Posts Tagged Jean Engelbrecht

South African Bordeaux

30 October 2013

Three South African Bordeaux BlendsAs I wrote in my previous post, South Africa’s wine industry has changed dramatically since trade sanctions were lifted in the early 1990s. It was particularly reassuring to hear Jean Engelbrecht, owner of the Rust en Vrede winery in Stellenbosch, describe how wineries had spent considerable effort in recent years to focus on grapes well-suited to the terroir of their estates, rather than simply growing a little bit of everything. But would this translate into truly world-class wines?

If Engelbrecht couldn’t convince me, no one could. He made it clear that he has little patience for anything that isn’t the best. We started our dinner at Chicago’s RL restaurant with flutes of NV Taittinger Brut, rather than a Cap Classique (South Africa’s méthode champenois sparkling wine). “If you’re going to drink bubbly, drink Champagne,” he declared. “Why waste one day of your maybe 65 years on Earth drinking something else?” This uncompromising attitude regarding quality has raised the ire of some of Engelbrecht’s countrymen — the wine list of his acclaimed restaurant contains nary a Cap Classique. It doesn’t yet compete with Champagne, Engelbrecht explained, so why serve it?

I had confidence, then, that any wine Engelbrecht would pour with dinner would represent not only South Africa’s best, but wine that would rank as some of the best anywhere. South Africa is already making a name for itself with vivacious Chenin Blancs, but it lacks a signature red (not counting inconsistent Pinotage). If this tasting was any indication, that signature red could well be Bordeaux-style blends. We tasted three together, and each dazzled with its concentration and control.

2010 Rust en Vrede Estate: This Stellenbosch estate in the shadow of the Helderberg has produced wine off and on for three centuries, though it took its present form only after 1977, when the Engelbrecht family purchased and restored it. Jean Engelbrecht’s father, Jannie Engelbrecht, decided to focus solely on red wines after the 1979 Chenin Blanc left him less than impressed, a bold move at a time when South African wineries tended to grow a little of everything.

The Rust en Vrede Estate wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot in a “hermitaged” style of wine popular in Bordeaux in the 19th century, when producers would sometimes beef up their blends with Syrah from the Rhône’s Hermitage region. The deep red-fruit aroma was very enticing, marked by additional meaty and floral notes (a fellow taster at the table also detected “man musk,” which led Engelbrecht to half-joke that she was forbidden from sampling any more of his wines). I loved the wine’s silky texture, rich red fruit, firmly controlled white-pepper spice and raisiny finish.

The Estate felt very supple, yet it still cut right through the richness of my beef filet. I lamented that I hadn’t tried it with my appetizer of mussels, but Engelbrecht assured me I hadn’t missed anything: “I’m more of a main course kind of wine,” he quipped. But I was rather startled to discover that the Estate also paired well with a side of roasted asparagus, a notoriously difficult vegetable to match.

2009 Anthonij Rupert Optima: Anthonij Rupert has produced this Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc since the 1970s, but the 2009 is the first vintage of the wine since Johann Rupert took over the winery following the death of his brother. Since Johann Rupert took the helm, he overhauled the Franschhoek estate, where most of the vineyards are planted on hillside vineyards abutting the Groot Drakenstein Mountains.

The work undertaken by Rupert to improve the winery seems to have paid off — this wine also proved to be quite delicious. It smelled dark and rich and a little out of reach somehow, which made me want to taste it all the more. Its dark fruit was kept under tight restraint for a surprisingly long time, until it finally blossomed into eye-opening spice. It felt like a logarithmic scale of flavor.

2010 Ernie Els Signature: In South Africa at least, Ernie Els is probably better known as a golfer than a winery owner, but that may yet change, especially since he has quite a close connection to Engelbrecht, who introduced Els to his wife. The flagship wine of Els’ Stellenbosch winery is the Signature, which combines Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc in yet another version of a Bordeaux-style blend. Els ages all the varieties separately in new French oak before blending them together.

The result proved to be very food-friendly, both with my mussels and my filet. It had a dark, dusky aroma, and one fellow taster detected black cherry. But another (of “man musk” infamy) smelled a note of black olive. “What??” Engelbrecht exclaimed, aghast. But I can see her point — beneath the lush fruit, hearty spice and rustic tannins was an underlying tightness, perhaps even a touch of salinity. With that undergirding, the wine as a whole felt very balanced and focused.

These three Bordeaux-style beauties certainly beat any Pinotage I’ve ever tried. They’re not inexpensive, priced between $35 and $60, but if you tasted them side-by-side with similarly priced Meritage from California or Bordeaux from Bordeaux, these South African wines would hold their own admirably. I must admit I haven’t written about all that many South African wines on this blog, but after this tasting, I’m certainly interested in trying a lot more.

Dinner With Jean

26 October 2013
Jean Engelbrecht at left, in RL restaurant in Chicago

Jean Engelbrecht at left, in Chicago’s RL restaurant

Although South Africa‘s wine industry dates back to the 17th century, like America’s, it encountered some trouble in the 20th. Not Prohibition, but trade embargoes enacted because of apartheid. Vintners didn’t stop producing wine, but they stopped being able to sell it on the international market. When the trade sanctions were lifted in the 1990s, wineries faced an unexpected problem. Jean Engelbrecht, owner of the critically acclaimed Rust en Vrede winery, was there. We sat down to dinner recently to discuss what happened and where the South African wine industry is today.

When the trade embargoes were lifted, the international debut of South African wines did not go well, Engelbrecht admitted. “Everyone in the wine industry then had tunnel vision,” he explained, and had little sense of what was happening in the larger world of wine. South African vintners had been holding their own wine competitions, and absent any competition from abroad, they felt quite satisfied with their wines. Isolated from the rest of the world, the industry had stagnated.

After trade normalized, winemakers wasted no time in learning about wines in the rest of the world, and acclimated to the international palate in just five years or so. But the first impression had been made. South African wines initially landed on the market with a thud, which is why — even now, 20 years later — you rarely see a South African section on a wine list. Engelbrecht and his fellow vintners have worked hard to reverse that initial perception of South African wines ever since.

I asked Engelbrecht about the influence of terroir on South African wines nowadays, since as the World Atlas of Wine notes, “Not that long ago most South African wineries, no matter where, used to produce a wide range of different varietals and blends.” That trend has recently been reversing, and Engelbrecht pointed out that not only are estates planting varieties which work especially well on their property, they are drilling down yet further, siting varieties on the specific parts of the property best suited to them. This attention to matching varieties with vineyard sites, along with the improved winemaking techniques employed since the trade sanctions were lifted, has led to the development of a truly world-class wine scene in South Africa.

Fortunately, “The international market is giving a second chance” to South African winemakers, according to Engelbrecht, thanks to American tourists returning from safari vacations. After a safari, it’s common to spend time in cosmopolitan Cape Town and in the nearby Cape Winelands, just an hour away. I haven’t visited this wine country myself, alas, but I have spoken with many people who have. The historic towns and mountain-backed vineyards there seduce even the most jaded travelers I know. After drinking excellent South African wines in this remarkable landscape, travelers quite understandably want to have some more when they return home.

I also had to ask Engelbrecht about Pinotage, a signature variety of South Africa not grown on the Rust en Vrede estate. This cross of Cinsault and Pinot Noir is controversial, and my experiences with it have been mixed. Too often I find it unpleasantly meaty and smoky. My wine books tend to agree, noting that Pinotage is best sampled in blends. But Engelbrecht described the Pinotage situation with uncommon clarity, equating it with American Red Zinfandel. “You won’t find Red Zinfandel outside the U.S.; it’s made for domestic consumption. The same is true of Pinotage,” he asserted. And just like Red Zinfandel, Pinotage is easy to screw up. “If you have a Helen Turley making the Zinfandel, that’s one thing,” he continued, but in the hands of inexpert winemakers, both Zinfandel and Pinotage can easily become unbalanced.

If you’re looking for a signature South African varietal but don’t want to risk a bottle of Pinotage — and Pinotage is a risk — I recommend picking up a Chenin Blanc instead. This white variety has a checkered past as well, but nowadays it’s not difficult to find beautiful and well-priced expressions of Chenin Blanc. In this excellent article on Chenin in the Wall Street Journal, Lettie Teague recommends Mulderbosch Vineyards and A.A. Badenhorst Secateurs, and I recently tasted a very fine Chenin by Protea, described here.

But this evening, we had gathered to taste some serious South African reds. Would they confirm that the South African wine industry had really turned a corner and now produced wines that could compete with the best from anywhere? I looked forward to finding out.