Interview: Frans Smit of Spier
By Christian Eedes, 4 August 2014
From the August issue of Business Day WANTED: Now 42, Frans Smit, cellarmaster of Spier is the original over-achiever. An instructing officer at the Luhatla army battle school for three years before signing up at Elsenburg agricultural college to study viticulture and oenology, he graduated top of his class in 1995 while also playing for Maties First XV rugby team for two years.
He’s been with Spier since his first harvest in 1996 and is married to Lacea, who also works for the Stellenbosch winery as a sales manager. They live in De Wijnlanden a lifestyle estate with their five-year-old twins, Mariella and Elizabeth, as well as a Jack Russel called Jill, a Boerboel called Tina and two cats Bubbles and Beanzy, the latter the only other male in the family.
You famously won’t eat green peppers but love Sauvignon Blanc. Is there more to the variety than people think?
I don’t like green, herbaceous flavours, so when I come across wines showing these sort of characteristics, I reject them. For me it is a sign of unripe fruit. After 18 years, I feel stronger than ever about it… but I have learnt to eat peppers!
Tell us about Creative Block 2 2013.
It’s a blend of 85% Sauvignon Blanc and 15% Semillon. Grapes come from Durbanville and the Helderberg part of Stellenbosch. I like to view it as a classic example of Sauvignon blanc with the Semillon adding extra complexity to the wine. You can expect it to slowly develop along the lines of white Bordeaux, where the obvious vegetal and green flavours will disappear and a far more subtle, integrated wine will appear often showing some floral character. The beauty of this wine is that with maturation the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, something really individual.
What excites you about Bordeaux-style white blends?
Real complexity and phenomenal aging potential.
What has been your most memorable wine experience?
On a trip to Bordeaux in 1999, I got to taste 40 barrels with the winemaker at Chateau Yquem.
As cellarmaster of Spier, you’re ultimately responsible of processing 5 400 tonnes of grapes a year. Ever think about going on your own and starting a boutique label?
Every morning at 4am! The dream has always been there to some extent, but with the [ultra-premium red blend] Frans K Smit wine on the market, it’s actually a dream come true at Spier.
What’s it like raising twins?
A blessing in disguise! The challenge is to synchronise them and Lacea has been exceptional at that. I’m a light sleeper and every night when they were little, I was well-prepared with my arsenal of bottles. Five years later, they are starting to become distinct personalities and you can already see the adults they will become in those little bodies.
You’ve just spent six weeks travelling around New Zealand in a camper van with your family. What was it like?
It was great fun – every day an adventure and every camping site different and. They have a concept called “freedom camping” which means you can camp on public conservation land. You park your car anywhere – next to a lake, on a farm or on the beach – set up the gas braai and there you go. It was so liberating for the children. Also, everyone you come across in New Zealand is friendly and helpful.
What impresses you about what the Kiwis are up to when it comes to their wines?
Overall, I was struck by how many producers are willing to farm according to green or even biodynamic principles, much more so than in South Africa.
Also, there’s no “bad” wine in New Zealand, not even mediocre ones, as the grape quality is so good. The vineyards are small and all the farmers are farming for brands – there are no poorly located vineyard sites. Vineyards are farmed for the highest possible quality and not simply for the sake of having a greater area under cultivation.
You’re a keen hunter. Favourite destination and why?
Namibia due to the diversity of the landscape and the variety of game.
What’s the secret to perfect biltong?
First of all, good meat! Then coriander, vinegar and a touch of salt and pepper.