With a cobalt sky above, the plump green slopes of Riebeeksrivier Road are radiant in the afternoon light. This undulating dirt track just outside the town of Riebeek-Kasteel in the Swartland plays host to a number of high-profile vineyards – among them, the famed Mullineuxs have their Roundstone Farm here, and premium Franschhoek wineries Boekenhoutskloof and Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons are said to have snapped up sites too.
Like much of Swartland, it has this untouched wildness about it, characterised by iron-rich soils and schistous slopes. Winemaker and founder of Wolf & Woman Wines, Jolandie Fouché grew up in nearby Malmesbury.
This big sky country suits her: you can’t cage Fouché. She has a spirit of restlessness about her, layered with that easy-going, Veldskoen-boot-wearing, Swartland persona. She’s just recently had her second child (a son to complement a two-year-old daughter) and the pressures of family life while maintaining the strictures of being a salaried winemaker for Kloovenburg Wine and Olive Estate (on the outskirts of Riebeek-Kasteel) proved too much. ‘It was the push I needed,’ says Fouché. ‘I need to be free.’
Her first solo vintage was in 2021, and she is firmly ratcheting up production. From tiny beginnings at just 1,800 bottles, she is now producing approximately 15,000 per year. (‘I’m going for it,’ she says.)
It’s mid-harvest and we’re talking on the porch of Yellowwood Farm. The tips of her fingers look as if they have been dipped in ink, emblematic of her hands-on approach. She makes use of the cellar space here, though she sources fruit for her range – which she calls the ‘wolf pack’ – from a variety of Swartland sites.
Who’s the wolf and who’s the woman? ‘I’m both,’ says Fouché. ‘A couple of years ago my husband Gustav sent me this quote by [poet] Nikita Gill: ‘Some days I am more wolf than woman and I am still learning how to stop apologising for my wild,’ she recites. ‘I felt really known in that moment. He got me.’
A so-called “wild woman” is naturally creative, passionate and instinctive – these are characteristics I think are paramount when making wine
She was further inspired by Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. ‘The book opened my eyes to the fact that a so-called “wild woman” is naturally creative, passionate and instinctive. These are characteristics I think are paramount when making wine.’
The first vintage of Wolf & Woman Wines was in 2018. To get the project going initially, she needed to ask her then-employers for permission. She says she had to dig deep to pluck up the courage. They capitulated, though not without a few caveats. Fouché says that she agreed not to use any cultivars that Kloovenburg was producing at the time; that she would use no more than two tonnes of grapes; and that her route to market would be via export.
In terms of grapes, this didn’t leave her much to work with, but she decided on Chenin Blanc and Pinotage for her maiden release. ‘They just happened to be the two cultivars that most fly the flag for South Africa.’
Fouché had never made Pinotage before, but was drawn to a fresher, new-wave style. From the get-go, the grapes have hailed from a dryland bush vine site planted in 1973. Fouché says her approach is to do two separate pickings in a bid for complexity, character and depth. Vinification generally stays the same with some varying components for each vintage. The 2020 consisted of whole berries, with 15 per cent whole-cluster fermented. The wine was left on the skins for seven days before pressing to old 300L and 500L barrels to rest for 10 months before bottling. The 2021 will be released in May 2022, a cycle she uses for all her wines.
From the 2020 vintage she added a Grenache Blanc as well as a Grenache Rosé to the Wolf & Woman range, further extending it in 2021 with a Syrah. The latter is a blend of grapes grown from the three main soil types in Swartland: shichst, iron and granite. For this, Fouché employed 100 per cent whole bunch, natural fermentation, and matured the wine in old 500L barrels, as well as 40 per cent concrete. It’s not yet been released, but there’s already a groundswell of excitement around it.
But from the beginning, the star of the range has been the Chenin Blanc. Tim Atkin MW called the 2018 debut his ‘White Wine Discovery of the Year’ in his South Africa 2019 Special Report, and Jancis Robinson MW named the 2019 one of her ‘Chenin Champions’ in the Financial Times.
To demonstrate its evolution, Fouché has uncorked a vertical for us on her porch. ‘It’s always about the soils,’ she says. ‘When I stand in the vineyard, I can already sense the wine.’ It’s this instinctive approach that has led her to blending from plots with different soil types. The 2018 is a 50/50 split between iron and granite. ‘The iron gives you voluptuousness, roundness; while the granite with its fresh, linear structure cuts right through.’ Fouché smiles, her eyes lighting up: ‘What I love is that phenolic grip that you seem to get on all the Paardeberg Chenin.’
The 2019 presents cooler with top notes of ethereal elderflower, white pear and ruby grapefruit, characteristic of the vintage and of earlier picking, but also from the ‘granite fruit’ component. With a rise in the use of granite-grown Chenin, the 2020 is utterly vibrant with aromatics of pure, clean stone fruits and crushed rock. The not-yet-released 2021 is still very primary but undeniably attractive, scented with white blossom and jasmine tea. Sourced from five different vineyards it will be the first of her wines to bear the Old Vine Project seal.
‘Part wolf, part woman’, Fouché is always exploring, and has something else up her sleeve this harvest. Rosa Kruger, one of South Africa’s most celebrated viticulturists, introduced her to a site in the altitudinous Piekenierskloof; a 60-year-old Chenin Blanc vineyard at 500 metres above sea level. ‘The vines are these amazing, tall bush vines,’ explains Fouché. ‘I call them trees as they come up to my shoulders.’
‘The conditions are extreme,’ she adds, showing me a photograph of the vines cloaked in mist. ‘Last year, the grapes weren’t healthy enough, but this year looks promising. We’ll see how it turns out.’
As the author and Fouché’s inspiration Clarissa Pinkola Estés wrote: ‘If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.’ For Fouché, the woods may look a little different; hers rather venerable old vines growing on schist, iron and granite. But the sentiment is very much the same.