People in the wine world love a good story about a maverick – more so, a maverick who has overcome adversity. It’s like viticulture itself: good fruit comes from vines that have struggled to get the water and nutrients they need.
South Africa has the story of Bruwers Raats, the cabernet franc-obsessed winemaker who defied all conventional wisdom and went ahead to make such wines as the Raats Family Cabernet Franc 2001, which Jancis Robinson, British wine critic, journalist and wine writer, once compared to Saint-Emilion superstar Chateau Cheval Blanc.
With such an accolade, it’s easy to understand that there would be more cabernet franc planted in the country. The variety covers just 0.6 per cent of total plantings today, but South Africa has spent much of its post-apartheid winemaking history bending to the winds of global demand.
“For much of the ‘90s, this meant Bordeaux-style blends trying to be in vogue with the rest of the world,” says Raats. “When I began working as a winemaker’s assistant in 1996, I discovered that the best wine in the cellar was a cabernet franc, which we used in all our blends. I asked why we didn’t make a single-varietal wine. Cabernet franc was stigmatised as a grape for blending, according to the winemaker. As a result, I always told myself that one day I would make a wine from a single grape variety for myself.”
After five years of hard work, Raats Family Wines realised his wish. At the time, there were no cabernet franc specialists in the country since the grape was sensitive to light, prone to being excessively vigorous, and tended to bud early.
It is also very site-specific. Unlike its offspring cabernet sauvignon, which is relatively easy to grow, cabernet franc requires soil with a medium-to-low potential and good drainage, as well as a white substance like limestone for acidity. For Raats, it’s the Polkadraai Dolomites in Stellenbosch. His vineyards are located on the cooler Southern slopes of the hills, which contributes to optimum ripeness.
With the right conditions, one can achieve a complex and elegant expression of what Raats believes is the “best single- varietal grape in the world”. There is no doubt that this is a viewpoint bound to provoke differing opinions, but it is also the kind of laser focus that South Africa needs – particularly from people who are “trying to show the uniqueness” of the country’s terroir.
Why is cabernet franc ranked at the top? As Raats says: “Most wines have only two olfactory dimensions. Cabernet sauvignon, for instance, has a fruity and herbaceous flavour. Cabernet franc is characterised by three distinct aromas: fruity, herbaceous, such as rosemary and marjoram, and spicy. Plus, the linear structure is complemented by a silky freshness. What more could you want in a red wine?”