Robertson’s contribution to the Cape’s wine revolution of the past few decades has not been notable. True, amid the dullness are bright spots (some chardonnays and sparkling wines especially), though little really glitters apart from Graham Beck bubblies; there are a few decent estates (De Wetshof, Graham Beck, Springfield) but they’ve been around for a while and don’t aim at reinvention); some good value (notably that lucrative cousinly machine called Van Loveren).
Perennial complaints from “the other side of the mountain” grumble that local excellence is ignored by wine judges and critics – but, though a few more names could be added, it’s hard to think of any substantial developments, any interesting experimentation, any fanatical devotion to quality, such as can be found in many other areas. I’m reminded of Cassius’s remark to his friend in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves”….
Ah, but there is Arendsig, perhaps. I confess that until recently I knew little about Lourens van der Westhuizen’s venture based at his family’s Robertson grape-farm, but, having heard good reports, I recently spent a few hours there (in between more than twice as many hours of driving there and back!) to learn a little more and, incidentally, to show that I’m willing to travel inland as well as along the west and southern coasts in search of good stuff.
Rather more than ten years ago, Lourens, influenced by his time with the Pisoni family winery in Californian, asked his doubtful dad Frikkie to let him have a few small parcels of vines to experiment with. Frikkie also handed over to the eager youngster’s tender mercies some virgin soil on the farm’s stony slopes – and this was the real beginning of Arendsig Handcrafted Wines. There are now 12 hectares of vines going into the single-vineyard wines.
Lourens believes firmly in Robertson’s quality potential (above all, he cites the soils and the under-appreciated coolness of the nights and mornings), and pursues through a devotion to expressing his terroir through careful viticulture (discovering the balance of each individual site) and a light hand in the cellar (natural fermentations and avoiding new oak, for example, and minimal acidification – Lourens achieves his good acidities primarily through different picking dates).
More recently, Lourens has also sought out other special, specific sites in the broader area (he’s now confining his search to Robertson itself) for his “Inspirational Batch” wines.
Above all, the Arendsig wines are interesting and characterful, escaping the bland commercialism that characterises much of the valley’s output to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps oddly, given Robertson’s reputation as more hospitable to white wines, among the fairly large range the two I most appreciated were red. Inspirational Batch 2 is a really delightful Grenache – the 2014 is bright, well-structured with freshness and softly convincing tannins, and full of juicy fruit. The Arendsig Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 was a surprise: cassis and dried-herb notes, firm and well-integrated tannins, nicely balanced. (I took home and finished the bottle over the next few days, which is the best endorsement I can offer!)
Lourens’s Chardonnay seems to be the wine that he regards as his flagship, and certainly the 2013 is clean and fresh, and more elegant and restrained than the rather too-sweet 2012, but there’s a touch too much obvious ripe pineapple on it for my tastes. The youthful Sauvignon Blanc 2014 I thought better balanced – ripe, spicy tropical fruit and a lively green bite. The Chenin Blancs in the Inspirational Batch range are also good. But there’s nothing here that isn’t worth trying, and Arendsig prices are generally moderate.
Lourens speaks of the “need to change perceptions” about Robertson. They will change, if more winemakers there are prepared to turn aside to take the stony and uphill path that Lourens is taking – the view from the top of the hill is promising.
- Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.