Blank Bottle Winery was established in an old shack (a hinterhofkabuff, so the “story” goes, see later on) in Somerset West, South Africa, …something like maybe fifteen-or-so years ago, according to legend (bare with me here). I will briefly relate the “story” (you might know it) of how Pieter Walser had a woman come and ask him for some wine, “anything but Syrah, I hate Syrah”. All Pieter had at that point was some unlabelled Syrah, but she tasted it, loved it and bought it, filling her boot. He never told her. It’s a good story. Is it true? As I’ve got to know Pieter a little, I’m very much inclined to believe it is.
You see, Pieter Walser is the best story teller in wine. His Winery is called Blank Bottle in part because of that story, but also because Pieter refuses to put the grape varieties on his label. He wants people to approach the wine without prejudice, but that does mean that nuisance wine writers like me are going to mess it all up for him. There’s not really any way I can get around telling you the grape varieties in each wine. But like the woman in the story, you can be sure that the wine won’t taste remotely as you might expect.
Furthermore, each wine has its own little histoire, a little story about its origins most likely. I’m not kidding, but you could listen to Pieter all day telling his stories. People would pay good money to listen, and I reckon his UK importer, SWIG Wines, is missing a trick. This tasting, though “tasting” hardly describes it, took place for various trade customers at the Kemp Town store of Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton. Butlers has a special connection with Blank Bottle, because Pieter has made some special cuvées exclusively for them.
The Blank Bottle portfolio now contains something like forty-five wines. Some wines are made every year, but a lot aren’t, either because Pieter gets the opportunity to purchase batches of grapes from random sources, occasionally as a one-off, or sometimes because interesting parcels of less popular varieties which estate owners were happy to get rid of are increasingly ripped up by the money boys to be replaced with international varieties. People like Pieter are keeping alive some of South Africa’s old bush vines by paying good money for grapes few of the big boys would otherwise condescend to pick, or blocks which some old timer farmers would otherwise grub-up if they were only getting the going rate.
* Any prices given below are Butlers’ retail prices. Butlers (no apostrophe) is probably one of the biggest retail stockists of Blank Bottle wines in the UK, although they don’t nearly have them all. I’ve reviewed just nineteen of them here (if I can count). I think the prices are pretty reasonable for the level of excitement in the glass.
Offspring 2017 is an interesting wine to begin a tasting with. If you know that the name means something, and that it doesn’t refer to the 1980s/90s Californian “punk” band (not a possibility to be dismissed, knowing Pieter), then you begin to wonder what it means. This is a cuvée which is habitually made from all the bits and pieces Pieter hasn’t crafted into other wines. It’s his big experiment, the offspring of everything left in the cellar each vintage.
So at least for this first white wine, I won’t be elaborating all of the grape varieties. I do know there’s some Darling/Wellington Chenin, Verdelho from Voor Paardeberg and Elgin Semillon, but that’s all, blended together only at bottling, with minimal added sulphur. It’s a multi-varietal white grape blend, very bright, amazingly so, and a well chosen wine for a 10.30 am opener. The bouquet has fresh, fragrant citrus and stone fruit, and the palate has a nice waxy and stony texture. A simple, refreshing, wine, and at £17.49 just sneaks in as, I think, the second cheapest in the range.
Orbitofrontal Cortex 2018 is made from fruit from the Western Cape, never the same from year to year, but simply a choice by Pieter of his favourite white wine of the vintage. This vintage the wine contains Verdelho and Palomino from Robertson, Chenin, Háslevelü, Riesling and a few other bits and pieces. It has pale green glints reflected in the light of a low morning sun. We have a complex array of taste components here – hay, baked apple, pear, richness, yet only 12.5% alcohol. Everything is grounded by a crunch of texture and balanced acids. £24, a total bargain (as they say).
The story of the name relates to an experiment about taste perceptions, which involved Pieter being connected up to a brain scan whilst he made subconscious blend selections of his wines, which were then compared to a consciously selected control sample. It sounds very complicated, but I think Pieter managed to prove that his focused palate works differently to the selections of a group of scientists who used the data from his subconscious to suggest blends. Well, Pieter tells it better, but I’m sure he had loads of fun with the experiment, and he got a cracking, and I’m sure soon to be iconic, label idea for his pains.
It’s worth elaborating a little bit on how Pieter works. Grapes often come to him by word of mouth. He drives thousands of kilometres around harvest time in order to collect fruit, harvesting at optimum ripeness (definitely not over ripeness), often driving up to a farm having heard the grower has a batch for sale. He pays good money, and people get to hear that, and it works in his favour, usually. Because everything is in small batches, he can get the grapes back to the winery swiftly. Almost everything is fermented in small French oak with no additives, other than a bit of sulphur at bottling. Pieter claims he’s way too busy not to let the wines just make themselves, and he realised early on when he had little money that you just don’t need all the chemicals the wine schools suggest that you require.
Kortpad Kaaptoe 2018 The name means “fastest route possible” in Afrikaans. Asking for directions from a farmer, they were “take a right after the Shiraz and Carignan, and then left after the Fernão Pires”. Fer…what? he thought. The grapes were his now! This was the first of Pieter’s wines I ever bought. The variety is Portugal’s Fernão Pires (aka Maria Gomes), planted by a producer in Malmsbury who then decided he didn’t want it. Pieter has a deal to buy the whole lot. This wine, unusually at Blank Bottle, is fermented in tank. It’s another wine that majors on vivacity, with lemony zip over more than just fruit. You get all those savoury elements you might find in a Portuguese white, but with, unquestionably, a touch of sunshine richness as well. £21
Ultra 2018 There once was a pot maker, famous for his artistic work. But one day he was persuaded to make some amphora-like pots for a wine producer. He layered the clay, building up the vessels in the traditional Georgian way, placing ring upon ring. This way a large pot can be made that would be too big to throw on a wheel, but it takes a long while to form each pot. Several of them ended up leaking, and the producer was angry. It upset the potter so much that he never made a pot again. Pieter had one or two of the pots, which he’d eventually persuaded the producer to sell, and then after a long tale of detective work, tracked the pot maker down to a hermit shack. Pieter is a persuasive guy, and now he has a great relationship with the potter, who is not only making more amphorae for Pieter, but for other producers too.
This wine is a juicy Chenin, all full of unmistakeable orange marmalade fruit (but it’s dry). The farmer who owns the vines is three hours out of Jo’burg, in the sticks. He’s a quiet, unassuming, guy who has a secret. At the weekend he heads for the city where he goes to raves. Pieter said his neighbours have no idea about this guy’s secret life. The label depicts the farmer, in the crowd, at a rave. The wine occupies the amphorae , and it has the texture and salinity that conjures up the outside of the vessel that gave birth to it. £24
Hinterhofkabuff 2018 I can say honestly that I like every one of Pieter’s Blank Bottle Wines that I’ve tried, but I do have my favourites. This is one, so much so that I drank a bottle of the 2016 vintage a week ago, you may have seen my Instagram picture. This is Riesling from Elgin, off a steep slope with very rocky soil. The wine has breadth, and relatively high alcohol (that 2016 reached 14%), but there’s depth too, and as with any good dry Riesling, there’s plenty of acidity to balance everything nicely. £27.50
Pieter did an interview with the German magazine, Stern, in which the writer described his office-cum-winery as a backyard shack (hinterhofkabuff), so Pieter latched onto this for the name of this stunning wine, and the shack, or maybe an imagining of it in Pieter’s head, appears on the label.
Pieter enjoys drawing the labels for his wines, but he’s increasingly getting his kids to do it. He pays them, sensibly not until he finally gets paid for the wine himself, so it can be a nice little pocket money earner. The only problems arise over who gets to design for the bigger cuvées. He pays a royalty, not a flat fee, and if one of his children gets a lot more money he might need a rethink.
Moment of Silence 2017 Pieter first made Moment of Silence in 2007, and it’s currently the wine he’s been making longest. It’s also his wine with the biggest production. There’s a very strange connection between Pieter and this wine. Although none of his parents’ generation are involved in wine, Pieter discovered that his family actually owned the farm where these Wellington grapes come from 240 years ago. There are four blocks of old vine Chenin in here, plus one block each of Grenache Blanc and Viognier. The result is ripe, tropical (mango), creamy and zesty, massively refreshing, but with a nice smooth mid-palate. £17
B-Bos I 2018 Sauvignon Blanc with some Semillon, both from Cape Agulhas, makes this wine, or rather it very much made itself. It’s a cool climate wine with good acidity, and great potential ageability. The alcohol is up at 14.5%, but with all of these wines, you really can’t tell, unless you drink a whole bottle and try to get up, which Pieter did once after disbelieving the lab analysis.
The wine is great, but the story is just as good, if perhaps the most offputting of all of Pieter’s tales. There’s a spider which particularly infests the town of Baardskeerderbos, much as the Funnel Web infests Sydney. This spider has the nickname B-Bos. It’s an ugly orange thing which builds its nest from human hair, allegedly creeping into bedrooms at night to steal hair from men’s beards. The label below is Pieter’s take on the ordeal. £24
The Empire Strikes Back 2018 A white blend of Verdelho (35%), with more or less equal parts Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc in 2018, all from Stellenbosch. You’d be reasonably likely to nail the origins of this, a satisfying, ripe fruited, slightly textured blend of flavours with a decent dollop of acidity. The label has a red star for the “Swartland Revolution” (the Swartland Rhône guys) and the stripes representing the Empire of South African Wine, Stellenbosch. Pieter felt it was time that the bastion of SA conservatism hit back with something edgy, though this wine isn’t really out there at all, but it is dynamic…and different. £24
Give and Take 2017 This is one of the wines exclusive to Butlers. The grape variety is Pinot Blanc from Stellenbosch which has had a year in 400-litre French oak. It’s fairly rich, with a bit of weight, and at 14.5% is not the shy and retiring type, but it has a great savoury quality which makes it ready for food. Pieter wanted to get hold of some Pinot Blanc but the winemaker told him the estate owner had said he wasn’t allowed to sell grapes to him. A bit random, and Pieter has no idea why. However, the winemaker needed some more Semillon and a “swap” could take place under the radar. Hence the name. The label depicts Brighton’s iconic ruin of the West Pier. £22
Manon des Sources 2010 “Manon des Sources” is the nickname of Pieter’s daughter. She drew the label, a self-portrait, aged seven. The grapes are Riesling, Semillon, and Sauvignon Blanc which comes in at an eye-watering 15.6% abv, so why does this not taste especially alcoholic? The answer lies with more than just acidity. Picking hours before supposed optimum (sic) ripeness may be key, and the low sulphur regime may also play a part. It just seems to be able to handle the alcohol. It’s a bottle to share, though, and maybe between three in this case. I have to say that “Manon” deserves her royalty for the label. £21.99
69.99999 2016 is, here, a magnum of a wine made by Pieter since 2014, and which has now changed its name to Oppie Koppie because the wine always got named by the percentage of stems used to make the wine (depending on their ripeness…ie almost 70% in 2016, but 80% in 2017). Customers sadly found it hard to cope with a name change and a long number every year. The label depicts a camera photographing the stems. This is majestic 100% Syrah from Paardeberg (Horse Mountain) near Kimberley, site of a famous Boer War battle in 1900 but now site of some fine viticulture. This wine is all about structure and tannins, though the tannins are ripe and elegant. There’s more than a hint of Northern Rhône to this, and putting my money where my mouth is, I lugged one home with me, a thing of beauty. Bottle of 2017 = £25, Magnum of 2016 = £50
Retirement @65 2018 This is a quite different red. The main variety is Cinsaut from 65-year-old bush vines on a mountain slope at Darling. For the new vintage 2018 a tiny dash of Syrah was added. The wine is a little rustic, in a good way. Dusty, perhaps, certainly savoury with some herbs in with the black fruits. A lighter red, which could be best served cool. Pieter reckons Cinsaut is a challenging variety but I’m increasingly finding that more and more South African winemakers are able to rise to the challenge. I think it has an interesting future in the Cape. The label? The first crop Pieter was going to buy was eaten by birds, so he invested in nets, only to find a flock of sheep got in and ate most of the grapes the following year. £27
Myköffer 2017 “My suitcase”, signifies a suitcase full of memories. The first guilty pleasure of wine over indulgence for Pieter, as a student, was Tassenberg, a commercial red of which over 4 million litres is made each year. Cheap but quite decent, I’m told. His first winemaking job involved actually producing it, where he discovered that the sweet strawberry fruit component he loved as a student was the Cinsaut variety. Pieter had bought that variety on several occasions after setting up on his own, but he could never find Cinsaut with the same profile. That was until he discovered a vineyard in the relatively unknown area of Breedekloof (Darling), up in the mountains east of Paarl, where the grapes had previously been going to a large co-operative.
The vineyard itself is comprised of former bush vines, since raised up on wires and trained on low trellises, on a flat and rocky river bed on the valley floor. Pieter exercised forty pickers to selectively choose ripe bunches in a vineyard that would otherwise have produced quantity over quality. The pale juice went into open top fermenters as whole bunches for foot treading, before ageing for one year in French oak. The result is a juicy wine with up-front fruit and 13.5% alcohol. It really is another delicious Cinsaut, with a bit more body than Retirement @65. £26.50
Wolf Alaser 2017 This is very possibly a one-off cuvée. Pieter reckons he’s not sure what fruit went into this wine, perhaps 20% being Syrah from Oppie Koppie. It’s odds and ends that were used for topping up other cuvées, from which a single barrel was left, just 300 bottles. It was pretty tasty with nice sappy fruit and whilst you might wonder at the higher price if it really is merely some odds and ends Pieter threw into a barrel, you just need to taste the result. And, of course, it’s pretty rare stuff. The label was designed by Pieter’s son, who invented “Wolf Alaser” as a graffiti tag. £35
A Sigh of Relief 2017 This is the second to last vintage of this cuvée, because the vineyard has been grubbed up. Why? The owner bought a “Merlot” vineyard on Helderberg Mountain, but it turned out that the top part of the site was actually Cabernet Franc, as discovered by a well known viticultural expert who noticed the vines’ bronze growth points in the morning sun, something unique to Cab Franc. I’d have rejoiced, but not so the owner. The nursery probably received a rude email.
The first thing you notice is the amazing bouquet, essence of ethereal violet. There’s a little bit of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon in here too, but this is in essence a Stellenbosch Cabernet Franc, of both power, concentration and elegance. £23.99
It is What It is 2016 The second of the wines exclusive to Butlers is based upon another now ripped out Stellenbosch vineyard, pulled up by their owner on a whim in just one day. I think it’s important to say, for a second time, at this point that there’s a part of the South African wine industry, based on money, which follows wine fashions. This is leading to the destruction of valuable old vine stock capable of making lovely wines.
This one is not aiming at greatness, nor profundity. It’s just a super-interesting mix of Tempranillo from that site, with some Nebbiolo from Goudini in the Breede River Valley, plus a bit of Tulbach Carignan. Aside from being a nice glass, it’s stuff like this, an unusual if not a unique blend, that excites the vinous explorer in me. It’s like discovering a new plant in the Himalayas, or a new species of moth in Uzbekistan. But it’s never going to be repeated, so it is what it is. The label depicts Henry Butler. I think Pieter has captured his essence there…£22
Pinotage 2018 Actually, this wine doesn’t have a name yet (nor a label, hence the photo of the wine instead). It will be the next of the exclusive Butlers bottlings. I will admit I’ve not been a fan of Pinotage in the past. I grew up on all that burnt rubbery stuff. This is just fruity and juicy. Pieter says the key is to treat it like Pinot Noir (Pinot Noir, of course, being one of the variety’s parents, along with Cinsaut). With this particular wine you might even think it’s a pure Pinot, with its high-toned ripe fruit, powdery tannins and prickly acids. It suggests it might age well for a year or two, in the unlikely event it gets the chance to.
The fruit here is from Darling, and grows below the vineyard from where Pieter sources Retirement @65. This is old vine Pinotage grown on decomposed granite with a year in oak. I shall look forward to this wine arriving, hopefully, by the autumn. I don’t know the price yet. It should provide a replacement for the Tempranillo blend, though I think there’s still some of that left to grab if you are swift.
But Why? 2016 The penultimate bottle from this long and extensive tasting is a Cabernet Sauvignon, which grows on sandy soils just below the 750 metre contour in Stellenbosch. The first thought that might come into your head is how on earth they ripen Cabernet at 740 metres above sea level? Temperatures can indeed be low, but the key is the unbelievable levels of radiation (sunlight), way higher at the top than at the bottom of the mountain. The vines do indeed produce mature fruit, but with lower alcohol levels, the result of slow sugar accumulation from a long hang time. There’s no greenness either. The sand adds to the wine’s elegance. There will be no Cabernet Sauvignon from this site in 2017 due to smoke taint, but the vines survived the bush fire and But Why? will make a return in 2018. No price available.
Jaaa Bru!!! 2017 We finish with one of Pieter Walser’s most captivating wines to look at. It comes in a stumpy bottle with a label depicting a fearsome open mouth with a protruding tongue. The variety is Malbec, which by coincidence translates in Afrikaans as “crazy mouth”. “Ja Bru” is a common Afrikaans greeting, “yes brother”. It’s Stellenbosch Malbec, picked early so that it only reaches 13.5% abv (!). It has a real minty, eucalyptus, profile over dense and darker fruit. Quite a big wine, but uniquely South African. I really like it…really. And of course I love the bottle too.
I hope I was able to convey just a little of the ambience at the tasting. Around twenty wines were sipped (and spat, but I was next to the spittoon and it didn’t see a lot of activity) in a little over a couple of hours. I really can’t begin to tell ’em like Pieter does, so if you ever have the opportunity to listen to him, take it.
He’s not the most socially extrovert person making wine in the Cape. I think he’s far more at home trekking after grapes, or out on the surf. But he has a canny knack for marketing, and if you produce thirty different wines each vintage you need a bit of sales patter. I know that really he does enjoy telling these stories, and I can think of no one better at doing it.
I’ve not even related his best story, which has nothing to do with wine. Ask him whether when out surfing he’s ever met a shark!
For what it’s worth, I think he’s a great guy and fantastic company when mixing with people who truly appreciate wine. As for his wines, how would it be possible to read this and (aside from the stories) not conclude that Blank Bottle Winery is making some of the most exciting wines in South Africa today? That’s a pretty big claim from me. You just need to try a few bottles to see if I’m on the mark.
Butlers Wine Cellar has two shops in Brighton, at 247 Queen’s Park Road, BN2 and 88 St George’s Road, Kemp Town, BN2. See their web site here and check the Contact Page for opening hours.
Other retailers see SWIG‘s Blank Bottle page here.
Wine labels as shirt cuffs, a first for me but Henry’s a stylish guy.