I visited Spier last week on the hottest day of the year – it felt like the hottest day in the history of the world, and it struck me like never before what a pleasure it is to hang around a cool cellar (about 16º Centigrade) tasting samples from tanks and barrels. When we moved to the old manor house for tasting from bottles and for lunch, they mercifully trundled a portable air-conditioning unit after us. I did wonder how the cheetahs in their Spier conservancy were doing – did they have air-conditioners too? Even more, though, seeing a few truckloads of grapes arriving at the cellar entrance, I thought about the grape-pickers… backbreaking work for a pittance at the best of times, what must it be like in 40º?
It was in the cool cellar, though, even more than in the formal tasting, that I felt an insight into the essence of Spier winemaking. A piece of equipment that I hadn’t seen before was, as cellarmaster Frans Smit explained, removing pips from the fermenting must. More precisely, from the juice that was being pumped over the massy cake of grape skins, to aerate and also to cool it. Each time this process is done – a few times a day, usually – more floating pips were separated out by this machine. Frans picked up a handful of the pips and squeezed it hard. “Smell that!” he said – and the odour of green stalkiness was strong. Not wanted here, not even a hint. The stalks had already been removed, of course, before the grapes had trundled through the various sorting procedures (mechanical and human) that eliminated undesirable berries, and the leaves and suchlike that go to make up MOG – matter other than grapes.
Very fussy about their grapes they are at Spier, and very keen on the tannins in their red wines being as soft and velvety, as unastringent, as possible. That much was obvious from what I tasted from the tanks and barrels and bottles that day – ripe grapes (very ripe – with the downside consequence that the alcohol levels are pretty high on many Spier wines), and every opportunity used to make the structure of the wines, while firm enough, as unobtrusive as possible. The attention to detail in the winemaking was impressive. Even for the more modest wines in the Signature range.
It’s not just Frans doing all this, of course – he has a team of half a dozen winemakers working with him, and a much larger team of cellar assistants. They’re producing a million cases of wine here each year – two thirds of them for the Savanha range (mostly exported) and the rest for the various Spier ranges. Frans’s duties and responsibilities go wider, starting in the vineyards and involving marketing at home and abroad. A lot of the grapes come from the company’s own vineyards, but a lot must be brought in, and it’s one of Frans’s jobs to look after relationships with the farmers from whom they’re buying grapes.
This year he’s particularly concerned about grape-farmers – not particularly those supplying Spier, but all those having trouble getting a decent price for their produce at a time of market crunch. He’s worried about their long-term sustainability – and about the damage done to vineyards when farmers can’t afford to look after them. It’s a particular problem in Stellenbosch, he thinks, where various farming costs are higher, and yields are lower, than in some of the more mass-production areas.
“The romance about winemaking is fantastic”, says Frans, “but reality is also important.” The wine industry “is in an interesting phase”, he adds, and “there’s a need to build markets gently”. Which is where those seductive tannins come in.
None in the Chenin Blancs, of course, which I particularly enjoyed from the samples on offer. The Signature 2009 version at one end: pineapple notes, clean, cheerful and fruity – all 35 000 cases of it; the Private Collection Chenin Blanc: pear and smoke, good acidity creamy palate, dry and rather understated. Hardly cheap at R98, however.
Of the standard reds, I think I most enjoyed the smart Private Collection Pinotage 2007, from a vineyard in Faure: spicy, red berry aromas and flavours; a lot of charm, and they hadn’t quite managed to subdue all those pinotage tannins, so that there was a bit more grip (but oh-so-velvet-gloved!) than Frans probably approves of in his wines.
But that’s not quite fair, as there’s also noticeable tannin – a very firm softness, one could say, or a soft firmness – in the wine named after this redoubtable cellarmaster, the Frans K Smit. This is a blend, varying from year to year, of Bordeaux varieties, widely sourced, intended to show the best that Spier can offer. Eight or nine thousand bottles at the cult-wannabe price of R695 each…. Value, for money, well, no, but if you like this style of rich, ripe velvety charm, with intense and dense and rather sweet fruit, undoubtedly beautifully made – you could certainly do worse.
What is impressive at Spier – whether or not this is your style of wine – is that they know exactly what they’re doing, and why. And then they do it, pretty well.