There have been four winemakers at Stellenbosch winery Rust en Vrede since Jannie Engelbrecht, father of current owner Jean, acquired it in 1978: first Engelbrecht Snr himself, then Kevin Arnold (now of Waterford) from 1987 to 1997, Louis Strydom (now of Ernie Els Wines) from 1998 to 2006 and Coenie Snyman from 2007 until present.
Owner Englebrecht speaks of style changes that have occurred over that 33-year period to ensure the wines were suited to market preferences but hopefully without ever negating the property’s essential character of DNA. So how to understand the manner in which the wines manifest themselves at present?
Currently, half of Rust en Vrede’s 20 000 case production is exported, the USA being its most important foreign market taking some 2 500 cases annually. Engelbrecht says 2000 was a watershed year in the property’s history. Keen to crack the US market, he toured widely but the reaction to the Rust en Vrede wines then was that they were too austere. “They wanted more fruit and a slightly riper style.”
Snyman won the title of Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award in 2009 for his Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, a wine that has an alcohol by volume of 15.1% and a residual sugar of 4g/l so weight and power is very much what the house style is all about going forwards.
Asked to articulate his wine aesthetic, Snyman says he wants to avoid “an excess of herbaceous flavours” and instead goes in search of “rich and ripe fruit”. How does his approach differ to that of Strydom’s? “I think our philosophy in the cellar is pretty similar. It’s in our expectations of the vineyard that we’re radically different. I prefer to perform viticultural actions a lot earlier to get rid of green character which means I don’t need extreme ripeness.”
Yesterday, the launch of the 2008 Single Vineyard Syrah set to retail for around R850 a bottle and the 2007 1694 Classification, a blend of 58% Shiraz and 42% Cabernet Sauvignon and South Africa’s most expensive wine selling for R1 200 a bottle.
The Single Vineyard Syrah 2008 spent 18 months in a combination of French and America oak, 75% new. I found it very rich and concentrated with a slight impression of sweetness (abv 14.89% , RS 2.9g/l, TA 6.2 g/l, pH 3.69).
The 1694 Classification 2007 also spent 18 months in a combination of French and American oak, but here the oak was all new. This wine is more successful than the Single Vineyard Syrah for me, showing red and black fruit, and good freshness despite huge flavour intensity (abv 15.28%, RS 2.5g/l, TA 6.7 g/l, pH 3.56).
So how good are these wines? It’s difficult to be totally impartial when they’re being paired with the truly excellent cuisine of Rust en Vrede restaurant chef David Higgs as was the case for me yesterday but it bears mentioning that the 2006 vintage (as made by Strydom) of 1694 Classification was rated 93 points in US publication Wine Spectator. When I encountered it blind for the January 2010 issue of Wine magazine, I rated it 18/20 and commented that “to fixate on the obvious wood-derived character is to miss the sumptuous fruit that it also displays. An unashamed blockbuster but exceptionally well executed.”
Regarding Snyman’s wines in particular, these are on a par with Strydom’s in broad terms, if anything showing even more fruit weight and opulence of texture. I have no doubt that along with Engelbrecht’s canny marketing, they will take at least the Yanks by storm.