The Stellenbosch Revolution?

19Oct Posted by Jo Lory

Stellenbosch is South Africa’s Napa Valley, one of the most historic wine regions, and a centre for tourism. Money poured in when larger companies arrived in the 80s and 90s, many of the smaller grape farmers were pushed aside, but some older vineyards with bush vines survived, seasoning the Cabernet blends.

There’s an area in the south, towards False Bay, which is referred to as Lower Helderberg. It isn’t demarcated, but a few people are starting to rediscover the old-vine heritage and start projects here. Bernhard Bredell, talented young owner/winemaker at Scions of Sinai is one of them. When we spoke to him recently, he explained how Lower Helderberg has different soils, terroir and a distinct microclimate to the wider Stellenbosch region, and he feels strongly that it should be recognised as a stand-alone Ward. “It’s slightly frustrating to be grouped in to the wider Stellenbosch region as they are quite different”.

Bernhard on Lower Helderberg:  “No fancy tasting rooms, no palm trees… just plain old wine farming”!

Pinotage bush vines planted in the late 70s

It’s not just the terroir and cool ocean microclimate that attracted him. Bernhard grew up here, he was born and raised in a rural grape farming family, he helped around the winery and often joined his grandfather pruning in their vineyards. In 2012 the family sold their farm, and his father and grandfather went out of the industry. But Bernhard decided to stay, working at another winery for a few years before heading to France.

Different horizons

He fell into a very good crowd in France: he worked with the Graillot family in Crozes-Hermitage; with Maxime Graillot at his own project Domaine Equis; and then joined Antoine Graillot at Domaine de Fa, based in St Amour and Fleurie in Beaujolais. The passion for the earth and the vine – over fancy winemaking techniques – that he experienced there reminded him of his family farm at home. But he didn’t return to South Africa just yet.

Antoine and Bernhard were talking late at night over a bottle of Chatreuse, and began discussing the drought in South Africa and the schist soils, and the similarities with Priorat in Spain. Antoine knows the owner at Clos Figueras in Gratallops, and so Bernhard went to Priorat to work. There he met a lot of inspirational winemakers, discovered a passion for Grenache Blanc, and has returned on several occasions.

In 2017 Bernhard returned to South Africa, to make wine where he grew up.

No place like home

The Lower Helderberg is around 3.5km from the ocean, where prevailing winds from False Bay moderate the temperatures, especially during November to February. The area is dominated by three hills – Bottelary, Polkadraai and Sinai Hill, as Bernhard explained: “You don’t find many east aspect sites, close to the ocean in South Africa, with good morning sun”.

Bernhard describes it as: “A terroir carved out from granite, similar to Fleurie in Beaujolais”.

The decomposed granite has good drainage and low fertility. Areas high in silica (quartz) fragments absorb light during the day, and reflect it at night, which enhances aromatics, especially in reds.

“Not everyone realises that vineyards and soil type need to talk to each other, not overwrite each other. You can’t harvest a small crop from a very fertile soil type and vice versa”.

The vineyards were farmed organically in the past, but in the 90s farmers chasing higher yields started to use chemicals. Bernhard is focusing on restoring vitality and soil health in a few special plots. He’s always been a soil fanatic: when he had taken over management of these vineyards, he let cover crops grow, and can’t understand why farmers don’t leave them in winter. Pre 1980s – lupins, rye, and oats were grown over winter and ploughed back: “It’s the only way these bush vines survive the summer without irrigation. Farmers stopped doing this in the 90s to bump up the crop, and couldn’t understand why the vines weren’t producing a higher crop. It’s not the bush vine’s fault, it’s your soil’s fault”!

He’s also a geek when it comes to regenerative agriculture: he prepares the soil for the long term, and has seen an improvement in energy and vine vitality in the last 4-5 years. The water retention is better, and earthworms are coming back, he digs with a spade in the vineyards and counts worms with his son at the weekend!

Verdant cover crops

“Small decisions are important”, he explained, “When you look at how pruning used to be done, promoting balance, not expecting the vine to overproduce. Putting organic matter back into the soil. It’s not necessary to uproot vineyards every 25 years”!

“I’m trying to walk the long road with them”.

What about the wines?

We tasted the recently arrived 2020 vintage with Bernhard. He explained that strong winds early in the season were a factor in the style of the wines that year. The leaves were ‘blown open’ which gave the grapes more sun exposure, the skins grew thicker, leading to a higher ratio of skin to juice. The difference is particularly felt in the earlier ripening varieties, like Pinotage and Chenin, where you see higher tannins in 2020. The wind can also affect photosynthesis- he saw lower sugar accumulation in the grapes and lower alcohol on Pinotage and Chenin in 2020. Later varieties like Cinsault and Syrah ripened in a more moderate climate, and Bernhard thinks you see less variation from previous vintages on those.

Senor Tallos 2020 is a blend of Chenin from Sinai Hill and Grenache Blanc from outside the region: “Both varieties thrive in South Africa, they love granite soils”. Bernhard thinks they work well with skin maceration, giving a food-friendly texture and savoury aromas. He gives the Chenin four weeks and the Grenache Blanc three, both on stems. Most of the wine is aged under flor for seven months. It’s savoury and dry, with some ripe fruit, but quite mineral for a skin contact wine; in short it’s very drinkable! The name comes from a play on the word tallo, which is stem in Spanish. He ‘discovered’ Grenache Blanc while working with Silvia Puig in Priorat. Bernhard sketched the label himself as he grew up watching spaghetti westerns, and it reflects the tradition of working with horses on farms in the area.

Granietsteen 2020 is from a single plot of massal selection Chenin Blanc, planted on Sinai Hill by Bernhard’s grandfather in 1978.  The site faces south-east and warms up early in the morning, the roots ‘wake-up’ a bit quicker, and the grapes tend to ripen towards the end of January which is early for Stellenbosch. This means it escapes the heatwaves the area often experiences in mid-late February, and the wine keeps a bright acidity. He harvests the grapes in two parts: 70% is de-stemmed and soaks on skins over four nights before pressing and fermentation; the rest is direct whole-bunch pressed which brings freshness and focus.

The decomposed granite soils and old Chenin vines planted by Bernhard’s grandfather on Sinai Hill

Bernhard is looking for a common thread of individuality in his single vineyards wines. For the whites he likes to keep the wine on the skins for at least a day: “I believe a lot of the individual terroir expression gets lodged into the skins, wherever you are, and by doing that you bring out a little bit of personality that focusses on one plot”.

It’s a complex wine – fresh, with some saltiness, and a mouthwatering, intense lemon peel pithiness – revealing something different each time you go back. Ben commented: “Chenin’s there, but  it’s not shouting Chenin Blanc, it’s expressing the spirit of a vineyard, and really shows how Chenin can carry terroir extremely well”.

Bernhard is very optimistic about the potential of this site: “The combination of freshness and aromatic uplift from the granite puts an HD vision onto the variety”, he explained.

Nomadis 2020 is a dry red with a focus on Cinsault – 95% of the blend – where normally Pinotage takes centre stage. Bernhard explains it: “Cinsault is the father, Pinotage is the son. On a light soil Cinsault can be one dimensional, Pinotage adds to the texture in the blend”.

Both grapes are part of the heritage of the area. Bernhard wanted to express the lightness these soils express- silica rich soils can bump up aromatics. The site is also close to the ocean, which brings freshness, fragrance and a brightness.  The nose, with pure red fruit and rose petals, really draws you in. The palate is less expressive at this stage, but it has a nice little grip at the end, crunchy tannins and some complexity from the old vineyards.

Feniks 2020 (pronounced Phoenix) was named after the bird that rose from the ashes. Bernhard explained the two reasons behind this: firstly, the vineyard owner was going to pull the vines, but Bernhard recognised the potential of the site and persuaded him not to, and has been managing and improving it for five years; it’s also about the re-birth for the Pinotage grape from a bad reputation.

Pinotage, like parent Pinot Noir, has a tendency to mutate. The vines from this plot produce small tight bunches, which fit in the palm of your hand, which is unusual. Also, Bernhard explained, Pinotage has thick skins, so the grapes can become quite jammy by the time they are fully ripe.  However, on the low fertility sandy soil in Feniks vineyard, the skins ripen faster, the acidity stays high and the sugars stay moderate, so you keep vitality, aromas and flavours. He handles the grapes gently in the winery, avoiding too much extraction. The wine is richer with more structure than Atlantikas, the other wine produced from this vineyard, but keeps freshness.

Small tight buches of Pinotage from the Feniks vineyard.

Atlantikas 2020  is Bernhard’s maritime Pinotage, also from Feniks vineyard, the closest he has to the Atlantic. It’s labelled ‘alternative red’, a category some of the new wave producers campaigned for to incorporate wines which don’t fit the usual mould for a region or variety, that were continually being rejected by the WO control board.

“Pinotage has a reputation for bigger bolder wines, and SAWIS can’t ‘understand’ it made in this lighter way with soft winemaking”.

The grapes come from a section of the Feniks vineyard with shallower sandy soil, which Bernhard had always thought tasted different. He harvests this section 2-3 weeks earlier than the rest of the vineyard, direct pressing half of the grapes, like you would for a rose, and ferments the other half on skins for a week before blending. Using less skins gives a light and crunchy style, less tannic than many Pinotages. Atlantikas is a charming, a-typical, perfumed wine which redefines South African Pinotage.

Swanessang 2020 is fairly unusual; you don’t see a lot of Syrah in Stellenbosch, but Bernhard’s grandfather planted the vineyard after he retired. The fruit on the bush vines hangs close to the ground, and the silica in the top soil reflects back light and warmth enhancing aromatics in the grapes. The wine shows the floral side of Syrah and reminds Bernhard of wine he tasted working with Graillot in the northern Rhone. The fruit is pure and intense with some violets, it’s savoury and mouth-watering with some liquorice. Bernhard describes it as: “Bringing on a hunger”!

These are an impressive set of wines, particularly from such a young project, and Bernhard’s energy and love of the region is palpable (even over a slightly sketch Zoom call!). We can’t wait to get him over here to taste with you in person, but in the meantime, do get in touch if you’d like to hear more and taste any of the wines.