Tim James: Bubbles and more at Twee Jonge Gezellen
By Tim James, 3 July 2023
If you’ve got a bit blasé about visiting the average wine cellar it’s good to go to somewhere that produces a whole lot of good quality champagne-method sparkling wine. It’s a complex business. And nowhere more impressive in the Cape, I reckon, than Twee Jonge Gezellen – home of the range of Krone bubblies (as well as, now, a pair of still wines), and the final stop on my recent exploration of Tulbagh as a wine region – see parts one and two..
If the Twee Jonge Gezellen infrastructure is impressive – an array of white buildings, many of them historic and the others not too obtrusive – so too is the Tulbagh setting, with its fringe of mountains. Not to mention the numbers. When wine company Vinimark bought the property and brands in 2012, the estate was producing about 300 000 bottles of mostly sparkling wine with a good reputation. Vinimark hit the ground running, because they had already owned a substantial share in the Krone brand, so knew the business well.
Major investments in the winery infrastructure, business and vineyards followed. Now, a decade later, production of Krone bubbly is up to something over two million bottles, making it by a long way the Cape’s largest cap classique producer. The biggest contributor – about half – to this probably ever-growing number is the Night Nectar Demi-Sec, a semi-sweet version (all strawberries and cream, but pretty refined) of the famous Krone Borealis, a taut and fresh, fine-bubbled brut. There are rosé versions of both, as well as some much smaller-volume wines, of which more shortly.
There’s no way all this could come off the TJ property (though the website seems to suggest otherwise; it also rather disingenuously speaks of TJ as “family-owned” – which it technically is, I suppose). A lot of the base wine for the higher-volume bubblies is made at Robertson Winery (also with a major Vinimark – or Rands family, if you prefer – interest). The wine that’s made at Tulbagh for the big brands is trundled to Robertson for blending with it in the enormous tanks there; all the wine then returns to Tulbagh for the remainder of the processing.
Telling me the stories on my recent visit to TJ, and explaining the complexities and technicalities of bubbly production on this scale, was chief winemaker Stephan de Beer, here since 2008, having learnt the business under previous owner Nicky Krone and his son Matthew. Stephan showed us around, from the lovely, atmospheric old underground cellar, Africa’s first, to the vast storage buildings (some three million bottles of wine are on the property at any one time – one-and-a-half vintages), to other buildings where the riddling happens (bringing the residue of the yeasts that conducted the secondary fermention in bottle to nestle under the crown cap with which the bottle is sealed), and where the yeast is removed (disgorged) and the dosage added (largely sugar for sweetening, also some colour adjustment for the rosés, and topping up). And then, at last, the final corking and the elaborate decoration of the bottle – these lines run permanently during a week’s working hours. These buildings are all, it seems, kept at different, appropriate temperatures.
And there’s much more detail too. Like the nano-proteins added to help those dead yeasts slip down the bottle sides for collection and removal. And a machine to “jet out” any oxygen from a late-disgorged wine. Or the research that Stephan helped conduct into the speed at which the gyropalettes (huge, artfully packed cagefuls of bottles) can gently twist and turn to bring the yeasts to the collection point in the downward-pointing. It turned out, he said, that a lot of the answer was in the exact timing of resting the bottles in their palettes beforehand. Speeded up, this part of the process is now less of a bottleneck in the whole business of getting an order completed.
The riddling process is still done by hand for some of the smaller volume products, like the three site-specific cap classiques. From, respectively, Twee Jongegezellen itself, the Kaaimansgat vineyard in Elandskloof, and the Ceres Plateau, the wines are all made in the same way (a single naturally-fermented foudre of each) but are impressively different.
There are currently three other high-end, small volume cap classiques made here. Undeniably delicious and fine – and expensive at about R600 – is the Night Nectar Blanc de Blancs. No “demi-sec” category is mentioned on the label, but it is a superior version of those sweetish crowd-pleasers. Similarly priced is the Amphora Blanc de Blancs, from the best Elandskloof chardonnay fermented naturally in clay pots, and left without any sugar dosage. The 2020 of this was for me the highlight of the day’s tasting experience: elegant and pure, with some early biscuitty development, and a beautiful light, dry grip. And there’s the R.D. – standing for “récemment dégorgé” if you want it in French. The current offering is 2012: the Krone Borealis of that year, kept ten years on its lees before being disgorged. It’s drinking very well now – remarkably fresh, harmonious and nicely grippy, with a beguiling touch of honey.
But not all at Twee Jongezellen sparkles. The name has been revived to brand a range of still wines, which kicked off with a 2018 red from Piekenierskloof grenache and was joined by a White from Swartland chenin and grenache blanc, these made by Barbara Melck, who is now winemaker at Reyneke. The aim is eventually to use estate grapes off the vineyards planted by Rosa Kruger, and the ambition of the project is unfortunately overstated by some horribly massive monogrammed bottles – certainly amongst the country’s heaviest. Better not show them to Jancis Robinson.
But the wines I was given bottles of to taste at home are excellent – and a great deal lighter. The 2021 White is a fine example of a Swartland blend, flavourful, and even quite rich, despite just 12.5% alcohol, its dryness with a lovely kernel of sweet peachy fruit. The admirable Red 2019 is perhaps more distinctive – ripe and generous, though just 13.5% alcohol,and savoury; more reminiscent of a good Châteauneuf-du-Pape than most local grenaches, which tend to aim at evanescent lightness. It’s supple and balanced, with fine, restrained tannins.
I look forward to seeing this range develop in the years to come. The vineyards that will produce them are as beautiful as the historic cellar in which the wines are made.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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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