It’s a few days before the Easter weekend and Mark le Roux, winemaker at Waterford Estate, is thinking about eggs. Not Easter eggs, as one might expect, but a certain egg-shaped wine tank in the cellar.
Right at this moment, the odd-looking tank is bubbling furiously with the promise of a beautiful red wine. Yes, 13 years after Grenache Noir was first planted on the estate, a 5th vintage of the Waterford Estate Grenache Noir is being born.
While Grenache Noir is relatively easy to grow on Waterford soils, Mark explains that the varietal is particularly sensitive to oak during the fermentation and ageing process, and that the wine easily absorbs the wood’s flavours. The porcelain egg, which echoes the shape of the ancient amphora, offers a practical solution: it’s neutral in flavour, yet the oval shape keeps the lees in suspension, adding subtle complexity to the wine.
Thanks to the porcelain’s unassuming character, the Grenache Noir is able to truly express the terroir – those elements that you see and feel when you walk through the vineyards on the farm. The dry, rocky soils, the sandstone, the fynbos, the olive trees, and the gentle sea breeze.
While Grenache Noir has always been part of Waterford Estate’s portfolio, it took a few years for the vines to mature and for the fruit to exhibit the characters Mark looks for when producing a single-varietal wine.
“During the first 10 years, the Grenache Noir bunches were the size of table grapes,” Mark says. “They were large and juicy, and great for eating off the vine, but they made very diluted, alcoholic wine with little flavour. In 2014, we noticed a very visual indication of maturity. The bunch weights were down, the berries were about half the size and, when tasted, they really showed their potential.”
The time had come for this grape varietal to live on its own.
This year, the Grenache Noir vines flourished during one of the driest seasons the region has ever seen. When the vines were planted many years ago, managing partner and cellar master Kevin Arnold knew that climate change would eventually affect this plot of land in the Blaauwklippen Valley. Planting drought-resistant Mediterranean varietals like Grenache, Tempranillo and Mourvedre proved to be a smart strategy.
“This year’s yield is slightly bigger than last year’s,” Mark says. “This just shows how the extreme drought has had very little effect on the vineyard. It can survive the toughest conditions.”
The Waterford team is proud of the fact that the Grenache Noir is a true reflection of the terroir. They’ve worked hard at producing a wine that doesn’t simply try to replicate what’s done in other regions of the world, but which shows purity and elegance – characteristics that are present in all Mark’s wines. The vineyards are also tended to in a way that genuinely suits the Stellenbosch environment.
For Mark, the Grenache Noir also has sentimental value. “My first work experience at Waterford Estate, back in 2004, was in these vineyards,” he says. “During my time here, we were preparing the Grenache vineyard soil for planting the following year. So, I was here when the groundwork was laid.” Being able to produce the 5th vintage of Grenache Noir is a memorable experience that Mark is unlikely to forget, as this year’s harvest also coincided with the birth of his second son.
Spend a few minutes in Kevin’s company and you’ll also learn about this legendary winemaker’s passion for the robust, Spanish varietal. Nache, the young ridgeback that’s always by his side, has been named after the burgundy-coloured grape – a clear sign that the Grenache Noir is also one of Kevin’s all-time favourites.
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