Marelise Niemann is a champion of Grenache. Her label, Momento, began officially in 2013, when she was still working at Beaumont in the Bot River region of South Africa. Beaumont was her first proper job as a winemaker, although after university she did 8 months in California in 2007. She began at Beaumont in January 2007, and stayed there for 8 months.
But it was in 2011 the she bought her first parcel of grapes: she shared the grapes from a vineyard in the north of the Swartland with Donovan Rall. So she made wine, but it was only in 2013 that she realised she wanted to do her own thing, and released it under the Momento label. Unfortunately, this wine wasn’t to be repeated: the farmer ripped the grapes out because the old vines were yielding less than a ton a hectare.
So there was no Grenache in 2012 and 2013 because Marelise couldn’t get the right grapes. But since 2014 she has been working with the same vineyards, and adding others as they come available. The desire to work with Grenache – not a widely planted grape in South Africa – stemmed from working a vintage with Eben Sadie in Priorat in 2010. ‘After this, I wanted to get old Grenache,’ she says. ‘While I was working there I said I had to go back to South Africa and look for old Grenache.’
The wine came first, then the label and then the business model. The first vintage was only 780 bottles: one 400 litre and one 225 litre barrel. The label is based on a drawing by Hennie Niemann, Marelise’s husband: it’s an old vine with various people incorporated into it.
All the Momento reds are made in the same style: one third whole-bunch, natural yeast, gently plunged down. Marelise uses plastic bins and two of the big (6 ton) tanks. ‘I would do everything in small bins if it was practical,’ she says. The first two vintages were made at Beaumont, but the last four have been made at Gabrielskloof, also in Bot River.
The barrels she uses are all older: the youngest is a fourth-year barrel. ‘The idea is to keep the barrel as a vessel,’ says Marelise. She ages the wine 12 months in barrel and then it goes into tank for four to six months before bottling. ‘For me, for Grenache – in the style I make it – the key factors are aroma and elegance on the nose. I don’t like that over-matured dead character. I always pick a bit earlier.’ This year, the first portion came in at 22.8 Brix, and at the longest she leaves it to is 24 Brix. ‘The more portions the better: if you can work with portions from different soils and different regions you can make something with more elements than you would have from one vineyard. ‘
Her plans? ‘The brand is already established but I need to grow a bit more. Next year I would like to do different Grenache bottlings if the vineyards allow this.’
Marelise is a champion of Grenache, which in her hands makes elegant, Pinot-like wines. It thrives in dry years, and it’s a low maintenance variety, especially when grown as a bush vine. ‘For me this is one of the grapes of the future for South Africa: it will work well here,’ she says. ‘It’s a light-coloured, gentle flavoured grape. In past years people overworked it, picking too ripe and extracting too much to get richer, darker, thicker flavours. We can do the opposite and produce something that is fresher and finer in style. When people think of Grenache they think of something thick and big but I see something completely opposite.’ I think she’s right.
Momento Grenache 2011 Swartland
Supple and fresh with sweet cherries and plums, and a fine spiciness. Really fine grained and with a fresh spicy edge. There are notes of dried herbs and black tea with lovely elegance and finesse. Such a delicious wine that’s light on its feet but which has lovely flavour and a savoury twist. Has held out nicely. 93/100 (02/18)
Momento Grenache 2014 Swartland
This is from Langkloof in the Swartland: bush vines on decomposed granite. The farmer is Scholtz Rossouw. They were getting half of the price they are being paid now (about 13 000 Rand a ton). 2500 bottles made. So supple, fresh and elegant with delicate, sappy red cherry and raspberry fruit. Fresh with nice tannin structure and a really elegant mouthfeel. Silky and juicy with nice brightness: quite Pinot like. Fresh and bright red fruit personality. 94/100 (02/18)
Momento Grenache 2015 Swartland
Langkloof, but also with some fruit with a new vineyard on the property grown from cuttings of the best old vines. Picked a little riper and did more whole bunch this year. Perfumed and quite intense on the nose with spice-infused raspberry fruit and some peppery savouriness. Lovely weight in the mouth. Concentrated but still really elegant with a peppery grip to the juicy raspberry and red cherry fruit. This is quite structured and has potential for further development. This has substance to it. 95/100 (02/18)
Momento Grenache 2016 Western Cape
Some voor Paarderberg grapes plus two barrels from Bot River (La Motte’s farm there). Really aromatic and perfumed with lovely fragrant cherry and berry fruits. The palate is supple and elegant with real finesse. Such a lovely wine with sweet fruit, brightness and a bit of green sappiness in the background. Enticing and elegant, with enough structure to suggest this could age beautifully. 95/100 (02/18)
Momento Grenache 2017 Western Cape
The Bot River portion is from Anysbos this year. There’s a ripe portion in here from Scholtz’ vineyard at 24/25 Brix because of a picking issue. Taken out of barrel in January and will be bottled in May after harvest. Lovely finesse here with supple, sappy sweet red cherry fruit and a fine-grained tannic structure. Lots going on here. Still a baby, but seductive with sweet cherries and plums and nice structure. A really elegant style. 94-96/100 (02/18)
Momento Chardonnay Verdelho 2016 Western Cape, South Africa
Fine herbal notes here, with some citrus and green tea, as well as bright grainy pear fruit. The palate is fresh and supple with lovely brightness. Really expressive with a nice mineral twist to the fruit, and a delicate tangerine and grapefruit twist. 93/100 (02/18)
Momento Chenin Blanc Verdelho 2016 Western Cape, South Africa
This vintage has 22% Verdelho from the Swartland in the blend. Fresh and spicy with ripe apple and citrus, as well as a tint hint of nuttiness. Rounded but fresh with a citrus edge and a long finish. 93/100 (03/17)
Momento Chenin Blanc Verdelho 2015 Bot River, South Africa
This has 9% Verdelho in the blend. Fresh, lively and transparent with juicy lemons and tangerines. There’s an appealing stony freshness to this wine which also has some pear skin character. Very pure. 94/100 (03/17)
Here’s a video interview with Marelise:
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