Thursday, November 11, 2010

Boekenhoutskloof – Producer of Sensational Premium Wines as well as Good Value Table Wines in Franschhoek

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with winemaker Jean Smit at Boekenhoutskloof

From an initial 6000 bottles in 1996, now Boekenhoutskloof’s output is running at 3 million bottles, of which 95% is its second label Porcupine Ridge and the new Wolftrap, and 5% the premium category wines Boekenhoutskloof and The Chocolate Block. Founded in 1776, Boekenhoutskloof is one of the oldest farms in the Franschhoek Valley and has seen a phenomenal development since 1996. It now enjoys a reputation as one of the leading wine estates in South Africa. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours there with winemaker Jean Smit in September 2010.


The Boekenhoutskloof farm was founded by Hugenot settlers, bringing with them Mediterranean grape varieties and French know how. In 1993, the farm was purchased and restored by a partnership of wine enthusiasts, revamping the ancient cellar, installing state-of-the-art equipment and implementing a new vineyard planting scheme. Boekenhoutskloof derives its name from the Boekenhout tree, of which there are still several along the stream banks of the property.

There are approximately 20 hectares of vines at Boekenhoutskloof - 25% of which are planted to white varieties:Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier; and 75% of which consist of reds: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. All vineyards employ extended double perold trellises. The soil types are not homogenous, ranging from deep, rich alluvial soils along the river’s edge to iron ridge clay on hillsides with areas of decomposed granite.

Boekenhoutskloof is farming organically and also well advanced in its plans to embrace bio-dynamic wine making.

Marc Kent

Boekenhotskloof’s public face is Marc Kent, who was in Europe when I visited Boekenhootskloof. Marc Kent joined Boekenhoutskloof in 1994 and has become the seventh partner. He pays frequent visits to France where he indulges in the French traditions of winemaking, which are clearly the inspiration behind the style and philosophy of his own winemaking.

Boekenhoutskloof shot to prominence with its first Syrah (1997). It was Kent’s first job out of wine school. His hands-off approach captivated an audience looking for wines not focused around fruit or oak. Many say that it put South African Syrah on the map. Winemaking was not Kent’s his first career choice: he was on course to be a pilot with the South African airforce when the changing political landscape derailed this option.

Jean Smit

Marc Kent is heading a team of winemakers that now includes Jean Smit, responsible for Boekenhoutskloof’s high-end wines. Jean Smit had assisted at Boekenhoutskloof before, but then had left for Elgin to become Iona’s first permanent winemaker. It is unlikely that Iona’s owner Andrew Gunn was delighted when he learnt that Jean had been lured back to Franschhoek by Marc Kent.

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller, Jean Smit and Aikas

Jean likes to get his hands dirty and believes that good wine can only be made from good fruit. The whole time I was together Jean, we were accompanied by his dog Aikas, wherever we went. He graduated from the University of Stellenbosch but initially wanted to become a medical doctor. “I never thought I would be so fortunate to become a winemaker at my favourite property.” What would he want to be if born into history as any famous person? “Che Guevara on his Norton 500 discovering South America and writing his motorcycle diaries – he lived his dream!” And, if money was not a constraint, “I would like to live on a island off the coast of central Africa, help developing the community and dig into their culture during the day, and sit on the beach at night with my wife and Weimaraner and drink Romanee-Conte and eat buckets of crayfish and abalone” Jean said in a recent interview.

The Wine Portfolio

Boekenhoutskloof produces four wine brands: Boekenhoutskloof, The Chocolate Block, Porcupine Ridge and Wolftrap.


I tasted with Jean Smit the 2008 Boekenhoutskloof, the flagship range: Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, The Journeyman, Noble Late Harvest.

The majority of grapes for the Boekenhoutskloof range are outsourced as the home vineyards are too young or not yet bearing. The Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a single riverside property in Franschhoek. This is also the source of the Sémillon. The Shiraz is sourced from a vineyard in Wellington.

Boekenhoutskloof Semillon: 1000 case were made of the 2008 vintage. The wine is fermented in new French oak, where it stays for 13 months. After alcoholic fermentation the barrels are taken to the cold room and kept at 5–8 degrees C for a year. This inhibits the malolactic fermentation. No sulfur; no battonage.

Oxidative, old world style. Green apple, pear and citrys notes on the nose. The oak is really well integrated. The palate has some lemony and herby character.

Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon: 500 cases were made of the 2008 vintage. Aged in new oak for 27 months: first, itt spends 18 months in the barrel on its gross lees, is racked and fined with egg white and then returns to the barrel for a further 9 months. It is then fined and bottled. Jean does not do any acidification, which is unusual by South African standards.

Attack of dark fruits and spices on the nose. The palate is well structured, full and spicy with tight, tannic dark fruits.

Boekenhoutskloof Syrah: Boekenhoutskloof’s flagship wine. 1000 cases were made of the 2008 vintage. The first vintage, 1997, was exceptional, but the vineyard had to be given up as apartment buildings were constructed on it. The fruit now comes from a single vineyard in Wellington.

Wild fermented in small open concrete vats and aged in used French barriques for 27 months. Bottled without acidification or filtration. The oxidative and artisanal approach in the cellar leads to a wine which is not driven by primary fermentation esters and oak flavors but rather more developing secondary and tertiary flavors.

The wine is called Syrah and not Shiraz. Both are the same grape, but producers use each term to indicate a style difference. Most South African producers want to be affiliated with Australian-style wines, so they use Shiraz on their labels. Interestingly, Boekenhoutskloof uses Syrah, which indicates that they were going for a more French style wine.

Rich dark berry, black plum, pepper and coffee and mocha on the nose. The palate is rich with plenty of complexity and hints of blackberry, dried cherry, prune, and cranberry.

“The thing with Syrah is that you need to leave it to do its own thing, let the wild child free, and at the end of the day it will amaze you with its complexity”, Jean Smit says.

Boekenhoutskloof Noble Late Harvest. Just two barrels of this wine was made. Wonderful rich, apricotty nose is intense and rich, and also shows citrus and caramel notes. Sweet, viscous, honeyed and rich on the palate with good acid.

The Chocolate Block

“The Chocolate Block is not at all a terroir wine, but a multi-regional blend", says Jean. The 2008 Chocolate Block is blend of Syrah (69%); Grenache (12%); Cabernet Sauvignon (10%); Cinsault (7%) and Viognier (2%).

The Syrah fruit comes from Malmesbury with its unique growing conditions and dryland farmed vineyards to ensure it deep-rooted vines and therefore optimal concentration of color, flavor and tannin structure. The Grenanche is sourced from Citrusdal with its very sandy soils and perfect terroir for ripening this grape varietal. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier come from the organically farmed vineyards of Boekenhoutskloof and the Cinsault is from old bush vines on decomposed granite soils in Wellington. All five varieties have appeared in varying quantities from vintage to vintage.

All barrels used are French with the amount of new oak sometimes as high as 50% but typically around 30%, the different components spending more or less the same time in barrel, usually 16 months.

The Chocolate Block has grown from 15 barrels of the maiden 2002 vintage to 765 of the current-release 2008. The Chocolate Block was put together for the first time after Wellington winery Diemersfontein, which I visited later, had come up with its crowd-pleasing and now widely copied chocolate Pinotage. However, the Boekenhoutskloof wine has never been quite as overtly flavored.

Whereas the defining character of the other wines in the top-end Boekenhoutskloof range is one of finesse, the same cannot really be said of The Chocolate Block. The amount of chocolate-like character that the wine displays from year to year might be debatable, but on the whole it tends to be generous and expressive.

Porcupine Ridge

Below The Chocolate Block sits the Porcupine Ridge tier of wines, and here we are in altogether different territory, with volumes exceeding 2 million bottles a year. Half of this is Sauvignon Blanc.

Boekenhootskloof is currently sponsoring a PhD student, who is researching the feeding behaviour and movements of the porcupine. In general, there has been an active conservation interest on the farm. A rare Erica, Erica lerouxiae, has been identified on the property and is completely endemic to Boekenhoutskloof.

The Wolftrap

The Wolftrap is the latest edition to the stable of Boekenhoutskloof. This used to be a sort of bin-end; now it is a more focused blend of four varieties: Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Viognier, typically made in volumes of between 35 000 to 40 000 cases. In addition, there is now The Wolftrap Rose.

There is a 250-year old wolf trap on Boekenhoutskloof and the name is a tribute to the pioneers who in the early days of the Cape erected a wolf trap, mistakenly believing that wolves inhabited the area. To date, no wolf either real or mystical has been seen in the valley.

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  1. Hi Christian

    This is an excellent article on Boekenhoutskloof – I couldn’t have done it better, Thank you for your interest in our property and wines. I’m glad that I had the pleasure of showing you why we thing this piece of land is so unique. I’m also happy to see that you made it home safely – it is amazing what spams people come up with. Good luck with your work! I hope you get within the Top10 Bloggers soon.

    All the best

  2. This is the fertile ground is where the French first made wine in South Africa 300 years ago. Today, that noble tradition is carried forward by the members of the franschhoek wine estates.