Tim James: A visit to Gabriëlskloof and some thoughts on terroir

By , 22 June 2015

It’s a truism that, however significant sun, soil and slope are to wine, what the workers with vine and grapes do with terroir crucially affects what’s in the bottle. This was clear again to me recently at Gabriëlskloof – in the Overberg, not far from Bot River village – when I tasted a barrel sample of 2015 shiraz and muttered “wow!”. Actually I suppose I must have just thought it (or waited till the moment of truth was over), or I’d have spluttered all over the floor, but surprise and elation were there somewhere. It was a very different sort of wine from past Gabriëlskloof shirazes – fresher, livelier, less massive (just touching 13% alcohol) and, I learnt, destined to receive less new oak treatment.

Peter-Allan Finlayson of Gabriëlskloof.

Peter-Allan Finlayson of Gabriëlskloof.

This, 2015, was the first harvest of Peter-Allan Finlayson at Gabriëlskloof, and the first time he’d had such a large volume and range of wines to make, quite apart from his own Crystallum pinots and chardonnays. The latter were also made here in this spacious cellar – something of a change from the more straitened “boutique” conditions at Hemelrand in the Hemel-en-Aarde where in recent years he’d been working alongside the Alheits.

So it was all a bit new and alarming for him – “very stressful at first”, he admitted (while agreeing that he was lucky to have had such a fine vintage for his maiden effort here); but, he says with the smile that is seldom far away, he’s now enjoying it all much more. Partly, I’m sure, because he’s also gathered around him a few other young, interesting winemakers, letting them have space for their own wines – as I described last week.

It was always clear that Peter-Allan was going to play the traditional role of a new broom in his new appointment; things were bound to change. Gabriëlskloof has made decent enough wines in the years it has released wines from 2007 – and the Magdalena Bordeaux-style white blend has always been particularly pleasing – but the reds have tended to a rather old-fashioned style, ripe, big and oaky, showing the stamp of the cellar. I look forward very much to observing their evolution under Peter-Allan’s management.

He plunged in deep from the start this year with a non-interventionist approach: for example, some 90 percent of the wines were made with natural yeasts (no doubt also some that had been hanging around the cellar since previous years, but they weren’t inoculated) – even for a third of the sauvignon blanc, amongst which, I must say, is some deleriously delicious, succulent and intense, blackcurranty stuff in old oak, off clay and shale soils.

There’s also this year, for the first time, some chenin blanc being made at Gabriëlskloof – brought in from the Paardeberg for now, but Peter-Allan, who’s also thoroughly involved in the vineyards, is going to graft over some unsatisfactory semillon to chenin this year, and also to plant more. He’s clearly genuinely impressed by the potential of the two not-very-distant farms at his disposal, and especially the variations of soil: “This property is capable of so, so much….”

It will be rather more than interesting to see how that is shown over years to come, by a young wine-man working with very different varieties from the pinot and chardonnay with which he’s already made such a substantial name for himself. For if the truism about the importance of the winemaker is undoubtedly valid, it’s equally true, then, that it must be the wine-grower-maker who can muffle the terroir – or allow it to speak. And we drinkers will then decide if we want to listen.

  • 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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