It can’t be easy making wine in a brand-new cellar while all around you the rest of the uncompleted structure is still full of hard-hatted workers banging and building. It’s about as far as you can get from playing Mozart to soothe your grapes’ fermentation torments – and can’t be very soothing for your own, at an already nerve-racking time of year.
From the outside, Waterkloof’s new winery-restaurant-tasting centre complex looks even more like a building site. But the outlines of what is clearly going to be an elegantly stark glass, steel and concrete edifice promise something rather spectacular, hanging off the lower slopes of the Schapenberg, with False Bay surely not more than five kilometres away.
Waterkloof represents a substantial commitment (and investment, of course, but it genuinely does seem more than just a business proposition) from British wine importer Paul Boutinot. He bought it in 2004, apparently after a long search around the world for what he wanted. There are about 120 hectares in all, with plans for about 50 under vine (and they’re nearly there, says winemaker-viticulturist Werner Engelbrecht). The rest is fynbos: the property is one of the few Champions of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, and Waterkloof’s determination to be eco-friendly is clear, from the perching poles for the birds of prey that will check the rodent population to the water treatment plant and solar-power panels.
Amidst the unnaturalness of the bangs and the glass and steel, Werner Engelbrecht is pursuing his non-interventionist orientation to doing things as naturally as possible. The vines are grown largely organically – and there are even some vineyards farmed according to biodynamic principles (I decided not to pursue that latter issue with Werner, as he seemed such a decent, restrained sort of man, who shouldn’t have to cope with my personal irritations and prejudices…).
And once the grapes get to the cellar, they need fear no nasty mechanical pumping, because their apparent preference for flowing according to the gentler force of gravity is catered to, though they’ll be surrounded by plenty of high-tech stuff as well. And while I didn’t spot any of those fashionable concrete eggs for them to ferment in, there is a splendid spread of cosy large wooden fermenters – the largest array in the country, surely, apart from Capaia’s. Fermentation of all the wines is (usually) natural rather than via inoculation with industrial yeasts, which is perhaps the best indication of Werner’s admirable determination to do things naturally – it is inevitably a slightly risky business, but he does it for all his wines, not just the smartest, most expensive ones, aiming to get that bit more interest and character.
By far the largest proportion of the Waterkloof vineyards are planted to sauvignon blanc (not unsurprisingly, given the provenance: a little higher up the Schaapenberg are the prime sauvignon vineyards of Vergelegen). There are Sauvignon wines from each of the Waterkloof ranges – the one bearing just the name of the farm, the second grandest called Circumstance, and the third called Peacock Ridge. None are simplistic sauvignons, and even the well-balanced Peacock Ridge (at R65) has an elegance and an interest, with a slightly stony quality. As for the more pricey ones, the very tight Waterkloof (R120) will probably show its quality with time, but for drinking now doesn’t seem to me to have many advantages over the Circumstance (R85). Both are undoubtedly very good, concentrated examples of the more mineral but ripe style of sauvignon, only hinting at greenness, and not overly acidic.
There’s no Waterkloof red yet, but there are a Shiraz and a Merlot in the Circumstance range, which promise well for a future top wine (which there’s no pressure to produce, it seems). The Merlot was okay – but just a touch sluggish and thick-textured for me – and I liked the Shiraz 2007 more: it’s a classically-styled wine, with lifted aromas and flavours very reminiscent of syrah from the northern Rhône (a quality that I label “lily” for its combination of perfume and touch of ripe herbaceousness); well integrated oak and ripe, smooth tannins; not too intense, but likely to develop well for a good few years.
There are other wines that I tasted on my visit, and all were good, including those from the False Bay range, which Werner produces from mostly bought-in wines. These latter are simpler, softer wines for easy, early drinking. To me it’s as revealing what producers do with their more modest wines as with their grand cuvées. If they seem dumbed down, over-fruity, over-soft and sweet, I tend to distrust the sincerity of the finer wines. Here there was no room even for the wary to doubt that all the Cape wines of Paul Boutinot, from the False Bay range to Waterkloof, are impressive contenders at their respective levels of ambition. And Waterkloof is clearly a winery for the serious winelover to keep a close watch on.