Tasting Boekenhoutskloof

Boekenhoutskloof is one of the great achievement stories of modern South African wine. Two decades after its establishment, it has a portfolio of mostly highly successful labels at various price and quality levels (Porseleinberg, Chocolate Block, Porcupine Ridge, Wolftrap, Helderberg Wijnmakerij) alongside the “home” brand which gives, of course, the greatest prestige to the name.

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Vines, trees and mountains at Boekenhoutskloof in Franschhoek

In 2012 Boekenhoutskloof was the Platter Winery of the Year, and in the same year topped the list in my international poll for the Cape’s Top 20 wineries. Perhaps its image is felt to have slipped a little in comparison with some smaller, more focused wineries – the latter perhaps just better marketed, or more cultish (though Boekenhoutskloof Syrah remains one of the most in-demand Cape wines). Undoubtedly, the wish to raise quality at Boekenhoutskloof is one of the reasons that Gottfried Mocke, who did such a fine job at Chamonix, was this year appointed as chief winemaker.

Whatever the future, a recent tasting of selected vintages of Boekenhoutskloof wines reminded me and I’m sure other invitees (mostly established Boekenhoutskloof buyers from the Wine Cellar in Cape Town) just how good a producer this really is, and how easy it is to underestimate the breadth and depth of the range of wines picturing the famous set of chairs on their labels – until you actually pay attention to them all. The tasting was presented, affably and modestly and entertainingly, by Marc Kent – the greatly ambitious man responsible more than anyone else for having built Boekenhoutskloof to its present eminence (though Vinimark’s Tim Rands can smile complacently too), but increasingly giving over winemaking to his team, now notably Gottfried Mocke).

The Syrah and the Cabernet are the best known of the Boekenhoutskloof wines. On the night, the three Cab vintages (2006, 2010 and 2011) showed as more modern than classic in style, very decent, and on the ripely rich side, but I have felt more impressed by the Cab before. The Syrah (Marc pointed out that the maiden, the famous 1997, was actually one of the earlier shirazes in the Cape to call itself “Syrah”) was represented by the 2006, 2009 and 2012. The exciting thing here is the progression shown – in quality, I’d say, and certainly in elegance and refinement (though never lacking the rich vinosity that Marc Kent likes: he inserted quite a few rather scathing comments about the current buzzword “freshness”, a quality he feels can be somewhat overstated at the cost of generous vinosity). The 2012 Syrah was the first to include a proportion of fruit from the Porseleinberg farm in the Swartland: Porseleinberg and another Boekenhoutskloof-owned Swartland property, on the Riebeekberg, will play an increasing role, with the Wellington component,previously the entirety apart from the 1997 vintage, being phased out. To me the 12 stands easily above the trend of previous vintages, while the 2013 and the recent wines made for the CWG Auction, all with less Wellington and more Swartland fruit, are even finer (though not tasted on this occasion).

BHK-semillonjpgPerennially underestimated in the range are the two white wines, dry and sweet. The Semillon 2004 (as usual with a little sauvignon added to the old-vine semillon for, er, freshness) is drinking superbly, showing at nearly 12 years old how well this wine develops subtle complexity with age. Good semillon needs time. Gently scented, rounded and gentle but firmly structured, with typical bottle-matured semillon notes of lemon, wax and lanolin, with a toasty overglaze. We also tasted the excellent 2009 – but I think the older wine showed the desirability of at least a few more years in bottle to produce greater harmony of the structural components.

As to the Noble Late Harvest, it is simply a superb wine, showing (as we know from Bordeaux) the great partnership of semillon and botrytis. Being reminiscent of the international benchmark is not necessarily desirable, of course, but there is no Cape NLH, in my experience, that is so similar to a fine Sauternes: with the modest alcohol level and sucrosity in such perfect balance with the acidity that the finish is almost dry in effect. I would certainly include this in any shortlist of the Cape’s great wines. We tasted the 2005 and 2006, both supremely elegant, both with many years ahead of them; but my vote went to the 2005.

journeymanThe other Boekenhoutskloof wine is the rarest – at least at present, as the earlier vintages were never commercially released at all, while now it is available only in the mixed cases in which Boekenhoutskloof sells wine directly off the farm. It looks likely, however, that The Journeyman will over the years become a major label for the winery (another job for Gottfried, who showed his fine touch with this great variety while at Chamonix). I’ve enthused before about it, when I tasted all the vintages produced (it’s only made in the best years; all from fruit off the home farm in Franschhoek); this evening we had just the maiden 2005 and the 2009. Journeyman is always based on cabernet franc with cab sauvignon – the 2005 had some merlot too. Both the 05 and 09 are elegant and complex – much more so than the Cabernet, and also superior in quality to most of the earlier Syrahs.

Eben Sadie has always said that Marc Kent shows a particular affinity for the grapes of Bordeaux, and this tasting bore out that suggestion, perhaps. There’s no question that the Boekenhoutskloof label remains somewhere around the peak of South African wine in terms of quality; if we can look forward to the enhancements that Marc Kent is predicting – wow.

2 thoughts on “Tasting Boekenhoutskloof

  1. I think the “freshness” issue is at times a bit forced (such as many other things in our country). If we look at our warmer climate and drier landscape; does it say fresh wines? I don’t think it does, and I do think that “generous” wines are a more true reflection of SA terroir?

  2. Hi Hennie. I think you’re right – up to a point. And the point is how we define freshness (and generosity), I suppose. It’s a bit easier than “minerality”, I suppose, but not totally simple. We inevitably associate freshness with acidity – and there are certainly some rather over-acidic, too-early-picked wines out there, in this rush of enthusiasm for “freshness”. I do think we have to be grateful to the “extremists” for bringing the matter to our attention. Just take the Swartland. In the last half-decade, Craig Hawkins at Lammershoek showed the viability of much earlier picking than was general in the area. Without that, I wonder if the latest Columella would have had the lowest alcohol ever, gaining freshness without losing generosity? I’ve often thought that the greatness of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is its ability (in the best examples) to have great ripeness (but not over-ripe flavours) alongside a certain freshness. Part of freshness, perhaps, is total dryness; it’s not just a matter of acidity. Like so much in wine, it’s about balance. I think it’s right that people like Marc and you draw attention to the question. I don’t think either of you would accept “generosity” or “vinosity” as an excuse for flabby, sweetish, over-ripe wines. And I don’t think that others would (or should, in my opinion) accept “freshness” as an excuse for tart, lean wines.

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