Chris Albrecht, winemaker at Bouchard Finlayson continues the legacy of bottling vinous wonders in the Hemel-en-Aarde

Wednesday, 28 August, 2019
Malu Lambert
Magic is a difficult thing to define. It’s a feeling that runs up your spine and all your senses light up; scents become keener, your eyes open wider. Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve is a place drenched in the stuff, from the bowl of sky above, cut at night with crystal stars, to the silent and stoic sandstone rock formations of the surrounding Cederberg.

It’s against this mystic backdrop that a small group of us have come up for a weekend of Bouchard Finlayson wines as well as to get to know winemaker Chris Albrecht a bit better.

Located just three hours out of Cape Town, the Cederberg is the largest outdoor art gallery in the world; scores of bushman paintings climb the rocks offering insight into their lives across a span of 10,000 years. The reserve is owned by the Tollman family of Red Carnation Hotels, who also own the aforementioned Hemel-en-Aarde wine estate.

2017 was Chris’s first solo vintage. He has been with Bouchard since 2010, starting out as an assistant winemaker under the mentorship of founder and cellar master, the legendary Peter Finlayson.

Chris Albrecht and Peter Finlayson

Though Chris was already well entrenched in the world of wine: with a degree in Oenology and Viticulture from Stellenbosch University and harvests across the globe in California, France and New Zealand. On home soil he worked for a Franschhoek estate for five years, earning the winery three five-star Platter’s ratings over his tenure.

Chris is drawn to the mysticism and diversity of winemaking: “It’s a profession that incorporates plant husbandry, creativity, marketing, science and mystique, all rolled into one.” He says while handing me a glass of the Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2017. “My overriding winemaking philosophy is to focus on the small things.”

After a morning of jumping over pools of rushing water, and into rocky overhangs to see Bushman scenes stained onto rocks—my senses are acutely primed, the perfect state of mind to taste wine. We’ve met in the lodge’s lounge where Chris is presenting the 2017s.

“It was a concentrated vintage, and the first I was trusted with steering,” he shares. “Fortunately, the vintage was kind and I could count on the excellent cellar and vineyard teams. We are fortunate to have a passionate viticulturist in Mortimer Lee, who brings a lot of experience and energy into the vineyards.”

I ask him how he managed to stay true to the Bouchard Finlayson style. His response: “Every vintage, to some extent, leaves an impression on the resulting wines, but there was no intention to make a personal mark. Though, decisions made during fermentation and maturation will unintentionally influence the outcome.”

The Reserve Sauvignon Blanc has a percentage of Semillon (14 %), and it’s all the better for it. Lemon, lime and flinty, coastal scrub on the nose, while the mouthfeel is rounded with an energetic pithiness, like lemon sherbet. The Semillon is a smart addition, not only giving the wine a viscosity, but also lending it to ageing, and Chris says that’s exactly what they’re trying to do with both their reds and whites, agebility along with drinkability is key.

Next up for tasting is the Kaaimansgat Chardonnay 2017. The vineyard is located 700m above sea level in the Elandskloof, and the grapes ripen a month later due to the cool temperatures. The slower ripening affects skin to juice ratio, lending a distinctive richness to the Chardonnay. This is amplified by the method of maturing the wine on the gross lees, without stirring. White blossom and white peach are the first ethereal layers, followed by notes of naartjie and vanilla from the French oak. Taut and crystalline, there’s a cool clarity to this wine.

“Chardonnay shows well with some tension,” agrees Chris, nosing his own glass.

The varietal Chris is most drawn to is Pinot Noir. “The grapes for the Galpin Peak Pinot Noir are grown on shallow, clay-rich soils,” says Chris as he pours the plum-coloured liquid. “That in combination with our moderate maritime climate results in exceptional Pinot.

“The Galpin is the cornerstone of our winery, but it also poses the greatest challenge to master. It epitomises the quest for unattainable perfection,” he muses.

“I liken the grape to a typical celebrity actor. Demanding and highly strung, but with an amazing ability to reflect a character within a given script.”

Classically styled the Galpin is a defined and muscular with deep flavours of black cherries, turned earthand subtle spice. Smooth fruit and coated tannins lead into a finish that comes in waves of flavour.

To wrap up the tasting Chris comments on the 2017 vintage:

“Growing conditions were moderately cool and dry with resulting healthy grapes. However, the preceding winter was mild and budding uneven. This resulted in a smaller but expressive vintage.

He continues with a big smile: “There was a lot of Italian spoken during this vintage, with two gentlemen from Tuscany assisting and I believe their input benefitted the Italian ferments tremendously.” (The Hannibal is a Sangiovese led blend with some Nebbiolo and Barbera.)

To what extent did the drought play a role?“The Hemel-en-Aarde hasn’t been as severely affected by the dry conditions, however milder periods during winter are progressively becoming more common and are reason for concern.”

It’s difficult to imagine water scarcity after this morning of waterfall chasing. It brings me back to those depictions of impossibly elongated shamans, elephant herds and hunters with bows and arrows painted on the uneven rocky walls, in pigments made from stone and blood. The guide shared with us how the rock art is fading over the years. Scientists are trying to find a way to preserve these natural heritage sites, without putting up glass;something that may steal that spine-tingling feeling.

But for winemakers, glass gives them the ability to seal in magic. And that’s just what Chris Albrecht has done with the 2017 vintage, if these wines are anything to go by; Bouchard Finlayson is not only in safe hands, but pretty exciting ones too.


Five questions for Chris

Chris is married to Mart-Marie and they have two children, a son Greg (7) and a daughter Iza (5).  The family lives on the farm with their Ridgeback and Jack Russell.

Favourite thing to do as a family?

We love enjoying ice cream on the beach in summer as well as catching klipvis in the rock pools at low tide.

When you’re on your own you…

I’m a keen spear fisherman, when I find the time.

Favourite song of the moment?

Anything by Die Heuwels Fantasties

What book did you last read?

Deon Meyer’s Onsigbaar

What would be your last meal on earth?

I’ll settle for oven-roasted Karoo lamb shoulder and duck fat potatoes.

Chris Albrecht
Chris Albrecht

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