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Seeking perfection in wine

Lifestyle Section - Wine


A gnarled old chenin blanc bush vine lies in the corner of the tasting room at Kleine Zalze. Cellar master Johan Joubert tells the story of these precious "wingerd stokkies" – which date back to 1982.

To his amazement and horror, they were in the process of being pulled out a few years ago, and somehow he managed to halt the action, saving one third of the small vineyard.

The luscious grapes make up part of the Family Reserve 2012 Chenin Blanc, a wine that is so rich and stupefyingly delicious that it cries out for sip after sip.

johansoils-mv_2bAnd such is Johan's meticulous approach to winemaking, that the wine was crafted after years and years of experimenting on three different vineyards, each contributing to the "best quality of fruit and palate structure".

A visit to Kleine Zalze and a tasting of his top wines is no ordinary matter. Although it's a highly pleasurable affair (trust me, it's no hardship to sample the much-lauded wines), it's something like a detailed lesson in highly skilled winemaking and viticulture, listening to him expound on the merits of different parcels of soil and his approach to the art and craft of producing wine.

The wall in the secondary tasting room, adjacent to the public one, is filled with his multiple awards – one of the most recent, the honour of his 2009 Family Reserve Shiraz winning a place in the top 10 at the Syrah du Monde 2013, which took place earlier this year (more about that wine later).

The son of a grape grower, Johan was born in Bonnievale, close to Robertson. His passion for wine grew as he watched his father in the vineyards, nurturing and tending the grapes. As a schoolboy, h e worked in the vineyards during the school holidays. Now in his 10th year at Kleine Zalze, he primed himself at Boland Cellars and Muratie, and was also manager at Bovlei winery in Wellington.

"Here at Kleine Zalze it's really about finding out how wine is divided into different wine blocks," he says, as he hands me a detailed file on soil complexity and the influence it has on different wines.

An example: the grapes for the intensely complex Family Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2012 comes from five different areas: Darling, False Bay, Stellenbosch, Durbanville and Walker Bay.

As Johan mentions, these different areas have "built up a history of consistency and each of the regions contributes to our unique style.

"Those blocks close to the sea offer freshness and fruit-driven character; Stellenbosch and Durbanville offer expressive structure and green fig and limey flavours, and the Darling and Walker Bay grapes – with more dense canopies – ensured the best characteristics of asparagus, winter melon and bell pepper were secured," he says.

The attention to detail included separate vinification, slow fermentation and a final blending of each of the different components.

The result: a wine that offers the best of all terroirs: herbaceousness, florality and superb balance.

Ever eloquent, he describes the wine we savour as "very refined, neither of any of the flavour characteristics put up their hand too dramatically".

The award-winning shiraz is another example of the fruits of intense labour and experimentation of combining different blocks of vines.

"The idea is to really taste the different qualities from the different soils with each adding a different flavour spectrum," he says.

Harvesting by hand, each pocket of fruit was handled separately, cold sorted ("there's so much structure in the skins," says Johan), and the wine matured for 22 months in 100% new French oak barrels.

"I wanted to have a shiraz where fruit and elegance come through – hence the cold fermentation method," says Johan, adding "this rather than one of those blockbuster wines".

The wine reveals a perfect balance between fruit, spiciness, wild berry and oak – a worthy winner of the prestigious international Syrah du Monde competition.

Talking about the Family Reserve range, Johan is emphatic that each year has to be really consistent and "the quality level needs to be of outstanding varietal expression". He emphasises, "If there is a vintage not up to standard we won't release it that year."

But that said, he adds "all tiers have to have those optimum levels of quality". (The other tiers, which all offer great value for money, include the Vineyard Selection and the Cellar Selection).

Within each range, Johan says what makes the difference is the soil, the microclimate and the total balanced growth of the vine.

"Roots, a healthy vine, the leaves, a good acidity level – they all play a huge role."

He says the continued success of the wines at Kleine Zalze are due to a few critical factors in the winemaking process: correct use of regionality, the extensive use of skin contact, slow fermentation, minimal interference and the right selection of oak.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding, and the multitude awards notched up year on year include Old Mutual Trophy awards, Veritas, Platter's Five Star rating and consistent four star ratings, Decanter and Michelangelo wine awards, just to mention a few.

There's no longer the issue of being on a winning streak – Johan is at the top of his game, yet he painstakingly and continually strives for perfection in his wines.

Written by Orielle Berry You are reading Seeking perfection in wine articles

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