Haskell Vineyards – A rising star in Stellenbosch

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A former world champion athlete decides that now it’s time; time to end a long and successful career as a high-jumper. Nothing spectacular with that – what really raises the eyebrows would rather be her next calling; wine importer and sommelier. You know, the temptation writing this article and focusing on the athlete that converted to a wine importer, were present from the very start ; a feeling growing even stronger when finding out that one of the co-owners of the winery I am about to present, was a golf pro for 12 years. But then, one should be judged by her or his skills finding the good picks – or making good wine – not because of a former career.

Kajsa Bergqvist recently started Kajsa Wines in Sweden. Having been on several training camps in South Africa it was only natural she developed a taste for the Stellenbosch wines considering she more or less lived amongst the vines while training. And that her first ‘baby’ ,as she calls it when we meet, would be a South African producer is hence no surprise.

Haskell Vineyards in Stellenbsoch, and their brands Dombeya and Haskell, has lately gained a lot of attention for its wines and their brilliant winemaker Rianie Strydom. I came in contact with Haskell Vineyards and one of the co-owners Grant Dodd on Twitter – what a great and easy way of communication that is by the way – when Grant told me they recently signed with a Swedish importer. One thing led to the other and shortly after I was invited by Kajsa to sample the Dombeya wines of Haskell; five of them were tasted and you will find my notes in a post following up on this initial article.

Being surprised by the finesse and restrained style of their wines, which is right up my alley, I simply had to find out more about Haskell and Dombeya. Grant generously took the time to enlighten me and you will find his answers below.

Grant together with Rianie

Hi Grant! Tasting Dombeya’s wines were such a great eye opener for me – making me realize prejudices were holding me back from buying South African reds. Since your wines are a totally new discovery for me I wonder if you could tell me more about Haskell Vineyards/Dombeya, the people behind it and how it all started?

Well, it’s a bit of a tale. It all started in 1999 when I was playing golf on the European Tour in Moscow at the Russian Open. I met a guy called Preston Haskell, we became friends, and when I stopped playing at the end of 2004 we started a business shipping Australian wines into Russia. Preston had purchased vineyards in Stellenbosch in 2002, and began building a cellar in 2004. In 2005 he asked me to come on board as a partner and I have been overseeing the running of it since.

At the start of 2005 we were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when winemaker Rianie Strydom became available. She had been the winemaker at Morgenhof for ten years and was looking for a place to exercise her creative side, and it has turned out to be a great match for us. It takes about ten years to become an overnight success in the wine industry but we’ve made a great start and are making wines that we are proud of, and perhaps more importantly wines that are making people sit up and take notice of.

Do you own the vineyards yourself or do you buy in grapes on contract?

We own the vineyards, and manage them ourselves. The exception here would be for small volumes of Petit Verdot and Malbec that we buy in to make up the mix for our Bordeaux blends, and for the Sauvignon Blanc that goes into the Dombeya range.

Châteauneuf du Stellenbosch!

What’s the typical Stellenbosch soil like? Does it vary a lot in your vineyards?

There is a lot of variation across Stellenbosch, and especially so on the upper slopes of the Helderberg range where we are located. The soil type across some of our vineyards, and particularly the ones that are planted to Syrah, is integral to the character of the wines. The Pillars and Hades Vineyards (Hades is yet to come into production) are planted on sites that have a high stone fraction (mainly granite and sandstone) and so far we are seeing that these sites impart a very individual aromatic quality to the wines. They show a perfume on the nose that is quite feminine and have a lovely vibrancy of flavor with characters that sit somewhere between the red and black fruit spectrum, and which also show a pronounced varietal spice note as well.

Some of the lower slopes have a higher clay quotient, and are planted accordingly, but generally I would say that our site has low fertility and very good drainage. These factors are a few of the reasons why our vineyards have the capacity to grow grapes that show concentration and balanced flavor.

Pillars Vineyard

My immediate thoughts when tasting your wines were that these are mineral driven one’s. What do you strive for in your wines – how important is the expression of a wine’s growing site?

Expression of site should be the ultimate goal of any wine producer with the ambition to make great wine. The greatest wines in the world all come from specific places, and the rest of the wine producing world uses them as benchmarks by which to judge where they are at quality wise. Cote Rotie for Syrah, Burgundy for Pinot Noir, Mosel for Riesling and so on. In the New World we are by and large still working on identifying the best places for growing certain varieties, still working on clonal selection, still working with challenging the status quo and working out whether to rewrite it.

More than most wine growing countries, South Africa is still a work in progress, which is the exciting part of being involved in the industry here. South Africa’s greatest wines, the wines that will define its identity in the future, are undoubtedly still to be made, but there are plenty of people working on that right now. There is a huge amount of investment taking place in the South African wine industry and the sense of purpose is tangible. Those of the new wave that are able to maximize the potential of their ‘terroir’ the quickest will be first in the queue for recognition.

For me, the Chardonnay almost resembled a gently oaked Chablis and the Cabernet had similarities with a modern Margaux. The Sauvignon Blanc, although having some Semillon in it, sent me right off to Sancerre! South Africa goes way back as a wine producing country. Since Dombeya are relatively new on the wine scene I’m curious where you turn for inspiration. Do you consult and listen to other South African producers or do you simply follow the European regions we so intimately link with the grapes you cultivate at Haskell Vineyards?

We aim to make wines of restraint and power. Our goal every year is to achieve phenolic ripeness at lower alcohol levels. So much of what we do in the vineyards is working towards that goal, but you need to be supremely patient in this game as nothing happens quickly, especially vine maturity and learning lessons. You get one chance a year to make great wine, then a while later you look back on what you have done and think, “Well, that was fantastic,” or, “I might do that differently next time.” It is the nature of the beast when you are a wine producer.

In terms of modeling, we look around the world for inspiration and taste as widely as possible in attempting to work out where our wines sit against their peers. It is the only way to be honest about whether you are achieving your goals or not.

Haskell, your marquee label, seems to have reached cult status in South Africa already. Tell me more about the Haskell Vineyards Pillars Syrah!

We started with the ambition of creating a world class wine brand. Obviously that doesn’t happen overnight, but you put systems in place for that to happen and keep working towards that goal consistently. Last year, the first Haskell wines released found immediate acclaim. The Haskell Pillars Syrah 2007 became the first South African wine ever to win the Tri Nations Challenge against the best wines of Australia and New Zealand, in the process winning the trophies for Best Syrah, Best Red Wine and Best Wine of Show.

Then we also received 5 stars in the John Platter Guide 2010, one of only 41 wines in South Africa to do so. Jancis has been saying nice things, along with plenty of other critics so we seem to be doing something right.

Rianie Strydom

One can’t mention Haskell Vineyards/Dombeya without discussing your winemaker Rianie Strydom! I’m truly impressed by her wines and obviously I’m not the only one. Tell me more about Rianie’s background.

As mentioned, she was the winemaker at Morgenhof for ten years. She came with a lot of experience making Cabernet blends, and this blend is her real passion. I think it surprises her somewhat that the wines Haskell has become renowned for in its infancy are made from Syrah but she has taken to the grape like a duck to water. I’m loathe to ascribe a ‘feminine’ touch to her work but I think most people see a sense of restraint in the wines Rianie crafts and in some ways the cap fits. At Haskell she has the artistic freedom to make wines the way she see’s fit and she does that without compromise. She’s a woman of her convictions.

Pillars Vineyard

Vineyard techniques such as pruning, yields, green harvest to mention a few – could you tell me a bit about the ‘Haskell way’?

We treat all our vineyards the same, with great attention to detail, low yields and very strict bunch and berry selection in the winery. We green harvest when necessary, but the extent of that changes from season to season. We started with unashamedly ambitious goals in that we wanted to be recognized as a maker of some of the finest wines in South Africa and to do that you can’t take any shortcuts. It took us three years to get things to where we needed them to be in the vineyard, and therefore three years to produce a Haskell wine. All the vineyards receive the same treatment, and every grape the same attention in the winery.

How much vintage variation can I expect in your wines?

South Africa is no different to any country in that the seasons are not homogenous. And already we see subtle changes from year to year, but fortunately for us the years since we started in 2005 have been by and large very kind. There is a consistency about our wines that we’re very proud of as a result.

What’s the ageing capability on the wines you produce?

The Haskell wines are built to age longer than the Dombeya range. That said, I think it is a little hard to make grand predictions about where the wines will end up this early in our evolution. But the first Bordeaux blend that we made (2005 Dombeya Samara) has evolved beautifully and just keeps getting better which is very encouraging.

How big is your annual production?

At the moment across the two labels we produce around 8000 cases (roughly 100 000 bottles).

What’s your attitude towards biodynamical cultivation? Anything you strive for – or at least minimal involvment of chemicals?

I’m a fan of organic viticulture, and believe that having a healthy eco-system helps to grow better grapes. We work on a minimal intervention approach- all of our vineyard and winery waste is composted and goes back into the vineyards. We use an introduced, natural predator program to control insect issues which saves us having to spray for a number of potential problems in this area, and we’ll continue to look at anything that enhances our ability to maximize the potential of our vineyards.

I have some issues with the ‘spiritual’ component of biodynamics. If a wine producer had to stand in front of a group of consumers and explain to them what is involved in being ‘certified biodynamic’ it would raise a few eyebrows. Cows heads with oak bark inside, buried in the vineyard? Stag bladders filled with yarrow , buried in the vineyard? Horn of a cow, filled with manure? To control weeds, apply the ashes from burnt weed seeds to vineyards after they have been lightly sprayed with the urine of a sterile cow, after the urine has been exposed to a full moon for six hours?

Look past the dynamism of the word and its strength as a marketing term and a lot of the practices involved seem to have little relevance to agriculture. It all makes a lot of sense until you get to the proscriptive elements dictated by someone who formulated the doctrine in the 1920’s.

That said, there are some magnificent wines being produced under the banner of bio dynamics. How much of that is owing to the ‘organic’ base to the philosophy and how much to the bio dynamic preparations and applications is a debate that will rage on forever. As the old saying goes, if you are a believer, then no proof is necessary.

Healthy leafs!

When discussing South African wines, the issue of the burnt character that, in my opinion, many wines are haunted by, never fails to be brought up. In your case it is for me especially interesting since none of your wines are nearby the burnt scent and that makes me wondering; what are you doing that so many else aren’t?

It is a really good question. The problem exists (but less so every year, in my experience), and there is a lot of research going into finding the cause. Still, no-one has a definitive answer yet. Some point to virus issues, given that leaf roll virus is a problem in South Africa that other countries don’t see to the same extent. I certainly used to think that this was the case, but now I lean more towards it being purely related to reduction, and therefore largely a wine making issue.

Those rubbery mercaptan-like aroma’s and flavors that you describe are often a telltale indicator of reductive compounds, which I suspect are created in the wine making process perhaps through ferments that are not seeing enough aeration. A well regarded foreign winemaker has also suggested that it may be as a result of using dried yeasts that have nutritional problems in South African musts.

As I said though, I think the issue is becoming much less common anyway. There is a far greater awareness now after the criticism of the past couple of years, and given the competitiveness of the commercial environment no-one wants to be a brand living with such a tag.

Ironically, critics considers the burnt character to be a flaw, WOSA is looking more and more into it, but the consumers in my home country seem to enjoy the character a lot considering South African wine’s popularity in Sweden. I don’t like it at all but that is my very own opinion. However, should we just let the burnt notes be left alone since they obviously are appreciated by many?

I see it as a flaw. I also think that if South African wine is to be taken seriously and to achieve its full potential then this needs to be eradicated. It can be overpowering on some wines and can mask varietal characters and nuance in the affected wines. But if people like drinking wines with such characters then good for them. There is plenty of wine in the world, and something for everyone’s taste. The bottom line with wine is that if it tastes good to you, drink it!

I’d like to visit Haskell Vineyards – is that possible?

Everyone is welcome. The cellar door is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am- 5pm, but if anyone is really interested in having a good look around then give us a call on +27 21 881 3895 or e-mail: infoathaskellvineyards.com. We also have a great restaurant (Long Table Restaurant and Cafe’) that is open Tuesday to Sunday for breakfast and lunch, with an interesting range of imported wines on the list as well to offer something a little different from the average fare.

* Photographs shown with the friendly permission of Haskell Vineyards

** If you’re a ‘terroirist’ then check out the map at Haskell’s website, showing all locations and their soil.

*** Part two of the story soon to be published as well, consisting of tasting notes on the 2009 Dombeya Sauvignon Blanc, 2008 Dombeya Chardonnay, 2007 Dombeya Merlot, 2007 Dombeya Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Boulder Road Shiraz.

 

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  • Rickard

    >Intressant läsning, ser fram emot dina provningsnoteringar. Hämtade häromdagen själv ut 2 flaskor vardera av Dombeya´s chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon och 'Boulders Road' Shiraz. Inte utan att man är sugen på att testa efter man läst denna artikel.

  • Niklas Jörgensen

    >Hej Rickard, noter kommer snart! Börja med att poppa en Chardonnay ;-)

    MVH

    Niklas

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