Lunch with Johan Malan of Simonsig
Some things in life are a struggle, and then others just come naturally. Today is a case in point – you wake up and think what today holds and you remember that you are having a winemaker’s lunch with Johan Malan, cellar master and member of the family-owned Simonsig Estate in Stellenbosch, and you think to yourself, ‘yes, today is going to be a great day!’
I was telling someone the other day about how much I’ve enjoyed my bi-monthly winemaker lunches over the past 10 years. Add that up, and I’ve lunched with 62 of the best names in the business. I calculated that to reach the milestone of 100, I’d need to keep up the habit for more than another six years. So, I guess I know what I’m going to be doing for the next decade!
With this in mind I headed out to the Simonsig Estate, the name derived from the beautiful view of the spectacular Simonberg Mountain that dominates the landscape on the northern side of Stellenbosch. Waiting in the tasting room for Johan to arrive made me reflect on the history of this great pioneering Cape estate, led by the late Frans Malan, patriarch of the Malan family and one of the original founders of the Stellenbosch Wine Route.
There is no better way to start lunch than with a glass of Simonsig’s award-winning flagship bubbly, the Cuveé Royale, at the Estate’s own restaurant, Cuveé. I’ve known Johan for over 20 years but this was my first opportunity for a personal one on one. With so much to talk about, we had to stop and remind ourselves to order!
Considering that the wine selected for the Wine Society monthly pack was the Simonsig Labyrinth 2012 and was also the one we would be enjoying with lunch, it was an easy decision to order the almond crusted loin of venison with parsnip, coffee and dark chocolate.
The story behind the name ‘Labyrinth’ (based around the concept of a maze) resonated with me, and led the conversation down the line of Johan’s passion for Cabernet Sauvignon. He believes that Cabernet Sauvignon is the varietal Stellenbosch should focus on to promote and position this area, which is one of the very few regions in the world which has the unique terroir suitable for growing great Cabernet. The first Simonsig wines were bottled in 1982, but Johan believes the turning point came in 1984 when he convinced his father to reduce the yield of the Cabernet vineyard. This meant a double pruning session for the workers (which didn’t go down well with them as you can imagine), but it enabled Simonsig to release a straight Cabernet from this vintage and it turned out to be a cracker! It put Simonsig on the map as a serious red wine producer. By the way… this wine was released as a Wine Futures selling for R24 for a case of 12, only because they needed the cash flow.
A focus on Cabernet from the property culminated in the release of the farm’s flagship wine in 2015, with the release of The Garland 2008, a Cabernet from a single vineyard site on the Simonsberg.
If I hadn’t had another appointment in the winelands, and Johan a wine tasting, we could easily have extended lunch to dinner, but all good things come to an end and my high expectation for the lunch set early that morning was easily fulfilled.
JOHAN IN A NUTSHELL:
Why did you decide to become a winemaker?
I was born on the estate and both my mother and father were from wine growing families, so I guess it was in my genes from birth.
Where did you start your winemaking career?
In my final year I did a practical stint at KWV under Mr Willi Hacker in Paarl. After finishing my studies I joined my father and two brothers on the estate, where I worked as quality control under the two senior winemakers.
What do you enjoy most about winemaking and why?
Winemaking makes you involved from the soil through the cellar all the way to the wine consumer who enjoys the fruit of all your efforts. Its unique in agriculture to be involved in every step of the journey and you get to meet great people who drink your wine. With experience you also get to understand the soils and how it affects the quality of the wine and that is tremendously fascinating.
Highlights in your career?
I’ve had many highlights, but to build a reputation for serious red wines over the years which culminated in the launch of Simonsig The Garland 2008 in May this year has given me a lot of pleasure. Also that my son, Michael studied winemaking at Stellenbosch, making him the third generation to qualify as a winemaker at Stb University.
Your favourite white and red wines – to drink?
I believe variety is the spice of life and the time of day, the occasion and the mood has an influence, but I believe that Cabernet is King and Stellenbosch is the Kingdom of Cabernet so it is top of the list for me. White Rhone varieties like Roussanne, Grenache blanc and Marsanne show a lot of promise and I am working on these grapes to learn more.
Your favourite pastimes/hobbies?
Fishing and diving are two of my biggest hobbies and I believe on holiday my feet must be in the water!