When Bruwer Raats drove through the Stellenbosch Valley on the way to study oenology and viticulture at Elsenberg College in 1993, the die was cast. “I promised myself that one day, I would own a farm here, that I would make wine here, that I would make it work.”
And 24 years later, the impossible dream has become a successful reality, evidenced by his remarkable achievement at the annual Platter Wine Guide reveal on Friday November 3, where Bruwer’s Raats Family Wines was announced winery of the year, with five five-star wines from the Raats stable – Eden High Density Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2015, Raats Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2016, Raats Original Chenin Blanc 2016, Raats Family Cabernet Franc 2015 and Eden High Density Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2015. Three other five-star wines from his Mvemve Raats collaboration with friend and winemaker, Mzokhona Mvemve, the MR de Compostella 2015; and from his B Vintners Vine Exploration Company collaboration with cousin Gavin Bruwer Slabbert, Haarlem to Hope 2016 and Liberté 2016, make a total of eight five-star wines, and a Platter all-time record.
It hasn’t been an easy task. Bruwer chose to build his dream in some of the most expensive wine country in South Africa, which, although it is still considered by many to be the epicentre of the South African wine industry, Stellenbosch does not boast the greatest yields. It is an expensive place to make wine.
But Bruwer was undeterred, and shortly after graduating from Elsenberg, he set about putting his plan into action.
In a time when buying and owning wine-producing land was increasingly unpopular, he was determined that he would own his own farm, so he devised a cunning plan to fund the purchase.
“I bought a property in Paradyskloof in 1999 for R195 000 and sold it 18 months later for R315 000,” explains Bruwer, “and I repeated that process until I’d accumulated enough to buy the land.”
And this is where he got really clever. Instead of accepting the bank’s standard modus operandi – buying the land on a mortgage bond, and using his accumulated funds as development capital for the business – Bruwer persuaded the bank to loan him the development capital he needed, and he bought the land on the Vlaeberg Road in 2004 where Raats Family Vineyards has flourished, with his own money.
And the result 13 years later? “I own Raats Family Vineyards free and clear, and I have no debt,” says Bruwer.
A maverick in his own way, Bruwer chose to farm with varietals that at the time were less than popular: chenin blanc because it was seen to be workhorse not capable of producing quality wines, and cabernet franc because it was seen as something of an outlier, prone to methoxypyrazines, the compounds that can impart unpleasant greenness in wines. Once more, a calculated risk, but it has paid off handsomely.
Of the eight five-star winners in the Raats stable, three are single-varietal chenin blanc, two are single varietal cabernet franc, and one each contains chenin blanc or cabernet franc as a lead blend component.
Once the new property was planted to vines, using carefully selected clonal material, Bruwer had to source grape elsewhere while his neophytes vines grew to the point where they could produce a useable crop, which took ? years.
“I made most of my first wines from old low-yielding chenin vines from Stellenbosch, Paarl, Durbanville Hills and the Paardeberg, and they were a mainstay of Raats wines in the early days,” says Bruwer. But as the new vineyards began to produce viable fruit, and Bruwer saw what the combination of precise soil analysis, meticulous clonal selection, and targeted viticultural practices could do, he formulated his vision – quality by design.
“It is true that some of our finest wines come from old low-yielding vines, but that was more of a happy accident than focussed effort when they were planted all those years ago,” he says. “It had little if anything to do with rational decision based on scientific analysis.”
About 2% of the national vineyard meets the standard for classification as old vines – 35 years or older – and and the old vines tag has gained great currency as a marketing tool, but what about the remaining 98% of our vineyards? What is the unique selling proposition that will give wine from those vineyards an edge that equates to the old vines tag?
“Imagine what kind of wines we could be producing in 35 years, if we plant the right clonal material in carefully selected soil-types, and apply a targeted viticultural programme,” he says, and that is precisely what Bruwer has done with the vineyards he planted on the Vlaeberg Road farm – quality by design.
Quintessential examples of this are his stok-bypaaltjie Eden chenin blanc and cabernet franc vineyards. Speaking about the chenin vineyard, Bruwer takes up the story: “I heard about an old chenin vineyard in ? Which was about to be ripped out. The clonal material originated in the Loire Valley, and I wanted to propagate vines from it, so I asked If could come and collect some of the vines. By the time we arrived, most of the vineyard had been ripped up, except for a small section where the bulldozer had not yet gotten to. We were literally cutting what we wanted just ahead of the bulldozer.”
But the effort paid off: the five-star Eden High Density Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2015 came from the very vineyard planted to vines propagated from that clown material, which sits in front of the Raats manor house.
“Don’t get me wrong. Old vine chenin played a pivotal role in the early days in the establishment of Raats Family Wines, and we will continue to make old vine chenin, but when I saw what was coming out of comparatively knew vineyards – seven to eight years old – I realised I might be onto something,” says Bruwer.
And the proof of the pudding? “Seven of the eight Raats five star wines are from such younger vineyards, “ says Bruwer. “Quality by design.”