Guillaumé the Garagiste
Tuesday 26 May 2020
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 4/5
It is rare that I sample wines without visiting the estate at which they are made. However, there was good reason with Guillaumé. First, I came by the wines on the eve of covid-19 Lockdown and, second, Guillaumé, is a garagiste producer and consequently without a Tasting Room. The three wines, one rosé and two red, make up the entire range made by Johan Guillaumé. A garagiste, to set the scene, is a small-scale winemaker. According to South African wine classification, the garagiste must be a commercial rather than a home winemaker as well as being the sole financier and winemaker. Production needs also be under 9,000 litres per annum to gain SAWIS certification under the Wine of Origin scheme. It is customary, though not essential, that garagistes buy in grapes and do not own any vineyard.
Garagiste literally means a ‘garage mechanic or garage owner’. The name comes from the pioneer of the ‘movement’, a Bordeaux wine merchant called Jean-Luc Thunevin. Frustrated by the big name, historic producers and with ‘No money, no big vineyards’, he set about making his own wine in 1991 in an old garage in the back streets of St Emilion. He bought in grapes from a 1-hectare plot of vines and sold the wine he produced under the Château Valandraud label. Five years later, the great American wine critic Robert Parker rated one of his wines higher than the famed and iconic Château Petrus. I can only imagine the ripples of Gallic shock and discontent that must have rippled through the French wine establishment.
It took only 4 years for the first garagiste wine to be made in South Africa, a remarkably quick turn of events. First was Cathy Marshal who started Barefoot Wine in Muizenberg, to be closely followed by Clive Torr of Topaz Wines who produced Pinot Noir from a plot of just 400m2 of vines in Somerset West. There are many more garagistes nowadays. Indeed, I recall hearing at the Small-Scale Winemaking (aka Garagiste) Course, which I completed at Stellenbosch University in 2018, of at least 28 garagistes in Durbanville alone. Some, like Guillaumé, make it into the Platter’s Wine Guide. I have tasted – and reviewed – the wines made by Bemind Wyne (McGregor) and Sonklip (Stellenbosch), both of whom are listed.
Johan Guillaumé, true to form and like his Platter-garagistes Isle Schutte and Frik Kirsten, makes wine in his garage. He is based in Orangezicht, close to the Cape Town city bowl, and has produced wine since completing the ‘Garagiste’ Course in 2015. 2020 marks his sixth vintage. Johan’s ancestors were French Huguenots who came to South Africa at the invitation of the Dutch East India Company. Francois Guillaumé arrived in Cape Town in 1726 with the intention of being a silk maker. On his arrival, he changed his name from the French to Dutch (later Afrikaans) spelling and pronunciation. However, and I am unsure whether this was the cause, the business failed. He wanted to become a winemaker instead but this was not possible at the time due to the lack of available wine farms and so he moved to become a sheep farmer in the Overberg. It intrigues that six generations later, descendant Johan is making wine from grapes bought in as he does not own a vineyard either.
The first Guillaumé I tasted during the ‘Taste Live with Dr Peter’ series was the Le Phenix, a Merlot-led red blend. The name refers to the Greek mystical bird the Phoenix that regenerates itself to be born again. Wine blends do much the same when different cultivars come together to make something anew. It seemed fitting too that I was sampling a Right Bank Bordeaux-styled wine, as if the garagiste journey was returning to the place where the movement began. The wine is made from Stellenbosch grapes in small amount (198 bottles only) such is the small-scale of typical production. After de-stemming, the grapes are soaked for 5 days before fermentation with frequent, manual punch downs. Light basket pressing follows before 18 months of maturation in new/4th fill French oak barrels and minimal filtration prior to bottling. The deep ruby wine showed classic Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon notes of burnt raspberry, red plum and cherry t0gether with bramble, cassis, mint, leather, and meat, respectively, on the nose. The dry wine showed good balance with silky Merlot offsetting the more structured tannins of the cabernet Sauvignon. The heady 14% alcohol was well matched by the dense fruits to make for an enjoyable wine that will age well.
I shared ‘Live’ the Rosé tasting a few weeks later. Like Le Phenix, this was a blend of Bordeaux grape varieties with Cabernet Sauvignon as the lead cultivar (48%) with the grapes sourced from Kaapzicht and Bottleray in Stellenbosch. Johan tells me that the idea for making a rosé came from a day making wine at De Toren. Rather than waste 60 litres of juice bled off to concentrate a red wine, he fermented it in stainless tanks. Sixty days on the lees followed before hand-corking with only 110 bottles made. The Rosé was a pale salmon in colour with delicate aromas of red strawberry, candied honey, and slight white blossom. These notes followed though to the palate which showed above average acidity, a refreshing clean dry taste, and modest length.
My favourite of the three wines, Johan’s too, was the Cabernet Sauvignon and bottle number 45/153. The grapes also come from Stellenbosch, hence the Stellenbosch Wine of Origin on the elegant and stylish black label. The wine was made in similar fashion to Le Phenix – with a dash of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot for complexity and balance – with light basket-pressing and 110 litre barrels for maturation before light filtering and bottling. The wine showed classic deep ruby appearance with aromas of warm dark fruits – ripe cherry, dark plum, cassis – smoky toast with excellent complexity and intensity. The dense, concentrated fruits balanced well the 14% alcohol and structured tannins on the palate that were already showing some signs of opening. I liked the decent finish. This wine will improve with keeping as tertiary aromas and flavours develop in the bottle.
I recall asking Professor Wessels du Toit during the Small-Scale Winemaking Course whether making wine was really that easy as I feared producing awfully expensive vinegar. Johan Guillaumé has shown that it is entirely possible for a garagiste to make decent wines and, indeed, to sell them. More pleasure even for me, is that the Live Tasting videos of his wines have had some of the highest viewing numbers. I say so as I am keen always to profile the small producer. I raise a glass to Johan and encourage you to buy and enjoy his wines.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2019 Rosé (47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 16% Merlot, 12% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot) – R150
Red: 2017 Le Phenix (51% Merlot, 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot) – R300
2017 Cabernet Sauvignon (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot) – R300 FAVOURITE WINE