South African Chenin Blanc is a very different proposition to what it was even five years ago. The new generation of South African winemakers have looked at the country’s flagship white wine variety and are re-inventing it for a modern wine drinker. None more so than Opstal’s Attie Louw.
Louw is one of a generation of winemakers producing terroir-driven Chenin Blanc
There are not many wine families in South Africa that can boast a heritage that goes back seven generations.
But Stanley Louw and his son, Attie, are not only carrying on the family tradition of growing wine in the breathtaking Slanghoek Valley, north of Stellenbosch, but they are, even now, building a reputation for the quality of wines they are producing at the foot of the Slanghoek mountains at their Opstal winery.
Attie Louw still lives in the original homestead that his ancestors have done all the way back to 1847.
On the face of it quiet and unassuming, Louw is one of the leading players in the new generation of winemakers that are taking South Africa to places it did not know it was capable of even five years ago.
Louw admits he might have been born in to a winemaking family, but it was not a foregone conclusion that he would follow in his father’s and ancestors’ footsteps.
In fact he first started studying agriculture and economics at Stellenbosch University before seeing the light and switching over to viticulture.
It was a wise decision. After gaining his wine degree, Louw went on to earn his spurs, as it were, by working on vintages in both the northern and southern hemispheres in the Rhone and in Australia.
“I am so pleased I did that as it opened my eyes to what is going on and really helps you understand what you have learnt on the course,” he says.
One of the first projects for Louw on returning to the family winery to work alongside his dad, Stanley, was to get its barrel selection under control and ensure it had the right balance of wines to truly express the wines it was making from the unique terroir of the Slanghoek Valley.
“I am very happy that the wines we are making are true to our terroir,” he says, “and that any oak we use is very much a part of the supporting cask.”
Which means making both easy to drink, approachable wines likes its Estate range, and then more complex, demanding wines at the more premium end.
“I like to have minimal intervention in my winemaking,” explains Louw. “So I can stand back and see the process taking place.”
Making his name with Chenin Blanc
Louw is now, alongside eight other local winemakers in the Breedekloof area, just through the Du Toitskloof Tunnel from Paarl, making his name with Chenin Blanc.
The winemakers have been working together to try and create their own unique Chenin Blanc styles using minimalist winemaking techniques, playing with wild ferments and using more skin contact in the process.
The Opstal Estate Carl Everson Chenin Blanc is Louw’s line in the sand for how he sees this pure expression of Chenin Blanc.
First introduced in June 2013 with the 2012 vintage, the wine is made from 33 year old vines, naturally fermented and matured in French oak barrels. It boasts notes of peach and squashed pineapple on the nose and has a lovely rich, mouth feel on the palate with balanced acidity.
Louw is also looking ahead to see what other kinds of wines and grape varieties can work in this unique sub region of South Africa.
“I planted Carignan and Roussanne last year and want to look at how the Roussanne might work with a Chenin Blanc and Viognier blend. It is about looking to see what we can develop and do differently here,” he explains.
“I also want to be able to have control over the style of wines we can make here and it is great to have that independence.”
A family affair
When Louw is not plotting his new blend, he is busy helping keep the winery’s restaurant and function rooms busy and ticking over. Its location makes it ideal for weddings and special events and it is looking to add rooms and offer space for people to stay from next year.
“It will offer people an amazing view of the valley and you could not get further away from the city,” says Attie. “It feels like you are days away there even though it is only about an hour away from Cape Town.”
New to the portfolio is Louw’s The Barber Semillon which carries as much of a story as a punch of rich, luscious fruits.
It is named after Louw’s grandfather, who during his time serving in the Second World War, started to cut some of his fellow soldiers’ hair. A skill he brought back with him to South Africa after the war when he opened up his own barber’s shop.
Now is the time to honour him with his own distinctive wine, says Louw.
* Attie Louw’s wines are sold in the UK through Edgmond Wines.