Donovan Rall is one of the most exciting winemakers working in South Africa today. He first started to get on our radar back in 2017 at the now legendary New Wave tasting held in London’s Shoreditch and, since then, has started doing even greater things both with his white blends and single varietal wines. Seeking out forgotten, old vineyards that dot the landscape he coaxes vines back to health and then uses all manner of vessels to vinify and age his wines. Six of the new Rall Wines vintages were tasted at an online event – with one journalist, in particular, having a spot of bother….
Since 2017, Rall’s white blend has started to be compared to the quality levels of the great white wines of Burgundy – but at a fraction of the cost.
Charles III was looking at his computer screen with a quizzical look on his face. As though as he had lost something.
“Err this is embarrassing,” he said, “I can’t figure out how to change my name.” The name he wanted to change it to was Matt Walls, (Rhône wine expert), for it was he, although how were we to know? He looked like Charles III (well Charles I if we want to be picky) with his Vandyke facial hair, and the name quite clearly said Charles III…. Much uneasy shuffling ensued and Matt had to live with this jest from a previous Zoom call.
It was the perfect way to start an online tasting with South African winemaker Donovan Rall and a select few who had been chosen to taste six of his new Rall Wines, all of us laughing heartily at Matt’s embarrassment.
After all, there is nothing stuffy about Rall, a young, hirsute, good-humoured winemaker who has quickly made a name for himself as one of the most exciting talents in South Africa’s New Wave and one of the original ‘garagista’ winemakers in the Swartland.
Quality over quantity
Rall started making his own wines in 2008 after short stints at European and Australasian wineries. He trained with Eden Sadie and Miles Mossop in 2007 when he got back from his travels and, within six months, had half a dozen barrels under his own name – that was the origin of Rall White, a blend whose most recent vintage (the 2019) is where you’ll find a lot of smart money being put this year. If you can get any.
Although Rall’s wines are not as hard to find as Sadie’s, we are talking limited production here and when he shows us a picture of a bunch of Syrah that got into his achingly good Ava Syrah, it is abundantly clear why. Rall is interested in quality over quantity every time – seeking out old, forgotten vineyards or isolated sites that are full of character, charm and flavour.
During the course of the tasting he namechecks Little William, the single site Syrah from BLANKBottle, the winery run by Pieter Walser, another of the New Wave, that comes from a similarly austere vineyard location – way up high on some unpronounceable mountain. Like Walser, Rall seeks out some of the many interesting vineyards that still dot South Africa, buying up small parcels of fruit, contracting vineyards and cementing his reputation as one of the top blending talents in the country. His techniques are various and fermentation vessels too – concrete, amphora and very old oak, anything that showcases his grapes and does not mask them with flavours from the winery.
So how were the wines tasting?
In a word, this was an outstanding tasting any every wine was a delight with everything in its right place. I often measure a great tasting by how quickly I contact the importer to try and secure some of the wines. In this case I bought the Rall White, Cinsault and Ava Syrah (the Ava Chenin had sold out).
Grenache Blanc, Rall Wines, 2019
There is no old Grenache Blanc left in South Africa, although there will be plenty more planted if the success of this wine is anything to go by – from 20 year-old vines planted on a high elevation site (600-650m) in Piekenierskloof. Rall carries out two passes in the vineyard so that he gets the acidity and the ripe fruitiness he is after – the grapes are pressed into tank and then mixed without filtration or sulphur into concrete egg as a ‘dirty ferment’. The wine is bottled after six months, just at the point that Rall thinks the wine is losing a bit of acidity. “It’s too delicate to really push for a heavy style.”
Pale to mid-yellow, subtle nose offering slight reduction, stone fruit, greengage, cut apple, tangerine, lemon; the palate has a fine, rounded leesy texture, underpinned by considerable, crisp acidity that washes and cleanses the palate, leading to a nice pithy finish. 12.5% abv. (RRP £21.67)
“I could pick slightly later this year and keep acidity as the ripening was very even,” Rall says,”We had beautiful canopies shading the grapes, so the vines really flourished, in an area that still feels untapped.”
White, Rall Wines, 2019
Stunning new vintage of Donovan Rall’s flagship wine, a white blend of 68% Chenin, 28% Verdelho and 4% Viognier, that can box toe-to-toe with Grand Cru Burgundy for the way it delivers almost perfect balance and finesse. 2017 was the first vintage to drop the Chardonnay in favour of what is now becoming an increasing percentage of Verdelho, that enables Rall to turn the screw up on the acidity, stops the wine going through full malolactic fermentation, and thereby retains a crisp apple acidity without losing texture. To taste: on the eye it is medium yellow-gold; there’s a complex nose including tangerine zest, crisp green apple, dried flower petals, pollen and a touch of white pepper; on the palate the wine is clean, focused with a bright apple acidity, and mineral streak, holding the wealth of flavour in place. There’s great precision, focus, finesse and energy in this wine. And it’s still just a pup! A steal at twice the price. (RRP £25.68)
Chenin Blanc, Ava, Rall Wines, 2019
This outstanding single vineyard Chenin Blanc comes from a schist-based site with the fruit fermented and aged in small, neutral barrels. Pale to medium gold; the nose has an immediate note of fresh hay, an array of green and yellow citrus – Yuzu lime, lemon zest, lemon verbena – a peach stone note, pollen. The palate is tightly-coiled, intense, fresh, with great depth and promise. Rich and bright simultaneously – the balance (like all the 2019 whites in the range) is nigh on faultless. With just 1300 bottles produced this won’t be easy to find so make a note in next year’s diary, when you can hopefully try and get an allocation. (RRP £39.67)
Cinsault, Rall Wines, 2019
There is an abundance of quality Cinsault vines in South Africa, but the wines they produce can be rustic and tannic. Not so this easy-drinking beauty which comes from two sites, one in Swartland (60%) and the other in the Darling region (40%), the former being a vineyard used by Duncan Savage for his Follow the Line wine and David Sadie who uses the fruit for his Elpidios blend, the site neighbouring David & Nadia’s Hoe-Steen vineyard. The vines were planted in 1952 and 1982 respectively with 50% whole bunch carried out on the Swartland fruit and 100% on the Darling, the vessels being concrete and barrel.
By picking early, extracting softly and bottling it after just six months to retain primary fruitiness, this is a great example of how to make a Cinsault vin de soif with light to medium body, sweet perfume and juicy red fruit. The flavours are simply a joy – raspberry-strawberry, cherry stone, with rose and dried herbs de provence; the palate is light, tight to medium bodied, juicy, fresh, powdery tannins, lemon-fresh acidity, slightly savoury finish, ripe pomegranate. A ‘simple’ wine perhaps but elegant, pretty and with structure, texture and a real seriousness about it – versatile too. “I want this to be a wine that you keep reaching back for, refreshing and easy to enjoy,” Rall says. I’d say he has ticked all those boxes. 12.5% abv.(RRP £21.67)
Red, Rall Wines, 2018
A nice slant on a Châteauneuf-du-Pape – with a fresher, brighter angle; the assemblage is 70% Syrah 12% Grenache 10% Carignan and 8% Cinsault with the percentage of Syrah having decreased since 2017 as Rall introduced earlier-picked varieties, Cinsault and Carignan, to the blend to help balance the concentration caused by years of drought. All the fruit is sourced from Swartland, with the Syrah coming from Roundstone and Papkuilfontein (just try saying that after a couple of glasses).
The nose is still quite broody with a good deal of complexity and just a hint of reduction – fruits of the forest, mint, plum, blackcurrant with a slight meatiness, then an earthier, leathery component,; the palate is medium bodied with silky smooth, ripe but powerful tannins, a citrus edge, crisp, and a very dry finish. I found this a little unfocused but, even with the wine held back for its customary year this is just starting its evolution, and is probably best drunk with another three years ageing. (RRP £25.68)
Syrah, Ava, Rall Wines, 2019
On paper this great, classy South African Syrah doesn’t make commercial sense with Rall getting just 670kg of fruit from 2.4 hectares (that is two very small bunches per bush vine), but it is for that very reason – the harsh extremity of the site – that the wine is so good.
This is quite a savoury vintage; to look at the wine is medium purple; the nose is lush, inviting, intense with notes of black cherry confiture, white pepper, paprika, roses, angostura bitters, coriander seed; the palate is full bodied with a freshness that makes it feel lighter, the tannins are ripe, clipped and textured, the concentration of the fruit, acidity and roundness of the fruit almost unique and the balance pretty much perfect. With just 1700 bottles produced this might be hard to locate, Justerini & Brooks still has some, but you better be quick. 13.5% abv. (RRP £52.68)
Rall Wines are imported into the UK by Justerini & Brooks.