South Africa’s “hottest” cool region: with Crystallum’s winemaker Peter-Allan Finlayson

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It’s quite possible to make exciting, interesting and characterful wines from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in South Africa! Everything depends on the temperature – and the winemaker of course (as well as a whole lot else). During a visit to Paul Cluver last spring I noticed an interesting map of temperature differences between the various wine regions in South Africa. The proximity to a cold ocean and southern winds means that although southwestern South Africa (Western Cape) can get quite hot there are pockets where southern cold wind cools the ground and allows the cultivation of cold climate grapes such as pinot noir.

The map shows quite clearly that, for example, Swartland is warmer compared to Constantia, and is therefore better suited for syrah and / or GSM-dominated wines. It also shows that it is probably too hot in Stellenbosch for riesling. It turns really exciting if we look south towards Walker Bay and the Hemel-en-Aarde valley.

Western Cape heat map
Western Cape heat map, copyright U Bengtsson

Here it is cold enough to make excellent wines from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which the brothers Peter-Allan and Andrew Finlayson have built on when they developed the brand Crystallum. Peter-Allan was recently in Stockholm, for the first time in, and presented his wines, which are released in monopoly shops this summer.

Peter-Allan’s father, Peter Finlayson, moved to Hermanus in the late 70s to become a wine-maker at Hamilton-Russell. No one thought that it was possible to make wine in Hemel-en-Aarde, but it turned out to be an excellent place. In 1989, Peter Finlayson left Hamilton Russel to start his own business, Bouchard Finlayson. The family has subsequently sold its shares in Bouchard Finlayson.

Peter-Allan Finlayson of Crystallum
Peter-Allan Finlayson of Crystallum, copyright U Bengtsson

In 2007 the brothers Peter-Allan and Andrew started Crystallum that went from a couple of bottles annually to nearly 40,000 bottles per year today. The brothers buy in almost all fruit, they have very few own vineyards (a few hectares only). At present they work with nine different vineyards. They work according to organic principles but are not entirely organic. They use some French oak but without it being dominant. “We are trying to highlight the region and the vineyard in our wines,” Peter-Allan points out.

We launch into the first wine, Agnes.

Hemel en Aarde Valley, Walker Bay, South Africa
Hemel en Aarde Valley, Walker Bay, South Africa, copyright BKWine Photography

Agnes Chardonnay 2016

Agnes was Peter-Allan’s great grandmother, who was sent to South Africa from England as a 14-year-old for unclear reasons. She is said to be the first woman to take a driving license in Cape Town. Peter-Allan tells us that the grapes are whole bunch pressed in an older, slightly coarser press that gives some oxidation to the wine. But, according to him, this will make the wines more stable after the vinification.

The wines are fermented in oak, 10 percent new. Only natural yeast is used. Shortly before bottling, sulphur is added. But, Peter-Allen says, if the wines are becoming too funky, sulphur is added earlier to avoid deviations. The soil is mainly clay and lime and the vineyards are at about 300 meters altitude.

This is a good chardonnay. Full-bodied, some oak, works fine with a little higher temperature in the glass, maybe a little weak in the middle. Otherwise good balance, characterful, good bite at the finish. Distinctly Chardonnay. Delicious!

Crystallum clay Shales and Agnes
Crystallum clay Shales and Agnes, copyright U Bengtsson

Clay Shales Crystallum Chardonnay

The next wine is also a chardonnay, Clay Shales. Here we have a bit more acidity, I think this wine is a little more exciting, good acidity. More towards yellow fruit. Clear chardonnay character and also very good!

Peter-Allan mentions that there is a lot going on in Hemel-en-Aarde, not only one or two producers who make pinot noir and chardonnay but now there are more than ten producers. “Obviously something is going on, a movement,” he says. “We winemakers are happy to cooperate and gladly exchange knowledge and experience.”

Hermanus in Walker Bay, South Africa
Hermanus in Walker Bay, South Africa, copyright BKWine Photography

Time for the reds! The grapes are picked near Villiersdorp, located southeast of Franschhoek. Now we are up at 700 meters altitude, the soil is more clay-based. 15 percent new oak. We try three wines, Mabalel, Cuvée Cinema and Bona Fide. The three wines are similar in flavour and taste, but there are clear differences. In particular, in terms of “red fruit” vs. “dark fruit,” where Mabalel tends more towards red fruit and Bona Fide more to dark fruit.

Peter-Allan says that “it’s not hard to make big, powerful wines in South Africa – the climate is well suited for it. The challenge is to make wines with finesse and concentration. Finesse and watery wines? Nobody wants it. There must be concentration too. ”

Mabalel Crystallum Pinot Noir 2016

First out is Mabalel. Wonderful nose, deliciously dirty, light, fresh, delicious! It will be my favourite.

Cuvée Cinema Pinot Noir 2014

Then we dive into Cuvee Cinema: more powerful nose, more liquorice, lighter, a bit more diluted, it does not quite reach the Mabalel level I think. Many around the table have it as favourite though. More acidity.

Crystallum Mabalel, Bona Fide and Cuvee Cinema
Crystallum Mabalel, Bona Fide and Cuvee Cinema, copyright U Bengtsson

Bona Fide Crystallum Pinot Noir 2016

Finally Bona Fide: Very nice mouth feel, light and elegant. Delicious! Darker. Crystalline starts the fermentation at 10 degrees C, the process usually takes 3-5 weeks.

Finally, Peter-Allan notes that “we are not in competitions; we are not trying to make a perfect wine. We are not trying to make a pinot noir that stands out among, say, fifty other pinot noirs. We just want to make a pinot noir that shows where it comes from. ”

The tasting was led by Peter-Allan and was organised by the importer Quaffable Wines.

Ulf Bengtsson writes about wine under the pseudonym Red Scream on his blog Red Scream and Riesling, on wine, food, photography and other things that are important in life. Like detective novels, taking long walks in Stockholm and the occasional burst of exercise. He is also on Facebook.

More on Hemel and Aarde wines

Hemel en Aarde is one of the sub-regions of Walker Bay, with the main town of Hermanus. It is one of the “hottest” areas today in South Africa, just because it has a cooler climate. In addition, the landscape is truly beautiful. There are not so many producers here, but some have already become internationally known, Crystallum, Bouchard Finlayson, Newton Johnson, and Hamilton Russel are the ones that come first to mind. But there are many more in the Walker Bay region.

Here you can watch some video from Hemel en Aarde and Newton Johnson.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Join us on BKWine’s wine tour to South Africa and you’ll get the chance to discover this beautiful and exciting wine district!

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Hemel en Aarde Valley, Walker Bay, South Africa
Hemel en Aarde Valley, Walker Bay, South Africa, copyright BKWine Photography

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