Greg Sherwood MW: The next generation of site-specific wines
By Greg Sherwood, 11 August 2022
One of the most intriguing stories among European winemaking families to hit the airwaves in the past decade or more has surely got to be the split between the Côte-Rôtie brothers Jean-Paul and Jean-Luc Jamet in 2013. So closely guarded are the secrets and circumstances surrounding the actual fallout between the two brothers from this world-famous Côte-Rôtie estate that rumours and French whispers have instead filled in the gaps where trusted, official narratives have simply failed to materialise. Indeed, such is the secrecy and silence post-earthquake that many a politician or celebrity around the world currently going through an acrimonious breakup or scandal, could certainly take a leaf out of the book of the Jamet brothers if they wanted a priceless example of how to handle a very difficult situation with a similar amount of privacy and candour in order to protect a world-famous brand.
In some ways, the mystery surrounding the circumstances of the breakup have actually added to both the marketability and demand for the wines of Jean-Paul and Corinne Jamet, or Domaine Jamet as it is still known, and likewise for the new wines of Jean-Luc Jamet. While the high wall built post-breakup down the middle of the estate driveway might be an overt legacy of the split, the other has been the snobbery that initially circled the new releases of Jean-Luc’s Côte-Rôtie and Côtes du Rhône wines. Why? Well, probably because Jean-Paul was the winemaker and public face of the winery in the previous partnership and Jean-Luc was the viticulturalist, spending most of his time out in the vineyards.
The maiden 2014 Côte-Rôtie release from Jean-Luc was perhaps still a work in progress, but with the superb 2015 vintage, Jean-Luc definitely stepped out of the proverbial shadows and returned to the fine wine arena with a resounding bang, using his prestigious holdings of some of the greatest sites of La Landonne, Chavaroche and Lancement to create his impressive new Côte-Rôtie called Les Terrasses. This is surely the type of Grand Vin that is going to propel Jean-Luc’s wines to become some of the most sought after Syrahs in the whole of the Northern Rhône with prices to match.
The 2015 release, the game changer, was made from 100% Syrah from 5 hectares notably 0.7 ha on Lancement (planted 1980-1995), 0.6 ha Bonnivières, Chavaroche (0.5 ha planted early 1980s and 0.3 ha planted early 2010s), 0.7 ha on Mornachon (planted 1985), also Côte Baudin, La Landonne, Moutonnes (0.11 ha planted 1945, 0.4 ha early 1980s), Les Rochains, Fongeant, with 65% destemmed with a 21 day vinification using wild yeasts, employing twice daily pump overs and one cap punch downs. Wines were aged in 20-30% new oak, 70-80% 1-6 year old – 60% 300-litre, 20% 228-litre, 20% 500-litre oak casks for 10 months, before being fined and bottled unfiltered to produce 26,650 bottles. If you have not tried Jean-Luc’s wines yet, and you are a Côte Rôtie enthusiast, they are a real must with their ethereal purity and clarity, delicate finesse and elegance, fine boned structures, and most important of all for me, very low relative alcohols like the 12.5% abv. on the 2015 release in stark contrast to the 14.5-15% abvs on many of the Domaine Jamet wines.
What the Jamet story represents so beautifully for me is the ever-growing global reality that to make truly great wines, you can only go so far with “good fruit” and then, from there on in, to make great wines, you need exceptional fruit. As the old adage goes, “if you have great vineyards, they do a lot of the hard work for you.” As the viticulturalist, Jean-Luc was always the steady hand in the vineyards and ultimately the person indirectly responsible for the final quality potential entrusted to bottle at the end of winemaking. In South Africa, not only is Syrah also regarded as one of the most exciting premium quality grape varieties in the mix among all the younger next-generation rock star winemakers, the country is increasingly recognising the importance of having the expertise to call on with regards to all aspects of viticulture including working with drones and, more latterly, geoinformatics to measure the solar radiation, something Duncan Savage made great use of in the planting of his new extreme Syrah vineyard in Karibib, Stellenbosch.
Another high-profile name that has worked with many of the young gun winemakers over the past few years is viticulturalist Jaco Engelbrecht. But he has been joined by the likes of James Downes, Stephan Joubert, Johan Reyneke, Conrad Schutte and Marco Ventrella to mention but a few of the unsung heroes working outside of the limelight, but yet who in reality, make such a huge difference on the ground and to the final grape quality coming into the wineries.
Another very fitting illustration of the focused site-specific work being done in South Africa became manifest this past week as I tasted through all the new Mullineux Wines Single Terroir Chenin Blanc 2021 and Syrah 2020 releases, all of which have also recently been reviewed with great acclaim by Christian Eedes on Winemag.co.za. With the new releases, the Mullineuxs have finally been granted permission from all farmers, vineyard owners and growers involved to use the actual farm names on all the wine labels for the first time across the entire range. Previously, only the Mullineux Schist wines carried the Roundstone designation on the front labels. With all the experience and expertise has also come an extra confidence for the Mullineuxs to trumpet the site-specific origin of these wines, all of which now show noticeably specific vineyard traits and similarities from their individual terroirs year after year. So watch out for the new Granite Syrah Jakkalsfontein, sourced 100% from a set block from the Jakkalsfontein farm recently bought by Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst, Schist Syrah Roundstone from the Mullineuxs own farm vineyard, and the Iron Syrah Kasteelsig which the Mullineuxs have been using the same 18 rows since 2008.
Only just last year, Tim Atkin MW talked about the next stage in South Africa’s development featuring greater precision in the vineyards and meaningful Crus in places like the Swartland and Stellenbosch to begin with, “along the lines of the three Hemel-en-Aarde wards perhaps.” Any developments in this direction will inevitably also have to take into consideration the already permitted “single vineyard” designations that were authorised and legislated some years ago now.
When you think of the Skurfberg, how can you not think of Eben Sadie’s great Chenin Blanc white or one of the two incredible whites from Chris Alheit, the Magnetic North and the Huilkrans Chenin Blanc, or Ginny Povall’s Botanica Mary Delany Collection Chenin Blanc also from the Skurfberg in the Citrusdal Mountain? When you hear the vineyard name La Colline, how can you not think of premium old vine Semillon in Franschhoek? Or when you read the name Schaapenberg, you cannot but think of the exceptional coastal reserve Sauvignon Blanc from the Helderberg located on the historic Vergelegen Estate. These are just some of the names that resonate with global drinkers buying into the South African fine wine category at the moment.
I have always said that the level of involvement from the consumer with the wines they buy is their own choice, not the choice of marketing people, winery owners or winemakers. Ultimately, consumers will decide their own level of engagement with a wine, a winery, a vineyard or a variety and as things currently stand, there are more than enough thirsty, enquiring drinkers out there who are ready to join the more complicated, more intricate, more stimulating wine journey of site-specific lieu dits and single vineyard designations. Anyone for some premium Jakkalsfontein Granite Syrah?
- Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.
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