New Kid on the Cool Block

New Kid on the Cool Block:

Nic van Aarde talks about high hopes, low yields & what the hell to do with a new foudre.

Forget gold medals. If you have a thermometer, your wines may have all the credibility that they need.

You may have thought that for the last two centuries, thermometers were just there to rob poodles of their dignity but - of late - they’ve become genuine harbingers of hons in South African wine circles. Mostly through their ability to verify cool climate status via a series of weather reports.

Constantia has been playing the “cool climate” card longer than anyone, with Elim, Elgin & Walker Bay caparatively fresh-faced, but equally frosty. And then there are those regions that may be brusque on occasions, but can’t quite say “Cool Climate” with a straight face. Not that it stops them trying.

In support of these regions, a new climate category seems to have emerged; namely that of “coolEr climate”. Darling is coolEr than the Swartland; Durbanville Hills is coolEr than Paarl. And Banghoek is cooler than Stellenbosch. Because, at a table talk level, all the cudos in the world awaits an estate that is coolEr than its neighbours. But you need a thermometer to prove it.

Newcomer to the Cooler Club is Oldenburg Estate. Replete with newly installed weather stations. But it isn’t their mean annual temperature, nor their weather stations that has piqued my interest anew. Nay nay. Oldenburg has been quietly undergoing a mini-revolution, and if it was meant to be a secret, I'm afraid that pedigreed cat is comprehensively extra lapides sacculi. Most obviously due to their first Platter 5-star award in eight years, followed in hot pursuit by, not one, but FOUR platter 4.5-star awards (the 2015 Cabernet Franc, 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015 Per Se Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2015 Rhodium bordeaux blend).

Banghoek has been cooler than Stellenbosch for a very long time, but this last release of wines has signalled that something very new is afoot in the valley. The most recent release has seen Oldenburg garner more critical acclaim in one year than they have ever done in any single year since their maiden vintage in 2009. Central to the estate’s fresh assault on the wine world was the headhunting of winemaker Nic van Aarde, commissioned by owner Adrian van der Spuy to to spread his wings in the ruthless pursuit of excellence at all costs. I arrested him (in the most figurative of senses) as he was leaving his newly minted winery for a quick lunch break and, even though the hunger pangs seemed all too real, he kindly delayed his gratification to answer a few questions.

Q&A with NvA

HDS: You have fancy new labels (and two Wine Label Design Awards), the winery still smells like new tennis balls… and you’ve just finished off your first harvest with Oldenburg. What’s it like settling in amidst all the flux?

NIC: I’ve been here since last year August… so I’ve already gotten the chance to blend the 2017 reds and the 2018 whites. Adrian [van der Spuy] made it very easy for me to bring some stylistic changes by telling me that he didn’t mind about loss of volume. He just wanted quality to be high. So we dropped our yield by 40%, and were given freedom to pick only the best barrels. We’ve also done a lot of work in the vineyards. We’re pushing hard on a “no virus” strategy; as soon as we see red vines, we pull them out.

HDS: So what else have you done with your newfound freedom? Have there been other viticultural changes?

NIC: Sure. We’ve pulled out Syrah and planted more Cabernet Franc. We have also planted more chardonnay. Most of it is currently planted down on the darker more alluvial soils, but we’re finding that the quality of chardonnay growing higher up on our rockier soils is wonderful! So we have been putting in some more Chardonnay, as well as some bush vine Chenin on the other (far) side of Rondekop [facing south, cooler].

HDS: You mentioned stylistic changes in the winery? What are you hoping to bring to Oldenburg?

NIC: I’ve worked loads in Stellenbosch. I was with Warwick Estate for 8 years. I also worked for Mulderbosch for many years. Here, I am trying to bring in slightly more respect for terroir. The previous winemaker Philip [Costandius] used to pick his fruit pretty ripe, which can end up tasting quite generic. Whether it’s cab or whether it’s merlot, it has alcohol of 15%, and all tastes the same. We want to avoid that. Obviously harvesting earlier brings out a little more of those herbaceous flavours, but hopefully not too many.

We’re also fermenting in a whole series of smaller tanks, which gives us room to ferment small sections separately. Whereas in the past we had to pitch up with our 10 tonnes of Cabernet at a custom crush facility with plans to ferment three batches separately, only to be told, “it’s not going to happen. We have one tank for you.”

We’ve also put two more weather stations to get a better idea of what is happening in different pockets in the farm. We had a great block of syrah, and we thought that it was great for Syrah, but we pulled that out and put more Cabernet Franc in there.

HDS: Adrian van der Spuy is clearly betting heavily on Cabernet Franc; bringing you on board after your multiple Cabernet Franc awards at Warwick, and then uprooting Syrah for more Cab Franc.
NIC: Yeah, for sure. I mean we have Rainbow’s End just up the road, and they make some stunning Cabernet Francs. They also make a great Chardonnay. Bartinney make lovely Chardonnay. My feeling is that Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay is what this valley is about. Then again, we also make great Merlot. We’re one of the few places in South Africa that can make Merlot, and really ripen it up. So we have our Merlot block on a north-facing slope – one of our warmer slopes… although, you must remember that we’re far cooler than the rest of Stellenbosch.

HDS: In your pursuit of excellence, regardless of risk, have you pursued spontaneous/native fermentation for all your wines this harvest?

NIC: All the Chenin and all the Chardonnay has been done naturally. And honestly, I was initially a bit worried, because having a brand new cellar, you don’t have any yeasts in the cellar. And native yeasts are literally whatever you have already living in the cellar… yeasts that you have used in the cellar previously, or yeasts still living in the cellar, or yeasts that can be found on the equipment… So in a new cellar you don’t have that. But, as it turns out, the stuff is skyrocketing here. I used to struggle at Warwick for six months with natural fermentations, but here – 10 days dry!

HDS: Why do you think that is?

NIC: It just depends on the strain you get. The strains here in the Banghoek valley are just awesome. I’ve had no problem with stuck fermentations at all. I also used spontaneous fermentation on the shirazes, but on the bordeaux varieties, I have inoculated. Mostly from a safety perspective. We’ve had quite a wet vintage, and if you have any signs of botrytis in the vineyard, you don’t want to mess around with native yeasts. 

HDS: Help me understand that. Why would the presence of Botrytis increase the risks associated with spontaneous fermentation?

NIC: Botrytis is a fungus, and can make grape skins very thin. It can also make grapes more susceptible to volatile acidity. With spontaneous fermentation, you have a lag phase at the start, and during this time your VA can skyrocket. You want to get something strong in at the start to dominate the botrytis.

HDS: Obviously every spont. ferment involves a relatively high risk. So what are you doing to mitigate these risks?

NIC: Well, this is where the science comes in. We track our ferments very closely, and if something is starting to lag, then I need to decide whether or not I am going to intervene. But this year we have had absolutely no problems with any of the fermentations.

HDS: So how early have you been picking?

NIC: Well, the syrah and the grenache had alcohol potential of 11.5% through to 14%…and we did quite a lot of whole bunch fermentation. Throw those intact bunches into the tank, “trap” [tread] it a bit, and then let it go!

HDS: You’re a big fan of whole bunch fermentations.

NIC: I think I just love the tension of the tannins – you get a lovely powdery tannin that you get with whole bunch, and the stems also bring a lovely peppery-ness. I love that Northern Rhone pepper that you get from whole bunch. And also, with whole bunch, you get about a percent less alcohol, because you get a whole lot of intracellular fermentation that yields less alcohol. Less extraction, lighter colour. The only drawback is that you end up with a slightly higher pH, as there is a lot of potassium on the skins of the grapes… but then, with the smaller tanks I have done a combination of different fermentations; 100% crushed and destemmed, 100% whole berry, 100% whole bunch and then combinations of the three.

HDS: With these high pH batches, do you add tartaric acid back in to keep that pH down? Or are you dead against those sorts of additions?

NIC: We definitely add tartaric acid where necessary. I think there are a lot of winemakers who say that they never add acid, but that isn’t always the truth. I was chatting to winemaker Donovan Rall the other night, and he makes a lot of syrahs. He was saying that this vintage he had to add acid. So this year he can’t release his wine under the Swartland Independent Producers certification, but he just said to me, “Look, Nic, it was either I added the acid, or I wouldn’t have any wine to release.” So yes, I totally intervene where necessary, but hopefully, most of the time, I don’t have to.

HDS: Do you have any little sneaky single barrels or whacky wine experiments tucked away in the corners of the cellar that you’re excited about?

NIC: Well, look, it’s my first vintage, so I haven’t had time to do anything too special. But we have fermented a few wines in some eggs, and we also have two Austrian Stockinger foudres on the way to us, which I’m pretty excited to experiment with. They’ll arrive in August so we won’t be fermenting in them this year.

HDS: I’ve always thought that part of the advantage of a foudre is that you get the benefit of oak, without having to taste any oak. So what do you do with a brand new foudre to make it taste like “not-new-oak”?

NIC: Ha ha. Well, I had a laugh the other day, because I phoned Chris Alheit to get some advice. I said to him, “Geez, Chris, I haven’t made chenin in a very long time; can I get a few pointers? I’m a cab and chardonnay kind of guy, but now I have a few Stockinger foudres on the way, and I’d love to get your advice…”

So Chris says to me, “Ja, no, I know those foudres; Eben [Sadie] uses those things all the time. Just remember, the first time you use them, they are absolutely shit, so you gotta throw your worst wine in there, and just let them leach out all the way. Next year, they’ll be awesome!”