"I started to realise that wine is about identity; a wine has a fingerprint. A certain person made a certain wine, and that wine will travel the world, and somebody somewhere will be able to identify it."
is a winemaker on a mission to craft elegant wines from a hot place. His wines express distinct harmony and freshness — something that is not easy to achieve in a region that suffers greatly from drought. By farming sensitively with the soil and climate in mind, and by listening to his vineyards and to his soils, he is able to ensure that his vines are as healthy as possible. It is the tremendous effort he invests in his farming practices that ensures his vines are healthy, producing both quality and quantity when harvest time arrives.
Growing up surrounded by citrus farming, Jurgen knew from a young age that he wanted to work in agriculture; with the land. But he was looking for something more than just great lemons, and he discovered this in farming and making wine.
It's midnight, and we’re learning how to dance the Afrikaans Sokkie dance in a bar in downtown Riebeek-Kasteel, with Jurgen and friends. We know that when we wake up babbelas (the Afrikaans word for a bit hungover), Jurgen will already be in the vineyards or cellar working at full speed.
There’s perhaps no other wine region in the world that encapsulates the Work Hard Play Hard ethic to as great an extent as the farmers of the Swartland: there is a lot of play here, but that certainly doesn’t compromise the work. There is a certain energy in the region that reverberates through its people: a buzzing energy of conviviality with a laissez-faire approach; but one of conviction.
They might party hard, but they graft even harder. The climate here is relentless – just when a drought year has passed and a normal year arrives, another drought year strikes again. Farmers across the Swartland peer at the sky anxiously every day, hoping to see just a whisp of a cloud that might bring rain. 95% of the time, the rain doesn’t come, and this means even more work for the farmers. Jurgen is part of a growing group working organically and/or biodynamically, who share advice and help one another to figure out ways to ensure their often-struggling vines can produce a healthy crop. By working with cover crops and putting straw down in the vines, he can ensure that his soils retain as much moisture as possible, to store for the vines’ future. There is one other element that is key: timing. Over the years Jurgen has come to understand that timing is crucial – work needs to begin much earlier than you might imagine. This means grafting all year round, but by doing so, Jurgen ensures that his vineyards, soils, fruit – and eventually wine – will be of utmost health.
Jurgen is not originally from the Swartland; he grew up in the Eastern Cape, 850km away, amongst all the citrus farms. As a child, he would go to the Western Cape for holidays, and visit his grandparents who had a smallholding in Stellenbosch, which included a vineyard. From a young age, he found the notion of grape growing fascinating.
“I saw how diverse grape growing was – how each season was so different, and how different grapes suited different regions. It fascinated me a lot – you didn’t really have this with citrus. I started to realise that wine is about identity; a wine has a fingerprint. A certain person made a certain wine, and that wine will travel the world, and somebody somewhere will be able to identify it."
It was this notion of identity that stuck with Jurgen:
“If I walk into a market in Paris and I pick up an orange from South Africa, I might have no idea which part of South Africa it’s from. But with wine, you can pick up a bottle and you can get to the point where you can identify a producer and a region, and see a resemblance. It’s just amazing.”
He decided that wine was the path for him, and went to study at the Elsenburg Agricultural College, one of three places you can study wine in South Africa.
In 2005, he met Eben Sadie, who was doing a project at a winery where Jurgen was working. He was doing things that weren’t in Jurgen’s wine school textbooks. He remembers,
“I was so intrigued to see how Eben and his team worked. All of a sudden, there was this guy using a small basket press - just using gravity, and as an aspiring young winemaker, this was something totally new. I wasn’t used to those methods. I thought, man, this guy is interesting.”
He got to know Eben, and in 2007 Eben asked if Jurgen would like to join him for harvest in Spain - in Priorat at Terroir Al Limit, a winery which Eben cofounded. Next, he worked in the Swartland for Eben in 2008. This was his introduction to the region. The energy of the region stood out in a way he hadn’t experienced before. He says,
“From the beginning I fell in love with the Swartland. Number one because of the people – there was this totally different relaxed vibe – they were chilled. There were no egos. I realised it was possible to work and enjoy life. Too often, Africa can be all work, work, work and that’s it. Sometimes we miss out a bit on the good part of life – just sitting down for a bit with a glass of really good wine.”
Next, he worked at a big South African cooperative winery in 2008 and 2009. Although he was paid pretty well and the job provided a lot of security, Jurgen couldn’t get to terms with the wines. He remembers,
“It was such a struggle to drink the wines; they just weren’t my style. I didn’t want to make market-driven wines, I wanted to make wines I love, and to get those wines out into the world. I said to myself, I need to make a call and make a bold move if I want to get where I want to see myself in the future.”
He spoke to his boss, who was friendly and supportive and advised him to be brave and leave the coop side of wine if he couldn’t see a future working in this branch. So, Jurgen packed his bags and moved halfway across the world, to Côte-Rotie in the northern Rhône in 2010. He says,
“I had move to Europe to taste and experience the wines made there, to give my palate a better reference. It’s not so easy to taste interesting European wines in South Africa. Whether you clean a press in France or in South Africa, that’s the same thing, but being in France was about tasting, tasting, tasting – seeing what they do differently and how they work differently.”
When he returned to South Africa, he came across the wines of Craig Hawkins of Testalonga, who at the time was working at Lammershoek. The wines struck him. He remembers,
“I remember I drank a very fresh Chenin Blanc made by Craig that had a lot of acid. I remember being so surprised that someone in South Africa was actually able to make wines like that. It was a really cool thing for me, and it was a real push for me to start working with him. The family was so kind also – they let me make my own wines at the same time.”
It was during this time that Jurgen began to create his own brand and started to figure out what his own style would be. In the meantime, he continued to harvest-hop between the northern and southern hemispheres. In 2012, he worked with Tom Lubbe, at Matassa in the Roussillon, who, together with Eben Sadie, he likens to Mr Miyagi: a mentor figure. He recalls drinking Tom’s wines and other naturally made French wines, saying,
“It opened my mind, the proof was in the pudding. I was being exposed to wines that were truly alive and that spoke of a place. Even from a warm region, the wines could be eloquent and fresh. These were wines with soul. Tom told me, ‘Winemaking is a celebration of the work we do in the vineyard,’ and it is just so true.”
By 2015, the time had come to step out on his own. This coincided with his decision to lease a vineyard for the first time, to farm himself.
He went to visit a vineyard that was about to be pulled out by the farmer. He says,
“Had I been a week later they would have uprooted it because they needed space for livestock. It was winter, so I had no idea if it would even produce or be healthy, but I just followed my gut feeling - my gut said do it. Trusting my gut seems to work well for me.”
Although he does not yet own land, Jurgen is deeply passionate about farming. Some of his vineyards, like that original Chenin block, are leased to him so that he can farm them himself. The other sites he works with are all farmed organically or biodynamically, and he has close relationships with the farmers. This is very important to Jurgen: good relationships mean that there is trust established, the farmers can rely on Jurgen, and in turn Jurgen can share his thoughts and give advice. He says,
“Where possible, I lease the land. There’s a difference between leasing a parcel to farm and purchasing fruit from a farmer who is cutting costs because they struggle to make ends meet. It’s also not just about buying fruit from a grower; it’s about having good relationships and sharing ideas. Fruit prices have gone up quite a bit over the last few years, which is a good thing - because we always try to support the farmers. We’re still a few years away from getting the balance right between the bottle price and the price of the fruit, that’s another challenge.”
The most important aspect of grape growing in the Swartland lies in composting and using cover crops to improve soil health and water retention. In a region that has battled drought for a number of years, any water preserved in the ground is a blessing for the vine.
“I start at the bottom and work it up from there. It all starts with the soil. Composting is so important – building microbial life, enhancing that life and improving the organic matter in the soil. If there’s great health in the soil, the vine will benefit, and if the vine benefits you’ll have good quality grapes and you can make good wine. It’s a chain reaction.”
He makes his own compost and works with many different cover crops in autumn and winter – lupines for nitrogen, but also lots of grasses – mustard, radish, cloves, black oats and white oats. The grasses serve as a “lid” to protect the topsoil. He explains,
“We’re trying to create a carpet on top of the soil to protect the top layer and to keep it moist. When we talk about the Paardeberg, for example, it’s so sandy and doesn’t retain moisture. That’s why the cover crops play such a big part in fixing carbon in the topsoil.”
Some rows in between the vines are left untouched for one year, following a “no-till” policy, and he alternates which rows he works. He has also been working a lot with grass trimmers known as “weed eaters,” so he can cut off any weeds very close to the ground without disturbing the topsoil. He explains,
“We have many problems with weeds in South Africa, one in particular called Raaigrass – it’s a real bastard that sucks up all the water out of the soil. The vine is in competition with everything that’s living in the soil, but if we till too much then the topsoil is disturbed. It’s about doing what’s best for the soil and for the vine.”
He also buys straw bales from a local farmer and packs these around the vine, so no sunlight can get to the weeds, meaning they can’t photosynthesise. This is work that begins very early in the growing season. He says,
“It is all about timing. Timing is essential. You have to start working with the weed eater during the beginning stages when the vine is budding. If you start in September, in the lead-up to harvest, you’re too late. You have a very small window of time – if you miss it you’re in danger of sacrificing quantity.”
It’s also a question of constant grafting. Just because one year might have some rain, doesn’t mean he can stop working on his cover crops. He explains that the vine has an “18-month memory,” and that by neglecting to sow cover crops or by composting less one year, this might have a negative impact many years in the future.
Jurgen has always strived for freshness in his wines, and has settled on approximately 12.5% ABV for the reds and 11.5% ABV for the white wines and skin contact wines. He says,
“At those alcohol levels you can have the best of both worlds. If you go too high, you might sacrifice the terroir element of a wine, and if you go too low, you might sacrifice the varietal character.”
Making low-sulphur wines in such a warm climate has its challenges. He explains,
“We’re very clean in the winery. I have to be very cautious with the amount of time on the skins. With higher pH juice and low sulphur levels, we need to be on top of our game. We can’t miss a beat – one wrong decision and the whole batch can go wrong. It’s about visualising the whole process. I do very short skin contact for the red wines, seven to 12 days – especially as I use the stems which add more potassium – another risk.”
He has experimented with skin contact white wines since the very beginning. Named Elementis, the skin contact Chenin was first made in 2011; the same year he began working at Lammershoek with Craig. He had tasted European skin contact wines, but there weren’t yet many made in South Africa. He decided it could be a cool thing to try out —little did he know that his skin contact white wines would quickly gain an international reputation. It began as a simple exploration of flavour:
“Chenin Blanc is such a versatile grape, but I wanted to figure out the potential of the flavours in the skin itself. The variety has a very wide flavour profile, it’s not like Sauvignon which has one or two dominant flavours. It was about appreciating that flavour profile and showcasing it, instead of making a statement with my wine style.”
He discovered that the best way to do this was by using gentle methods:
“If you work the grapes too much, the wine can be very tannic and overpowering, and just be a ‘skin contact’ wine. We’re very subtle during the fermentation, it’s a process of guiding the wines. There shouldn’t be too much clothing, this wine is just the naked fruit. Purity is very important for the skin contact wines. If you make natural wines too funky, all of a sudden your wines can taste similar. I don’t want people to think my two skin contacts are the same, there’s a clear difference between the wines.”
He also racks the wines to get rid of the heavy lees, to ensure that any bacteria that has arrived from the extended skin contact is left behind. From analysing the wines before and after the racking he has noticed a prominent change in stability. When they are bottled, he feels they are amongst the most terroir-expressive of his wines, explaining,
“It’s crazy the difference a site can make, and I was actually very surprised when I discovered this by working with different sites for the skin contact wines. In my mind, orange wines are super site-specific.”
All of the wines have to sit below 40ppm of sulphur additions in order to be entered into the “alternative” red and white categories of the South African tasting board: the government’s regulation panel that controls which wines are allowed to be exported. Until this category had been made official, it had been tough for winemakers like Jurgen to introduce skin contact styles on the international market. Now, the future is bright.
The wines are only sulphured after malolactic fermentation or before bottling if needed. He says,
“I’m not dogmatic about sulphur. If I add some, it’s not for the worse. It can make the fruit more clear. I don’t want to make no-sulphur wines that become too cider-y. I want to taste purity and freshness. There’s a fine line, and terroir plays a massive part in the wines. If you push the boundaries too much, or go a bit too wild, then you sacrifice a bit of that. Style takes over and you miss out on the sense of place. I want a sense of place, I want the varietal characteristics to show, and I want to differentiate between the different wines I make. I don’t want people to say “which is the Syrah?”
He decides which of them need sulphur by putting the wine in a bottle and leaving it outside for a week in very warm conditions. This means he can note what activity goes on in the wine, giving him a very good indication of how big or active the microbial population is. A simple method, but an effective one.
When we ask him what lies ahead, he says simply,
“These days, I strive for consistency – consistent farming and honest wines. Maybe five years ago when I was younger, it could be cool to push the boundaries, now it’s about consistency."
He laughs and continues,