenbosch had the proper climatic conditions for producing quality Méthode Champagne sparkling wine. Sparkling wine is very much part of Jeff’s legacy today.
In 1983 the Grier family purchased Villiera and by 1984 Jeff had taken over the wine making responsibilities. Then in 1987 Jeff received his Cape Wine Master’s Diploma and continued innovating and developing his selection of wines. In 2006 Jeff purchased Domain Grier, a 22-hectare estate in the Roussillon region of France, thus fulfilling his dream and philosophy of marrying the New World with the Old World.
Today Villiera has 210 hectares under vine and a production of 120,000 cases. Describing the terroir, Jeff commented that his estate is perfect for producing delicate sauvignon blancs and chenin blancs as well as bubbles. The topography is flat and the soil is three layer, composed of sand, clay, and gravel Coffee Stone, from top to bottom. Regarding the varietals planted it would be almost easier to identify the varietals that are not planted. Among other grapes, Jeff grows and vinifies Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Carignan, and Touriga Nacional. The average yields are 8 to 10 tons or 50 to 60 hectoliters per hectare, which is quite low for South African wines. The harvest period is very long, spanning from January to the end of March. Around the 10th to the 20th of January, Jeff kicks off the harvest of the bubbly grapes, which lasts for about 3 weeks. Then Jeff harvests the dry whites for another 4 weeks, and finally the dry reds are picked, spanning another 4 weeks. In terms of the 2009 vintage, Jeff called it one of the “best vintages since the new millennium”, although he also stated that, unlike in France, bad vintages virtually never occur in South Africa’s warm climate. But back to the 2009 vintage, Jeff describes it as perfect for whites due to the cool harvest, which was great for producing fresh, delicate wines with aromatic intensity. Jeff mentioned that the reds also faired well, but the conditions were not perfect like with the whites, due to some stress resulting from the March heat wave.
When asking Jeff about his vineyard management practices, he talked to me about the IPW certification. IPW stands for Integrated Protection of Wine. It’s a South African initiative, similar to organic wine. However, Jeff explained to me that in his mind organic wasn’t always enough, and that there are even instances where organic practices can be harmful to the vines. Jeff explained that organic farming is only a start and that it allows for too much spraying. Jeff uses no pesticides or insecticides of any kind and strives to be as natural as possible. He explained that the foundation of IPW, in contrast to organic wine, is to protect the vines and the ecosystem at all costs, with the main focus being the health of the vines and the soil. Jeff noted that organic farming, although a positive thing, is more focused on protecting the vines in order to protect the end consumer, even if certain practices are not always optimal for soil and vine health. Regardless of the details, because this is not meant to be a conclusive report on IPW versus organic farming, Jeff’s philosophy toward biodiversity-friendly vineyard management was very inspiring. Jeff is also active in community empowerment. He provides his facilities to a local Black wine farmer, allowing him to manage his own vines but facilitating the vinification from start to finish. The wine is sold under the label “M’hudi”. The empowerment program is part of a national South African initiative to mentor black-owned vineyards and businesses with the hope of them becoming fully sustainable in the future.
In the cellar Jeff owns concrete, stainless steel and fiberglass vats, broken down roughly into one-third of each. He uses the various vats more or less indiscriminately for the winemaking of all of his labels, based on various production and logistics constraints. Very briefly addressing the vinification, Jeff mentioned that for his whites he maintains strict cold temperature control starting from the receipt of the grapes at harvest. Regarding his flagship red blend first the grapes go through a 3- to 4-day cold soak. During this time Jeff explained that he likes to use as much extraction methods as possible, more so than his other red labels. In particular, Jeff uses tank rotation (for the horizontal vats), pump overs, and rack and returns, all in an effort to extract as many flavor and phenolic compounds from the grapes as possible. Extraction is continued during the one-week fermentation. Immediately after the malolactic fermentation in the vat, the wine is pressed and transferred to oak barrels. At the time of pressing there are still about 50 g/l of residual sugars remaining, although no residual sugars will remain after ageing is complete. The wine is aged in 80% new French oak for 24 months. When all is said and done Jeff produces 23 estate wines and another 17 labels from purchased grapes. His flagship wines include a Champagne-style sparkling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc single varietals, and a red Bordeaux-style blend.
All wines tasted are Stellenbosch Wine of Origin (except for the last two) …
2007 Villiera “Brut Natural” Sparkling
Tasting Notes: 100% Chardonnay. No filtering, no fining, no sulphur, no dosage, 2 years bottle ageing. 12% ABV. A fresh, clean, citrus and minerally nose. Very fresh with great acidity in the mouth. Flavors of citrus, especially lime and grapefruit.
Price: R82 @ Villiera estate
2004 Villiera “Monro Brut” Sparkling
Tasting Notes: 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir. Chardonnay was barrel fermented, 4 years of bottle aging. 12% ABV. Rich and creamy nose with notes of brioche, toast, yeast, and apple. Fresh and crisp in the mouth with flavors of lemon and light toast.
Price: R90 @ Villiera estate
2009 Villiera “Traditional Bush Vine”
Tasting Notes: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. 12.5% ABV. Beautiful aromatics with aromas of apple and peach. Light, refreshing, crisp in the mouth. Tropical flavors dominate, including peach and apple.
Price: R55 @ Villiera estate
2009 Villiera “Down to Earth”
Tasting Notes: 75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Semillon. 13% ABV. Minerality and apple on the nose. More minerality in the mouth with a mild bitterness and apple notes.
Price: R27.50 @ Villiera estate
2007 Villiera “Cellar Door Reserve”
Tasting Notes: 100% Chenin Blanc, some botrytised grapes. A sweet nose with honey and spice aromas. Light creaminess and herbal richness in the mouth with notes of apple.
Price: R60.50 @ Villiera estate
2007 Villiera “Rhine Riesling”
Tasting Notes: 100% Riesling. 7 g/l residual sugars. 12.5% ABV. A rich nose with minerality and apple notes. Great, refreshing acidity in the mouth with flavors of citrus and apple.
Price: R38.50 @ Villiera estate
1989 Villiera “Rhine Riesling”
Tasting Notes: 100% Riesling. Rich, complexity on the nose with aromas of herbal spices and sweet ginger. Rich, complexity coming out again in the palate, accompanied by a mild sweetness and flavors of ripe and stewed peaches.
Price: No longer available
1984 Villiera “Rhine Riesling”
Tasting Notes: 100% Riesling. Rich, complexity and minerality on the nose. More minerality and notes of lemon in the mouth. Remarkably fresh for the age.
Price: No longer available
2007 Villiera “Merlot”
Tasting Notes: 100% Merlot. 14% ABV. Bright, red and black fruits on the nose with ripe berries dominating. Bright acidity, good balance and medium tannins in the mouth with notes of raspberry.
Price: R44 @ Villiera estate
2007 “Down to Earth”
Tasting Notes: 70% Shiraz and 30% Touriga Nacional. 13% ABV. Spice, ripe fruit, and raspberries on the nose. Light, supple tannins, a little thin and unbalanced in the mouth but still pleasant and expressing an okay structure.
Price: R30 @ Villiera estate
2004 Villiera “Monro”, Paarl
Tasting Notes: 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. 24 months barrel aging. 13.5% ABV. Good fruit expression on the nose with a mild mintiness and blackberry notes. Balanced acidity, medium tannins, and a mild bitterness in the mouth. Flavors of refreshing bright raspberries and black cherries.
Price: R105 @ Villiera estate
2006 Domaine Grier “Crusade” Selection Vieilles Vignes, Côtes du Rousillon Village
Tasting Notes: 50% Grenache, 40% Syrah, and 10% Mourvedre. 18 months barrel aging. 15% ABV. A ripe and slightly inky nose with lots of black fruits, oak and wintergreen. Powerful tannins and good ripe fruits in the mouth, followed by notes of chocolate and oak. There is a slightly course texture on the finish.
Price: R155 @ Villiera estate