Porseleinberg: an icon in the making

Porseleinberg has become one of South Africa’s most collectable wines. As the estate releases its 12th vintage, Sophie Thorpe tastes through a full vertical and talks to winemaker Callie Louw about what makes the site, and wine, so special
Porseleinberg: an icon in the making

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“People seem to like it,” says Callie Louw in his thick Afrikaans accent. The winemaker behind Porseleinberg shrugs, casual about his wine’s success. Since its first vintage in 2010, this Swartland Syrah has rapidly become one of South Africa’s best and most sought-after, much to his bemusement, it seems. 

The 173-hectare estate is rugged and wild, sitting atop the Porcelain Mountain (Porseleinberg in Afrikaans) in the Swartland. The first vines had been planted here in 1997, with wines previously marketed under the Schonenberg label. Louw first came across the site while at Rustenberg, who sourced fruit from there – the bunches and individual berries were so tiny that Louw thought at first that the owners weren’t giving them the best fruit (although he may not have put it so politely). But those miniscule bunches were all these rocky schist soils, with almost no topsoil, could muster. However small the yields, the quality and concentration was enough to convince Marc Kent (Managing Partner and Technical Director at Boekenhoutskloof) to buy the farm in 2009 – and he approached Louw, who was then working at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards (now Fable Mountain Vineyards), to develop the property. 

The team instantly set about a massive planting program and there are around 90 hectares under vine today. Most of the fruit was destined for Boekenhoutskloof’s flagship wine, The Chocolate Block, but with 4.5 hectares of older plots and a ramshackle shed-cum-winery, Louw – with Kent’s blessing – decided to do something different, and Porseleinberg was born. 

“It’s a really special site,” Louw says, explaining how the vines sit on almost pure bedrock with just a skin of topsoil over the blue schist. “We’re effectively farming little bonsais here.” It tells you just how challenging this site is that only half the vines they planted in 2009 survived; but the results are clearly worth the effort. And they weren’t the first to recognise the site’s potential – as well as Rustenberg (where Adi Badenhorst was then winemaker), Eben Sadie had sourced fruit from the property for Columella in 2000 and 2001. While the wine came originally from just 4.5 hectares, today there are 14 dedicated to Porseleinberg, with the first of the younger vines coming on stream from 2013.

Top of page: harvest underway at Porseleinberg. Above: winemaker Callie Louw

When Louw arrived in 2009, the vines were dry-farmed – and he managed to get 3.5 tons/hectare of fruit in 2010. But the yield was a tiny two tons the following year; it was clear that dry-farming just wasn’t an option for this site, the soils too poor to hold onto the water – if the skies even gave any. “Schist is actually spelt wrong, it’s supposed to be s**t,” Louw says, laughing. Despite the need to irrigate, he’s well aware of the costs involved – particularly given any water they use needs to be pumped seven kilometres and up the mountain. During the drought between 2016 and 2018, the river they use for irrigation dried up, Louw’s house water ran out in May – and police were patrolling water sources. There’s no avoiding how precious a resource water is here. 

The site had been farmed organically and Louw continued this, however in 2016, when they looked to plant another 45 hectares, he wanted to make sure that he gave these new plantings the best chance – and be able to farm organically in the long term. As of 2023, the property is once more certified organic, having been able to return to the process in 2020. And it is firmly in the vineyard that Louw focuses, feeling not just that quality comes from the vine – but from the soil, as he gradually looks to build the level of organic matter. “The only thing that I can do better is farm better,” he says. 

The winemaking is relatively simple and hands-off (as Louw says, “I’m quite proudly lazy in the winery.”) – but has evolved over the years. Louw uses 100% whole-bunch, although the fruit is crushed lightly (previously by foot, now by being run through a pump) to avoid carbonic fermentation and its more confected aromas. The fermentations are all native, with alcohols generally sitting between 13.5 and 14%. Maturation is in a combination of foudre and concrete, and varied more over the first four vintages as Louw figured out what worked (with the 2010 and 2011 vintages aged in concrete only). While some of the early vintages spent up to two years in concrete and oak, he has reduced this to 12 months (from 2014), favouring more time in bottle prior to release instead.  

Although the wines are decidedly fresh and balanced, the pHs are naturally high – between 3.7 and 4.1, with most vintages sitting at the higher end of that spectrum. Given the risks of bacterial spoilage that this brings, SO2 levels are relatively high (around 100ppm total) – something Louw feels is essential for wines that are absolutely built to age. And that’s something that has long set Porseleinberg apart.  

Porseleinberg's famous white labels are made on a vintage letter-press by winemaker Callie Louw

“I’m still wearing the pants I bought in 2004 – I know nothing about style,” Louw jokes. There’s no shortage of brilliant new-wave South African wine, however most are built to be open and approachable in their youth – not necessarily glou-glou, but leaning into the lighter style of reds that has become fashionable. Porseleinberg was, at least at first, decidedly not. The earlier vintages are stern and serious, and need(ed) significant time to resolve and soften – it’s that style (whether Louw would describe it as such or not) that has earned the wine the moniker “Cape Cornas”, a style that is both thanks to the natural intensity of the low-yielding site and Louw’s love of old wine. 

But the 2018 vintage brought a significant shift – one that has taken Porseleinberg to new heights. Louw visited a friend who was working at Domaine Jamet, and saw how rather than using punch-downs or pump-overs, they submerged the cap throughout the fermentation and maceration, allowing them to extract more gently. Most winemakers might have trialled the technique on a parcel, but not Louw – who says, frankly, “I put my chips all in.” He returned to the Swartland and set to work, making his own plates to hold the cap in place during fermentation. Fortunately for him, the gamble paid off. 

The more recent vintages display more perfume, precision and finesse, without sacrificing the almost fearsome structure that makes them so age-worthy – and, as Louw says, it means he does even less work in the winery (“I fit about one more beer in a day,” he says, smiling). While earlier vintages were more about their tannic framework, the fruit, Louw suggests, is more present now – covering the tannins in the wines’ youth. 

When I ask Louw if he wishes he’d used the submerged-cap technique from the start, his answer is no. “It’s amazing to grow up with the wine,” he says. And somehow that makes sense, for this is clearly a very personal project. Although Boekenhoutskloof might own Porseleinberg, it is run and managed totally separately. During our conversation and as we taste through a complete vertical, back to 2010 (the first time Louw has ever had the chance to do so), it is clear that this is not just a wine from this specific place, but also from this specific wine-grower. Over 12 vintages, the style evolves, the variation between years shining through, but the mineral backbone and structural imprint of this site remains. It’s a remarkable wine, and one that is only set to get even better as the vines age and Louw builds on his experience. Ignore it at your peril. 

Future vintages of Porseleinberg lying in wait, in both foudre and bottle

Tasting every vintage of Porseleinberg: 2010 to 2021

2010 Porseleinberg: From the original 4.5 hectares, the first vintage of Porseleinberg offers a savoury, bloody, iron-rich nose, with an edge of herbal, menthol notes and dried red fruit. The immense structure is still present, although the tannins have softened with over a decade in bottle. That structure is complemented by a bite of fresher, dark fruit and juicy acidity. Aged for 16 months in 65% foudre and 35% concrete. 

2011 Porseleinberg: This wine still feels young, the nose brooding with dark fruit, leather and liquorice, the palate tightly packed with intense, black-berried fruit and a chalky grip of tannins. With the year’s conditions only two tons per hectare were harvested, the smallest crop ever from the site – and given the small volumes this was never released, with only 800 bottles made. Aged for 24 months in concrete egg. 

2012 Porseleinberg: This is more supple and soft than the 2012, with a savoury and saline profile. There’s more elegance than the first two vintages, with dark, intense fruit yet with an appealing purity, complemented by notes of tobacco spice and liquorice allsorts. Only 2,760 bottles were made. Aged for 12 months in concrete egg. 

2013 Porseleinberg: The fruit here is distinctly different – sweeter strawberry with a touch of herbal eucalyptus alongside savoury hints that point to the beginnings of tertiary development. It’s incredibly concentrated, structured and compact – a wine that is built for the long-haul. Aged for 24 months in 60% foudre and 40% concrete. 

2014 Porseleinberg: The 2014 was one of the more open vintages in the line-up, from a particularly wet year and late harvest. The nose entices with an earthiness, a dusting of cocoa, deep red cherry and chocolate-covered strawberries. There’s a juicy purity to the palate with a chalky grip and savoury, smoky edge to the long finish. Aged for 12 months in 100% foudre. 

2015 Porseleinberg: This is still a little reductive, and will benefit from additional time in bottle. As this reduction blows off, it reveals a fynbos-accented nose of dark fruit. From a cool vintage, the palate is a tight ball still – intensely mineral and chalky, with impressive purity, but it’s not yet revealing its potential. One to watch. Aged for 12 months in 90% foudre and 10% concrete egg. 

2016 Porseleinberg: The 2016 vintage brought the driest winter in decades and another tiny crop. The wine is full of sweet red fruit, but there’s a firm, stony minerality to the nose, as well as floral and spicy tones that give it lift. There’s a fine-boned framework here and gorgeous freshness. Aged for 12 months in 70% foudre and 30% concrete egg. 

2017 Porseleinberg: The 2017 vintage is sweet and concentrated; offering both a swarthy dark profile and a sweet, red-fruited intensity. It’s tight and bold, with an iron backbone, firm tannic structure and a powerful finish defined by its dark fruit and minerality. Aged for 12 months in 70% foudre and 30% concrete egg. 

2018 Porseleinberg: The 2018 vintage is the first in which Louw used the submerged-cap technique – and there’s an instant shift in the style of the wine. It’s brighter, more aromatic with more intense herbal and spicy notes, while the palate is layered with juicier, crunchy red fruit that masks the tannins. The finish is long, spicy and mineral. Superb. Aged for 12 months in 90% foudre and 10% concrete egg. 

2019 Porseleinberg: This vintage saw a break in the drought for South Africa, with rainfall around average and a relatively cool growing season. The nose here is dominated by herbs and spice – green peppercorn, dried rosemary and sage; leading on to a palate that offers pure red-berried fruit. There’s a mineral, chalky, furry grip of velvet tannins that frames the generous cherry fruit, with a saline mineral finish. Delicious. Aged for 12 months in 90% foudre and 10% concrete egg. 

2020 Porseleinberg The 2020 vintage was warmer and the wine speaks to that – with richer and darker fruit character that dominates its profile. The warmer conditions have added a polish to the wine, with more open feel, despite the trademark structure that sits behind the fruit. The wine is a little reductive at this stage, and needs more time to unfurl. Aged for 12 months in 90% foudre and 10% concrete egg. 

2021 Porseleinberg: The latest release of Porseleinberg is unsurprisingly impressive, but with a finesse that suggests it could be Callie Louw’s best vintage to date. A long, cool growing season with sufficient rainfall resulted in a leisurely harvest in 2021, allowing the team to take their time to pick. Since the shift to submerged cap in 2018, quality here has leapt ahead. The 2021 shows a spicy, mineral intensity – with the fruit more subdued, taking a backseat to the stony structure and texture of the wine. It’s supple, flowing across the palate like silk, yet with a super-fine grip of mineral tannins and the shy fruit that points to its immense age-worthiness. Savoury herbal tones mingle with the red fruit, while there’s a saline freshness and spicy pepper tones that linger on the long finish. Amazingly approachable now, it will only improve with a couple of years in bottle and continue to evolve over the next 15 years or so. Aged for 12 months in 95% foudre and 5% concrete.  

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Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe joined FINE+RARE in 2020. An MW student, she’s been short-listed for the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer Award twice, featured on jancisrobinson.com and won the 2021 Guild of Food Writers Drinks Writing Award.