Boschendal is still making history

Chardonnay at Boschendal, discovers Daléne Fourie, is made up of individual Chardonnays, each standing alone yet contributing to a larger entirety. And that’s the beauty of this noble cultivar.

The Boschendal Estate Manor House was built in 1812 and declared a National Monument in 1976.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne’s message is a recurring one. Fresh from Cape Wine 2022, held for the first time in four years from 5 to 7 October, I can report that the spirit of the wine industry is alive and thriving against the odds. You have to admit that sometimes, when you allow it to, a sense of despair creeps in. Maybe when the backup power goes out abruptly and people start speculating about what happens if the power goes off indefinitely. Or when you read the news… It’s not pretty.

Cape Wine proved to be the antidote to that niggling feeling I’d been having: a room that contained every single person of note in the wine industry. No one was too important to man a stand for three days. Even those notoriously people-shy winemakers and estate owners, to a man and woman they showed up. And they worked the room, championing South African wine. If they haven’t given up, I thought, then I certainly won’t. No man is an island.

Epic views of the Simonsberg, its terroir also imbues the wines with its character.

Boschendal is one of the oldest wine farms in South Africa – its title deeds date back to 1685 – and today it forms part of DGB’s impressive fine wine portfolio. Set in the Drakenstein Valley, it carries the weight of responsibility imparted by its historic background, for 1685 is  not much later than 2 February 1659, when Jan van Riebeeck made the first wine from Cape grapes. Boschendal today is not just a wine farm but a working farm, its fertile ground well cultivated and home to an impressive selection of livestock and poultry (the roving chickens seem to be a law unto themselves). And its natural beauty is harnessed to offer some of the best hospitality the Cape has to offer. One would be well advised to visit the estate and enjoy one of its many attractions – glass in hand, of course.

But Boschendal is also a fundamental asset to the South African wine industry. In recent years rave reviews from industry critics have given South Africa a reputation for small- production wines from rare sites that perhaps host old vines or are located in unexplored wine regions. It requires the investment and scope of larger entities such as Boschendal and the DGB portfolio to drive these findings forward and produce wines in meaningful quantities to capture the attention of the world. With this in mind, I had the great fortune to sit down with Boschendal winemaker Danielle Jacobs to discuss the estate’s role in Brand SA and Chardonnay, her first love and one of the great translators of our Cape terroir.

Marketing Manager Nina-Mari Bruwer steals a taste. The 1685 range Chardonnay, possibly one of Boschendal’s most recognised wines.

Born and bred in the Cape, Danielle studied at Elsenburg agricultural college and started her first job straight out of university. At 21, she started making wine as an assistant winemaker at Noble Hill on the slopes of Simonsberg and then went on to Bot River, where she became head winemaker and farm manager at a small boutique estate called Eerste Hoop. She says the culture of Bot River was one of its biggest selling points. And if you’ve ever attended the local Barrel & Beards annual harvest festival (the winemakers grow their beards during harvest and compete to see who can cultivate the most luxurious beard in that time), you’ll know it’s a lekker culture.

It was at Bot River that Danielle met her husband, Ferdinand Coetsee, who was then the viticulturist at Gabriëlskloof and is now at Mulderbosch. She followed him over the mountain and took up the role of assistant winemaker at Boschendal, first specialising in Cap Classique, then white wine, and back to Cap Classique at the end of 2022.

Danielle represents a new generation in winemaking, a generation enamoured of weightless intensity, texture, not ‘forcing it’, respectful (nay reverent) of site specificity, and making wine according to the principles of sustainability. All Boschendal’s wines have been certified vegan since 2017, meaning no animal or animal by-products were used in the winemaking process, and while she says she’s not sure what the commercial result of this has been, they don’t do it because it will sell more wine. They do it because it’s right.

Boschendal offers a range of dining options to enjoy, from the Werf Restaurant & Wine Tasting, the Deli Restaurant, to the Werf Farm Picnics.

When it comes to Boschendal’s wine production, Danielle had to draw me a picture (I respond well to spider diagrams and visual aids). It’s so vast, you need a guide to grasp the motivation behind each range. When she explained it all, I was amazed at how a team of three winemakers (of which she is one), managed by cellar master Jacques Viljoen, so skilfully bottles so many different wines. What Danielle drew almost resembled a solar system of ranges, organised in ever-expanding circles around the nucleus of site specificity, with the Appellations Series at its core.

There are several ranges, starting with the Appellations Series, which focuses on wines from specific parcels in Elgin and Stellenbosch and lays particular emphasis on cool climate areas, possibly due to the potential of such sites in the context of climate change. Then the Heritage range not only pays homage to the history of the estate, with blends named after early owners Nicolas and Suzanne de Lanoy, but also champions blends and varieties the Cape has demonstrated a historic aptitude for. The cultivar-specific 1685 range is perhaps the best known, in the trademark bottle shape that was first introduced for Boschendal’s 330th anniversary; it offers premium wines at an accessible price point.

And then there is the Classics range, comprising wines whose names have long been linked with Boschendal: Blanc de Noir, Le Bouquet, Rose Garden and a whole host of household favourites.

The Cap Classique range has touch points in each of these categories, with the Jacques Le Long Blanc de Blancs, sporting 10 years on the lees and made from 100% Elgin Chardonnay, at its site-specific core. Finally, the winemakers experiment and learn within the Play Pen range, which represents small parcels made in only extraordinary vintages – and they’re almost impossible to come by. Nevertheless, the results of the experiments will usually benefit wines in the commercial ranges somewhere down the line.

Chardonnay, says Danielle, has no discernible weaknesses. She describes it as a circle again, a flavour wheel this time, made up of concentric aspects of nose, palate, length, acid, alcohol and body. If any of these elements spikes up, it can make a star of the circle and disrupt the balance. She says Chardonnay allows a winemaker to assist by allowing more time on the lees, bâtonnage, time in the barrel or even time in the bottle to even out these spikes. Its versatility lies in its ability to decode cool and warm climates and the way it shows its minerality, never screams tropical fruit nor displays an overly flinty character, with acid giving it length and the potential to age (a quality that also lends itself to Cap Classique).

This is why Chardonnay is a noble cultivar and why people like Danie de Wet and Jan Boland smuggled in the right clones for us to plant. And why Danielle couldn’t identify just one Boschendal Chardonnay for me to try; they’re all part of a bigger network of Chardonnay. Each adheres to a different set of rules, though each works to maintain its balance. Whether it’s site-specific, within a blend or made in a specific style, what you’re guaranteed is balance. And it’s just up to you to decide what you like.

Because in the end, everything’s part of a greater whole.