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Capensis: the Cape’s high-stakes Chardonnay

Ten years ago, California’s ambitious Jackson Family Wines took a gamble on a mountainous ward of South Africa’s Cape, touting it as the bedrock for world-class Chardonnay. Malu Lambert asks whether the bet paid off

Words by Malu Lambert

Photography by Jean Rossouw

The Collection
Capensis winemaker Graham Weerts and Fijnbosch Farm manager Cedrick Delport overlooking the winery’s premium vineyard site in Stellenbosch

This is a special slice of the world,’ says Graham Weerts, his words carried in the current of winds streaming over the peak of Botmaskop at the top of Fijnbosch Farm. This striking, fynbos-strewn perch overlooking the Banhoek Valley translates from the Afrikaans as ‘boatman’s watch’, so named because historically it was the lookout spot for ships coming into the nearby bay. ‘This is an extremely good place to grow grapes – it offers opportunity like no other,’ Weerts continues. ‘I don’t just mean here in Stellenbosch, but in a global context.’

Don’t just take Weerts’s word for it – prices don’t lie. ‘The cost of the land in Stellenbosch right now is through the roof,’ he says. ‘On these prime sites, it’s Napa pricing.’ The comparison is spot on; much like its stateside counterpart, Stellenbosch is known for premium Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay – and land can sell for anything from one to four million rand per hectare.

Stellenbosch local and Cape wine luminary Mike Ratcliffe shares Weerts’s enthusiasm. Ratcliffe wears many hats, chiefly as proprietor of premium red wine brand Vilafonté. He’s also the chairman of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes and heads the Wine Business Advisors. The latter is often at the coalface of brokering some of these high-flung deals. ‘At the moment, there are way more buyers than there are sellers, which drives up the price,’ says Ratcliffe. ‘Though it’s important to remember the hectarage we have available is often much larger than Napa’s. In the next 20 years, as prices rise, the vineyards will become more divided.’ As a result, land is only likely to become more coveted.

capensis graham weerts
'This is an extremely good place to grow grapes,' says Capensis winemaker Graham Weerts. 'Not just here in Stellenbosch, but in a global context.’

For Cabernet, this all makes sense. But Chardonnay? Taking in the vineyards that sprawl across the mountain slopes as far as the eye can see, Weerts says emphatically, ‘South Africa makes world-class Chardonnay.’ This may seem a bold statement, but Weerts has hit on a particularly South African problem: many of the country’s great wines never leave its shores. So, while the quality is there, often the volumes are too small to make a global impact.

Several wines, however, support Weerts’s belief. De Wetshof is one of the original producers of Cape Chardonnay, its patriarch Danie de Wet credited with smuggling in Burgundian clones in the 1980s, when official routes proved too onerous and timeconsuming. The Robertson-based estate’s Bateleur Chardonnay 2020 scooped platinum at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards. Also leading the charge are Stellenbosch bastions Meerlust and Mulderbosch, acknowledged for making some of the finest early examples of Cape Chardonnay. Head into the cooler regions of Hemel en Aarde, and you find the likes of Bouchard Finlayson and Hamilton Russell, which established the region through their pioneering production of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

From the get-go, it has been our mission to make Chardonnay that can compete with the best of the best

The capacity is certainly there for South Africa to join Chardonnay’s top table – all that’s needed is some big-picture thinking. That’s where the global ambition of Capensis comes in. ‘From the get-go, it’s been our mission to make Chardonnay that can compete with the best of the best,’ says Weerts. ‘We’re only just discovering some of the Cape’s amazing vineyards for the grape.’

One such vineyard is below us, the very one that launched Capensis. The site and the farm share the same name: Fijnbosch. Planted at more than 500m above sea level, it’s the highest Chardonnay vineyard in Stellenbosch. We make our descent towards it, soil crunching beneath our shoes; the soil is iron ferricrete – colloquially called koffieklip (‘coffee stone’) for its granular appearance – layered over deep clay. The eight hectares of vines here are staked to poles, a technique used as a defence against the relentless winds.

It’s one of those clear, crisp days when the valley spread below us is lit up as if under a spotlight. From this lofty vantage point, the neighbouring estates below are dwarfed, though I know from previous visits that they too command vertiginous slopes. Across the ward, vineyards are planted on ancient mountain folds, the peaks pushed together like a well-thumbed book. This prevailing altitude coupled with the high annual rainfall (900ml) makes Banhoek the coolest wine-growing area in Stellenbosch.

It’s also one of the most historic. The Banhoek name, meaning ‘scary corner’, was bestowed upon it by early Dutch explorers for the combination of its treacherous heights, wild animals (including lions and hippos) and mountain-dwelling bandits who hijacked wagons loaded with goods. These days, the only predator roaming here is the solitary leopard, occasionally caught on motion-sensor cameras rigged up in the vineyards as part of ongoing conservation efforts.

While Stellenbosch is better known around the world for Cabernet, some local winemakers feel the capacity is there for the Cape to join Chardonnay’s top table

South Africa-born Cape Town local Weerts is accustomed great heights. He has spent the better part of his career in California as a winemaker for the prominent Jackson Family Wines. The vast family-run wine business – a collection of 39 wineries and vineyard holdings yielding six million cases a year – is the ninth-largest producer in the United States.

In recent history, it certainly wasn’t the norm for South African winemakers to cross borders. But Weerts’s studies at Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute coincided with the end of Apartheid and, with it, global isolation and sanctions. The Elsenburg classes of 1994, ’95 and ’96 produced a host of winemakers who would go on to play a significant role in putting South African wine on a global stage. Other graduates during those years included Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst, Mark van Buuren, Marc Kent and Chris Williams – a generation of winemakers now able not only to broaden their own horizons but to bring South African wine to the world.

‘The Jacksons have always been ambitious people,’ Weerts says, sunglasses clapped on as we drive into the light. ‘Their goal was to elevate everywhere they went. The whole ethos of the company is ambitious, adventurous.’ It’s an ethos that can be traced right back to the beginning, when the company’s founder, the late Jess Jackson, placed bets on horses to pay for his college tuition. ‘He made many big bets on many places with the company,’ says Weerts. ‘Some of the gambles paid off, some didn’t – but the vast majority did. That’s the type of person he was, and his wife Barbara is exactly the same.’

According to Weerts, Barbara Banke, who took over as chairman and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines on her husband’s death in 2011, is equally motivated by the prospect of discovering something new and making something spectacular. ‘It was Barbara who approached me and said, “Let’s go to South Africa and make wine.” I jumped at it.’

The move to South Africa was a terroir-driven business decision. We understood the market, and we knew this is where we could make an impact

The next question was what to make. ‘At the time, a lot of South Africa’s vineyards for red wines were struggling with virus, so that immediately put us on the path of white wine. We looked at what grows well but also at what could stand up to virus. We did a lot of testing. We felt the best wines on a global stage for South Africa were Chenin and Chardonnay, but at that time you couldn’t give Chenin away in the States. The underlying question was, How do we bring something out of South Africa that we feel comfortable charging a premium for?’

Being confirmed Chardonnay specialists – the Kendall- Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is the current top seller in the United States – the answer was right in front of them. Not only did it make business sense, but Weerts was also confident in the Cape’s terroir, a belief grounded in the wines they benchmarked before making their decision. ‘One of them [Rustenberg’s The Five Soldiers, also a Stellenbosch property] blew my head off it was so good,’ recalls Weerts. In the end, says Weerts, the move to South Africa was ‘a terroir-driven business decision. We understood the market, and we knew this is where we could make an impact.’

The confidence grew as Weerts explored the Cape’s vineyards in search of the best fruit – and the best site. From the start, they wanted to own the land, from which the brand could grow, rather than relying on bought-in grapes. ‘The land is the brand,’ says Weerts. ‘That’s how the company operates.’ With a verbal agreement in place to buy a property, in 2012 the team flew down to sign on the dotted line, only for the deal to fall through. ‘What could we do,’ asks Weerts with a shrug, ‘other than spend the week tasting through the Cape?’

fijnbosch capensis
The Simonsberg Mountain and Banhoek Valley provide the backdrop to the Fijnbosch Farm

In order to launch Capensis, the decision was made to buy in fruit. Weerts extended his flight and got to work, purchasing grapes from select vineyards – or as he likes to call it, prospecting. As word spread about the ambitious new project by an American company, the expectation was that the resulting wine would be Californian in style. ‘And yes,’ admits Weerts, ‘the rich, big style we achieve in California was definitely a consideration. But we quickly realised that wasn’t the direction we wanted to – or even could – go in. We simply couldn’t achieve the richness and acidity profile of, say, Monterey or Santa Barbara; it’s a very different climate. We had to look at what the vineyards were actually giving us. That’s when we started to lean more towards the expression of high-end Burgundies.’

There is, though, a nod to the company’s California roots in the way it ferments the wines. As in the States, not one parcel sees stainless steel, and all of the sites are fermented separately in neutral environments – from foudres and old oak barrels, to ceramic vessels. In stylistic terms, Weerts says that the approach to ripeness and oak treatment has evolved ‘in a big way’. ‘We’ve got to a point where we’ve identified the vineyards that are consistently in the blend and how to vinify each one according to its specific intrinsics,’ he says.

Every site is treated differently – from the percentage of new wood used and the type of fermentation vessel, to picking dates and yeast strains. ‘That’s the beauty of having our own facility at Fijnbosch: we have the capacity to break the sites down into minutiae. I call it Humpty Dumpty winemaking. We break it all down, and we put it all back together again.’ To get this parcel-by-parcel approach right, huge amounts of investment have gone into viticulture, particularly at Fijnbosch. ‘I neither add acid nor deacidify,’ says Weerts firmly, so the ‘viticulture has to be absolutely precise’.

The Kliphuis tasting facility is built with repurposed timber and stonework to blend into the surroundings

Fijnbosch was one of the inaugural sites scouted by Weerts, with components from the block going into the first two vintages of the multiregional blend Capensis (2013 and 2014). This was augmented with grapes from lime-rich Robertson, as well as with fruit from Kaaimansgat, a vineyard situated in a blind valley and the highest-elevation vineyard in the Capensis blend, at 700m above sea level. The remainder came from Elgin and another Stellenbosch site, Nooitgedacht, at the foothills of the Helderberg Mountains. On the strength of the resulting wines, the Fijnbosch farm was acquired in 2014 as a partnership between Banke and Antony Beck, the Kentucky-based owner of South African Cap Classique producer Graham Beck.

Eight years on, the farm is evidently in good health. Traversing its contours in Weerts’s Land Cruiser, windows rolled down, the scent from the fynbos corridors spills in. These natural highways for bugs and bees have been planted in place of alien trees to encourage increased biodiversity and water conservation. Water is an increasingly scarce resource here, and on the back of the recent prolonged drought, the majority of water-gobbling alien trees have been removed; in their place, indigenous plants are thriving. Borders have been terraced with stones dug out from the vineyards, the handiwork of longtime farm manager Cedrick Delport, who clearly has an eye for aesthetics. On the lower slopes of the farm is an organic herb and vegetable garden, cultivated for staff members to take the produce home; any surplus is donated to various other local organisations and feeding schemes.

capensis silenis
Silene is blended from high altitude sites across Stellenbosch, whereas the top-of-the-range Fijnbosch is a single vineyard wine

The most recent addition is the Kliphuis, which has been built to host tastings, as well as to cellar some library vintages. We enter the serene space, composed of repurposed timber from the farm and stonework detailing, the latter helping the structure blend into the mountainous backdrop. On the table are the three wines to try: a regional blend, a multiregional blend, and a vintage-dependent, site-specific wine.

The most accessible wine in the line-up (though still resolutely priced in the premium category) is the Capensis Silene, an expression of Stellenbosch vineyards only, including from Fijnbosch. The second wine is the Capensis Western Cape Chardonnay, comprised from fruit from the home farm, as well as bought-in grapes from three other vineyards. The Fijnbosch component imbues the wine with its core intensity of citrus; the E Bruwer Vineyard in Robertson adds rich, ripe peach and apricot and a full, rounded mouthfeel; the Kaaimansgat vineyard is there for its minerality; while Vleiplaas brings a hint of herbal character along with a line of bright acidity. Then, at the top of the tree, is the single-vineyard bottling of the Fijnbosch block, eponymously named. It is only made in exceptional vintages and quantities are naturally limited; the inaugural bottling was 2015.

Having originally been planted to just 2.4ha, Fijnbosch now extends to 9ha of Chardonnay. Planting more is part of Weerts’s ambition, both to scale Silene as a brand and to further elevate the Fijnbosch cuvée. He can do this now; he’s come home to roost with his young family in tow, having swapped California skies for those of the equally luminescent Cape. Back for good,

Weerts will continue to focus on building the Capensis brand, though this might soon include a red Bordeaux blend, also hewn from Stellenbosch soils. ‘It was time – I wanted to be home,’ says Weerts. ‘I was drawn by a strong motivation to put my birthplace at the forefront of the wine world. It’s a place I believe in.’