White-on-White: Porseleinberg 2010-2020


Fans of Rob Reiner’s spoof documentary This Is Spinal Tap will recall the scene when manager Ian Faith bounds into rehearsals carrying a cardboard box filled with copies of Spinal Tap’s forthcoming album. “Here it is, lads. Gather round,” he beckons. Having originally anticipated a cover design as risqué as its title, band members inspect the record company-sanctioned textless plain black cover. Bassist Derek Smalls appreciates that he can see his reflection, and members agree that it represents mourning and death, at least until lead singer David St. Hubbins remarks that it's rubbish. Now, I’m not for one moment suggesting that a similar conversation ensued when winemaker Callie Louw first set eyes upon the white-on-white label of Porseleinberg. But I imagine his initial reaction was one of…bemusement.  

Though Porseleinberg is the pet project of Boekenhoutskloof, from day one, it has operated as a separate entity under the direction of Callie Louw, to the extent that many consumers are unaware that it is part of Franschhoek’s leading estate and the brainchild of shareholder, Marc Kent. Since I began covering South Africa, Porseleinberg has represented the apex of the country’s Syrah, inspired by classic Northern Rhônes such as Clape and Jamet.

Winemaker Callie Louw

Louw made a rare visit to London, coincidentally at exactly the same time as the Rugby World Cup was about to kick off, to host a vertical of every release since the maiden 2010. As expected, the room was packed, many attendees having heard of, yet never met, the elusive winemaker. Louw does not relish the limelight. He begins the tasting, forewarning that he is a poor public speaker, then embarks upon one of the most entertaining and informative tutorials in recent months. His irreverent, almost self-mocking manner, not uncommon within the Cape’s winemaking community, belies an erudite and thoughtful winemaker. A bit like Adi Badenhorst, Louw’s slightly grizzled features and carefree, slacker-like demeanor deflect from what is an astute mind. He makes a refreshing break from Gallic euphemisms and flowery language.

Louw began his career at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, working alongside Chris and Andrea Mullineux. It was a chance meeting in London with Marc Kent that introduced him to Boekenhoutskloof, which led to an invitation to join as winemaker a couple of years later. He is a straight talker who freely admits errors made in the past, for example, using dusted sulfur in 2014 to little effect and consigning one parcel to an early demise. “There is a block where there is no topsoil. It is pure blue schist, a soil called Mispah and normally not suited for planting,” Louw later clarified by e-mail. “The Syrah vines did not make it [well, all but four vines apparently]. But the Grenache loves it. After learning this lesson, I planted Grenache on all the super marginal sites.”

“I had been working with grapes from various sources [for Boekenhoutskloof],” he begins. “This site at Porseleinberg always produced small bunches. I thought that maybe it wasn’t being managed properly, then I saw for myself that’s just the way it is. The vines are like bonsais, the fruit is so concentrated.”

I snapped this outside Callie Louw’s hilltop home as the light was fading in Swartland just before a spectacular sunset. It’s a long drive if you need to pop out and get some milk from the supermarket.

Some notable winemakers were sourcing fruit from this parcel, including Eben Sadie, who used it as part of the blend for early vintages of Columella.

“The original site consisted of five hectares of vines planted around 1996 or 1997 that were burnt down to around one hectare in 2006 [after a neighboring field of wheat caught fire]. Boekenhoutskloof bought it in 2009, and we started to re-plant in 2010, expanding to 10 hectares between 2013 and 2018. In 2014, we bought the Goldmine vineyard in Riebeeksrivier, which consists of 3.5 hectares of bush vines whose yields tend to be lower. There are also two single-hectare blocks next to the house and cellar that were planted in 2011 and 2012 that are trellised by post. All the plantings used for Porseleinberg are Syrah on mica schist, blue on the top slopes and redder (more ferrous) on the lower slopes [such as the Goldmine vineyard]. It is important to farm the soils correctly and sustainably to maintain natural acidity, which is better than just planting lots of grape varieties.”

“In 2016, we became fully organic, but I took a break in order to get the foundations right. Now, we are certified in both vineyard sites so that in 2025, there will be 180 hectares of organic grapes. These vineyards produce around 1,000 tonnes of fruit, of which 800 goes into the Chocolate Block [arguably South Africa’s most successful brand] and also up to 90% of the Boekenhoutskloof Syrah.”

“I use whole bunches, which forces you to be a bit hands-off and less eager in the winery, though I did a little de-stemming in 2014 and 2015. All vintages have been produced more or less in the same way, though in 2018, inspired by what I saw when I visited Domaine Jamet, I started building my own submerged caps. This has made a positive change. I can be even more ‘lazy’ [Louw’s way of saying ‘hands-off’]. We started out using 2,500-liter wooden foudres, and so for the first vintage, they were new, so I mixed them with larger barrels and Noblot concrete eggs.”

Though I have met Louw many times, this year was my first visit to Porseleinberg. The single road to the winery seemed to go on forever, flanked by endless hectares of netted fruit trees, until finally, we reached Louw’s modest homestead that lies adjacent to the winery. The location suits someone who is happiest out his tractor in the vines. He has nurtured his own tenets towards winemaking over the years. “I don’t look at pH anymore,” he explains. “I don’t get freaked out if it’s over 4.0. I don’t have to look for acidity. We have a lot of potassium in the soil, so we manage the canopy. I don’t want my vines to stress. I want them to be happy.”

Every vintage of Porseleinberg to date with its distinctive embossed “white-on-white” label.

This was a vertical tasting that I have wanted to do for some time. Some have remarked that the style of Porseleinberg has changed in recent years, though Louw strongly denies that and seems perplexed by their comments. I must admit that tasting through the vintages, I could not detect any shift in style, even when he commenced using submerged caps. What is interesting is to see how the origins of Porseleinberg have changed incrementally over the passing years as new plantings gradually contribute higher percentages to the blend: 30% in 2013, 40% in 2016 and 60% in 2018. There have been some inevitable changes during bottle age, the 2014 losing a bit of its luster, the 2018 slipping past the 2019. What I did notice was how much these wines shapeshift in the glass, to the point where I end up rewriting many of my initial impressions. As such, Porseleinberg definitely requires three to four hours of decanting and benefits from bottle age. Stylistically, it is clearly inspired by Northern Rhône, Jamet in particular, though it still bears the stamp of Swartland.

This vertical confirmed that Porseleinberg is a world-class Syrah both inspired by and, in my view, equalling the aforementioned Rhône wine Though part of Boekenhoutskloof, Porseleinberg is more like a satellite orbiting a planet, a singular cuvée that has charted its own course since inception with ups and downs on the way. While there have been changes in the vineyard, stylistically, the wine has remained constant, and that is down to Callie Louw’s vision of exactly what he wants to make.

As for that white-on-white embossed label, perhaps, in retrospect, it was a stroke of marketing genius. There’s nothing else quite like it. Who cares if the contents of the bottle speak for themselves? And at least the cuvée was never planned to be called “Smell The Glove”.

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