The South African Wine Company Kleine Zalze, who are situated in Stellenbosch, hosted a dinner and tasting to celebrate 20 years in business, and to illustrate their vision of the Company’s past, present and future direction in wine production which I was invited to.
The venue was Medlar Restaurant (www.medlar restaurant.co.uk) situated on the World’s End section of the Kings Road, Chelsea. We were in a private room, which kept the noise of the busy restaurant (and this on a very stormy Wednesday evening) at bay.
Historical records show the winery site being used as a Gin Distillery, but which also has had a small production of wines dating back to 1695. Kobus Basson and his family became involved by purchasing the estate in 1996 and Kobus became the sole owner in 2013 by buying out his business partners.
After extensive scientific soil evaluation and solar radiation analysis on the estate, replanting has and is taking place with the view of marrying varieties to soil profiles, with specific consideration also to aspect and planting direction. A bit of ‘back to the future’ emphasis on their particular terroirs and ‘thermal scores’ which will give focus to the future plantings of two of their signature varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc.
Alastair Rimmer joined the gang in 2014, overseeing the technological and scientific programme being undertaken and, in his own worlds “adding a bit of yeast to grape juice now and again”. His role will be the present and future direction within the parameters of Klenie Zalze’s brand focus.
Alastair was very good at talking about the other innovators and trail blazers in South Africa, especially as brand South Africa is being lifted by the likes of some of the Swartland producers making international waves, including Adi Badenhorst and Eben Sadie. Also, those who had the foresight to plant Pinot Noir in the Walker Bay area.
The constant threat from endemic leaf-roll virus is a South African wine industry problem. “At this time it cannot be eradicated. Although we now have virus free plant stocks”. [Within the South African Wine Grape Certification Scheme]. These viruses are successfully eliminated from nuclear planting material by heat treatment and meristem tip culture or somatic embryogenesis. Unfortunately this virus-free material remains susceptible to viruses and can become infected again once propagated in the field. Over time this generally negates the advances achieved by planting certified material, as with close proximity planting in vineyards and grubbing up of diseased vines, there still can be a reservoir of bugs in the surrounding vegetation, which can re-infect the new vines. The bugs are not just attracted to vinifera vines and therefore can be endemic in other vegetation. The bugs also are wind borne, which exponentially can significantly increase the spread.
Vines can show a cluster of visible infection by the curling and drying of their leaves, which inhibits/stops photosynthesis, causing the vine to become critically stressed and sooner or later it will die. When the curl on the leaves is visible, the vine has reached the stage which generally means it is removed; but if the infection has spread further than the cluster it may not be readily visible early and can then be the cause of re-infection of newly planted vines. The few insecticides available may be a short term solution but they are not ideal for long term use and huge research is ongoing in South Africa and many other countries which all appear to have the various strains of leaf-roll viruses.
Alastair points out “In the case of Chenin, it definitely does not show symptoms of leaf-roll virus and thus can produce top quality wine for as long as the vineyard is viable. With Cinsaut it is a bit of a different story. It does show symptoms of the virus and is affected by it, however owing in many cases to the age and yield of a specific vineyard and the style of wine being produced one can get quite a good result for a much longer ‘viable’ stretch”.
Control of the vineyards, both owned and managed is crucial to maximizing the potential of the company, Alaistair points out “especially as only “8% of the vineyards in Stellenbosch are making any money”. Vineyard land in general in South Africa is under a lot of pressure from other food crops – wheat in the Swartland for instance. Land lying fallow after vines being grubbed up has limited sales potential and/or excessive costs to replant for smaller vine producers.
Kleine Zalze own 65 ha of vineyards but some of these are in the re-planting programme. They lease and fully manage another 120 ha.
Regarding the leased vineyards, Alastair said “what I can say is that there are a lot of old vines/vineyards that are undervalued and are from a financial point of view not quite making the cut and therefore are in danger of being pulled out. We at Kleine Zalze are trying as best as possible to prevent this but can only do so if we can add value to wines and thus sell more wine at higher price points, which in-turn can then be passed onto the primary producer in terms of higher prices paid for grapes. We take various approaches to looking after our growers, namely by renting blocks at a flat fee irrespective of yields, paying higher prices for the grapes and also purchasing other grapes, not just cherry picking old parcels, from the growers to ensure sustainability, and keeping our old vine resource in the ground”.
Kleine Zalze’s winery has an associated hotel and golf course and a restaurant rated as one of the top 10 in South Africa.
Methode Cap Classique NV Brut Chardonnay 60% Pinot Noir 40%. Lovely freshness. Bright characteristic aromas and flavours of citrus, apple and red fruits in the background.
PAST Kleine Zalze Selection Chenin Blanc 2010. I was expecting a lot from this as I do love chenin and it certainly delivered. Still taut, with deep pomegranite and quince flavours. (£12)
PRESENT Kleine Zalze Reserve Chenin 2015 Shaved apple and citrus notes. Good value at £10 (Sainsburys)
FUTURE Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Selection Chenin Blanc 2015 Pretty much in raw youth still with the oak a bit obvious. But it will not take too long for the wine to gobble up the oakiness and cover it with the creamy texture that is waiting to get dressed. I would say this is one for the cellar. £22.
PAST Kleine Zalze Cellar Cellar Selection Pinotage.2014 Nice wine, much evolved from the rubbery, banana characters of the past. Deep red and black fruit character with good structure. Will age.
PRESENT Zalze Shiraz/Mouvedre/Viognier 2014. Shows intuitive winemaking allowing the characters of the varieties to combine harmoniously. Rich, good intensity and very drinkable. £8
FUTURE Kleine Zalze Cellar Selection Cinsault 2014 Well! Blow me down with a feather. I was not expecting such a charming and delicious wine. Perhaps should be the focus in South Africa! £9
PAST Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. Big and bold, at 15.5% not for the faint hearted, but the wine has the strength to carry this weight with ease and grace. Hitting its running pace now. Library Stock Only
PRESENT Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 £33. An upfront and forward fruit vintage which still has incredible cellaring potential.
FUTURE Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 £33. Again there is much promise in this wine. The mouthfeel is grippy and tense, loaded with fruit but nowhere near ready yet!
In all, a very enjoyable and informative evening. Many thanks to Kleine Zalze’s Winemaker and Cellarmaster Alaistair Rimmer and Louise Hill of Phillips-Hill Marketing, for giving us the chance to get involved with the wines and also the direction Kleine Zalze intends to take in the future.