Annandale Wines: Twelve years in oak and sixty year old cobwebs

Imagine a red wine left to mature in barrel for twelve years before bottling. Imagine that when opened the fruit is elegant, supple but still profound. There must be a magic formula, right?

The wine is a Merlot called ‘The Key’ and it is made by Springbok Rugby legend Hempies du Toit at Annandale, outside of Stellenbosch. And there is no magic formula.

Intrigued by Hempies’ range of red wines, all aged at least eight years in wood, my aim was to discover how such longevity can be achieved while preserving the health and vitality of the fruit.

The answer is somewhere among the discarded pot still, stuffed animals, Rugby memorabilia, crackling log fire, ancient equipment and nesting swallows of Annandale’s 300 year old barn ‘tasting room’. He once told Malu Lambert that the cobwebs date back to 1954. “We are not money driven”, says Hempies, “when people leave here they leave as friends”. You quickly realise the philosophy at Annandale is one of simplicity, authenticity and humility. “I don’t feel like an owner, more of a custodian”, says Hempies, who obviously loves what he does but with a wry smile adds, “I can’t say it’s fun, though”.

Hempies is still fully involved in every stage of the process, and has been all his life, remembering fondly as a child sleeping weekends in the cellars at Alto with his winemaker father, he completed 18 vintages as their winemaker and has had his own patch of heaven (Hempies believes that the beautiful land and wine it produces is a gift to be appreciated) for the same length of time.

In the vineyard Hempies irrigates only when necessary via sprinkler (“it encourages roots to search”), he prunes in winter, but more importantly in summer, too. Hempies says this removes not just unripe fruit, but shoots as well and leads to better ripening. He instinctively knows when grapes are ready, “just look at their jackets, their clothes tell you”. There is no staggered harvesting of under or overripe grapes to balance acids and sugars, “when they are ready, they are ready”.

Three-quarters of his yield – which is around 7-8 tons per hectare – is sold, he keeps enough to “make enough money and bottles for me to keep me happy”, sometimes Hempies sells it all – he’s not bothered about producing concurrent vintages, “sometimes I might skip a vintage”.

Bunches are de-stemmed, and that process is essential, Hempies believes, as some terroir indicators are passed into the juice by the stripping and create an identity, a sense of place. Preserving terroir characters is the reason Hempies doesn’t sort his grapes, the quality is determined when picked. I mentioned the trend of ‘double sorting’, “madness”, he replies.

Fermentation is natural, no commercial yeasts, no SO2, no acidification ever. Tanks are cooled by water diverted from a stream beside the cellars, flushed over the tanks then returned to the stream. Then to barrel, 100% new wood for the Shiraz. No racking - not once in their 8 to 12 year lifetimes in wood. ‘You must lose a lot of juice due to sediment build up’, I comment, “We do”, says Hempies. No fining either.

Any movement in the cellar is done by hand, including barrels. When ready, wines are roughly filtered if necessary and sent for bottling. There is no sterilisation or cold stabilisation. After eight years there is no sediment left in the barrel and the colour is stable, meaning, “my wines won’t stain your teeth”.

“I want people to be surprised when the bottle is empty”, he says. “How long will this wine last?” I asked as it was already 14 years old (12 of which in barrel), “it will outlast you”, the answer.

It may be a cliché, but Annandale wines are lifestyle wines – but in a good way. They are not economically sensible (the Cabernet Franc – 94points – released after 9 years, sells for R200), they are not typically New World, they are not of a quantity to be visible at retail, they are not made every year nor taste the same every year. They are a reflection of the rustic, bare-footed (literally with Hempies) and perhaps a touch archaic world of the artisan. As I strolled through the musty ancient cellar, ducking the birds overhead, past wines maturing against mouldy walls I didn’t spot any laboratory.

Annandale’s wines are elegant, balanced, complex, seductive. This year’s harvest looks very good, berries are small and concentrated, and the yield is good too, unfortunately, we won’t be drinking them until 2026 at least. So what is the secret, I asked Hempies, is it the five generations of family winemaking maybe, great terroir perhaps?  “The secret is simplicity”, he replied.