Big Schalk’s Honest Wines

“There’s emotion behind these wines. It’s got to be a hellava nice experience for everyone. These are not pretentious wines they’re solid.”

Even though he ran onto the rugby field in the green and gold, his biggest love was for cricket. For those in the know, he was a player would could say what had to be said and hit what had to be hit. But within this huge man beats a gentle heart and his voice is even gentler. And he’s passionate about nature, Wellington and wine…

“In cricket terroir dictates the game plan,” Schalk Burger (Snr) explains on an early summer morning on Welbedacht on the slopes of the Groenberg just outside Wellington. “It’s the same with wine. Cricket is known as a gentleman’s game and that is where the association with wine comes in. We are not trying to be above those who drink our wines. We make a solid honest wine.”

That kind of talk is a reference to their recently released Cricket Pitch 2003. At R85 per bottle it is there Flagship wine and boasts 4 stars in John Platters 2006 guide. The name comes from the cricket field on Welbedacht (one of only two cricket fields on farms where regular games are played) and it’s an attractive Merlot/Cabernet blend with raspberry and berry fruit on the nose and palate. Its full body and firm tannins signify and longevity and with an alcohol content of 14,5% and 18 months in wood it demands more from you than an everyday plonk.

Schalk had been looking around for land for a long time, but when he found what he longed for, things happened quickly at Welbedacht. With his background in the liquor industry and after the wonderful results that were obtained by buyers of his grapes, he yearned to turn his wine dreams into reality.

In 1995 he bought his first farm and this was followed by the purchase of Welbedacht in 1997. Dating back to 1800 it was a bit run down, but the water and the established old trees may have led to the decision to buy it, he admits.

He is fond of nature. While he gives gigantic strides, he talks about massive oak trees in front of the homestead (which has been fully restored) and about the olive trees behind it. All the new buildings have been planned around the garden. “Ag, it gave me a kick last year while they “Why wine? Why do you come with that question so early in the morning?” he wonders audibly. “All my life I’ve been fascinated by the interlude between man and nature. You can take that through to farming. I wanted to get back to my roots …’85 the farming tradition, because I grew up on a farm. I’ve always been in love with food and wine. And with Wellington, of course. That’s why I want to farm this piece of land well and make good wine. And life is full of dreams and challenges isn’t it?” he asks, while his blue eyes are screwed up into slits against the sun, reflect his shirt.

His two farms cover 170 hectares and are planted to Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier – as far as white varieties are concerned. The reds consists of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Merlot and Pinotage, Cinsaut, Petit Verdot and Mourverdé. Soon there will also be Semillon and Grenache. Most of the existing vineyards are old – the Chenin Blanc no less than 30 years! The planting of new vineyards was started in 1998 and is continuing, every step carefully planned around terroir. Current production is 1400 tons of grapes, of which 75% is of red cultivars and 25% from white cultivars. Drip irrigation is used throughout and two soil types dominate: decayed granite and Glen Rosa with clay. Fine ridges and slopes cause large difference between day and night temperatures, as some of the vineyards lie at lofty heights.

“We are blessed with choices,” says winemaker Matthew Copeland, whose international winemaking experience includes, France, Switzerland, California Australia and New Zealand and who has also done his local stints at Avondale and Laborie.

He is a self confessed Richard Smart disciple, looking for sunshine in his wine. When he plants a vineyard, he sticks to a north-south direction as far as possible. For years, ducks have been used to keep snails in check. That accounts for the large ladybird and guinea fowl populations the farm. Controlled irrigation is a key concept and data from weather stations is used to keep track of exact watering needs. When new vineyards are planned the clones and grape varieties are dictated by detailed soil analyses,

“There’s emotion behind these wines. It’s got to be a hellava nice experience for everyone. These are not pretentious wines they’re solid.”

“We are constantly surprised by new flavours from our new vineyards. When you’ve got both old and new vineyards, your range of options is much wider. We bring a bit of everything to the cellar and add the best to the best.”

If one had not known the Burger family and met all of them on the street, it would be hard to guess there’s a relationship. As big and burly as Schalk (Sr) is, so small and petite is his wife Myra. With ‘little’ Schalk you won’t make a mistake that easily. The blonde curly head is recognizable, even though he walks around in jeans and a T-Shirt. Tiaan’s wild, auburn mane might cause a bit of confusion while René, who is still at school, has long black hair and forget-me-not blue eyes that might still cause her father a few sleepless nights. They are a close-knit family that likes to have fun together. Even in the tasting room Schalk junior’s hand is constantly round his sisters little waist.

Everyone does a bit of everything on the farm, Schalk and Matthew quickly inform me. However, Matthew is the main man when it comes to the wine. Tiaan (Schalk's son) assisted him in the cellar with the maiden vintageand has now recently assumed the marketing position for Welbedacht following him having finished his studies. Also new to the marketing team is Rina-Marie Mackenzie who comes with a wealth of the catering experience and will assist with the marketing of the farm, cricket ground, corporate functions and restaurants.

The new cellar – which has capacity for 300 tons – was first used for the 2005 harvest. The two farms produced 1400 tons, of which 200 tons have been vinified by themselves during the last season. Amongst there first releases were a 2003 Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cricket Pitch.

A barrel fermented bush-vine Chenin Blanc and barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc accounted for the white wines. The rest of their grapes are sold to various buyers who have won various awards. Schalk does not go into details, but leaves one with the impression that an ABSA Top 10 Pinotage high-ranking Shiraz and Merlot may be amongst these.

“Definitely not something bizarre,” Schalk replies to the question about how there wines should look or taste like. “We know what gets to the cellar because we do bunch selection in the vineyards. We want our good fruit to come through in sound, traditional wines that can be served on the best tables in the world and complement the food, not dominate it.”

“Traditional with balance and elegance”, Matthew adds. “It has to go down well with food. The wine has to keep. It must be something between the Old and the New World. Definitely people friendly and not competition friendly.”

“The wine must have an attractive nose, a good front and back palate and a long aftertaste. Welbedacht enforces a certain quality and the consumer must be aware of that.”

The cellar was not built according to a given architectural style just because it is the flavour of the month. The design followed intensive research of what was demanded for their kind of fruit as Schalk says. “we built our cellar to suit our fruit”. Therefore the special kind of basket press, one of only two in the country, notes Matthew.

“I would like to think that the people who drink our wines, are aware of the fact that this is a traditional farm with specific values. There’s emotion behind these wines. Everyone who drinks them should go through a helluva taste experience. The wine is not pretentious. It’s solid,” explains Schalk.

“Balance, balance, balance! So exclaims the man who apparently can’t be left alone in the barrel cellar (as he tends to start talking to the wines). That’s what Matthew looks for in a good wine.

“I’m not trying to emulate the wine maker of Chateau Margaux, but if you’ve got balance you’ve got early drink ability as well as good maturation potential. You have elegance and structure. That’s also a must. My wines have to deliver on their promise that keeps me on the ball.”

The Welbedacht enthusiast loves good wine and is a traditional consumer of good food and good wine. But why a screw cap for the white wines?

“I have a strong inclination for practical things. Three things count: aesthetics, the practical and the economical. In this case it is the practical, although it does not detract from the intrinsic value of the total package.”

Schalk Burger & Sons
+27.21 8731877