The Cape Wine Festival is spectacle. Hundreds of South Africa’s best wineries come out to show off their wares to thousands of local and international trade members. Despite the commotion, Mick Craven nearly jumped over a table to hug me. At well over six feet tall I have to admit he gives a damn good embrace. A day later I met his petite wife Jeanine, and she walked me through their new vintage - the drought was challenging, but the wines are pristine.
This year, Mick and Jeanine have made the hard philosophical decision to work exclusively with organic farmers in Stellenbosch. This meant they had to give up their beloved Faure vineyard because the owners refused not to spray systemic herbicides. With such extreme drought conditions, farmers are justifiably worried about weeds consuming what little rain they receive. The Craven’s prefer working with farmers that understand that a well-chosen cover crop will actually improve water retention, provide much needed nitrogen, prevent the proliferation of moisture sucking weeds, and ultimately negate the use of chemical herbicides.
A few days later we saw this in full effect at their Cinsault vineyard. Fava beans Mick had planted a month ago were nearly as tall as I was. It had been raining on and off for a week and every vigneron we met looked incredibly relieved. The drought has caused serious imbalances in the vines leading to soaring pH levels and challenging ferments. Mick has had to harvest extremely early to maintain balance, yet their wines still show shocking ripeness and complexity. That being said, the 2019 vintage is already looking promising and might even yield a bumper crop.
Mick’s winemaking philosophy seems to revolve around texture. He ferments his Pinot Gris on the skins which results in a buoyant, bouncy, texture. His Chenin Blanc (aged on full lees) is creamier and waxier with some of the chew you’d find in really good sourdough. When it comes to reds, the soils and climates seem to shine through before the fruit. The Firs Syrah evokes its red clay soils and warm climate, while the Cinsault is more marine, transparent and exposed. Ultimately, the use of whole clusters, delicate extraction, low alcohol, and neutral oak élevage all allow the vineyards Mick respects so much to be the stars.
Whether it’s coffee, meat pies, or wine, Mick and Jeanine won’t settle for anything less than the best. They are both so honest, energetic, and enthusiastic; it’s hard not to get riled up talking to them. In addition to terroir derived aromas and flavours, there is definitely a little bit of their coy, playful, yet thoughtful charisma in each glass.
2018 CHENIN BLANC
About: The grapes from this vineyard were historically sold off to Distell, the prestigious creator of Two Oceans. Fortunately, when the son of the previous owner took over, he opened up sales to smaller producers instead. Despite this history, the 35-tear-old radial-bush-vines were never chemically farmed. The east facing site features typical granitic soils. The grapes are whole-cluster pressed into neutral puncheon where they slowly ferment for months. After additional lees ageing and racking, the wine is bottled. 12% ABV
2018 CLAIRETTE BLANCHE
About: This vineyard was once economically impossible to farm; the owner was only able to get 1000 Rand per ton of fruit ($108 CAD) from the local co-op. When Mick started buying some of the fruit it wasn’t even being farmed, but now that the venture is viable, they’re putting more work into maintenance. The 35-year-old vines are planted on decomposed sandy granite. 60% of the grapes were destemmed and fermented on the skins for 12 days. The other 40% was directly pressed into neutral tonneau. (Sadly. this is their last vintage working with the vineyard - the vineyard owner is unwilling to conform to their strict viticulture practices)
2018 PINOT GRIS
About: Pinot Gris is not widely planted in Stellenbosch making this a relative rarity. These young vines are planted on an interesting sedimentary rock, cemented into a duricrust by iron oxides. Locally this red soil is called Koffieklip or Coffee Stone. These are usually the first grapes to come into the winery in early January. Their first vintage of this wine was made exclusively for personal consumption, but fortunately they have expanded. The wine is fermented in open top tank with about 10% whole-cluster inclusion. After just over a week on skins, it is pressed off into old oak barrels.
2018 FAURE PINOT NOIR
About: Jeanine Craven’s family once owned this 450ha estate but sold it off before Mick could get his hands on the fruit. The Pinot Noir block is South-East facing, no more than 4km from False Bay making it a deceptively cool site. Clone 115 was planted in 1998 on decomposed sandy granite with a cool clay subsoil. They have to pick quite early or else the fruit develops a jammy profile or worse, gets botrytis. 100% whole-clusters were fermented in open-top tanks. The fruit is gently crushed by foot and no punch-downs are performed during fermentation. The wine is then pressed off into neutral oak. (Sadly. this is their last vintage working with the vineyard - the vineyard owner is unwilling to conform to their strict viticulture practices) 12% ABV
2018 CABERNET SAUVIGNON
About: Mick has been desperate to work with Cabernet Sauvignon and has finally been presented with the opportunity. He received a miniscule 1.2 tons of fruit from a vineyard in Polkadraai, Stellenbosch. He was able to get maximum ripeness at low alcohol and high acid. Fermentation was whole-cluster (unconventional for the grape variety) in open top tank. After a short time on skins the wine was pressed off into neutral barrel. 12.5% ABV
2018 FIRS SYRAH
This wine was created as a juxtaposition to the Faure Syrah. They found this site in the Devon Valley, planted on richer red clay instead of the traditional granite. The vines are really vigorous but because of the warmer sub-climate, they feel like these vines are in a really healthy balance. The fruit tends to come in a full week before the Faure Syrah is ready, and at a slightly higher brix level. Winemaking between the two Syrah sites is identical: whole-cluster fermentation, light foot crushing, and ten-month élevage in neutral puncheon before racking and bottling. 12% ABV
About: Last year, Mick released his first Cinsault from this site and it was a show stopper. Now the vineyard has had an extra year or organic rehabilitation and is thriving (their cover crop was as tall as I was!). It is planted on sandy granite near the ocean, you can feel the salty breeze. These bush-vines are dry farmed and tend to yield grapes with higher acid than their previous vineyard. Wine making is the same as for their Syrah cuvées: whole-clusters, foot crushing, neutral barrels. 12% ABV