The Garagiste in the Garage at Sonklip!
Friday 1 December 2017
Chrismie, a typical portmanteau name in Afrikaans, welcomed me to her home while husband, engineer and winemaker Frik made his way through late Friday afternoon traffic to host me. The satnav reference from my 2017 Platter’s Guide didn’t quite get it right and I overshot the turning off the Jonkershoek Road just east of the centre of Stellenbosch. ‘Turn into Omega Road and take the lane by the stone with the 28 on it’, Frik advised. Fortunately, I was far enough away from the Cape Flats not to be too bothered by any significance of the ‘28’!
Frik’s large house, originally his mothers and subsequently extended, is set in 3½ hectares of land in scenic surroundings. The land grows some of the oldest Chenin Blanc bush vines in South Africa, though I was soon to learn that Frik concentrated on making red wines.
Frik led me downstairs to the family garage that, like so many, hasn’t seen a vehicle for many a year. His aim was to ‘make a strong Stellenbosch Bordeaux blend’. He told me too that his 2 phobias were to run out of wine – there’s no chance of that I soon discovered – and not having a corkscrew. Frik is a garagiste of note and an active member of the Garagiste Movement of South Africa. Few garagistes are listed in the Platter’s Guide; Bemind Wines in McGregor being the only other I have sampled and visited.
Fittingly for Frik, the word garagiste literally means ‘garage mechanic or garage owner’. The movement began in Bordeaux in 1991 by a rebellious wine merchant in St Emilion who decided to make his own wines using grapes he bought in from surrounding vineyards. Four years later and the first South African garagiste started in Muizenberg. Wine of Origin certification is necessarily bureaucratic; production is limited to 9,000 litres a year and the winemaker must be self-financing.
I listened intently to Frik as he passed me samples of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France and Malbec – his favourite cultivar – from the different sized barrels. I didn’t know, for example, that barrel prices halved from new to 2nd fill, to 3rd and then to 4th fill. I was unaware too that it was possible to buy ‘reconditioned’ barrels by Revolution that have the insides shaved (wines penetrate only the inside 5mm of the barrel during fermentation).
I soon learned that Frik was a master wheeler and dealer with many contacts in the industry, from vine grower to supply him with grapes to bakkie-mounted mobile bottling plant. Problem-solving is an important skill for the garagiste and I could see why Frik was a mechanical engineer. He began by taking the Garagiste Course with Professor Du Toit of Stellenbosch University a few years ago. I booked the course last November but had to miss it due to my Cape Wine Academy studies.
Frik was modest about his success. The wines all tasted good to me even though barrel samples, as the recently bottled wines were still suffering ‘bottle shock’ and it was too soon to open. He explained how one does not learn the intricacies of wine until one starts to make it. I was relieved to learn – as I am sure one day I shall get the bug to make – that he had never had a barrel turn to vinegar.
Frik was larger than life, generous of his time, and just as inspiring. I left feeling motivated and determined to take the small-scale winemaking course next year if the Cape Wine Academy programme allows. As I left, he gave me a bottle of Sonklip Red and showed me the koppie with the rock that catches the sun behind his house that gave name to his wine (and silhouetted on the bottle label). Perhaps I shall wait until I have done the garagiste course to open and savour it …..
Wines tasted (bought *):
2017 Merlot – Barrel Sample
2017 Cabernet Sauvignon – Barrel Sample
2017 Cabernet Franc – Barrel Sample
2017 Malbec – Barrel Sample
2014 Sonklip Red (63% Shiraz, 37% Mourvèdre)