Graham Weerts: Showcasing The Greatness Of The Cape Through Chardonnay
Capensis, meaning “from the Cape” in Latin, is a joint venture between Barbara Banke of Jackson Family Wines and long time friend Antony Beck of Graham Beck Wines. Their vision for this project was to showcase exceptional Chardonnay from the Western Cape and honor the greatness of South Africa. To help them turn this ambitious goal into a reality, they enlisted the help of veteran Jackson Family Wines winemaker, Graham Weerts.
Graham Weerts is a Cape Town native whose work has taken him from South Africa to Bordeaux to California where he now oversees winemaking operations for several Jackson Family Wines wineries including Arrowood, Stonestreet, Matanzas Creek and Legacy Wines. For Graham, the Capensis project was a return to his South African roots.
I had the opportunity to interview Graham to learn more about what drew him to this project, what he enjoys most about making wine in the Western Cape and his hopes for the future of Capensis.
To learn more, read our full interview below.
Know your winemaker, know your wine
Nelson Gerena (NG): What drew you to Capensis?
Graham Weerts (GW): I always knew there was incredible potential in South Africa. There’s such remarkable history in the Western Cape that it’s almost hard to believe, but the opportunity there became more evident through the distance and experience of living abroad. When I was first working in South Africa in the early 2000s, before leaving for Bordeaux and then the US, I remember thinking that if we could just get the viticulture right, the results would speak for themselves. From a fine wine perspective, a lot of the early trailblazing was done by good friends of mine, and so I began to see increasing potential when I’d go back to visit them.
Ultimately, the way the whole project came together was very organic. In 2007, I put an itinerary together for Barbara Banke and she was blown away. There was a revolution happening from a quality perspective, and in the process of looking for a vineyard site we stumbled upon this amazing place – what is now our Fijnbosch vineyard. Fijnbosch gave us a home in South Africa, and cemented a longer-term vision for what Capensis could become.
NG: What was the inspiration behind focusing exclusively on Chardonnay?
GW: Chardonnay is one of the few varieties that is transparent to place. The spiritual home for great Chardonnay is in Burgundy, but the variety can go from place to place and shine a light on what a vineyard is able to do. When it comes to Chardonnay – and I think great wine more broadly – you have to seek out those unique places that give you the whole package. Chardonnay has always been my number one love, and from a winemaking perspective it’s incredibly stimulating…
NG: How does Capensis help tell the story of the Western Cape?
GW: I don’t consider us the trailblazers in South Africa – great wine has been made there for years. But certainly, through our channels we’ve been able to tell the story to a broader audience. The partnership between Barbara Banke of Jackson Family Wines and Antony Beck of Graham Beck Wines has created a unique route to market. Many producers don’t normally have that level of access but it’s given us entry points that allow us to showcase the capabilities of South Africa.
NG: What makes the vineyards of Fijnbosch, Kaaimansgat, Ernst Bruwer special and what unique characteristics does each bring to the Capensis blend?
GW: Fijnbosch vineyard in Stellenbosch is the heart and soul of the blend for Capensis. The vineyard is north facing and planted in the steep terrain of the Groot Drakenstein mountains above 1700ft (520m) in elevation. In 2014 the Jackson and Beck families acquired the property after seeing what it contributed to the first two vintages of the wine – it adds refinement, structure and ripe citrus fruit.
Kaaimansgat in Overberg is dry farmed and many of the vines still grow on their own rootstock. The vineyard is planted at 2483ft (757m) in elevation and is exposed to extreme weather so the vines bud late and yield a small crop. The vines struggle and give intense minerality, purity and texture.
E. Bruwer in Robertson is rooted in limestone, which is a rare soil type for South Africa. The site is warmer than Kaaimansgat or Fijnbosch and is the first of the three to ripen each year. It gives rich texture with ripe peach and orchard fruits.
NG: How would you describe your winemaking style in 5 words or less?
GW: Focused on the vineyard attributes.
NG: What wines can’t you get enough of right now?
GW: I’ve always had a love for Bordeaux which stems from a very formative period in my career. It was the end of the apartheid year in South Africa, and virtually unheard of for South Africans to work in Europe. It was just after college and the first time I’d been overseas, but it was an opportunity that solidified working in wine completely and absolutely. The wines have stuck with me ever since.
NG: If you could open a bottle of Capensis and share it with any three people (living or not), who would they be?
GW: Three people who have been mentors to me in my career – Pierre Seillan, Mike Dobrovic and Jess Jackson.
NG: What do you enjoy most about making wine in the Western Cape?
GW: South Africa is obviously a special place to me. I left 15 years ago to make wine in California, so it’s a truly spiritual experience to go back. The process of leaving and returning home changes your world in a big way, so I work hard to do justice to the vineyards and that’s crucial to me as a person.
Part of what I enjoy most also comes back to my love for Chardonnay, and especially Chardonnay grown at higher elevation. South Africa has a great window on Chardonnay, so the aim is to seek out some of the best sites we can find. The process of searching for and finding these exceptional corners for Chardonnay is exciting… Outside of Burgundy there aren’t many places where you can grow great Chardonnay, but South Africa has a few of those places.
NG: What are your hopes for the future of Capensis?
GW: I’m extremely happy with how we’ve gone about our business in South Africa – as a family, a company and a partnership – and it’s a story I hope we tell more often. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve evolved so quickly and have made a wine that is making a statement early on. I’m especially proud of the people we’ve inherited along the way, and the hope is to continue evolving in that direction. We’ll see where time takes us…
2013 CAPENSIS CHARDONNAY
2013 was the first vintage of Capensis Chardonnay and it’s a stunner right out the gate. The fruit was sourced from some of the finest and most unique plots in the Western Cape by renowned viticulturist, Rosa Kruger. Noticeable oak (but not overdone) mingles with concentrated aromas of stone fruit, spice and a hint of minerality. The mouthfeel is creamy and round with beautifully balanced acidity. This wine is drinking well now but can be tucked away for at least a few more years.
Alcohol %: 14.1%
2015 CAPENSIS CHARDONNAY
My personal favorite of the two Capensis Chardonnay vintages I tasted for this piece. This wine is jam-packed with luscious aromas of tropical fruit, lemon, grilled apple, cedar, brioche, vanilla, butter and some minerality. Great mouthfeel. The acid is high which perfectly matches the richness of this wine. A real pleasure to drink and an eye-opening experience of what the Western Cape can deliver. A South African Gem! Delicious now but can be tucked away for a few more years.
Alcohol %: 14%
2013 LEGACY RED BLEND
There’s more to Graham Weerts than just Chardonnay! While Capensis focuses solely on Chardonnay, Graham produces single-varietal reds and Bordeaux blends for other brands within the Jackson Family portfolio, including this stunning Legacy Red Blend from Alexander Valley. The 2013 vintage is a blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc and the rest Malbec and Petit Verdot. A Dense purple color, with concentrated black fruit aromas on the nose. This full-bodied wine is layered and rich. Flavors of black cherry, earth, spice, pepper and cedar. This wine is aging beautifully and will only improve over the coming years. An impressive wine.
Alcohol %: 14.5%
Wine samples provided by Jackson Family Wines.