Tim James: The excellence of Polkadraai Hills and of Raats
By Christian Eedes, 1 May 2023
When Bruwer Raats bought his small farm on the rolling Polkadraai Hills in 2005, the area was, he says, the cheapest in Stellenbosch, rather despised by the establishment (no doubt especially those aristocrats on the Helderberg). Polkadraai’s fame has since grown in the years since then, however. Quite apart from the early reputation of a few producers like Reyneke, the granitic soils (delivering the brighter wines that became fashionable, partly no doubt because of Swartland’s Paardeberg) brought new-wave winemakers seeking fruit.
By 2020, it was easy for me to suggest, writing primarily about the fine Karibib estate and the Wine Craft communal winery, that “Polkadraai Hills is arguably at present the most interesting and dynamic part of Stellenbosch…. A depth of quality terroir has been making itself increasingly known there, and the area is in various ways home to some of the most exciting winemaking in the country.” Just look who’s based there now, apart from those already mentioned: the re-imagined Saxenburg; Nico van der Merwe; Van Biljon (also home to Chris Keet); Bein; Carinus Family growing ever larger in stature; the cluster of small but fine producers on Karibib; and another starry group sharing the old Amani cellar that Catherine Marshall too over in 2019. And that list doesn’t include numerous other eminent and ambitious winemakers buying in Polkadraai grapes from Karibib, Carinus and other farms.
Raats Family Wines was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Polkadraai Hills as an official ward within Stellenbosch (in 2007, I think that was). Now, for the first time, all the Raats labels declare WO Polkadraai Hills. Only two of the wines, however, are from grapes grown on the tiny vineyard on the Eden home-farm – the name inherited from the previous owners, though the old virused cabernet sauvignon vineyard was quickly ripped out and the badly-conditioned soil (you could scarcely stick a spade into it, says Bruwer) lovingly rebuilt with selected crops planted over the next four or so years (nowdays you can easily bury your bare hand in the soil!).
Chenin blanc and cabernet franc were planted – the two varieties that are the Raats signature: 0.6 hectares of chenin, 0.2 ha of franc. Both of them are unusually closely planted, and, even rarer for cab franc internationally, grow up individual poles – sur échalas, or stok-by-paaltjie). There’s a good just-in-time story that Bruwer tells about the origins of the chenin. He’d learnt to admire a clone, known as Montpellier, that had been grown in South Africa in the 1960s but, giving very low yields, had been largely abandoned by the 1970s. His researches led him to find a small remnant of the “mother block” in the Breede River Valley. When he contacted the farmer, he was told that he’d better hurry up, as the last of the vines were about to be ripped up. Next day, says Bruwer, his team was there early to pick vine shoots to propagate from: “As we were picking, the vines were being pulled out….” Although there have been other plantings of the cleaned-up Montpellier clone, the Raats wine of this vineyard is unique, he thinks, in being made solely from it.
Last week saw the release of the two latest offerings of these carefully tended vines: Eden High Density Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc and Eden High Density Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc, both 2021. The Chenin I first tasted last year and marvelled at its harmony of seeming contradictions, as I wrote in Platter’s: “quiet insistence, forceful delicacy, gorgeous texture but light-feeling”, with any new oak there only for texture and absorbed into the whole; two thirds of the natural ferment took place in concrete. Somehow the wine managed to slip through the final Platter’s blind tasting (such is the risk of such events, sadly) and didn’t get its usual five stars. A year later, on release, the wine is perhaps even more impressive, with a taste that lingers memorably for minutes after the swallow. This is a great wine, undoubtedly one of a small elite at the peak of the mighty mountain that is Cape chenin.
Tasted alongside the other two Raats chenins, the Original 2022 and the Old Vines 2022, one can see the Eden as the finest expression of a common approach to the grape – all of the wines subtle and graceful, none of them above 13% alcohol. It’s by far the most expensive, at something around R1000 per bottle – but the other two offer excellent value and, as I say, the same kind of quality at their levels. Just not quite the same pure magic.
Raats cab franc similarly comes in three bottlings, again with finesse and elegance increasingly the shared goal. The style remains certainly more oriented to the Bordeaux model than the lighter, fresher wines of the Loire that have become more fashionable in many circles in recent years. But perhaps Bruwer and Gavin Bruwer (in the cellar for well over a decade now) are lightening up subtly. Here I feel less distinction between the three levels than I do with the chenin. The older-oaked Dolomite 2020, from vines growing on the lower slopes and valley floor, is true to form in offering some of the best value for money in Cape reds, at a bit more than R200. Pure red and dark fruit, spicy and dried-herbal, with a fine acidity and sufficiently firm tannic structure. The Family Cab Franc 2020, from higher mountain vineyards, is rather darker in tone, a little more firmly structured; as always, a first-class wine.
When I compared these two a year ago with the 2020 Eden Cab Franc, I was comparatively disappointed with the latter, which I found less harmonious and with the herbal quality somewhat greener. It was a good wine, but I preferred the Family version. With the newly released 2021, however – it was clearly an excellent vintage for Raats as for many other producers – the Eden, though still with a green tinge, but a more savoury, integrated one, is notably superior to the 2020. There’s a real depth, complexity and intensity to the flavours, supported by a particularly fine tannic-acid structure.
A bottle of the Eden Cab Franc will set you back around R3000, but I don’t think your high standards will be offended if you can only afford the Family at R750 (it too will keep and mature well) – and if the Dolomite is your price level, you can feel positively smug.
- 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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