When Chris and Suzaan Alheit shared their Hemel-en-Aarde cellar with Peter-Allan Finlayson of Crystallum, and more briefly with John Seccombe of Thorne & Daughters, they all spoke occasionally of it as a “centre of winemaking excellence” (and even made the T-shirt). There was obviously humour behind the pompous grandeur of the words – but that doesn’t imply they didn’t mean them!
Alheit Vineyards grew too big to allow for even such good friends to share its winemaking space, around the time that Peter-Allan also took on the winemaking at Gabriëlskloof in not-too-distant Bot River. Gabriëlskloof has a large, well-equipped cellar, so he was able to not only start making his Crystallum pinots and chardonnays there, but could also re-establish the “centre of excellence” idea, by renting space to John Seccombe, as well as to Marelise Niemann (Momento Wines) and Frenchman Julien Schaal for his chardonnays and syrahs.
Once more the excellence is not to be doubted, as I was reminded last week, on a glorious winter’s day sandwiched by rainy ones, when it seemed a good idea (please note a touch of irony) to take time off from tasting Platter samples to travel out to the Overberg and taste the current releases of Crystallum, Thorne & Daughters and Momento (Julien was in France). If I say there wasn’t a dud among them, that would be absurd understatement, for there wasn’t anything less than the highest Cape quality there. The Crystallum 2015s promise to be the finest yet, for example, reinforcing their claim to be somewhere amongst the leaders of an increasingly impressive pack.
But we mustn’t leave out Gabriëlskloof itself. From the new wines I’ve tasted, both last year and this, from barrel and in bottle, it’s clear that the estate, from a solid but not particularly interesting or ambitious base, has joined the great Cape wine revolution and, with Peter-Allan at its winemaking head, is going to become a force of excellence. If you thought he was limited to being a good crafter of pinot and chardonnay, think again,
No reds from his first vintage, 2015, have been released yet, but this week I did try two of them from barrel, both destined for the estate’s new top-end Landscape Series, featuring paintings of the Overberg by Niel Jonker, and to be released later in August . The old-regime Swartriver Shiraz is being abandoned, and Peter-Allan plans to release two single-vineyard syrahs from very different terroirs on the large Gabriëlskloof farm. I tried one of them last week, as far from its predecessor’s rather oaky, ripely sweet presence as you (or certainly I) could wish to get: spicy, pure-fruited, fresh and lively. There’s also a fine, earlyish-picked 2015 cabernet franc. This is the variety that Peter-Allan felt was the strongest in making up the to-be-abandoned Five Arches Bordeaux-style blend. (One can almost see the shudder when he mentions the phase “Bordeaux blend” in conjunction with Gabriëlskloof….)
As to the whites, there have been a few signs of what is to come. The (Bordeaux-style!) white blend, Magdalena, is fresher, deeper, more blackcurranty and more structured than previously. That, and a smart new chenin blanc called Elodie (the 2015 from the Swartland, but there is much regrafting with chenin as well as new plantings happening on the farm) are in the Landscape Series. At a lower level in the hierarchy, but to my mind not lower in terms of quality, is the reconceived Sauvignon Blanc 2016. It’s a variety that doesn’t thrill Peter-Allan, but he’s done a superb job with it, giving something vastly more interesting than merely ripe tropical-fruited charm, yet not quite approaching funky. I rather think he’d like to abandon the variety altogether at some stage in the future, in favour of chenin, but I hope he won’t be allowed to. We need more sauvignons like this.
Which brings me to my point. For a decade, Gabriëlskloof has been producing very decent, orthodox and orthodoxly rather dull wines, more or less indistinguishable from many dozen other such producers’ wines. Now, with a winemaker experienced in an atmosphere of excellence (don’t think he didn’t pick up some tips on authentic white winemaking from Chris Alheit), and with great flair of his own, we are starting to see what is possible in expressing what is clearly promising terroir. Multiply this in your mind by a hundred and then more again, and conceive what is at least theoretically possible for the future of the South African wine revolution. Other conditions being equal, of course.
- 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.