A Frenchman at the Cape

Foreigners still arrive to share in the Cape winelands – not in a deluge but in a reassuringly constant trickle. Much of this gesture of faith in the wine industry involves big money, as with the recent American-British partnership taking Klein Constantia, that prime bit of real estate whose early 1980s revival inaugurated the Constantia wine valley renaissance.

Julien Schaal’s story is different. This young Frenchman from a family estate in Alsace came here in 2003 to gain southern hemisphere harvest experience at Bouchard Finlayson in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley near Hermanus. A year later his local venture was born.

The tale invokes words like “love”, “dream” and “fantastic opportunity”, not to mention friendship with another Hemel-en-Aarde wine­maker, Gordon Johnson, in whose winery Schaal turned his bought-in grapes into wine.

Now, he says happily in excellent English, he shares his time between Alsace and the Cape, “making riesling in October and shiraz in February” – rather more time in Alsace, understandably, given that his wife and child are there. The baby was born this year, having obligingly waited until just after the harvest before demanding a hasty return.

On Schaal’s most recent visit we met over dinner to try his latest Cape vintages and a fine Alsatian riesling. The venue was inevitably 95 Keerom Street, a Cape Town restaurant that is a long-time favourite of mine, where Giorgio Nava makes (insists Schaal) the finest butternut ravioli in the world. Schaal does include food among the list of South African things (“lifestyle, landscape and people”) that make him “dream about and love the country more and more, year after year” — which is charming, of course (and he is altogether a friendly, personable and pleasing man) but what about the wine?

With the cellar-filling expansion of the excellent Newton-Johnson range of wines, Schaal recently shifted his vinification to the Paul Cluver cellar in another cool-climate area, Elgin. It is here that he sources the grapes for the Julien Schaal Chardonnay, whose quality-price ratio is hard to beat.

The 2010 has just been released and should retail for little more than R120. It is a little riper, richer and easier than the vibrant, steely 2009 that won five Platter stars and much local and international acclaim. Perhaps the latest vintage is less nervily fascinating but it is extremely good (more in the style of the deservedly much-lauded Cluver Chardonnay). What an excellent place for chardonnay Elgin is proving to be.

The 2010 Syrah comes from Hemel-en-Aarde vineyards at a similar price, making it another good buy as it is one of the more elegant, subtle shirazes you’ll find locally. If this is the style of shiraz you like, as I do, you will also welcome (even more enthusiastically, I think) another Schaal release later this year.

This will be the first half of a venture shared between Schaal and his Elgin cellar hosts, with the Schaal-Cluver Syrah made entirely from Cluver’s Elgin estate-grown fruit. The second wine under the joint label will be wonderfully reciprocal and complementary. Andries Burger, the Cluver wine-maker, will go to Alsace later this year and plans to make a riesling in the Schaal cellar.

Once again the internationalism of modern winemaking, as long as it remains predicated on local soil and climate, is an indisputable beneficiary of air travel.

Link to the Julien Schaal website

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 24-30 Jun 2011

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