Stellies born & bred

Their dates of birth may be some 300 years apart, but wine estate Lanzerac and winemaker Wynand Lategan have much in common, not least having their roots firmly embedded in Stellenbosch soil – as has that uniquely South African wine, Pinotage. EMILE JOUBERT lays bare some of those roots.

I am standing 400m up a mountain overlooking the town of Stellenbosch. Table Mountain lurks in the distance. This mountain’s steep slopes are covered with vines, as are the slopes on the other side of the Jonkershoek Valley. Directly below, the old, whitewashed buildings of Lanzerac Wine Estate stand bright in the midday sun. I brace myself for the winemaker’s viticultural insights, notebook poised to receive words about soil types, harvest yields, vine spacing and average daytime temperatures.

“Over there,” says the winemaker, Wynand Lategan, pointing not at the vineyards but towards the town. “That’s where I was born, right there in Stellenbosch Hospital.”

Wynand is serious about his Stellenbosch roots. He is proud to share this origin with Lanzerac, where he has been the winemaker since 2005 – making him a tad younger than the famous Stellenbosch wine estate, whose history goes back to 1692.

“Ja, I’m pretty much a Stellenbosch acolyte and drum-beater,” says Wynand, whose distinguished career as a winemaker was preceded by a stint as a financial journalist for the Cape Town-based daily newspaper Die Burger. “Working as the winemaker at a place with the history and tradition of Lanzerac has made me even more devoted to the town of my birth. The place has grown and expanded and long ago lost the village atmosphere it had when I was growing up. But you can never change the quality of the wines that come from Stellenbosch. Wine-wise, it will always be the foremost address in South Africa.”

He points to the vineyards across the valley. “This is where it happens, where everything comes together; climate, soils, the effects of False Bay to the south and Table Bay to the west, the unique terrain of the Jonkershoek Valley. This is the geography that gives people like me the privilege of making great wine. And as young winemakers we are committed to honouring the legacy of the previous generations who paved the way and introduced to the world the quality of wines made in Stellenbosch.”

This talk of wine legends of the past aptly occurs a stone’s throw away from a Pinotage vineyard. If there is one wine that Lanzerac is synonymous with these days, it is the one made from South Africa’s home-grown grape.

It is not legend but fact that in 1925 Prof. Abraham Izak Perold, of the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Viticulture, crossed two grape varieties: the regal Burgundian Pinot Noir and the somewhat more workhorse Hermitage (Cinsaut). His goal, apparently, was to grow a grape suitable for making a wine that had the elegance of Pinot Noir while being able to withstand warm weather and bear high yields, qualities that, in the south of France, Hermitage had always shown.

Several decades passed before the fruits of Prof. Perold’s vision found their way into the bottle. And that was the Lanzerac 1959 Pinotage, the first-ever commercially bottled wine of a variety that has survived controversy, debate and the acerbic pens of critics to become South Africa’s most famous wine offering.

“Ironically, that wine was made before Lanzerac had any Pinotage vines,” Wynand points out. “Although Prof. Perold crossed the varieties in 1925, the first Pinotage vineyards were only planted in 1953 on Bellevue farm in the Bottelary area of Stellenbosch. I think it was a stroke of genius for Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, which then owned the Lanzerac wine brand, to bottle Pinotage under our label. Almost 60 years later, it has led to us being seen as the pioneers of Pinotage and we are as proud of that association as we are grateful for it in marketing terms.”

Having cemented its reputation with the ground-breaking Pinotage, Lanzerac has gone on to produce a comprehensive range of wines, including impressive Chardonnays and a spectacular red blend named Le Général. Pinotage might be a prominent feature but Lanzerac is no one-trick pony.

Back down from the mountain, we enter Wynand’s cellar and are met by the noisy buzz of harvest and the pungent, vivid aroma of young wines being born. We find a quiet spot, a bottle and some glasses.

The bottle is Pinotage, the one Lanzerac aptly named Pionier in honour of Prof. Perold, but it’s a name that could, in Pinotage terms, also be applied to the winery itself. That Wynand and his team have a gutsy confidence in Pinotage is underscored by the fact that the Lanzerac Pionier Pinotage commands a price of R850 a bottle, a price level where it does very well, thank you.

“I’m not even going to talk about the storm in a teacup that foreign wine writers and critics created about Pinotage a few years back,” says Wynand, splashing a dollop of black-purple liquid from the bottle of Pionier and giving it a sniff of approval. “If you find something you don’t like about a wine, look to the geography of the vineyard or the winemaking. Why blame the grape itself?”

But, he adds, the Pinotage grape is unique and that’s what he loves about it. “Remember, as an industry we have only been making Pinotage for close on 60 years, a blip on the radar. We’re still learning about the best sites for Pinotage vineyards, about its reaction with wood and yeast, about that notorious fermentation period that at between five and seven days is short for a red wine.”

The Pionier Pinotage we are drinking is from the comet 2015 vintage. Along with the Kanonkop Black Label, Francois Naudé’s Le Vin de François and Ashbourne from Hamilton Russell, this wine is proof that the variety is capable of making some of the world’s finest reds. Period.

“That steep price tag is earned,” Wynand goes on to explain: high mountain vineyards and modest yield; meticulous selection of berries; natural ferment; just shy of two years in French oak, new and second-fill. And then each barrel is scrutinised, with only 4 700 bottles making the cut.

The pioneer Perold would have approved; muscular, yet supple with sensually plush tannins complemented by a bright freshness and flavours of cherry and blueberry. As the wine takes hold of the senses, the dense palate weight bears exotic notes of allspice dried flowers, with a lengthy finish commanding awe and giving an impression of plain deliciousness.

“The great thing about Pinotage – one of the great things – is that you get a serious wine such as this and it is approachable and drinkable within two to three years of vintage,” says Wynand. “But it also has the ability to go on improving for decades, gaining complexity and a whole new set of flavours for those willing to give
it time.”

I am led to the Lanzerac wine library, home of hidden gems and mysterious unlabelled wine boxes. Wynand pulls out a bottle: Lanzerac Pinotage 1959. “This is the original,” he says, “the first bottled Pinotage ever and the only one we have here on the property.”

That first wine is to be commemorated in 2019 when Wynand will make a special wine to celebrate 60 years of Lanzerac Pinotage. “The original vines are still on Bellevue, although their yields are tiny,” he says. “We’ll make the wine from them, again, and put it into a bottle similar to this one.” He returns the prized piece of history to the wine rack. “You can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you came from,” he adds. “But here at Lanzerac, we’ve always had a pretty good idea.”

 

The cellar master’s collection

Its emphasis on heritage and tradition notwithstanding, Lanzerac Estate is not shy to introduce new wine ranges. Last year saw the Keldermeester Versameling grabbing the wine world’s attention with three wines especially made by cellar master Wynand Lategan.

“With these wines the focus is on experimentation from a perspective of both variety and terroir,” explains Wynand. “They are also a vehicle for challenging conventional winemaking methods and demonstrate that a wine estate with so much history and tradition behind it can also be innovative. Although tradition is regarded as extremely important at Lanzerac, innovation will never play second fiddle.”

The Keldermeester Versameling is also a personal journey for Wynand as it represents much of his own history, personality and experiences. “I chose Afrikaans on the labels because, as well as being South African, I am proudly Afrikaans. Many French wines use only French on their labels – as do many Italian, Portuguese and Spanish wines – and I wanted to do something similar in my mother tongue.”

Only varieties that do not commonly feature in Lanzerac wines are used in the production of the Keldermeester Versameling and they will not necessarily be the same every year, depending on the quality of the available fruit. This gives Wynand scope to create uniquely artisanal wines. The grapes for the wines are sourced from wherever he can find the best quality.

The maiden wines in the Keldermeester Versameling are the Prof 2016, Bergpad 2016 and Dok 2015.

Prof is the cornerstone of the range and personifies Lanzerac’s history in each sip. This blend comprises 60% Cinsaut and 40% Pinot Noir and the inspiration for it was an effort to find out what Prof. Perold had in mind when he created Pinotage by crossing Cinsaut (also known as Hermitage) and Pinot Noir in 1925. He cultivated the first Pinotage vines at the University of Stellenbosch’s research farm, Welgevallen, but never had the opportunity to taste the first bottled wine made from this grape variety. By crafting this wine, Wynand has tried to discover the purpose of Prof. Perold’s creation.

Bergpad is a Pinot Blanc from a single vineyard block in the Jonkershoek Valley and one of very few bottled Pinot Blanc wines currently available in South Africa. The name derives from the mountain path (bergpad in Afrikaans) that runs from the University of Stellenbosch’s Coetzenburg sports ground along the Stellenbosch Mountain towards Lanzerac and has been used by generations of local and student sportsmen and women. As Wynand himself is a keen sports and outdoor enthusiast, the name for this unique varietal seemed natural.

Dok is a Malbec, also harvested from a single vineyard block in the Jonkershoek Valley. Its name comes from the Afrikaans term of endearment for a doctor and in this case for one doctor in particular: legendary rugby giant Dr Danie Craven, who regularly visited Lanzerac with his dog Bliksem in tow.

“Apart from the Afrikaans on the labels, another unique feature is the non-traditional packaging, which displays the understated elegance and sophistication wine lovers will find inside the bottles,” says Wynand.

 

What’s in a name?

Unusual in the Stellenbosch region for having no connection to Afrikaans, Lanzerac was named for a renowned French officer, Général Lanrezac, who helped to turn the tide in the Allies’ favour towards the end of the First World War. So great was her admiration for this general that the owner of the estate in the 1920s, a Mrs English, named it after him – with a slight spelling adjustment.