When you speak to Johan Meyer, even on a whatsapp call with a slight time delay, you feel an energy and a passion about what he does. Just as well because he’s a busy guy, working on several ranges of wines from grapes farmed across multiple regions in the Western Cape. It’s his first year working in his new cellar in Hermon, about 10 minutes from Riebeek Kasteel, and he’s recently bought some farmland further north in Picketberg. More on this later…
Like most young winemakers these days Johan is well travelled. He spent two years in California with the Trinchero Family in Napa (of White Zin fame!) and at the Tantara Winery in the Bien Nacido, learning the nuts and bolts of winemaking. He then returned to South Africa and spent time at Old “Tony Bianco” winery in Tulbagh and Mount Abora in Riebeek Kasteel, where he still consults. I asked him where or who had been most influential in his approach to making wine – his answer was incredibly pragmatic:
JM “Winemakers need to learn both sides: commercial and boutique production. The winemaker who has most influenced me is Tom Lubbe.”
Tom is another well-travelled South African, he grew up in New Zealand, has made wine in Swartland, but settled in the Roussillon. His biodynamically run Domaine Matassa is somewhat of a beacon in the natural wine world, working with low yielding old bush vines and traditional Mediterranean varieties. Johan spent three months in the wine village of Calce with Tom in 2014, learning the importance of biodynamics in a holistic sense. The soil, vineyards, and farming practices all come together, impacting not just the finished wine but the people working on the estate: the alchemy of organic wines if you like. He found this approach energising and still maintains a close connection with Tom.
The Swartland is the Cape’s traditional breadbasket, but the region’s wine quality was often overshadowed by areas like Franschhoek, Paarl and Stellenbosch. The Swartland Revolution, an event set up in 2010, driven by Adi Badenhorst, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Callie Louw, Eben Sadie, and other Swartland Independent Producers set out to change that.
The mission was: to improve quality standards and educate consumers about the unique “Swartlandness” – what traditionalists might call terroir – found within the region’s wines.
Six glorious, sometimes riotous, years followed. The last event was in 2015 but most would argue it spectacularly achieved its objective of putting Swartland on the map – quite literally for many people by bringing the winemaking world to the area to see for themselves what was going on there. It didn’t just provide a forum.
JM “It opened doors for the younger producers in South Africa such as myself. I met a great group of people there, and the contacts I made have helped me to build my business and continue to develop as a winemaker”.
It was at the event in 2012 that Johan came across our very own Ben Henshaw, who was there spending time with Craig Hawkins, of Testalonga fame. At the time Johan was starting to make his JH Meyer Signature Wines part-time sourcing fruit from the cooler regions of Elgin for Pinot Noir, and Walker Bay for Chardonnay. Ben was impressed and decided to bring them to the UK. Johan was also starting to develop relationships with grape growers in the Swartland region, and had gained access to some of the best fruit in the region, which he was using to create honest, clean natural wines, showcasing terroir rather than a style. Ben, coincidentally, had noticed a gap in the market for artisan South African Chenin at an accessible price. You could call it fate: the Force Majeure label was born! Initially with around 3000 bottles coming to the UK in early 2014, the wine was a huge success and was swiftly followed by a Cinsault Rosé and a Red Blend from Syrah, Pinotage, Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Mourvedre, both produced with the same principles as the original.
Chenin vineyards in Paardeberg, picking for the 2017 vintage.
What next for Swartland? In Johan’s opinion the key is sustainability, and not just in an environmental sense, but also sustaining the momentum, quality and excitement that the Swartland Revolution ignited in the area.
JM “It’s no good just making good wine for a couple of vintages, we have to make good wine for the next 50 years! We have to live up to our reputation.”
The biggest challenges he faces as a winemaker in Swartland today are finding new vineyard sites, painstakingly recovering the old abandoned ones and keeping fruit quality consistent. For Johan the key is working closely with the hundreds of small farmers who own the land, and whose families have grown grapes there for generations. He has worked at getting to know these farmers establishing long term relationships. This builds trust and also enables him to work with them to improve their land, look after their vines, and adapt them to organic and biodynamic principles. He believes this is the key not just to great wines, but also to a sustainable future for the area.
JM “I worry that some of the younger guys have been enticed by the sexy image of South African wines but don’t work with the farmers to build something for the long term”.
On the flip-side he has the freedom to find the best grapes and identify abandoned older vines he thinks have potential. Again, the relationship is key: for the first three years of working with a farmer Johan sells the grapes and doesn’t use the crop for his own wines. He describes this period as a kind of detox for the vineyard.
JM “I work in partnership with the farmer to bring the vineyard towards the organic methods and the quality of farming that I’m looking for. Of course there is a risk, you don’t know exactly what your crop and volumes will be every year. There are some grapes – Chenin Blanc, Syrah and Cinsault – that are relatively easy to source but others you can’t find regularly”.
This limits his winemaking options, and when you’re making a range of wines and exporting to 15 countries as he now is you need a sustainable supply of quality grapes. Hence his decision to plant his own vines, so that he can have control of the supply.
This brings us neatly to Johan’s big new project – a farm in Picketberg in northern Swartland. It’s an amazing opportunity to start from scratch, and to work in a way he believes will produce the best fruit. Why did he choose the area and what needs to be done?
JM “It’s a remote part of the Swartland, that offers a unique environment and a huge diversity of microclimates. It gets more rain than the south – around 700mm per year – has a healthy diurnal temperature range and rich soils that are full of organic life. Much of the area is planted with apples and citrus, which is often more profitable for local farmers than grape farming”.
He says that when he sees apple trees he knows there is potential for growing Chardonnay grapes. His property is overgrown, it was last worked about 10-15 years ago, but at least that means any chemicals that might have been used will have worked their way out of the soil ecosystem. It will also be the first time vines have been planted on the sites so no viruses, mildew or fungal diseases lurking in the soils. He plans to plant vines next August/September, but needs to do a year of soil preparation before then.
His first crop will take at least five years so the priority is to get the vines in, then he can think about building the rest of the infrastructure he’ll need – a cellar, not to mention a house! He is planning to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for his JH Meyer wines, and is also thinking about Grenache and Cabernet Franc, maybe Mourvedre, things which he can’t find, and that his partner farmers aren’t growing. Nothing funky or weird at this stage, definitely some Chenin at some point – somewhat of a signature grape for Swartland – which he thinks will thrive in the cooler climate.
JM “I plan to plant five hectares in the first year and as time progresses I’ll look at other sites and possibly other varietals. I have around 25 hectares suitable for planting, but I need to live there, see the microclimate and live with the terroir to see how it evolves before making any other decisions”.
Back to the present and the recently pressed 2017 vintage: he started around the 14th January picking Chenin in Paardeberg, and finished in mid-April. He thinks 2017 will be a very strong vintage, the fruit quality is good, and yields are up 30% on last year, although still less than normal due to the continuing drought in the region. The summer was cool and mild with no extended heatwaves.
JM “The more you work with the land the more you learn and every year brings a different challenge”.
He’s excited to be working in his new cellar, which sounds flash but is basically a large renovated shed. He has some old 2000 litre foudres to make Chenin, and some new locally-made concrete eggs. Johan believes that to show terroir you need a neutral space where you can do a clean fermentation and vinify as simply as possible: without too much tannin and no bacteria to deliver a clean fermentation with pure flavours and aromas. In his opinion the vineyards influence 90% of the final wine: the worst thing would be to work hard on the vineyards and then bring the fruit into a dirty cellar!
JM “Cellars need to be sterile like a lab – then you can see the honest terroir.”
He hopes the site specifics of each farm will come out even more in the new cellar. The ageing of the wines might be tweaked a little – he’s currently working on two single vineyard Chenin Blancs aged in concrete eggs – but not the winemaking. In fact he admitted it was the first year that he truly feels full confidence in the wines.
Clockwise from top left: Genache vines; The site of Johan’s new farm up North in Picketberg; Johan at the RAW fair last year; The fresh and pure, food-friendly Cinsault Rosé from the Force Majeure range
The Mother Rock Range – Johan’s partnership with Ben – has gone from strength to strength. The new wines released in the UK for the first time last year: a white blend, a skin contact Chenin and site specific reds have been very well received and he will keep making those in partnership with his Swartland growers.
JM “I’ve put in too much effort to let them go!”
Looking ahead to the first harvests up in Picketberg, how might the Mother Rock range develop? We’ll keep the existing cuvees, but the farm will give him healthy young vines, farmed in the correct way from the start, and the potential to make serious wines from terroir specific sites.
Johan will be in London next week for the Real Wine Fair and a host of other activities. You can catch up with him on Wednesday 10 May at The Larder Deli, where he’ll be pouring the Mother Rock wine between 15:00 and 17:00 [Trade only]. If you’d like to find out more about the range and his plans please drop us a line.