Albert Ahrens’ painstaking search for South Africa’s perfect grapes

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Original version of this appeared on the-buyer.net.

The latest in The Buyer’s profiles of leading edge South African winemakers looks at the wines of Albert Ahrens, who is making his mark with his painstakingly sourced grapes selected from very specific vines and terroirs all over the Western Cape. Christina Rasmussen is our guide through the world of Albert Ahrens wines.

Seek and thou shall find is clearly Albert Ahrens motto has he drives thousands of miles across the Western Cape in search of the exact right grapes for his terroir-driven wines. 

Albert Ahrens is not alone in making terroir-driven wines in South Africa. But few have his touch, and his persuasion skills, to be able to source some of the best fruit, sometimes in tiny quantities, from growers right across the Cape from Swartland, Voor-Paardeberg, Bottelary, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Elgin. As a result he creates wines that, he says, have their own unique “address” to them. Their own post code if you like.

Christina Rasmussen caught up with him at the recent tasting of his UK importer, Red Squirrel Wine, and talked to him about his approach to winemaking and, in particular, his sparkling wine project with close friend, Gerritt Maritz.

After studying oenology, Albert Ahrens spent time working in vintages in the Rhône Valley, Priorat and in Champagne, where he first came into contact with a family produced vintage Champagne, which he says “blew his mind”. It was to prove his inspiration for wanting to go on and produce a quality sparkling wine of its own.

But it would not be until many years later when Ahrens, who had spent seven vintages as winemaker for Lammershoek,  met his now business partner, Gerritt Maritz in 2006, over a drink.

The rest was history. Maritz was a lawyer who had developed a strong appreciation for wine, in particular Champagne through his university days when other South Africans were busy smashing through the brandy and cokes.

Together they decided to join forces and what is now the GM&Ahrens label was born. Maritz built a cellar under his house, and Albert got to work sourcing grapes.

Which in the end resulted in finding grapes from 15 different sites, along with the help of sparkling luminary, Peter “Bubbles” Ferreira of Graham Beck. The final blend is made up of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We tried being maverick with it in our first year but it didn’t work out,” recalls Ahrens. “To create a premium quality sparkling here, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay produce the best

Interestingly, Ahrens does not believe in using Meunier. Unlike in Champagne where they need Pinot Meunier grapes to ripen early and bring the acidity up, that is not a problem in the Western Cape as both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ripen earlier.

Dosage levels in GM&Ahrens is low, at only around one gram per litre, and production is very small (4,000 to 5,000 bottles). One year is spent in old barrels on lees, after which it then goes in to bottle for a further two to four years on lees, to create a complex and rich wine.

The result is stunning. One of my favourite aspects of this wine is that it is produced with 4.5 bar pressure (the norm is 6). It is a rich MCC, and it would be a mistake to put too many bubbles in there. The low pressure adds to the lovely round mouthfeel.

Ahrens Family wines 

Ahrens is equally painstaking about seeking out the best terroirs and grapes for his Ahrens Family wines. Although you won’t find their names on the label. Again he looks to make beautifully elegant and fairly ‘Old World’ style wines, with pure and delicate expression of fruit.

Ahrens says it’s all about finding those few vines, from that one terroir you know you really want. Which means a lot of driving. He calculates he probably does a minimum 45,000km a year to find his vineyards. He admits he is quite tenacious in how he will convince growers to sell him grapes that he really craves. For example, he recently managed to purchase the rights to some grapes from a well-known vineyard, which normally only ever buys in grapes and never sells. However, because he had seen the vines and was only after a small quantity, he was able to use his persuasive skills and acquire the vines. 

The labels and designs are as striking and as memorable as the wines, and are all designed by Ahrens himself, using lovely paper wrapping with a map printed on the inside.

Some highlights from Ahrens range 

Elgin Pinot Noir 2015 

This wine proves the capacity for Elgin Pinot. Grapes are handpicked and carefully selected, naturally fermented and matured in old 500-litre tight-grain French oak barrels.

This is stunning, with notes of wild strawberries, fresh red and black cherries, slightly bark-y, quite dense in texture, reminiscent of Cote de Nuits, as opposed to Cote de Beaune. This is going to be beautiful when developing into tertiary aromas in a few years’ time.

Ahrens is thinking about three future Pinot Noirs.

The Whiteblack 2014 

Swartland means black-land, because of the black Renosterbos bushes that dominate the landscape and this is a signature white wine, from the black land.

It is also the style of wine I love coming out of South Africa. Ahrens is a close friend of Pieter Walser of BLANKbottle and you can see his influence at play here. Walser’s Moment of Silence was the first wine to get me into South African white blends and this is a truly stunning example that has its place firmly on my whites list. A blend of Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanche and Clarette Blanche, all from the Voor-Paardeberg region, historically part of the Swartland. Handpicked, naturally fermented and matured in 300-600L right grain French oak barrels for 12 months.

“BLACK” 2015

This wine has an interesting back story. Ahrens wasn’t allowed to name it ‘Black’ due to South African  wine laws – which sees black as a generic colour as opposed to a “name”. Hence, he called it Ahrens Family Red (which is allowed as it’s referring to wine), and gave it a plain black label. It has since become known as the Black. Mainly Syrah, (65%), with Carignan, Grenache and Cinsaut, plus a little addition of some Marsanne and Roussanne to lift it with some spicy edge. Naturally fermented and matured in old 225L tight grain French oak barrels for 12 months.

This is a bold wine, with vibrant, mouthwatering fruits – blackcurrants, blackberries and fresh raspberries. Gluggable is the word here.

BOTTELARY O.V.C (OLD VINE CHENIN) 2015

From the second oldest Chenin Blanc vines of South Africa (planted 1947). Twenty per cent were harvested early for freshness and acidity, something crucial to avoid Chenin becoming a little flat, which it can. Sixty per cent was then harvested at optimum ripeness, and 20% harvested slightly late, for richness. Ahrens has really nailed it here. What we have here is a fresh, soft and beautifully delicate example.

It’s described as “Vouvray” in style, and it is, but with a gentle lifted extra minerality, which can only come from these Stellenbosch soils. Naturally fermented and matured in old 225-400L tight grain French oak barrels for 12 months.

It has a lovely honeysuckle nose, with apples and peaches on the palate developing into something a little richer – some mango, with a round lingering mouthfeel that envelopes the mouth with a little nutmeg on the finish.

BOTTELARY SEVENTY 2014

From Bottelary, Stellenbosch, this is 50% old vine Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% old vine small berry Cinsaut. The Cabernet makes this a big, but refined wine. Naturally fermented and matured in older 225L tight grain French oak barrels for 18 months.

This has all the big black fruits – blackcurrants, blackberries and plums. The Cinsaut lifts tannins and gives a juicy freshness and pepper on the finish.

All are exceptional wines, and go to show how a talented a winemaker Ahrens is. Certainly one to watch. 

If you are interested in Albert Ahrens wines’ then contact Red Squirrel Wine. 

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