Porseleinberg: The tough hilltop farm in the Swartland that yields South Africa’s most epic Syrah

Callie Louw is not a guy for the limelight. He is at his happiest with his hands in the soil and the sun on his face, and yet, this stoere boer makes one of the most sought-after Syrah wines in South Africa. Porseleinberg has been described as our country’s highest-rate Syrah, and still Callie continues to only produce this one wine. Curiouser and curiouser…

We recently stopped by to see what he was up to on his farm on the outskirts of the Swartland and to find out how he manages to coax such a rare and beautiful wine from the notoriously hardcore schist soils atop the Porseleinberg (which is not quite as fragile and dainty as it name suggests at all, it turns out).    

The story of the striking Syrah grown atop the Porcelain Mountain

Porseleinberg forms a part of the Swartland Independent Producers, the group of local winemakers that have been taking the region’s winemaking practices into a bold new direction ever since they officially joined forces in 2010. Currently, Callie is the only winemaker under this auspicious banner who only makes one wine. 

READ MORE: Innovation over imitation: Chris & Andrea Mullineux on the joy of honing an age-old craft

“I love farming and I worked at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards (which has since been renamed Fable Wines) where Chris and Andrea also worked. One evening, at a trade show in London, I found myself standing next to Marc Kent, one of the shareholders in Boekenhoutskloof – we were tasting wine and chatting about the industry. Two years later he gave me a call and told me that they bought this place and they want to farm 40ha of vines,” remembers Callie. 

At that point there was a small patch of Shiraz grapes growing on the farm, which went into the first batch of Porseleinberg that was released in 2010. However, these grapes weren’t just any old grapes – it had been on the radar of some serious winemakers for a while. Adi and Callie used to work with some of it Stellenbosch in the early-2000s, and Eben Sadie had also bought some of it for his Columella before. But now it would be the exclusive provenance of Boekenhoutskloof.

READ MORE: PLACE ABOVE PROGRESS – Eben Sadie on old vines, new cultivars and bottling the Swartland

“Initially, we were looking at 40ha, mainly Shiraz, because Boekenhoutskloof at that stage did not own a lot of land and were buying in grapes. So this was the first parcel of farming land they bought in 2009 and their goal was to plant 40ha,” says Callie. 

“In 2013, one of my neighbours offered me a piece of land with some water on it, so we bought another 25ha; and a year later another neighbour sold us another 25ha. Two years after that we bought the farm on the Riebeeksrivier Road. So what started out as 40ha of grapes, has since grown to 130ha. It’s still mainly Shiraz, with a bit of Grenache and Cinsault for good measure. We also have one old block of Steen (Chenin Blanc) on the Goldmine farm in Riebeeksrivier. Most of our grapes are taken to one of our two big cellars – Helderberg or Boekenhoutskloof, where it goes into either the Boekenhoutskloof Syrah or The Chocolate Block. These wines were the main reason for the purchase of land, expansion and planting of grapes.”

Porseleinberg, Swartland, South Africa.

On the importance of leaving wine to do its own thing

“The idea was to make a wine with a sense of place and time, that would differ from one year to the next as an expression of the here and now. It was never supposed to be a celebration of someone’s winemaking talents. In fact, it’s one of the things on the farm on which we spend the least time,” explains Callie. 

“We pick the grapes when they taste nice, we chuck the whole bunches in the tanks and we started out by stomping it by foot. It’s very old-school and traditional. There aren’t many pump-overs and things. We farm as hard as we can for 11 months, we pick the grapes, and then we let the wine do its own thing.”

As with all good stories, things did not go a 100% smoothly from start to finish. One of Callie’s neighbours likes to burn his wheat pretty early in the season, and in 2005 the south-westerly wind that sweeps down through this valley brought the fire with it, raging through the original block, which left them with 3000 of the original 15 000 vines, which meant they needed to interplant. 

“So in the beginning it was just the old block, and then in 2013 I started picking the first grapes from the new vines and playing with bits and bobs from all over, adding it in whatever tasted nice,” he explains. 

According to Callie, the memorable nature of the wine can largely be ascribed to the fact that the vines are grown in near inhospitable conditions in soils that would make most farmers cry in their two-tone khaki sakdoeke

Callie Louw holding the blue schist of the Porseleinberg in South Africa’s Swartland

“The soil here is all blue schist. In fact, the whole mountain range in our area is schist – it starts here on our farm and ends in Riebeek West. Kasteelberg mountain is also schist, it’s just more weathered. What we have here is closer to a mispah, featuring horizontally orientated, hard, fractured sediments that do not have distinct vertical channels containing soil material. People don’t like it much. It’s very hard and I don’t have any topsoil. This place is heavy. It’s hardcore,” he says. 

“I saw these little Shiraz bunches for the first time in 2001, and they were tiny, and the concentration of the juice was enormous. There’s no need to be fancy with it. I didn’t want to fiddle with it, because I want the condition of each year to show in the vintage. This is why we treat it exactly the same every year. We just try to get the grapes into a wine form. It goes in as whole bunches, and then it goes into large oak vats. We make around 20 000 bottles a year and they’re pretty sought after*.”

*Ed’s note: This is a major understatement. 

Watch our short video on Callie Louw, his printing press and the unique terroir of the Porseleinberg in the Swartland.

And how about that label? 

One of the most distinct things about the Porseleinberg Syrah is its unusual label, which is created by hand on an old-school Original Heidelberg Platen Press Model T, the smallest motorised printer ever produced by this iconic company. The approach was suggested by maverick graphic design agency Fanakalo Studio in Stellenbosch. 

The team was inspired by the term ‘porcelain mountain’, which denotes a beautiful fragility, while the motifs on the neck as well as the blue colour on the back label is a nod to Delph tiles that are a prominent feature in many Cape Dutch homes. The printing press manufacturing method was a stroke of genius – it has the smallest carbon footprint of all printing methods, so it keeps things as green as possible, while still resulting in a premium finish.

How to buy and taste Porseleinberg wine

Callie has always been a bit on an online enigma, so don’t be too perturbed when you encounter the very succinct landing page for Porseleinberg that features a picture of the printing press, an email address and not much else. This veil of digital secrecy actually makes it all the more rewarding to hold that bottle of Porseleinberg Syrah in your hands in the end. 

If you’re making your way to the Swartland and you have some lead time, you can contact Callie directly on callie@porseleinberg.com to book a tasting, but this will definitely need to happen way in advance. Alternatively, you can stop over or The Wine Kollective in Riebeek Kasteel if you want easy access and the input of some local purveyors.  Alternatively, there are online stores that stock it as well that will deliver to your door. This includes Caroline’s Fine Wines, Cyber Cellar and Port2Port Online Wine Store

Trust us on this one – if you’re a Syrah fan, you need a bottle of Porseleinberg in your collection. It is going to change the way you think about this beguiling varietal forever

QUICK LINKS >> Website: www.porseleinberg.com| Email: callie@porseleinberg.com 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top