South Africa is a refuge for Bukettraube, one of the world’s rarest wine varietals. But in the face of climate change is its future uncertain? Fiona McIntosh investigates…
Pictures: Shaen Adey
“Next we have a Bukettraube,” says David Nieuwoudt, owner and winemaker at the Cederberg Private Cellar. I’m working my way through the list of David’s exquisite wines but this very German-sounding cultivar is not one I’m familiar with.
“You’re not likely to have tasted a Bukettraube in this style elsewhere,” the master winemaker reassures me, as he swirls the wine around in his glass. I follow suit, picking up the distinctive floral and apricot aroma of Muscat. As we taste, David explains that Cederberg Private Cellar is one of only three wineries in South Africa (the others are Swartland Winery and Simonsvlei), and one of the very few in the world that still produces a single-varietal Bukettraube.
So this is quite a treat. The off-dry wine is refreshing in the summer heat, and I can imagine that it would go down very nicely with a curry. I leave a convert.
A cross between Blauer Silvaner and Trollinger grapes, Bukettraube originated in a small village called Randersacker in the Franconia region of Germany. It was the result of the work of Sebastian Englerth, a pioneer of the German wine industry. A multi-talented man, he not only founded the first wine school in Germany but was a nurse.
The wine is the world’s first cross (of modern times – it’s not impossible that the ancient Greek and Romans experimented in similar fashion), but it proved uneconomical and died out in the German vineyards in the 1930s. “Or so we thought,” says David with a smile. “But then, in our quest to learn more about the cultivar, we discovered it had recently been revived by Martin Steinmann, winemaker and owner of Wiengut Schloss Sommerhausen, just four kilometres from Randersacker, its place of origin.”
I phoned Martin in Germany and he explained, “We don’t know exactly what led to the decline, but Bukettraube ripens very late in Germany and is sensitive to oidium [powdery mildew].” Intrigued by the history of the varietal, Martin wanted to see if he could grow it successfully. In 2012, he planted a 0.4ha block of Bukettraube vines using grafting buds that he acquired from Rüdiger Konig, a fifth generation descendent of Sebastian Englerth, who still has a block of 164 Bukettraube vines at Randersacker.
“That same year a Dutch friend of mine visited South Africa,” explains Martin. “He sent me an SMS saying he loved the Cederberg Bukettraube. So we visited Cederberg Private Cellar to learn more about the viticultural practices in Bukettraube vineyards and, of course, to talk to the guy with unique knowledge about it.”
David was then invited to the first harvest at Wiengut Schloss Sommerhausen in October 2014 – the first harvest of this grape in Germany for at least 75 years. They celebrated bringing the cultivar back to its home with a Cederberg Bukettraube 2013.
A special occasion indeed, all the more remarkable because the varietal has all but died out. “There are only 70 or so hectares under Bukettraube in the world,” says David, “the bulk in South Africa [68.04ha at the end 2014]. Eleven hectares, around 15 per cent of total global area, is at Dwarsrivier, in the Cederberg.” But more significantly, while other farmers are uprooting, in 2014 David increased the area under Bukettraube from 7ha to 11ha. Like Martin, David Nieuwoudt is bucking the trend.
“Bukettraube is well suited to the Cederberg climate,” he explains. “It ripens well here, which means that we can pick the grapes late. That’s essential to produce the Muscat aromas.”
At an altitude of 1 000m, Dwarsrivier enjoys warm days but cool nights. And it’s very dry. That lack of humidity, and the isolation of the farm are the keys to its success. “Here in the Cederberg we have virtually zero rot,” says David. “We’re not exposed to other farms so we’ve established 600 plants in a virus-free mother block, which we’ll utilise for future plantings.”
The story is not so rosy elsewhere.
“Bukettraube put the Swartland on the map. It was a very popular varietal in the 80s and 90s,” explains Claude Uren, viticulturist at Leeuwenkuil Family Vineyards in Stellenbosch. He says that until a decade ago, Gautengers in particular would come down to the Cape and enjoy Bukettraube in the tasting room. It was a new style, fresh wine – not cheap but well-priced.
Those who know Swartland Winery near Malmesbury still come back and buy the varietal, but they’re mainly older people with more sophisticated tastes. Young people are not really interested; if they buy it, it’s usually out of curiosity.
Claude takes me out to the dryland Bukettraube vineyards of Siebritskloof in the Paardeberg. As we inspect the bush vines he points out some of the classic problems that farmers growing the grape face – oidium, sunburn and leaf roll virus. The 2015/6 season was very dry, so some farmers have decided not to harvest. Others in the valley have already uprooted their Bukettraube blocks.
Bukettraube is in a slump, says Claude. “Less than one per cent of the area that supplies grapes to the Swartland Winery is under the cultivar. Today grape prices are low and input costs are rising continuously. Generally, after drier winters, the yields aren’t that good in the Swartland. So unless the wineries can make a premium quality wine from Bukettraube grapes that they can then sell at a good price, it’s just not viable any more.”
Pierre Rousseau, who owns nearby Uitkyk, is one such wine farmer who planted Bukettraube in the 80s when it was in vogue. Oidium wrecked his Bukettraube so he uprooted that vineyard in 2015. And he won’t plant Bukettraube again. Rather a Shiraz, Chenin or Pinotage.
Wine writer Neil Pendock, who owns Pendock Wine Gallery, also farms in the valley. When he bought his farm in 2007, 11ha was under Bukettraube, which he blended with Chenin into his Lemoenfontein White – now one of my favourite tipples. This has been a bad season, the worst drought for decades, and he’s not harvesting the grapes. Nor is he optimistic about the future of the Bukettraube. “Traditionally, in South Africa, Bukettraube was made in a sweet style. It was well-priced and popular,” says Neil. “But today sweet wine is a no-no, what with the Banting diet, increasing concern about health issues, and sugar being unsexy. Bukettraube is a bit of a historical curiosity. In the 60s and 70s many of the leading winemakers, like Danie de Wet, studied in Germany, or were looking to Germany for inspiration. But, particularly with climate change, wine farmers in South Africa need to change direction: they should be looking at Mediterranean cultivars that can cope in drier and hotter conditions.”
Abé Beukes, winemaker at Yonder Hill in Stellenbosch, agrees that the previous popularity of the cultivar was largely due to German influence. “When I started at Lievland in Klapmuts, in 1987, I inherited Bukettraube blocks. We produced a Noble Late Harvest made from Bukettraube, Weisser Riesling and Chenin that was one of the best-scoring South African white wines.”
The inspiration to plant came from Günter Brözel, cellar master at Nederburg for 33 years and creator of South Africa’s first Noble Late Harvest, the Nederburg Edelkeur, a wine made from grapes with Botrytis cinerea (noble rot) in the style of the German Trockenbeerenauslese.
“Then, for a while, I produced Bukettraube for Darling Cellars,” he adds. “We used it in blends. But I wouldn’t plant it now. It’s a difficult grape. Although it has a big tasty berry and can produce high yields, it’s very prone to disease and doesn’t travel well, hence the small size of global production. The cultivar doesn’t make sense here in today’s weather conditions.”
Abé is full of praise for David Nieuwoudt, with whom he worked at Lievland when the Cederberg winemaker was learning the trade. “Getting the balance between acidity and sweetness can also be a challenge, but David is a good winemaker, he gets that balance [in his Bukettraube] right.”
Our next stop is Simonsvlei, in the Cape Winelands, a cooperative formed in 1945 that produces a huge variety of traditional wines and some innovative new labels. Winemaker Ryan Elan-Puttick and Steven von Schlicht, the tasting room manager, walk us through the cellars.
“Two of our farmers still have Bukettraube blocks of 2.5ha each. They’re currently producing well, but I don’t think they’ll replant the cultivar,” explains Ryan. “But it’s an interesting grape and fun to work with; something different. And there’s definitely a niche market for good quality Bukettraube.”
Steven concurs. “Bukettraube used to sell well here in South Africa and a lot of people still come in asking for it. In fact, over the December holidays it’s one of the best-selling wines in the tasting room, particularly with visitors from up country. But it’s only sold to the local market from the tasting room so it’s tiny quantities. The rest is exported, mainly to Germany and France.”
In contrast, roughly 50 per cent of Cederberg Bukettraube is sold locally, explains Pieter du Toit who handles marketing and PR. And since Bukettraube is such a rare variety, it’s become a unique product for the cellar and is particularly popular in America.
So what of the future? Is a Bukettraube revival in South Africa a possibility?
The general consensus seems to be no. Maybe. But with David Nieuwoudt’s passion for the varietal, Bukettraube fans can rest assured it will still find refuge in the Cederberg.