Lourensford resurgent

It’s all change at Lourensford (very much for the better) – and about time too. This splendid spread of farmland in the Lourens River Valley on the edge of Somerset West was once joined with the existing Vergelegen and Morgenster in the original Vergelegen estate that governor Willem-Adriaan van der Stel established in 1700 – with all the lavish grandeur that corruption and avarice could manage. The estate was broken up soon after, when van der Stel was sacked and then exiled.

Now the huge Lourensford section is owned by an even richer man, business magnate Christo Wiese – but all the vast amounts money he spent here didn’t guarantee success. Far from it. While reborn Vergelegen and Morgenster were gaining substantial reputations, the best one could say of Lourensford, sadly, for some years from the first 2003 vintage, was that it was underperforming. given the undoubted potential of the place.

Galling, no doubt, for the boss – but fortunately he seems to have realized in time that things were on the wrong track and acted decisively. The new broom to get things on the right track (don’t you love mixed metaphors, especially clichéd ones?) was Chris Joubert, who’d been making wine at Overgaauw (a prime candidate for underperformance honours these days) and also a few successful blockbusters for himself at tiny Gilga.

Chris arrived in 2008, and started sweeping furiously. The Eden Crest and Five Heirs labels have been abandoned – giving up two major labels is a fairly radical step to take, of course), but there’s not a bottle of them left in the cellar, Chris says happily. In the vineyards there’s planting and some replanting going on and some have been grafted over. (And you can see from this photo the seriousness with which they are treating virus.) I get the impression that Chris would like to give up some of the vineyards which are particularly viciously lashed by the famous “cooling breezes” off nearby False Bay, at substantial cost to their productivity.

I must say I hadn’t realized quite how much vineyard there is at Lourensford – over 350 hectares, which is only about half of what is eventually planned. It’ll be the largest private estate in the country then, in terms of plantings. It’s only second-largest now, Chris told me; the current leader is Koopmanskloof (with 520 hectares – but they bottle very little under their own label).

The cellar is huge, and will happily take in all those grapes. Already the volumes coming out of it are astonishing – and even more astonishingly, perhaps, the wines in the new big-volume range, called River Garden, are selling well, and deservedly so. There are 300 000 bottles of the Sauvignon Blanc 2009 – starting to fade a little after a year on bottle, but still with plenty of firmly supported fruit. The River Garden Shiraz-Cab 2008 and a Rosé, with shiraz giving it some class, are both just off-dry for the sake of easy-going, easy-selling friendliness, and do that rather cynical job pretty well, and all these offer good value at R35-R40 off the farm.

More interesting, of course, are the wines in the Lourensford Estate (under screwcap) and the new Winemaker’s Selection  ranges. Sauvignons again, of course – the Selection version with a fine leesy quality, a lot of greenness but hints of tropicality too, all clean and fresh and beautifully lingering. Reasonably priced, compared with many sauvignons, at R88. The Viognier is the same price, but I didn’t like it as much, finding both the alcohol and residual sugar a bit excessive. The Lourensford Chardonnay 09 which recently won the Chardonnay-du-Monde Trophy is certainly a good, fresh wine – not too showy, but with forward notes of cinnamon spice along with butterscotch hints and varietal citrus, quite rich and well-balanced.

Of the reds I tasted on my visit I most enjoyed those from the Rhône varieties. The Lourensford Shiraz 08 was ripe and showily attractive, but I preferred the Shiraz-Mourvèdre-Viognier – a little richer even, with concentrated, sweetish fruit, but with tannins better integrated and everything rather better balanced, and lingering longer. Delicious, actually! Both of them under screwcap; R80 and R91 respectively. The Winemaker’s Selection Syrah is R120 and under cork, rather more elegant and fragrant, with finer, less showy red fruit than the Shiraz (the synonyms for the same grape hinting at the stylistic difference, as often happens in South Africa).

It will be interesting to see what Lourensford comes to stand for in the years to come, now that it is starting to stand for something both coherent and worthwhile. The style here, for the serious, dry wines, seems to me to be something like “intelligent modernism” – with a focus on pure fruit, full ripeness at the price of a little elegance, a tendency to natural winemaking methods within reason (no acidification, for example) – but no full-bore

Tasting the Seventeen Hundred 2005 was a reminder of the best of the old regime at Lourensford. It was perfectly respectable, but a little dull, and rather drying out already. I gather that that name is going into mothballs rather than being definitively dropped. Perhaps it’ll be used when Chris Joubert is ready to come out with something stunning that will really mark Lourensford’s claim to be a worthy sharer of this great bit of edge-of-Stellenbosch terroir with Morgenster and Vergelegen – and Waterkloof just on the other side of Schaapenberg. Already, with the new broom on the right track, it has definitely turned the corner and things are looking decidedly rosy.

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