Porseleinberg has been on our radar for around 5 years and I have been watching its development over that time, seeing its production shrink during the worst of the South African drought from 2015-2018 and now watching it evolve into something extremely special. There are a good number of excellent Syrahs being made in South Africa now, but Porseleinberg stands out as unique and on the verge of becoming extremely collectible and sought-after globally. I’m recommending lovers of Syrah and South African wine start buying this wine while it is still terrific value and with a view to some very special vintages in the pipeline, especially as it has now caught the attention of the international wine media community.
Tim Atkin MW gave the 2017 Porseleinberg a score of 98, raving about its incredible intensity of tar, incense and black pepper, while Neal Martin at Vinous gave it 97 waxing more profusely - ‘The 2017 Porseleinberg has a compelling bouquet of blackberry, fynbos, Provençal herbs and veins of blue fruit, all showing stunning delineation and composure. The palate is medium-bodied with fine-grained tannins and pure blackberry and raspberry fruit laced with thyme, sage and white pepper. This is utterly refined and intense yet sophisticated. A quite stunning wine.’
What is Porseleinberg?
It is a single vineyard Syrah but unlike any other. Its planted in soil where the bedrock is pure blue schist, a formation that dominates this part of the Swartland as it runs from south to north, into Riebeeck Kastel, the main town of the region. This schist flows in horizontal layers (as mica) that make it incredibly difficult for roots to penetrate and grow, and there is very little topsoil. The region receives around 435mm of rainfall per year on average (that’s about 50% of what falls in the Northern Rhône, Bordeaux or Tuscany) and only about 80mm of that falls during the growing season from October to April. It’s a blistering dry place and hot, compounding the growing challenges already presented by the soils. Yields are always low.
Pure blue schist of Porseleinberg.
The vines are tied to individual stakes on very steep slopes, just as they are in Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, and the elevation thus varies from around 200-250m above sea level. With sweeping and majestic views in every direction, the vineyard is incredibly exposed and with the altitude confers some cooling influences to a very warm climate. There has been a small planting of Syrah here since the mid-1990s and the grapes went to some of the best young growers in the region including Eben Sadie for his first Columella in 2000, Adi Badenhorst at Rustenberg and Callie Louw at Tulbagh Mountain, and who is the man behind Porseleinberg today.
Famous South African winery Boekenhoutskloof(producer of Chocolate Block) and Marc Kent bought the 40-hectare property in 2008, and set about expanding it from 16-hectares of grapes to now more than 130-hectares. The vast majority of the vines were planted in 2009, so this is still an incredibly young vineyard. Yields are tiny and production small until it started to grow with the young plantings from 2013 onwards albeit mitigated by a deep drought. Less than 10% of the grapes actually go to Porseleinberg – the remainder are for Boekenhoutskloof Syrah and Chocolate Block. Annual production of Porseleinberg currently is around 20,000 bottles from a crush of nearly 40 tonnes of grapes. Approximately half is declassified. The old block of Syrah (5-hectares) planted in the mid 1990s was largely destroyed by an escaped wheat-fire leaving just over one hectare of the original plantings, so new plantings are essential for the wine and young vines dominate the contribution to Porseleinberg. The outstanding quality from these vines gives rise to so much anticipated excitement, as we all expect quality to only improve with increased vine age.
Callie is a farmer who makes wine for a few weeks per year. In fact he only makes this wine and has nothing to do with the other Boekenhoutskloof wines except for growing them their grapes. Understanding this is essential to understanding the style of the wine. Low intervention is the mindset, so fermentation is entirely with whole bunchesand native yeasts, and the wine is only matured in neutral vessels – concrete eggs and tanks and large oak foudres – new oak barriques will never see the light of day here. I visited Porseleinberg in 2015 and Callie is actually more interested in talking about and showing his hundred-year-old printing press, a Heidelberg Model T, that produces the elegant but very classy embossed labels for the wine, than he is talking about the winemaking.
On that visit we tasted all the vintages available until that point, 2010-2013, which included the never-released 2011. The aromatic profile is intense and has that wonderful alluring complexity of all great Syrahs – clearly reminiscent of Côte Rôtie and Cornas (more than Hermitage) as well as other examples like Giaconda from Australia, and Piedrasassi from California. In contrast to other South African Syrahs the nose is more savagely wild, showing great depths between sun-drenched fruit aromas and whole bunch spices. Yet on the palate is where the real differences are revealed. The brutality of the site comes through in the tannins suggesting Porseleinberg is a wine that need some ageing. The early vintages showed more tannins, and a very recent bottle of the 2013 (which inspired this offer) showed incredible youth, and was utterly wonderful and relatively unmoved over a Saturday night with roast lamb. More recent vintages (2016 onwards) have become more sophisticated, and as the vines have aged and Callie has come to understand the site the tannins have become a little more tender and Porseleinberg is beginning to straddle the boundary of joy in both youth and with maturity. 2017 was right in the middle of a drought which only broke in early 2019, but the expression in this vintage is wonderful and I can easily see this ageing beautifully over the next decade and more. Looking ahead the 2018 Porseleinberg was given 100 points by Tim Atkin, only the third time he’s given that score for a South African wine and the first for a Syrah, meanwhile the word on the street is that the 2019 is quietly the best vintage made yet. In short, now is a great time to get in on one of South African’s already cult wines that is well on its way to becoming a global superstar.
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