Lammershoek is one of the most significant wine estates in the Swartland. It’s had, however, something of a turbulent time since it was purchased in 1999 and its grapes increasingly diverted from the co-op and a handful of private buyers to its own label. Now it looks as though it might be set for greater stability, with a presumably stable ownership structure as well as a first-rate new leadership team in place in vineyard and cellar.
Vintage 2000 was made by an eminent Austrian winemaker, the next two by local Shaun Turnbull; Albert Ahrens arrived in June 2002 but was edged out before the 2010 vintage, and Craig Hawkins led a revolution in the vineyards, with a wholesale conversion to organic viticulture, as well as the cellar. The style of wines changed radically – Ahrens had been slowly adapting to the developing Swartland revolution, with less oak only the most obvious change in his winemaking, but gradualness was now abandoned. Hawkins produced some good wines – as had Ahrens, though his admirable achievements were not readily admitted by the new regime. And the shift to much greater freshness in Lammershoek wines had a real effect, I believe, on a lot of cutting-edge Swartland winemaking: picking was now often done a little earlier, and lower alcohols become much more common after he showed the viability of those things. However, there were occasional problems with reliability of the wines – which even led to some important retailers refusing to continue to stock Lammershoek.
It was surely for the good of everybody that the Kretzel share of the ownership was sold to other German partners, and Craig Hawkins a year ago left to concentrate (with his now wife Carla Kretzel) on his Testalonga labels. The Kretzel-Hawkins partnership is now owner of a virgin property further north in the Swartland; Craig’s expanded range of 2015 Testalonga wines, from outsourced grapes, were looking very promising when I tasted them pre-bottling some months back.
I’d been, of course, immensely curious to find out what has been happening at Lammershoek since the change: how much of a further revolution was taking place? From others on the Paardeberg I heard only good reports about the work of new winemaker Schalk Opperman (previously at Holden Manz, on the left in the pic) and new viticulturist Charl van Rooyen (previously at Ernie Els); a third crucial member of the team is sales and marketing manager Zia van Rooyen du Toit. They’d had a good chance to settle in – it was time for me to go out and speak to them, and sample their wines. So yesterday I travelled to the Paardeberg and did just that.
Let me mention first, before I forget, that Schalk (who’s MD as well as winemaker) pointed out that the first priority of the new regime has been to improve the standard of the farmworkers’ dwellings – I could also mention in this regard that watchful neighbour Eben Sadie is always very praiseful of the skills of the Lammershoek workers.
As to the vineyards, those who suspected that the new aim might be to simply seek commercial success and, on the way, abandon the commitment to organic viticulture are wrong. Some vineyards, indeed, are reverting to more-or-less “conventional” treatment, but primarily to bring them into shape; the longer-term aim is to become totally, but viably, organic once more – and all new plantings are to be organically managed. Charl, who had clearly been a bit nervous about moving from Stellenbosch to join his old friend Schalk (they’d been at Stellenbosch University together, and also for a while at Rust en Vrede), has become “hooked” on the Swartland in general, and Lammershoek in particular, though “it took some getting used to”. This despite the headache of the current drought, which is clearly going to mean, apart from anything else, a significantly reduced 2016 harvest.
With regard to organic farming, Charl’s attitude is that “being organic means being in balance”, and his aim is “getting the farm back in balance”.
And so to the wines
I tasted through the entire, rather large, range of 2015 wines – most of which will be released early next year. This is rather earlier than Schalk would have liked, but at this stage cashflow is a concern – as is, I suspect, the need for Lammershoek to start re-establishing its (renewed) presence in a marketplace which is intolerant of absence (many of the already-bottled wines from previous vintages have been abandoned in various ways). Lammershoek is keen on matching, wherever possible, the non-interventionist principles and precepts of the Swartland Independent Producers organisation, but clearly Schalk is also a pragmatist in terms of acid adjustments and even yeast inoculation where necessary.
The shape of the offering is going to be very similar to the previous – though, to mark the break, all the branding will be different, with a new look and new names. To add (or retain) a bit of claim to avant-gardism, by the way, there’s even a – very successful, rather gently delicious – skin-fermented white from chenin and harslevelü, called Oranje…. This will be in the equivalent of the old Cellarfoot range, now called Betower (magical): some small bottlings, often experimental in nature. Incidentally, to stress the point that the change at Lammershoek is certainly not to dull conformism, other experimentation involves using a little chenin with the shiraz and the shiraz-based blend, rather than the more traditional viognier.
I’d rather leave going into major comment until all the wines are bottled (especially as this blog is already too long), but let me mention the blends at the apex of the range, both to be called Terravinum Reserve: the White based on chenin, the Red on shiraz, with pinotage and zinfandel plus bits of grenache, carignan, chenin and viognier. There’s no funkiness in either, no overt oxidative presence; they are modest wines in the best sense – unshowy, with no new oak, with restraint and comparatively low alcohol levels. Schalk is working a lot with whole bunch fermentations as well as fully destemmed ones, using older oak as well as concrete fermenters. I like the wines very much. Amongst the Lammershoek reds I’ve probably always enjoyed the straight Syrah even more than the blend – and I have little doubt that Schalk’s 2015 is as good as any that has been made at Lammershoek by any of the previous winemakers.
I should also mention the entry-level range, the equivalent of the Lam wines, which were a great innovation of Craig Hawkins. The five wines in the range – now rechristened as The Innocent, featuring alamb’s woolly head – have, in fact all been bottled (now under screwcap), and some are on the market. Retail price should be around R69 (none of the Lammershoek wines will be anything other than bargain-priced, it looks like). There’s a very pale, subtle Rosé mostly from shiraz; a chenin-based White Blend, lightly treated and with a mineral character and a delicious twist of sweet fruit; a Syrah a little less fresh and austere than the Lam version was (and much less unattractively funky than could occasionally be), a good Red Blend, and – perhaps my favourite, the Pinotage: those who loved the Lam version, as I did, will find this immediately recognisable in its charm and unpretentious sheer drinkability, though it’s characteristically a touch less edgy.
It seems to me that I’ve scarcely begun, and yet this piece is already much too long. If anyone has borne with me to this point, let me finish by restating the essence: As a serious Swartland producer, Lammershoek is, I’m totally happy to report, in very good hands. I look forward to reporting further on the wines when they’re released early next year.