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  5 stars for The Foundry's "heartache grape"

26 Nov 2015

Topics: Chris Williams, Platter's Guide, South Africa, South African wine, The Foundry

The Foundry winemaker Chris Williams is no newcomer to Platter's 5 star laureate podium but in the latest edition (2016) he breaks new ground by becoming the first vintner in the guide's 36-year history to earn the highest rating for a Viognier.

How does it feel to have made the first Platter’s 5 star Viognier?

I must say, I hadn’t realised that there had never been a Viognier before. I’m really pleased and honoured.

Viognier has been part of The Foundry’s portfolio almost from inception in 2000. What attracted you to this still quite rare-in-South Africa variety from the Rhône Valley?

I think I tasted my first Condrieu in the early 1990s and was blown away by the flavour intensity and idiosyncratic nature of the wine. I was in the Rhône at the time and noticed how the northern Rhône in particular is very similar climatically to the Cape and the arzelle soils similar to our decomposed granites, as they are rich in mica. My Viognier comes from southern Stellenbosch, about 5km from False Bay so it enjoys a maritime-moderated climate which pushes Viognier more towards the minerally lemon-cream flavour spectrum and has less of the overt perfumed apricots character. When done in this style, Viognier is a superb food wine, particularly with Asian cuisine as it tends to have brighter acidity and a more crystalline texture.

Seems Viognier, like Pinot Noir, is something of a “heartache grape” – difficult and demanding. Is this correct? What are the challenges of working with the grape, and how do you deal with them?

Indeed, particularly in the Rhône where it suffers from poor flowering as a result of wind, and with rot. Like Roussanne, Viognier has found a great home in the Western Cape because our winds tend to be maritime and haven’t really got going during flowering. The vineyards need to be protected from the wind. It is also very particular about when the grapes are picked - too early and the wine is neutral, too late and it's too flabby and coarse. Lower yields are essential and careful handling in the cellar too because the skins are thick and very phenolic. Rough handling of Viognier (and Pinot Noir, of course, like anything delicate and beautiful) leads to coarseness.

Tell us about the vineyard.

The 2014 comes from a friend of mine's vineyard in southern Stellenbosch, next door to Meerlust which I have been using for a few years, so its not the original vineyard from 2004, it's actually much better! It's south-west facing at about 70m elevation, so has good light exposure but not too direct, preserving perfume and acidity. It is on about 500mm decomposed granite gravel topsoil with a clay subsoil and we get around 45HL per hectare, so pretty low, but this is typical of Viognier. It is a de facto single vineyard, but not registered as such. I do a lot of wandering in various vineyards and so come across little curiosities from time to time, some of which I persuade the owners to let me make wine from.

You’ve spoken about using both traditional and modern winemaking techniques for The Foundry’s wines. Can you talk us through the vinification of the 2014 vintage in light of this?

Vinification is actually quite simple and traditional for this style of wine - some whole-bunch pressing, neither oxidative or reductive handling. The juice goes straight into seasoned tight-grain barrels. I inoculate some of the barrels and just let the others do their own thing (essentially a low-dose fermentation which produces a wide array of characters). Partial malolactic fermentation (MLF) and maturation on fine lees. No fancy tricks. The key is balance and tension which bring vivacity and character.

Philippe Guigal, the celebrated Rhône winemaker, told Decanter just a few days ago that viognier must be allowed to undergo MLF, else it produces “the wrong aromas” and a “non-interesting result”. Your own wine gets only partial (40%) malo. Why is that? Does more malo equal a better/more expressive wine, in your view?

Not sure what the "wrong" result would be, but I allow MLF depending on the vintage. In the Cape, and with Viognier in particular, low acidity can be a problem so anything that preserves acidity in a grape which already has loads (some might say too much) personality and character should be considered. Again, I aim for balance, neither wanting searing acidity or oily, flabby texture as a result of too much di-acetyl (a product of MLF) or low acidity. The only thing I am adamant about wine in general is that it is dangerous to generalise and have a formulaic approach as there is always an exception to every rule.

It’s serendipitous that the Platter’s 5 star is the 10th vintage of this wine. Has your approach changed much since the first commercial release in 2004?

Only in terms of sourcing of fruit and paying much closer attention to when we decide to pick. Over-ripeness is a no-no for me, as you lose freshness and vivacity. Also, in 2004, all the Viognier in the Cape was from young vines. Now, some of these vines are approaching 20 years old, and providing they are located in the right place and are from healthy stock, the wines should just keep getting better.

You’ve said English author Evelyn Waugh was a major influence on you. In what way? How do you think he would have described the 2014 Foundry Viognier?

Gosh, I would never try to emulate his writing style! In general what I love about Waugh’s writing was that he was a truth seeker, but not in the literal sense. He was a novelist and not an historian but he sought to capture the truth, the essence of a character, a moment or a period through brilliant powers of observation and description. He applied this skill to wine as well and so I loved the way he described wine figuratively, through metaphor rather than breaking it down into its constituent parts which is rather a reductive (in the logical sense) and diminishing way of describing something as complex, subjective, personal and varied as wine. Figurative and metaphorical descriptions of wine are rather out of fashion at the moment. Only Waugh could describe a wine as “... a prophet in a cave”. So much is evoked, explained and described in that metaphor, and so many questions raised, that it leaves the reader melancholy with nostalgia. Well, certainly this reader anyway!

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