Bein Wines; From Vets to Vines

Being described as a ‘garagiste’ winemaker conjures up the image of the self-taught passionate amateur, squeezing plastic tubs and old wood into a makeshift shed and drinking most of their own, often unsuccessful, produce themselves.
In the first of these assumptions, Luca and Ingrid Bein are garagiste winemakers.  They manage the vines themselves, harvest and make the wine, bottle,label and sell it themselves.
But in many ways they have left the rusticity of ‘garagiste’ behind. Amateurs at first, maybe, but their academic backgrounds (both successful Vets in Switzerland) taught them the value of a scientific understanding of their new passion and they felt it sensible to each acquire a B.Sc in Oenology and Viticulture at Stellenbosch University. They also gained some 20 years’ experience of visiting SA before deciding to settle here and looked carefully for their single 2.2 hectare plot in the Polkadraai hills.‘Petrus Place’ – and the name fits perfectly – provided a gentle South facing slope cooled by the sea breeze and within sight of the Ocean. It also had ancient granite rich soil which led the Beins to plant Merlot only; what else could you plant with ‘Petrus’ on the gate ?

The Bein’s are still garagiste in their relationship with the vines; each one is attended to personally and they stress the necessity of growing quality fruit to make good wine.  Yields are lowish, between six and ten tonnes, depending on the harvest conditions, but more important, stresses Luca, is the even ripening between bunches and plants. Ingrid and Luca use the very un-garagiste method of precision viticulture to monitor the progress of ripening.  Aerial photography reveals the stage of almost every vine and the Bein’s use this to adapt their attention in the vineyard.  Lots of sampling occurs before Luca and Ingrid decide on row harvesting, identifying vines with more or less potential. Those that look less ripe at harvest will go to the Rosé, a procedure they have been adopting since before it was fashionable to produce a dry Rosé. When necessary, they will take more than their one permanent worker to help, but for most of the year the Beins will be wandering their vines, paying close order to each and every one.  The roses in bloom currently at the row ends look healthy and Luca laughs when we suggest it is to warn of disease, ‘by the time the roses get it, it’s too late for the vines’, he advises.

Some leaf galls are visible, but Luca shrugs and says that he will act if it gets too serious, until then it is very much left to nature to decide, an approach reflected in the abundant cover crops of wild grasses and flowers between the vine rows, the Bein’s believe in biodiversity and interfering as little as possible. Difficult when you watch vines burn because someone threw a lit cigarette out of a passing car and destroyed some of their prized babies, as happened earlier in 2012.

The cellar isn’t what you expect from garagistes either, though when you remember the Bein’s Swiss origins it becomes logical. The beautiful, almost church-like cellar sits snuggly into the slope and is spotlessly clean and ordered inside.  Yes, there are two basket presses against the wall, but there are also stainless steel tanks, a de-stemmer, lots of new French oak barrels and everything you would expect of a modern cellar. This is no ‘hope for the best’ operation, Luca and Ingrid use science and analysis to ensure healthy wine.

All the cellar work is by their hand, and there is nothing fancy about their techniques, just constant monitoring and traditional methods, such as egg whites for clarifying. In the corner sits a hand bottling machine, capable of filling four bottles at a time.  I did some quick calculations; 2.2 hectares equals some 18 tonnes which gives some 12,000 litres and some 1,300 cases – that’s a lot of hand filling, Luca calls it ‘contemplative’.

Terroir is not a meaningless concept to the Beins, it is a living reality and each year as the vines age and their understanding of each one grows they are getting closer to their goal. Can you taste the terroir in the Bein’s Merlot? Well, I’m a Merlot sceptic, but there is no doubting the individuality and quality of their Reserve. The 2010 is lighter than I expected, in body that is, and mid depth in colour.  It has a perfume which evokes summer blueberry fruits and the addition of small amounts of other Bordeaux cultivars adds complexity and interest. It is not a blockbuster, but more St-Émilion than Pomerol, with structure over power. It is smooth, classy and only when you swallow it do you realise its finesse and unfolding layers. This is not a glugging wine, and the price reflects that (around R215), and it is different enough to suggest its terroir as well as much careful attention and considered new oak. The Reserve is a Merlot that breaks the mould, certainly it is unlike most I have tried; perhaps the influence of a drop of other Bordeaux varieties gives it an edge, or perhaps it is just a purer expression of origin. I wouldn’t argue with Platter’s 4 1/2 star rating and one wonders what it will be like when the vines reach old age.

The Bein Merlot, Luca’s ‘flagship’ wine, is bigger and chunkier, with dry, dusty tannins. The 2009 (around R120) is presently too young and will still be evolving in five years’ time.  This is more typically Merlot, with spicy berry fruits and rich, supple flavours, seasoned again with splashes of Cabernet Sauvignon (other vintages might include Malbec or Petit Verdot). Nearly half of the wood used was new, from select French cooperages and with careful vineyard selection, clarification and long maturation you shouldn’t expect a more commercial product; this is a generous and profound wine, built for the long haul.

For everyday drinking, the ‘Little Merlot’ fits the bill. A lighter style, the 2012 (still in barrel) has yet to settle but shows a fruity accessibility, with red berries, coffee and bitter chocolate and some grippy tannins which should see the wine through another 5-8 years. The ‘Little’ in the title refers to its relationship to its big brothers, not to what is in the bottle.

Bein wines are easier to find in Switzerland than in South Africa, but contacting them direct will evoke the same personal attention we got when we visited just days before Christmas. Despite the timing of the visit, Luca and Ingrid made us very welcome, and along with the vineyard and cellar tour, provided a lovely setting for a tasting.  Bein is only open by appointment, but don’t let that put you off; if you want to see and ‘feel’ how real wine is made by people who put what’s in the bottle above commercial considerations then a visit will be rewarding.