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A voyage in a glass: Introducing Maritimo 2021

Winemaking is an ancient craft, yet it consistently tells a tale of reinvention and manages to maintain its allure in contemporary society. Imbued with intrigue, wine’s life force depends on winemakers with an adventurous vinous spirit and the pioneering nerve to chart new paths to ensure that wine continues to spark curiosity. These character traits are entrenched in the DNA of the Malan family of Simonsig Family Vineyards.

Based in the heart of the Stellenbosch winelands, the Malan family has firmly established a reputation as vinous voyagers. Their journey includes Kaapse Vonkel, the first South African bottle-fermented sparkling wine which gave birth to the Cap Classique category. This milestone opened many new worlds of taste in the industry, leading wine enthusiasts towards unconventional and thrilling interpretations of wine. The Malan family’s thirst for exploration has firmly established them as pioneers, with the late Frans Malan inspiring a legacy of innovation that’s honoured by son Johan and grandson Michael, third-generation cellarmaster at Simonsig.

A vinous exploration

An engaging reflection of this explorative spirit can be found in The Grapesmith collection, a range of wines which exemplifies Johan’s interest in – and mastery of – Mediterranean and Rhône grape varieties. “The Grapesmith collection is our answer to new grape frontiers,” second-generation owner Johan says. Maiden bottlings of the range include a Marsanne-Roussanne blend called Die Kluisenaar and Mediterraneo, a unique blend of mostly Marsanne and Rousanne, with Grenache Blanc and the lesser-known Bourboulenc and Verdelho in various vintages. The idiosyncratic complexity of these varieties quickly established their place in their wine repertoire. Mediterraneo 2015 was of such stature that it was included in the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction line-up in 2016 and subsequent bottlings have continued to beguile with their layered complexity and unconventional – and therefore utterly rewarding – taste profiles.

Simonsig’s odyssey with Rhône varieties continues and this year the Malan family has introduced a third wine to The Grapesmith collection. Maritimo 2021 is an elegant, medium-bodied red wine and its bottle is engraved with a compass rose that pays homage to the intrepid “maritimos” who were the first to sail around the southern tip of Africa in 1488. Considering the trend for chillable, accessible reds, the compass on the bottle is also an appropriate nod to intrepid wine explorers seeking a contemporary wine made with classic precision.

Only seven barrels of Maritimo have been made. It is a delicate red blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Marselan and Syrah that is remarkably approachable yet complex, with layers of perfumed bramble and deliciously crunchy cherry freshness that add extra charm. “Mourvèdre emerged as the perfect candidate, ripening late with a wider window for earlier pickings,” Johan says. “We also planted our own Grenache Noir and Marselan, so the plans were set in motion for Maritimo’s birth.”

An ongoing journey

Johan’s interest in the grape varieties from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region deepened significantly after a visit to Paso Robles, California. It was here that he discovered the exceptional potential of these grapes to produce ‘New World’ wines of remarkable quality.

Johan sourced and planted several of these varieties at Simonsig and they became the basis and “true north” of The Grapesmith line-up. This approach also speaks of the Malans’ sustainability mindset. “These robust varieties are particularly resilient to heat and drought, therefore introducing them to Simonsig’s soil is an appropriate response to climate change as evidenced by this year’s harvest which is the earliest on record,” elaborates Johan.

Wine odyssey in a glass

Johan’s vision was clear: to create wines bottled in small batches that thoroughly explore the intriguing layers offered by Mediterranean and Rhône varieties. “There’s a textural beauty – an undeniable mystique – that sets them apart,” he says.

Wines in The Grapesmith collection are undoubtedly flagbearers for the versatility and transportive nature of these niche varieties, which impress with their natural acidities, refined flavour and aromatic complexity.

It’s appropriate that Die Kluisenaar bears the Crusader’s Cross, inspired by an ancient tale of a crusading Rhône Valley soldier-turned-hermit who lived on the Hill of Hermitage and became a devoted servant of the surrounding vineyards. It’s with a similar devotion that Johan approaches the making of The Grapesmith wines. Limited quantities speak to this passion. The Southern Cross engraving on the Mediterraneo bottle is a symbolic asterism that guides wine lovers to a place where a passion for winemaking has created a world of vinous discovery.

Only four to 10 barrels each of The Grapesmith wines are bottled annually and they’re all outstanding examples of wines made by a winemaker with the confidence to explore vinicultural and viticultural possibilities. “These wines epitomise a delicate balance of nuance and restraint,” Johan says. “Employing whole-bunch pressing minimises extraction while enhancing purity. The juice, gently pressed and aged in barrels and partially in amphorae, undergoes spontaneous fermentation, allowing for an authentic expression of terroir and honouring the inherent character of the grape varieties. The result is wines of sublime balance and refined complexity.”

Maritimo builds on this experimentation in the cellar, with each grape variety being vinified in a distinctive manner prior to blending. Carbonic maceration, cofermentation of some varieties, time spent in seasoned French oak barrels, meticulous selection of each of the blending components and a period in concrete eggs ensure a delicately structured wine which simultaneously offers a sublime expression of fruit purity.

While Maritimo is another landmark in the Malan family’s vinous odyssey, Johan says the journey is far from over. “We’ve achieved this remarkable result after years of learning and experimentation. Our direction and goal remain unchanged: to continually improve and elevate quality while staying true to our South African roots. It’s an ongoing journey.”

It’s also a journey that’s expertly navigated by the new generation of winemakers in the Simonsig cellar, with Michael proudly accepting the generational baton in the Malans’ voyage of winemaking excellence.