Johann Meyer and his new home in the Swartland
Johan Meyer, known affectionately by everyone as Stompie, is one of the leading natural winegrowers in South Africa. He’s been making his own wines since 2008 as a side gig, and since 2015 he’s been full time on his JH Meyer wines, as well as making Mother Rock and Force Celeste wines in a partnership with Indigo Wine in the UK. Now he’s bought a property and has planted vineyards – an exciting development. Ring and I visited this new farm, Platteklip, on a beautiful November afternoon to find out more.
‘2008 was a good time to start as a new producer in the Swartland,’ says Stompie. ‘I think it’s more challenging now for a young guy to start and try and get into the market.’ It is becoming harder to source good grapes. ‘This is the reason we brought a property: to get something sustainable. I have all these brands, but I’ve lost about four vineyards in the last two years.’ Elgin has been a particular problem with vineyards being removed in favour of apples. ‘I can’t pay R30 000 a ton,’ he says, ‘and they can’t afford less, so they plant apples.’ Also, the bigger buyers with more money and power are taking some vineyards. He lost a Grenache vineyard because the farmer needed a commitment to a higher price and bigger volume. ‘It’s a pity, but what can you do about it? The only thing you can do is buy land and plant yourself.’
So he’s doing it, Craig and Carla Hawkins are doing it, and who else? ‘There are people looking, but to buy land is super difficult,’ he says. ‘I was lucky to buy this land. I was looking for this for two years, then it came onto the market and I was onto it quite quickly. I bought it as a cash deal. There is not a lot of property available.’
Getting finance is difficult in South Africa. ‘Unfortunately in our country when it comes to wine, the banks are not really open to it.’ Stompie has done everything with cash, without any loans. ‘I owe nothing. It’s a nice feeling, but it’s difficult. We build ourselves, we plant ourselves. We did everything with a lot of blood, sweat and tears.’
Stompie moved into the new cellar at Platteklip, which translates to ‘flat rock’, and is still in the process of moving equipment over. ‘It was quite a job because there was nothing,’ he says. ‘We did quite a bit of work over the last 14 months, building and breaking down, and planting vineyards and trying to keep the animals out of the vineyards. It was hectic.’
He bought the property in 2016, and spent quite a bit of time researching the soils and deciding how to plant. He put up a weather station and researched climate. This was needed, because it isn’t normal to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the heart of the Swartland. Though, to be fair, this is not typical Swartland.
‘It’s called Swartland at the moment,’ says Johann, ‘but I’m busy with SAWIS at the moment [the government body overseeing vineyards] to subdivide it, to create a new wine of origin, because the climate is so different.’ Normally it is around 6-8 degrees cooler here than where most of the vineyards of the Swartland are. It also has higher rainfall. ‘We are about 650 m here.’ How can you create a new WO? ‘It is like going to court: you need a good statement, and say this is the reason I want a new sub-appellation. The main thing is climate. I have been gathering information on this farm for four years now. Soil is a factor too.’ He’s just handed the application in for the new WO called Picketbooberg, which means the top of the Picket mountain.
The reason for looking for a new WO is that people will raise their eyebrows when they see Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay labelled as Swartland WO.
The conclusion from all the soil and climate research was that the best-suited variety for here was Sauvignon Blanc. ‘I said, I have about 15 hectares I can plant. I’m willing to offer half a hectare for Sauvignon Blanc.’ So he planted Sauvignon at 5000 vines/hectare. ‘We’ll see how it turns out.’ This is the coolest part of the vineyard, facing south, next to the winery. The whole property is 32 hectares. Some of it isn’t plantable, so there’s lots of natural vegetation, including rare fynbos species. The vineyards are being planted in virgin soil, and they’re the only vines on the mountain. ‘It’s a nice feeling to work from scratch with clean soils,’ says Stompie.
The vineyard is about 30 km from the ocean (the west coast), and on a clear day you can see the tankers at sea. Every afternoon an ocean breeze comes through the vineyard, and this helps cool things down, as well as lessening disease pressure. There’s also a good diurnal temperature fluctuation, from 30 C to 12 C at night.
The vineyard is all in development at the moment, and planting is still ongoing.
He’s talking to his neighbours to see if they will plant for him. ‘I have two guys who are willing to go for 15 hectares,’ he says. This would cover the needs of the Force Celeste brand he makes in collaboration with Indigo Wines (his UK importer), which he currently buys grapes for. Force Celeste used to, until last vintage, be Force Majeure, but they ran into problems because there’s a Washington State winery with that name.
Does Grenache have a good future potential in the Swartland? ‘Yes, but up here, even more, with the Table Mountain sandstone soils and a little bit of altitude. Grenache grows well at altitude, in my opinion. The Swartland has great soils for Grenache, but we just need a bit of height, and this is as high as you can get in the Swartland. If we look at the drought, Grenache and Mourvèdre were the two varieties that thrived.’ The yields for these varieties weren’t down as much for Syrah. ‘They love the heat.’
‘When you look at planting vineyards you look at cold units during the year,’ says Stompie. ‘The main area they use this is actually in fruit planting. If you want to plant an apple tree, you need at least a minimum of 800 cold units. If there are apples, then I can plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They need the same kind of cold units. To give an example, Hamilton Russell in Hemel-en-Aarde, gets 780-820 cold units per year. I get 1100 per year. My average daytime temperature here is 2 C colder than Hamilton Russell. Altitude is responsible: for every 100 m in altitude you drop 1 C. The highest vineyard here is 820 m.’
All his wines are whole bunch, either pressed or fermented. He doesn’t own a destemmer. ‘Maybe I’m lazy, because it’s a mission to clean them,’ he says, joking. The previous cellar was in Hermon, and he rented it for four years. Now Ryan Mostert and Sam Suddons are moving in there with their Silwervis, Smiley and Terracura wines.
Sulfite use is low, with many wines not getting any additions. ‘I’ve shipped lots of wines around the world without sulphite additions, and without problems,’ says Stompie. ‘If you work correctly in the vineyards with low pH, it works.’ He adds that if you want to stabilize wines naturally, it takes time.