Bruce’s Cellar Door Soapbox

Bruce has more to say on The Drift wines.

Year of the Rooster Rosé
Many years ago I tasted an amazing Rosé from the Douro in Portugal. It was surprising on many levels. Wonderfully balanced, yet uncompromisingly bone dry. It had been made from a variety called Touriga Franca – also sometimes called Touriga Francesa.

It is a surprisingly common grape in the Douro, planted more widely than its more famous cousin Touriga Nacianal. On The Drift it yields higher than its more famous cousin, but has an amazing aromatic quality, a natural high acidity and low pH and a wonderful balanced structure.

The Drift farm is probably too cold to ripen this variety properly, but it reaches 19 degrees Balling with healthy fruit and beautifully developed strawberry and cherry flavours. It is around this sugar level that we harvest for our Rosé.

I have always wanted to make a really serious Rosé – the type James Bond would drink. It’s a rather difficult thing to pull off commercially. The Rosé category is a minefield for the consumer. On the one hand the world is awash with sickly sweet, unbalanced, unbeautiful, rough wines made from blending red and white wine and adding a whole lot of sugar. And on the other, Rosés are generally cheap. So the consumer doesn’t know what they are getting and doesn’t expect to pay for the quality that does exist.

However, when everything is against you, you have the opportunity of making something memorable that stands out against the sea of mediocrity. And it’s always more fun swimming in the opposite direction. So with this challenge in mind, we planted a small (0.2ha) block of Touriga Franca.

We chose a north facing, gently sloping site quite high up against the mountain. At around 350m above sea level this vineyard is cool in summer, but because of the north facing aspect gets enough sun. The soil is unusually homogenous on this spot of the farm, but it is quite sandy with decomposed Table Mountain sandstone, decomposed granitic substrate over shale and clay. I assumed it would be the sort of soil that would be tricky, but could provide great aromatic intensity and some persistent flavours, as well as natural high acids. And so it is happily proving.

The grapes are hand harvested on flavour alone. We never really worry about the sugar level. It is more important to get the right crisp, red fruits and balanced acidity. The bunches are softly destemmed (berries taken off in a destemming machine) and slightly crushed. After a few hours of contact in the press to extract the right amount of red colour from the skins, the grapes are pressed dry and fermented in old 500 litre French barrels until bone dry. We age the wine in the barrels for 8 months and then bottle with a light filtration. That’s about it – very simple winemaking. No tricks – just natural winemaking, so the vineyard can speak through the eventual wine.

All the hard work actually gets done in the vineyard and starts six months before harvesting with very careful hand pruning in the winter, which on The Drift farm can be very cold indeed.

There are still Mysteries
I love Pinot Noir. It transcends the obvious and the easy. Like life, however, it can sometimes seem unforgiving, unfair and unfathomable.

Although showing differences when grown in different parts of the world, Pinot Noir generally producers consistently poor to average wine. There are lots of different reasons for this and I am known to bore people half to death on the subject when I can get them cornered around a typical example.

But, when this grape shines, what lies beneath the layers of aroma and flavour can be so moving one instantly becomes a believer again.

Pinot Noir often has weak colour, with insipid, browning edges and sallow, ungenerous density. When over-ripened in the vineyard or over-extracted during the fermentation process it becomes angular dull and unlovely. Yet somewhere hidden between these worlds, lies a slice of heaven when everything clicks.

Great Pinot Noir, even with a lighter colour, can carry a depth and persistence of marvellous aroma and flavour. This is so different from most red varieties, where there is often a direct correlation between deep, brooding colour and quality and persistence. But more so than the layers of aroma and flavour in Pinot Noir, it is something about the deftness that so attracts me.

Pinot Noir is a stealthy heartbreaker, apparently unencumbered by the rules of love everyone else in the grape kingdom must live by. Seduction is fleeting, but the memory of a great example can last a lifetime. Its embrace is often unexpected, arriving half way into a bottle, but the grip, when it comes, is dramatic, unyielding and can be inspiring.

In most cases Pinot Noir underwhelms me, to the point now, well into my serious drinking years, where I am still brilliantly taken aback by the magic when it does appear.

I learnt how to grow and make Pinot Noir in Sonoma County, California, USA in the vintage of 1997. My teachers that vintage at Flowers Vineyard and Winery were Greg La Follette and viticulturist, Greg Bjornstad.

The Gregs taught me a lot and I worked hard and happily. I learnt how to determine true ripeness in Pinot Noir and how to interpret the mood of a Pinot Noir fermentation.

Pinot Noir, because of its very unusual organic chemical architecture, reacts more violently than other robust varieties to the fermentation environment where yeast, oxygen uptake, extraction are influenced so critically by temperature, alcohol accumulation and human energy.

As a result of these life lessons my Pinot Noirs tend to be very soft, rounded expressions, with deeper colour than normal and an amazing tenacity to age beautifully - which always puts a big smile on my face, because Pinot Noir that ages with grace is so moving.

I aim to make Pinot Noirs that are joyful, bright, complex and delicious as well. Sometimes they take longer to express their drinkability – this is very vintage dependent, but I would always sacrifice early drinkability for long-term deliciousness.

Mary le Bow
The Mary le Bow red wine blend is a farm-designate red blend consisting of Cabernet, Shiraz, Petit Verdot or Merlot and sometimes (in exceptional years) Cabernet Franc – all in varying proportions, depending on the vintage characteristics of the year.

This wine comes from the spectacular, top-quality wine farm called Wildepaardekloof (“wild horse valley”), tucked into the mountains high above the rural hamlet of Ashton in the Robertson wine ward. The aspect is South West and East facing. The soils are mostly devigorating, mineral-rich, ancient, decomposed granite.

I have been involved with the farm since the re-planting program was undertaken by the Fraters in the 1990’s. The wine has been made since 2003. The Mary Le Bow Brand is owned by a Trust, the beneficiaries of which are the Frater and Jack children. The late James Frater and I were close friends.

The origin of the name – Mary le Bow is named after St Mary le Bow in Cheapside, London. Famous of course for the big Bow Bell. If you are born within earshot of the Bow Bell you are a true Londoner – a Cockney.

Many sources put Mary le Bow as the oldest place of Christian worship in England. Much of this part of inner London was a fairly unstable marshland but, unusually, this church is built on granite, and the various levels of crypt are cut down into this granite.

Many of the Crusades officially left from St Mary le Bow, and of course the remains of the knights who fought and died in the Holy Land were interned in the crypts. Angela Frater’s (James’s mother) distant ancestors were some of the last people to be buried there, hence the connection.

James asked me to make this wine to fulfil his father’s (Kenneth Frater) vision of a wine that “...almost trembled with power, but never needed to flex its muscle to be enjoyed.” That’s a cool brief for a winemaker!

The Drift