There are few places in the world where vineyards melt into the scenery more majestically. Home to the Bouchard Finlayson Vineyard and Winery, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is defined by the backdrop of magnificent mountains and the roar of the ocean. Yet it’s not just its terroir that makes this estate so special, it’s the people behind it.
It all began, as most worthwhile ventures do, with just the right amount of chemistry, hard work and serendipity. Star winemaker Peter Finlayson (of Hamilton Russell at the time) won an award for best pinot noir. One of the international judges on the panel was Paul Bouchard and part of the prize was a trip to Burgundy. During this trip, Finlayson and Bouchard struck up a friendship, which led to the purchase of a farm in the picturesque valley, and Bouchard Finlayson Vineyards was born. Together, they broke the soil, planted the vines and built the cellar.
Today, more than 25 years later, it is regarded as one of the country’s best wine destinations, renowned for producing some of the best pinot noirs and chardonnays South Africa has to offer.
Having assisted Finlayson in the cellar since 2011, Chris Albrecht was officially appointed winemaker in 2017. The change was low profile but the ongoing mutual respect and the land they tend together has ensured a seamless transition.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a gap to do another “Out to Lunch” feature with a winemaker (something I started in 2005), so when an opportunity presented itself to meet Albrecht in Hermanus, I jumped at it.
When I arrived at the quaint Heritage Cottage restaurant on Marine Drive, Albrecht was waiting with a bottle of his yet-to-be-released maiden vintage Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2017.
Atop the famous cliffs of Hermanus, with magnificent views of the bay, I soon discover why Finlayson and the owners of Bouchard Finlayson would have hand-selected Albrecht to take over the reins in the cellar.
After completing his BSc Agriculture in Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Stellenbosch, Albrecht gained international experience spending three years working six vintages in three countries: New Zealand, France and the US.
In December 2010, Albrecht started his career at Bouchard Finlayson, cutting his teeth on pinot noir – all the while mentored by the pinot pioneer himself – Finlayson - and finding kinship among the other great winemakers in the valley.
Although relatively isolated geographically, the Walker Bay winemakers are anything but when it comes to partnership. Together, they have developed an incredible sense of team - all chipping in and helping on each other’s farms when needed, regularly braaing together and sharing a kind of magnanimous understanding that whatever is good for the whole, is good for each part.
Straight-talking and grounded, with a burning intensity to succeed, the pinot noir before us possesses the same seriousness and taut character as the man who made it. It’s got huge potential and is going to get even better with time.
Why did you decide to become a winemaker? The diversity of the profession appeals to me: plant husbandry, creativity, market interface, science and mystique – all rolled into one job.
Any interesting anecdotes you’ve picked up during your winemaking career?I can’t recall the exact wording but I recently read something along the lines of: ‘’Wine is the unstable state between grape juice and vinegar.’’
What do you regard as the main factors behind Bouchard Finlayson’s success? Experience, consistency and commitment to excellence. The involvement and family values instilled by the current owners have also been instrumental.
Your favourite white and red wines – to make and to drink? Dry German riesling and red burgundy, please. Back home – pinot noir and chardonnay.
What’s your view on pinot noir as the signature grape of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley? Given the shallow, clay-rich soils and moderate maritime climate, the pinot noir wines from the area should speak for themselves.