The team at Fleur du Cap, our Winery of the Week, have the distinction of receiving five stars – the maximum Platter’s rating – for their Bergkelder Selection Noble Late Harvest not once, twice or even three times, but seven times in a row. A remarkable and unique achievement, and one which begs the question: how do they do it?
Cellarmaster Andrea Freeborough has been on board at Die Bergkelder, home of the Distell-owned Fleur du Cap brand, since this stellar sweet unfortified dessert wine started its run of notable successes in 2006.
Andrea oversees a team of winemakers, including white-wine specialist Pieter Badenhorst and new assistant Elmarie Botes, who have a hand in making the wine. Together they fill the shoes of the late Dr Julius Laszlo, Cape wine industry pioneer and manager of wine production at the “Mountain Cellar” in the 1970s. Julius was one of the first practitioners in the Cape of the specialised Noble Late Harvest style, of which Fleur du Cap has long been a benchmark.
The latest vintage (2012) is made primarily from chenin blanc (97%) with equal amounts of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. From the chenin comes the dried peach and apricot flavours; from the sauvignon the ripe tropical fruit; from the chardonnay the marmalade and orange rind. A whack of natural grape sugar (245g/l) is balanced by an acidity of nearly 10g/l and an alcohol content of just over 9%.
Mooted by the winemaking team as being of a style and quality that could reward for up to 20 years, if not more, the last of some of its predecessors are being reserved for sale through The Bergkelder Vinotèque and future Nederburg Auctions, singly or as a connoisseur’s collection of all seven vintages.
Due for release in the second half of this year, the Fleur du Cap Noble Late Harvest 2012 has been pegged at the same price as its vaunted predecessors: just under or at R120 a bottle.
Andrea: Our Noble is one of the “sweeter” ones – usually between 200 and 250g/l residual sugar – but it seems to be working, although it’s absolutely essential that it’s balanced by an appropriate acid level.
Noble Late Harvest wine is made from grapes infected by the Botrytis cinerea fungus (noble rot) when they’re fully ripe. They’re then left on the vine while the fungus digests the skin and dehydrates the berry (which explains the exceptional flavour concentration of this style of wine, including the typical raisin and honeyed notes). The whole bunch is not always affected, so berries are often hand-sorted. A large number of grapes are required to yield a small quantity of juice, placing a further premium on this wine.
Viticulturist Bennie Liebenberg, with Fleur du Cap since 2001, manages vineyards not only in Stellenbosch, from where the bulk of the grapes come for the Noble Late Harvest, but also Elgin, Durbanville, Darling and Paarl. Conditions for the onset of botrytis are very specific: some warmth and wet (which creates humidity) at the fully ripe stage, followed by a dry spell (else a grey or sour rot develops).
Andrea: Noble Late Harvest versus Natural Sweet? I think the Nobles offer much greater concentration and complexity. They’re “special occasion” wines, great with cheeses, nuts and fig preserves (this has to be one of my favourite things!)
THE PREVIOUS VINTAGES
The first two five-star vintages (2006, 2007) were made from riesling. In 2008 the winemaking team also had access to semillon from Durbanville which resulted in a blend of the two varieties. Having since lost access to the riesling vineyard, the team has been working primarily with chenin blanc (100% in 2010) supplemented with varieties such as muscat, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
Given the specificity of climactic conditions (plus botrytis-prone varieties), Fleur du Cap’s access to a range of varieties, vineyards and regions has undoubtedly assisted production of consistent quality and supply over the vintages. Whether global warming and climate change has affected the Cape winelands weather to a degree where conditions are ‘ripe’ for more (or less) botrytis infection…
Andrea: Difficult to say; we haven’t really noticed a pattern emerging. Here again, the fact that we select from a number of different sites, means that we have access to botrytis-infected fruit each vintage.