Tim James: On Arendsig and the general state of Robertson

February 9, 2015
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 19 Comments

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”….

Lourens van der Westhuizen of Arendsig.

Lourens van der Westhuizen of Arendsig.

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.

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19 Comments

  1. Tom PriorFebruary 18, 2015 at 3:42 pmReply

    For whatever reason – a regular wine consumer and new to wine in SA – Robertson struck me as dull. No idea why… marketing? The boxed wine? Just the name itself!?!? Haven’t heard much of it during my 2 years so far in SA, yet obviously I have been blasted by Swartland & Elgin… with Constantia & Stellenbosch far more convenient to visit from CT.

    Still, this article makes some good points and has intrigued this punter! Day off tomorrow and up early to spend several hours exploring.

    The desired effect no?!

  2. Tim JamesFebruary 11, 2015 at 4:22 pmReply

    Wow. I’m glad this post aroused interest – I didn’t expect it to be uncontroversial, of course. A few points to reply to. Colyn – I can’t see any way that I indicated your or Lourens’s attitude. This article clearly represents my own opinion. As to my initial feeling that spending the better part of a day in making a visit to a “minor” producer was an iffy thing: It cost me nearly R500 to make this trip, with petrol and toll fees, and took seven hours out of my Saturday. I could have asked for the wines to be sent to me, or to meet Lourens somewhere. Unlike most local winewriters I do like seeing places as well as tasting the wines, so I decided to do it. But there are a lot of producers out there, and I do have to prioritise and to choose. And Arendsig is indeed, in my opinion, a minor producer in the scale of things. That doesn’t imply a lack of value, as I hope I indicated (for go I did!).
    As to other producers in Robertson, I think I clearly indicated some of them worth paying attention to in my opinion, and am willing to accept that others might rate some higher than I do. I’m also willing to accept my own ignorance, something which I continually try to remedy. My central point is that, if you look at what the past twenty years have brought to Elgin, Constantia, Swartland, Tulbagh, Hemel en Aarde, Stellenbosch, etc etc, Robertson has not shown much in the way of advance. (And some of those areas have fewer wineries than Robertson, Erich. A tank-fermented viognier is not going to easily make me change my mind.
    And, no, Peter, I did not base my opinion of Robertson on a “quick one-hour visit”. I based my opinion about Arendsig on a fairly leisurely two-hour visit, and my more general views were based on what I’ve tasted and experienced and learnt from others I trust.

    • Erich ZeelieFebruary 12, 2015 at 3:50 pmReply

      Hi Tim

      Good of you to respond and take the time to give context to your initial post.

      “A tank-fermented viognier is not going to easily make me change my mind.” For an esteemed wine writer; commentator; pundit and panel judge like yourself , it might matter little, so allow me to add some context of my own.

      To enter into discussions with someone like yourself, with regards to what we find exciting in the world of wine, will be a conversation of opposite ends. You have most certainly stuck your nose in more wine glasses, in more exotic locations, than I have seen on NatGeo.

      Where I am an amateur to the “great, interesting and experimental” wines of the world as punted by authors such as yourself, I endeavour to explore the wide world of wine as frequently as possible.

      In conclusion, I feel that a better way to reach eager young wine drinkers like myself, is not to make off suggestions of someone not equally qualified, but to point them in the direction of something that will truly enlighten them.

      Am I making any sense?

      • Tim JamesFebruary 12, 2015 at 4:23 pm

        Fair enough, Erich, good point; and you must allow me to write a shortish article which can’t possibly try to cover everything – including my back! I do try to remember that not everyone – thank God – is a wine geek. Carry on drinking good stuff, try new things; ask questions.

  3. Rowan & Caryl BeattieFebruary 10, 2015 at 7:20 pmReply

    Twelve years ago my wife and I bought a 17 hectare farm on the banks of the Breede River 3kms from De Wetshof towards Bonnievale. We uprooted the vegetables and planted vines and in 2010 launched our single vineyard Esona Boutique Wine (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Shiraz) made by Lourens. It’s been 5 years of hard slog and heavy investments (touching Rand millions) to launch the brand, renovate the 90 year Old Cellar, train staff, convince a few outlets to stock our wine etc. We learnt and still are learning the hard way. We will never be able to compete against the well established brands but we think there is a niche for us. Lourens launched his brand 10 years ago and he is ‘young’ compared to those names mentioned above. We are ‘babes’…… Knowing I am completely biased, I do think our wine is ‘acceptable’ – I’m trying to be humble! What I can say about the Robertson Valley – it is one of the most beautiful valleys we’ve been to (we live in Cape Town!), the inhabitants are the most friendliest, down-to-earth people we’ve met in some of the more ‘sophisticated’ wine routes – no insult meant! However, our wines come from Robertson Wine Valley……2 hours from Cape Town! Please check us out on http://www.esonawine.co.zahttp://www.facebook.com/esonawine – @esona_the very1 – and maybe sometime we will have the privilege of welcoming you to our small boutique winery. Comparing the wines between producers in the various wine producing regions I’m not able to do….. Note – I NEVER add comments to these conversations but I do read a lot of them – so if I’m not giving the right ‘speak’, my apologies!

  4. Marcus WrightFebruary 10, 2015 at 4:36 pmReply

    My advice to these up and coming producers is not to rely on wine journalists. They will always have their favourites, their prejudices and personal affectations. You cannot expect wine journalism to be “objective”.

    Go directly to the consumer, through what ever channel you can afford. Talk to the people who actually open their wallets and pay for the wines. Its harder, takes longer, but in the end, its worth it.

    • KwispedoorFebruary 10, 2015 at 4:53 pmReply

      Sure, Marcus – but nobody’s opinion is objective, including those of said customers. It’s way too complicated with wine. If journalists allow themselves to tell all and be brutally honest, their writing will be much more negative about many wines. Generally, they try not to piss off too many people and would rather just not write about a wine than be entirely negative.

      Don’t you agree that certain journalist’s opinions count, for the simple reason that readers (especially those who’ve come to align their own tastes with that of a particular journalist) often act on reading about a wine by opening their wallets? Talking about unavoidable truths: I think most wine shows are mainly bollocks, but stickers still sell wines to certain people. There are also much more expensive marketing methods out there than to invite a journalist over and impress him/her with ones wines.

      But you hit the nail on the head in the sense that direct selling and direct relationship building with consumers is a good way to go for many wine brands.

    • Colyn TruterFebruary 10, 2015 at 7:59 pmReply

      Marcus,

      As Christian Eedes commented to me once…Arendsig has a kind-of cult status amongst wine drinkers. I promise you we have a VERY strong private market customer base because Lourens is adamant to host and taste with visitors himself.

      All I can say is watch out in 2015…it is going to be a huge year for Arendsig!! The only reason he is not viewed as a “young gun” is probably because he produces SauvBlanc, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet. Not Palomino, Rousanne, Marsanne etc..

  5. Colyn TruterFebruary 10, 2015 at 12:10 pmReply

    As the person who arranged for Tim to meet with Lourens and myself at Arendsig I need to clear something up, because the tone of his blog suggest that Arendsig/us commented negatively on Robertson. Which is the furthest thing from the truth. During our meeting we kept commenting about the diversity and drive towards producing better wines in the valley. This was not commented on.

    Tim admitted that he hasn’t been in the valley for about 5 or 7 years (cant remember the exact term but it was somewhere around that). Now 5-7 years ago what was written of about the Swartland or Elgin or Elim?? mmm we all know how that changed.

    Lourens took a very bold step to focus on site specific wines when his neighbours were big Estates with 2000ton+ Cellars in a valley that has always been seen as a big production region. If he inherited a big winery then he probably wouldn’t have had this focus so early on in his career. Luckily for us he didn’t.

    There are many examples of old family estates starting to focus on Top End Ranges from their properties. The only difference is that they use known and not unusual varieties to do this.

    Lourens is extremely passionate about Robertson and has searched for amazing sites to work with in the valley. It is part of his pledge to help uplift and change the perception of WO Robertson!

    I thank Tim for coming out in the end after stating that he wouldn’t drive that far to see a ‘minor producer’. I am pretty sure Riebeek is very similar in distance from Cape Town CBD to Robertson!! Let’s hope this was the first visit of many…

    • Erich ZeelieFebruary 10, 2015 at 12:57 pmReply

      Hi Colyn

      Good for you trying to clarify the mixed signals this article is sending. That is the crux of the matter, the most damage is often done with the best of intentions.

      I concur with your statement that the producers which focus on “Top End Ranges” stick with known and popular varietals, why try to re-invent the wheel? As for Lourens and Arendsig, he is most definitely doing a good job and I particularly liked the Inspirational Batch 3 chenin.

      What I do find vexing however, is the need for validation by wine critics & writers, who does not waste their time with “minor producers”. A clear message that ‘they’ are doing the producer a favour and that their time is more valuable than the folks who sweat blood & tears to make the stuff “they’ so happily criticize.

    • Louis RuinartFebruary 10, 2015 at 3:07 pmReply

      “I thank Tim for coming out in the end after stating that he wouldn’t drive that far to see a ‘minor producer’. ” What a sad statement! Robertson is hardly the Great Trek or The Long Walk to … ! Back in the late 80’s when opening Blues Restaurant, the first serious restuarant in Camps Bay (no disrepect to Wimpy) we used to drive to ‘minor producers’ such as the likes of Thelema Mountain Vineyards at 6.30am (Gyles and his mum would load the VW whilst Barbara was out running!) as well as to Delaire, Chamonix, La Brie and Dieu Donne to collect their wines as they were unable to guarentee delivery each week to the big city. Look at where these ‘minor producers’ are today “with a little help our their friends!”.

      • Louis RuinartFebruary 10, 2015 at 3:10 pm

        Correction: Look at where these ‘minor producers’ are today “with a little help from their friends!”.

      • Erich ZeelieFebruary 10, 2015 at 3:16 pm

        Spyker op die kop!

  6. KwispedoorFebruary 10, 2015 at 10:11 amReply

    @ Peter and Erich: may I ask for more concrete examples of these top Robertson wines that Tim has missed (apart from wines from the producers that he has mentioned)? It’s one thing to defend this district in a general manner, but wine lovers like myself need specifics, because we like to try the good stuff!

    Erich mentioned Viljoensdrift and Rietvallei. No specifics, but I’ve fairly enjoyed one or two Viljoensdrift River Grandeur Shiraz wines over the years and I have had one or two okay Rietvallei wines, but nothing that excited me too much. The Excelsior Viognier is a bit more specific, but Christine Rudman calls it an “off-dry charmer” and gives it three stars. I must admit that an off-dry Viognier doesn’t fill me with much excitement, though in all fairness I haven’t tried it.

    Like Tim, I also don’t see the masses of stunning wine in Robertson that has been billowing from places like Stellenbosch, Walker Bay, Swartland, etc. Of course there are good wines that come from Robertson – De Wetshof, Graham Beck and Springfield are just three examples of producers that produce multiple goodies. But will you please give specifics of these other great Robertson wines that compete with the likes of Alheit, Thorne & Daughters, Fram, David, Mount Abora, Spioenkop, Mount Sutherland, Porseleinberg, Creation and others i.t.o. sheer quality and excitement? We need names so that we can taste them!

    • Erich ZeelieFebruary 10, 2015 at 10:49 amReply

      First off, a little disclaimer: I am just average Joe wine drinker, although I might be working in the wine industry, my comments here are purely personal. What might constitute an exciting or fun wine in my opinion, might be “given three stars” by wine writers or critics.

      Secondly, “defending” is a bit of a stretch, I do not have enough in-depth knowledge of the area to be their Heimdall.

      The Viljoensdrift wine I enjoy the most is their River Grandeur Cape Blend, for Rietvallei it’s probably the JMB Cabernet Franc(it’s my favourite red varietal).

      Other wines from the area I really enjoy is the Hess Reserve from Mimosa; the Pinot Noir from Lord’s and the Inkara Cabernet Sauvignon from Bon Courage.

      I understand the point Tim is trying to bring across, but how many wineries are there in Stellenbosch and surrounds, compared to the relative few producers from the Robertson area?

      Why not rather encourage self-discovery of the less mainstream producers instead of summarizing the area in a paragraph naming only select producers? A bit counter-intuitive if you ask me.

      • KwispedoorFebruary 10, 2015 at 11:14 am

        Thanks, Erich!

        I think the point is made better if one forgets about comparing Robertson with Stellenbosch (as you say, too many wineries), but rather with somewhere like Walker Bay, where there are fewer producers. Personally, I’d still take the overall quality of Walker Bay before Robertson. And I’d be able to make a much, much longer list of good and exciting wines from the former (perhaps partly one of the pointst that Tim tried to get across) .

        Either way, each region/district, etc. has it’s own merit and charm and they shouldn’t really be compared, per se. Much better for us aficionados to try and unearth the best from within them all.

        So thanks for your suggestions. I don’t know the Mimosa and would particularly like to try the Rietvallei JMB Cabernet Franc as I also like the variety. It would be interesting to compare it with my own favourites, like Raats, Buitenverwachting, Rainbow’s End, etc. Since you’re into them Francs: what do you think about Stellenrust’s? I have a bottle, but haven’t tried it yet.

    • Erich ZeelieFebruary 10, 2015 at 12:39 pmReply

      @Kwispedoor “Either way, each region/district, etc. has it’s own merit and charm and they shouldn’t really be compared, per se. Much better for us aficionados to try and unearth the best from within them all”. – This should be the 1st rule of exploring the world of wine, and unlike Fight Club, people should talk about it every-time they discovered something new.

      I also haven’t had the opportunity to taste Stellenrust’s, my fav is probably the Oldenburg Cab Franc, followed by one from Mooiplaas. Although I love Raats’, it is a rare treat at the going rate.

      Others I fancy are the from Chamonix; HPF and Avontuur.

  7. PeterFebruary 10, 2015 at 9:21 amReply

    A very limited understanding of the area! Maybe if you actually spent a bit of time in the area you would see “experimentation, devotion to quality, etc.” Robertson does a great job of producing value wines, because the climate, soil and water availability allows this. This often overshadows the “quality” image of the valley, but it certainly does not mean that it does not exist.

    A quick one hour visit to the area cannot be used as a proper fact finding image. As an SA journalist i would expect you to better educate yourself on your territory.

  8. Erich ZeelieFebruary 10, 2015 at 7:41 amReply

    Interesting read…”there are a few decent estates”, what about Viljoensdrift or Rietvallei?
    Further, was the search limited to the town of Robertson itself or the greater Roberston Wine Valley? For if the latter, there are a couple more places that can go on the list.

    Whilst Arendsig wines are not bad, there are many other gems in that area, take Excelsior’s stainless steel fermented Viognier for example. If that is not “interesting experimentation” then I’m a bit at sixes and sevens.

    Regards

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