1997 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah  


Warning: This Cellar Favorite has a tragic ending. 

Rewind to the mid-nineties, South Africa is basking in the afterglow of the dissolution of apartheid dissolution and Nelson Mandela’s election as President. After decades of selling wine domestically, South Africa’s wine industry is suddenly exposed to a competitive, global market, often under governmental control. Among a vast ocean of turbo-charged Bordeaux blends, the 1997 Syrah from Boekenhoutskloof is sui generis and becomes one of the Cape’s most iconic, mythical wines.

A bit of background because apocryphal stories abound. For this, I am indebted to its creator, winemaker Marc Kent. Though he now resides and makes wine in Portugal, Kent remains Boekenhoutskloof’s managing partner and, according to current head winemaker Gottfried Mokke, frequently commutes between the two countries, ensuring it remains one of the nation’s best estates. Though the farm dates back to the 18th century, winemaking was only introduced in the mid-Nineties. Since their own vineyards were just being planted, Boekenhoetskloof relied on contracted fruit. “The 1997 was my first vintage of Syrah and my first proper vintage altogether,” Kent tells me. “In 1996, I crushed only eight tons of Cabernet Sauvignon.”

I ask Kent the origin of the 1997 Syrah as I had heard different stories and wanted information from the horse’s mouth.

“The vineyard was on a farm named Vine Lodge Farm, owned by Derek Delson. It was on the Helderberg side of the N2, as you leave Somerset West toward Sir Lowry’s Pass. The vines were all a massal selection and were previously being delivered to Koelenhof Co-op. It was 90% de-stemmed without crushing, included 10% whole bunches, and 20% of the stalks were added into the fermenter. It was a wild ferment with no acidification and all [transferred] into second-fill French barriques for the malolactic and élevage.”

What was the inspiration for the wine?

“At the time, the reference for South Africa was big, over-oaked, normally American-oaked monsters, made in the style of the big Barossa wines that were popular then. After visits to Jean-Louis Chave, Chave having just returned from U.C. Davis, Robert Michel [owner of Le Geynale vineyard in Cornas now partly farmed by his nephew, Vincent Paris] and Gérard Jaboulet, I tried to produce a wine more aligned with their ways. I produced 500 cases. To date, it is still the only wine that I have ever produced where every barrel was assembled into the final blend.”

Did Kent realize the quality of his wine, and what was the initial reaction?

“I had so little experience, but [I remember that] the cellar reeked of white pepper notes. It was [like a] Hermitage or rather Crozes-Hermitage, I thought like Graillot at the time. I thought it was pretty good. I did everything my lecturers said I shouldn’t. The late Prof. Joel van Wyk, on his only visit to Boekenhoutskloof, said it was a ‘time bomb’. [Probably because it had a high pH of 4.1]. We have never entered shows or competitions, and so a Platter five-star was the only early endorsement when less than two dozen were awarded. The biggest customer was Richard Kelley MW, who used it as his wedding wine. He had his wedding in a marquee on the car park at Boekenhoutskloof.”

I was fortunate to taste this legendary wine at a private dinner during my last trip to the Cape. The cork was not saturated, but it was very crumbly. Fortunately, and I don’t want to boast, I’m extremely good at pulling them out, even if it took 10 to 15 minutes equipped with just a waiter’s friend.

The 1997 Syrah totally lives up to expectations. Showing modest bricking on the rim, it has a resolutely Old World bouquet that emits a warm glow of lush red strawberry and raspberry fruit, Provençal herbs, rosemary, leather and sage. The aromatics, after 26 years, remain defined and pure, maybe with just the faintest touch of Brettanomyces. It could easily pass as a Northern Rhône. The palate is exquisitely balanced with a velvety, sensual texture, fine tannins and a kind of melted quality that makes it irresistible. A faint hint of garrigue on the finish begs another sip. Simply magnificent. A soulful Syrah with plenty of life ahead. 96/Drink 2023-2036.

I mentioned that this Cellar Favorite has a sad ending. Kent describes its fate…

“I went to check the budding in September 1997 in anticipation of the 1998 harvest. The vineyard had been ‘pruned’ with a D8 [a bulldozer]. I was absolutely gutted. I scrounged a few cuttings from some random vines on what had become a building site that May and grafted them out on Boekenhoutskloof’s ‘Phoenix’ vineyard. The virus-ridden material was never able to fully ripen in much cooler, wetter conditions. It has indeed become an industrial park/strip mall.”

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