Focus on Stellenbosch, South Africa's most famous wine region, part 1

The striking sculpture at the entrance to Waterkloof 

I first visited South Africa in 2003. It was a holiday, but I managed to sneak in some visits to wineries in Stellenbosch and Constantia. Two years later, I visited again, and this time wine was the sole focus of the trip. Stellenbosch and Paarl were the two regions I concentrated on. Since then, I have been back a few times, but I've focused on other regions, such as the Swartland, Elgin and Elim, and – unintentionally – avoided Stellenbosch. 

Looking across the Waterkloof property

While Stellenbosch is the biggest and most visible of South Africa’s wine regions, it hasn't always been the most dynamic. And in a fast changing wine scene, with good new producers cropping up all the time, it’s easy to be distracted and to forget the Cape’s largest and most important region. So the focus of this trip was to rediscover Stellenbosch; to visit some of the historically important wineries who are doing good work, and also to check out some of the newcomers making waves.

I began my trip at Waterkloof, who fall into the latter category. It was purchased by UK wine merchant Paul Boutinot in 2003. ‘It’s an indulgence,’ said Paul, when I interviewed him a couple of years ago. ‘I want to make wines that I like.’ He reveals that he spent 10 years actively searching for the right vineyard site: one that could make fine wine in natural balance.

The view from the winery

The location of Waterkloof is pretty impressive, with a dramatically modern winery perched on the top of a hill (the Schapenberg). We’re on the outer fringes of Stellenbosch here, in Somerset West, on the boundary of the Helderberg, looking out to False Bay, which is just 4 km away. It’s a windy place here, with the sea breezes blowing in pretty consistently. For this reason, the spectacular restaurant has to be indoors: even in the middle of summer, it wouldn't be comfortable sitting outside. But for wine quality, cool and breezy is good, in this otherwise warm part of the world.

Christiaan Loots

I began my visit by being shown round the estate by Christiaan Loots, the farm manager. Waterkloof is one of the few South African estates to have adopted biodynamic viticulture, and this is taken quite seriously here.

Soil from a vineyard managed biodynamically from the start

Just a few yards away, soil from a vineyard managed conventionally, with herbicides, until recently

In a significant shift from the norm, Waterkloof have decided to replace all their tractors with horses. The 53 hectares of vineyards (the entire farm is 120 hectares) are in the process of being divided into 8 hectare blocks, each of which will be worked by one horse. A tractor works at 4 km/h cultivating the soil; a horse at 3.8 km/h, so it isn’t a huge difference. 

The winery

To make this shift possible, they have just bought extra horses. There are currently 6 cows and 6 horses on the farm; they need 7 more horses, but it is difficult to get draught horses in South Africa and they need to be trained. Each horse has a cart, with brakes – after all, some of the vineyards are on hillsides. A horse can pull 1.8 tons, but on the hills this is kept to 900 kg.

The ever-present wind stunts the growth of the vines, making canopy control easier. It also dries the vines quickly after rain, which helps lessen disease risk. We had a look at two vineyards. One was a Chardonnay vineyard that had only recently been converted to biodynamics. The soil was hard. A short distance away (tens of metres), a new Sauvignon Blanc vineyard, biodynamic from the outset, showed lovely friable soil. 

Paul Boutinot, owner of Waterkloof

One pest problem in South African vineyards is mealybug, which is a vector for leaf roll virus. The strategy for dealing with mealybugs here has been smart. First, they increased the biodiversity on the farm. Then they brought back wasps and ladybirds, the natural enemies of mealybugs. Initially, mealybug levels had been at 800-900 per block. This was brought down to 40 or 50. Now they are even fewer, and it is no longer a problem. The levels are monitored by pheromone traps, and the highest levels are at the boundary with neighbouring farms, around 30 per block.

Waterkloof have also set up fynbos corridoors around the farm, linking areas of native vegetation in order to provide a better habitat to encourage biodiversity. Cover cropping is employed on a four year cycle, and then weeds are allowed to grow on their own accord. Christiaan tells me that they are looking to develop a horse-drawn device that cuts the weeds down without disturbing the soil. 

Worm farm

He also showed me a worm farm, which has been developed to break down the cardboard waste. The plan is to aerate this broken down material, and then eventually to return it to the vineyard. 

From this, to...

Then I met with winemaker Werner Englelbrecht (who has since left Waterkloof). He works in a thoughtful way, as naturally as possible. He rarely adds acid (which is very unusual in South Africa) and uses only natural fermentations. Until the impressive new winery was constructed in 2009, the wines were made at Avondale, Paarl, in rented space. 


These notes are from three separate tastings, with month/year indicated in brackets

Waterkloof Circumtance Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Real interest here: precise, pure, lively and mineral with some herb notes. Very pure with a bit of saltiness and nice texture. 91/100 (03/12)

Waterkloof Circumstance Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Very fresh and bright with clean, pure fruit and nice acidity. Citrus and mineral notes. 89/100 (09/12)

Waterkloof Circumstance Chardonnay 2010 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Lovely toasty notes alongside precise citrus fruit and some nutty depth. Fresh and nicely aromatic with a bright palate. Stylish. 91/100 (09/12)

Waterkloof Circle of Life White 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Mostly Sauvignon with a bit of Chenin. Complex mineral nose with some stone fruits. The palate is rich and textured with a mineral quality and some white peach and pear fruit. Some creamy richness, too. Lovely depth and texture here. 92/100 (03/12)

Waterkloof Circle of Life White 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Textured and broad but fresh with nice precision. Lovely weight here: soft and rounded, with real interest. 91/100 (09/12)

Waterkloof Circumtance Chenin Blanc 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Lovely rich nose showing peachy fruit and spicy freshness. Mineral and spice undertones to the palate, which shows textured, fresh pear and peach fruit. Nice balance and focus. 93/100 (03/12)

Waterkloof Viognier 2010 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Aromatic, fresh  nose shows delicate peach and pear fruit. Interesting texture on the palate which is rich, herby and a little oily. Distinctive. 90/100 (03/12)

Waterkloof Circumstance Cape Coral Rosé 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Mourvèdre. Whole berry pressed and taken off as quickly as possible, to create a very pale salmon pink rosé. Textured, fresh, fruity and rounded. There’s not much red fruit character here: instead, it’s a delicious soft-textured rosé with a hint of seriousness. 90/100 (03/12)

Waterkloof Circumstance Cape Coral Rosé 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Pale in colour. Subtle, textured and a bit spicy with lively fruit and some mineral notes. 90/100

Waterkloof Circle of Life Red 2009 Stellenbosch, South Africa
A blend of Merlot and Syrah, plus Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourv
èdre, Petit Verdot and Cinsault. Sweet, focused blackberry and blackcurrant fruit nose with a chalky, gravelly edge. The palate is brooding and ripe yet restrained, with nice gravelly savouriness and some tannic structure. Ripe and generous but well balanced. 92/100 (03/12)

Waterkloof Circumstance Syrah 2009 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Whole bunch fermented, punched down delicately twice a day and 35 days on skins. Wonderfully fresh, meaty, slightly minty raspberry and blackberry nose. Lush but with some nice pepperiness. The palate is ripe and sweet yet fresh and peppery with lovely structure. A beautiful wine. 94/100 (03/12)

Waterkloof Circumstance Syrah 2009 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Ripe, meaty and aromatic, with lovely black cherry fruit. The palate is fresh and powerful, ripe and smooth-textured, yet it’s vital with lovely meatiness, some pepper notes and a hint of clove. So fresh and vivid. 94/100 (09/12)

Waterkloof Circumstance Merlot 2009 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Sweetly fruited and supple with elegant cherry and berry fruits as well as some chalky structure. Very nicely judged. Supple, elegant. 91/100 (03/12)

Waterkloof Circumstance Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Big, sweet, chalky/gravelly blackcurrant nose with some savoury herbal and blackcurrant bud notes. The palate is fresh and supple with ripeness and richness of texture, but also nice acidity. 92/100 (03/12) 

Waterkloof Circumstance Sauvignon Blanc 2009
13.5% alcohol. Intense and quite powerful with a herby edge to the grassy, slightly tropical fruit. Nice depth and intensity. Quite a savoury style. 90/100 (10/10)

Waterkloof Circumstance Cape Coral Mourvèdre Rosé 2010
13.5% alcohol. Very pale pink. Light, fresh, bright and racy. Well balanced with delicate strawberry notes. Provence style, with good texture. 89/100 (10/10)

Waterkloof Circumstance Syrah 2008
This was picked a bit later than normal, but it’s still a lovely wine. Ripe, sweet and bold with cherry and berry fruit as well as some meaty savouriness and a smooth texture. But there’s also some attractive peppery freshness. A portion of whole bunch was used here and it adds interest. Beautiful with real potential. 92/100 (10/10)

Waterkloof Circumstance Merlot 2008
Supple elegant berry fruits with some sweetness and a gravelly edge. Quite deep and full with an attractive mineral, savouriness. 90/100 (10/10)

Waterkloof Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Really intense and full with lovely grassy, green pepper notes and ripe bold fruit. The palate is dense and concentrated with herb and mineral notes. Very bold style but still fresh. 91/100 (10/10)

Waterkloof Circle of Life White 2009
Sauvignon with some Chenin and a dollop of Semillon, a mix of oak and stainless steel fermentation and ageing. Lovely taut, focused, mineralic nose with some depth. The palate is toasty and nutty with freshness and nice minerality. A hint of nice reduction, too. Some white peach fruit adds richness. 93/100 (10/10)

Waterkloof Circle of Life Red 2008
Smooth, pure, supple berry fruit with a meaty, herby edge. The palate is supple and fresh with nice acidity and appealing cherry and berry fruit. There’s a bit of herby, meaty character that detracts a little: apparently the 2009 doesn’t have this character. 88/100 (10/10)

A short video of the visit:


Part 1, Waterkloof
Part 2, Waterford
part 3, Reyneke
Part 4, Kanonkop
Part 5, Rustenberg
Part 6, Meerlust
Part 7, Delheim
Part 8, Thelema
Part 9, Neil Ellis

Part 10, Tokara
Part 11, Oldenburg

Wines tasted as indicated  
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