Whether you’re talking about the wine from Château Petrus, Opus One or any of the world’s great cellars, these classics are targeted at a small number of people, many of whom will be lucky if they have the pleasure of tasting such wine perhaps once in their lifetimes. “As a crazy Belgian,” chuckles Koen, “I dream of being counted among those classics one day. Of course there is much more to it than just the name, but Spioenkop Wines can and shall make a wine that the connoisseur will experience with a unique wow-feeling – grandiose, standing out from the crowd, a special wine with so much nuance and complexity that you will literally get goose pimples.”
Koen’s obsession with the Cape winelands that developed into a passion for the Elgin terroir began over 15 years ago. “While following and tasting the evolution of South African wines, I have done business with icons in the industry who are highly regarded by the elite group consumers, the serious wine aficionados. To understand ‘big’, terroir-driven wines, you must have tasted and learnt about them and be able to put them into words. Passion and devotion are to winemaking what salt and pepper are in the kitchen – key to making wines that reflect the soil and climate where they come from.”
No doubt those who are up-to-date with the South African wine industry’s ‘hit parade’ will understand what the Belgian winemaker is getting at when he says that: “The Elgin area is the future gold of the Western Cape.” Already many of the big-name wineries in various other regions buy in grapes from Elgin, probably still better known for its apples and enclosed by the Kogelberg Nature Reserve. Almost like a crater, circular with a mountainous perimeter, the farmlands of Elgin are on a plateau at an altitude of some 200m at its lowest point. The height above the sea, visible from the ridge of the ‘crater’, makes for a temperature range that is about 3ºC lower than in the neighbouring areas, and, as Spioenkop is situated directly in the path of the cold sea wind when it funnels through the valley, Spioenkop’s vineyards are among the coolest in Elgin.
Koen’s search for what he considered an ideal piece of land in an ideal position to fulfil his dream took four long years. “I was looking at the potential of Elgin even before it was first promoted as a top winemaking area in the Cape, and at Spioenkop I am blessed with a very unique piece of terroir.”
The ground at Spioenkop is dominated by various soil types that originated from weathered ‘bokkeveld’ shale, and iron-rich ‘ferricreet’ cobblestones which in some vineyards include a mix of clay soils with a high water retention capacity. Due to the climate and the steep inclines there is a good flow of rainwater through the soils and shales, which are characterised by fossils and mineral deposits that contribute to the style of wines from the farm.
Each of the grape varieties at Spioenkop is planted on different soils chosen for their particular properties. Life isn’t easy for the vines, and that’s just how the winemaker likes it – plenty of stones and grit in the upper layers and deep, porous clay in the sub-soils being characteristic of the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy, France.
The vines are planted close together within each row, which Koen feels is crucial for the production of marvellous wines. “Competition with their neighbours helps the vines to stay healthy and results in wines that have a deep colour and matching complexity.”
On average, the annual rainfall on Spioenkop is around 800mm, which is probably the lowest in the valley, and the steep slopes facilitate good drainage. Add to this the windy, cold conditions and you have vineyards that are less prone to fungi and which are better suited to organic farming practices.