Peter-Allan Finlayson on Gabrielskloof and Crystallum
With a winemaking tradition dating back to the 17th century and a diversity of terroir rivaling any of its northern hemisphere counterparts, it should come as no surprise that South Africa is producing some of the most compelling wines in the world.
Yet, with the country’s troubled history of Apartheid leading to the proliferation of massive cooperatives, the category has often had to rely on more boutique importers to champion the smaller, honest producers and thus many American wine drinkers remain unfamiliar with the quality of winemaking found in South Africa. However, thanks to a growing number of sommeliers and wine buyers with an appreciation for this country’s wine industry, we’re finally seeing a shift…
So, joined by some of the Rainbow Nation’s most exciting producers, both established and up-and-coming, we invite you to explore all that South Africa has to offer through our debut national tour, The Great Cape Escape, beginning this Monday in New York City. With five stops across the country, it should be a lekker time.
To kick off this exciting event series, we sat down with Peter-Allan Finlayson, son of the legendary winemaker Peter Finlayson of Hamilton Russell Vineyards and an accomplished winemaker in his own right thanks to his work at Gabrielskloof and Crystallum, to discuss all things South African wine. Enjoy!
TO START, COULD YOU GIVE US A LITTLE INTRODUCTION TO THE HEMEL-EN-AARDE AND THE BOT RIVER, AND SPECIFICALLY YOUR TWO BRANDS GABRIELSKLOOF & CRYSTALLUM?
Both the Hemel-en-Aarde and the Bot River are very new wine growing regions in the history of South Africa. South Africa’s been making wine since the 17th century, but they’ve only had vineyards planted in the Hemel-en-Aarde area since the late seventies. Tim Hamilton Russell was the first wine farmer to plant in the region and my father was the first winemaker to make wine in the Hemel-en-Aarde.
Bouchard Finlayson, founded by my father, was the next winery to be set up in the Hemel-en-Aarde twelve years later. Another five, six years, and now there’s about 25 producers in the area, so it’s grown pretty quickly. And while there are other varieties planted, like Sauvignon, Grenache, and a few of the Bordeaux varietals, the region is very much dominated by Chardonnay and Pinot.
The Bot River has taken a lot longer to expand. I think we only have about twelve producing cellars in the region. Neither of these regions are historically important for wine. They’re not like Swartland or Stellenbosch where there is a history of cooperatives and vineyard planting. This is all very new and it’s almost like we’re just getting started, now, to see the potential of what areas are best and what works best for the different cultivars.
Gabrielskloof was started by my father-in-law Bernard Heyns in 2001. He had a dream to find a site where he could make elegant examples of Rhone and Bordeaux varieties in South Africa. He found land in Walker Bay, more specifically the Bot River subregion, which historically has also been more focused on Chardonnay and Pinot. However, Gabrielskloof is slightly warmer than the traditional Chardonnay, Pinot areas, so it works really, really well for the Rhone varieties, for the Bordeaux varieties, and for Cabernet Franc, in particular. We focus mainly on reds, but we do some whites working with old vine Semillon, Chenin, and we make a Rosé.
Crystallum was started by my brother, Andrew, and myself in 2007. We make only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The majority of the fruit comes from the Hemel-en-Aarde area. We own a portion of the vineyards that we work with, but we also buy fruit. We work fairly traditionally across both farms and wineries, with pretty low intervention winemaking—wild ferments on everything, low levels of sulfur.
HOW IS THE TERROIR OF THESE TWO REGIONS SIMILAR/DIFFERENT AND HOW IS THIS REVEALED IN THE WINE?
Hemel-en-Aarde is about twenty kilometers south of the Bot River as the crow flies. So, they’re pretty close, but there’s quite a big mountain separating them. Soil wise, they’re actually very similar. The soil types on the lower lying slopes are all clay and shale, sedimentary rock. Then as you get higher up and into the mountains, you get to Table Mountain, sandstone, and some quarts. These are the two primary soil types in both regions, but the temperatures of the microclimates are very different.
The Bot River is probably four, five degrees Celsius warmer. Rainfall is also very different. We get double the amounts of rainfall in the Hemel-en-Aarde compared to what we get in Bot River. As a result, [the] Bot River (Gabrielskloof)—not suitable for Chardonnay and Pinot. Hemel-en-Aarde (Crystallum)—very much suitable for Chardonnay and Pinot.
The vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde are between three and fifteen kilometers from the ocean. There’s a bit of altitude, we’re looking at between 100 and 350 meters in altitude for the coastal vineyards. We get cold air that comes in off the ocean. Similar, I think, to Santa Barbara, California, so pretty cold. That has a massive impact and is why that particular area works well for Chardonnay and Pinot. We don’t really plant much in the sandstones in the Hemel-en-Aarde. It’s all in the shale and the clay. We need that extra water retention going into spring and summer to keep the Pinot and Chardonnay happy.
In Bot, where the soils [are] quite a lot more stony, we have a lot more planted in the actual sandstone. Especially our Syrah and Cabernet Franc are planted in the sandstone and there we like how it limits the growth of the grape. A lot of interesting character develops because of that. Varietals that are allowed to grow in soil that’s too fertile become overly fruity and diluted and not particularly interesting. Very restricting soils develop really interesting vines. And then you start getting lovely, delicate flavors coming out, perfect for the elegant style wines we are trying for.
HOW HAVE YOU CHANGED GABRIELSKLOOF SINCE YOU JOINED IN 2014?
I’m naturally a person who believes that everything is sort of broken all the time. Everything can be improved. I honestly wanted to change things a lot more than what we did. The Landscape Series replaced two wines at Gabrielskloof. They had a reserve Shiraz and a sort of icon wine, a Bordeaux style blend called ‘Five Arches,’ and it was the most successful wine in the portfolio. But when I made the Cabernet Franc for the first time in 2015, about six months after making the wine, I was just absolutely blown away by the quality of the Cabernet Franc.
I went to my father-in-law and told him, ‘I’d like to replace the most successful wine we have with a Cabernet Franc.’ He wasn’t thrilled about the idea at the beginning, but he came around to it, and that’s been a really successful wine for us. Thank goodness! Then slowly we’ve added things such as the ‘Projects Range’ of wines, which is our space to experiment, embrace risk, and push the envelope in terms of winemaking and aging.
The ‘Amphora Sauvignon Blanc’ has been selling out really, really quickly. However, it’s difficult to gauge how successful it’s been because we haven’t had much of it. This year will be the first year that we have decent volumes of it. We have about seventeen amphorae now that range in size from 400 to 860 liters. We plan to take production up from about 3,500 bottles to 8,000 or 9,000 bottles, so now we’ll really see how much people like it. The ‘Whole Bunch Syrah’ has also been incredibly successful in its own way. It’s quite unusual for a lot of people. It’s kind of a semi-spicy, early, approachable style of Syrah.
YOU ALSO MENTIONED THE LANDSCAPE SERIES. WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THESE WINES?
I had the idea a long time before I even started at Gabrielskloof that I wanted to work with old vines, especially old Chenin and Semillion. Gabrielskloof previously only used estate-grown fruit, but I wanted to work with older vineyards with the whites and the estate fruit for the reds. So, I started producing the Landscape Series wines in 2015, which was my first vintage at Gabrielskloof.
We needed an umbrella name for this range of wines. A friend of mine is a landscape artist, and he was doing an exhibition in the cellar at Gabrielskloof, and we both sort of came up with this idea simultaneously that his landscapes would look amazing on wine labels.
And that’s how the Landscape Series was born. We commissioned him to do a series of artworks of the landscape around the farm and around the cellar and those are the landscapes that we have on the labels. We now have the Elodie, which is old vine Chenin from five vineyards in the Swartland We have the Magdalena, which is old vine Semillon predominantly from a 50-year-old vineyard in the Swartland as well and a 35-year-old vineyard from Franschhoek that we work with. Then the reds are all our own grapes, so we have the Syrah on Shale, Syrah on Sandstone and the Cabernet Franc.
THE LABELS ARE BEAUTIFUL AND AN HOMAGE TO THE NATURE SURROUNDING GABRIELSKLOOF. WHAT EFFORTS ARE YOU TAKING TO PRESERVE THIS NATURAL LANSDCSAPE AND COMBAT CLIMATE CHANGE?
We’re very concerned about it. We’re in a water-scarce area, the Hemel-en-Aarde less so than the Bot River. It averages 900 to 1,000 milliliters of rain every year. Whereas Bot River is about half that. In the last ten years, we’ve averaged about 350 to 400, which is really at the limit of where you can grow a vineyard. So, a lot of the focus that we’re putting in now is on soil health and how to really maximize the water that we get.
We are not using any herbicides. In Europe, they would manually till the soil to get rid of the weeds, but we’ve discovered mulching is the best thing for us to do. We place straw and woodchips directly under the vines to literally create a mat which stops weeds from growing and helps to hold moisture. Then you also get a lot of organic matter developing below that mulch. Unfortunately, it is quite an expensive process. I think with Gabrielskloof, we’ve done about 80% of the farm. But that’s 60 hectares of vineyard. And it’s not like there’s a lot of spare cash in the wine industry as it is.
We’re buying a fraction of the new barrels that we used to, because we would rather divert that cash towards the vineyard. But we also think that the wines are a lot better since we’ve been using less oak, so that worked out pretty well. We’re also pulling out a lot of our olive trees. We’ve got these beautiful twenty-year-old olive trees, and we’ve taken out about three hectares, and I think of the 17 hectares that we had, we’re probably only going to end up with about six hectares of olive trees. But olive trees use six times the amount of water that vineyards do and going forward we anticipate having more droughts. So yeah, it’s been a really tough decision that we’ve had to make.
About 20% of our energy is now solar and we’re looking to move that up to 80%. We want all our vineyard irrigation pumps to run on solar, obviously for the environmental impact and the cost of fuel going forward.
We use a lot of different cover crops as well. We sew those seeds a couple of months ago and we’re seeing the growth now. We’ve actually got forage peas at the moment, so you can literally go and grab these beautiful, sweet pea pods off the ground. We also use a lot of barley and hops, which are traditional crops from this area. We’re trying to put organic back into the soil and fix nitrogen with our cover crop growth. To avoid using insecticides, we release natural predators, such as nematodes that kill other nematodes. We also use parasitic wasps and Ladybirds as well.
DOES GABRIELSKLOOF & CRYSTALLUM INTERACT WITH YOUR LOCAL COMMUNITIES?
First and foremost, we provide jobs. We have 37 full-time employees at Gabrielskloof, 100% of which are from the local community. We no longer use contractors in terms of our vineyard team throughout the year. It’s really important to us that the people we employ, we look after as well as we can through good pay and even housing. We’ve built five houses for our employees and transferred the houses into their names for staff that have been with us for over ten years. We also sponsor the local rugby club every year, which is very important to the local community.
There’s a microscope on South Africa for a good reason. We have an ‘A’ rating from WEITA, which is the highest possible standard for our employees, and that’s something we take a lot of pride in. We’re also in the process of developing a project similar to Mullineux’s Great Heart Wines—empowering our staff to create their own wines and benefit from the profits.
SOUTH AFRICAN WINE IS STILL RELATIVELY UNFAMILIAR TO MANY AMERICAN DRINKERS. WHAT DO PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SOUTH AFRICAN WINE AND WHAT ARE THEY MISSING IF THEY’RE NOT DRINKING IT?
20 years ago, South Africa was trying to make big, bold Napa style Cabs, which were popular at the time, but there wasn’t really any space for us to compete there. And for a long time, we were seen as a cheap, bulk-wine-producing region. Now there’s been a massive shift to focus on regionality, on old vineyards, and sustainability. I think the producers that are at the top end success and quality-wise are all taking those things really seriously. We’re not quite old world, but I think we are focusing on those consumers that are looking for more European style elegance, rather than new world power.
Now, I think, it’s all about implementation. The next step is to get our marketing right and our partners right. We’ve got the products. We’ve got the right focus. The winemaking is very much on point in terms of respecting where the fruit is from.
If people aren’t drinking South African wines, they’re missing some of the best wines on the planet. At every single price point, we offer incredible value. Whether it be crushable and delicious, like our Rosé, ‘Rosebud,’ or single vineyard, terroir-driven wines. I think we really are kind of unparalleled when it comes to just great value.
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