Chamonix

And filling boots that can't be filled

In September 2015, Trevor Noah began what was literally an impossible job. He took over from John Stewart as host of the Daily Show. The show had been Stewart’s for 16 years, during which he built it up from nothing, made it his own and achieved widespread critical and commercial acclaim. Many doubted whether our Trevor was the most suitable candidate, but in fairness, replacing Jon Stewart was tantamount to replacing Jacques Kallis. Forget about it.

Meanwhile back in Trevor’s home country, winemaker Gottfried Mocke was leaving his post at Chamonix. There was a lot of talk about who might take over from this most awarded, respected of winemakers; one whose name was synonymous with the label he had been in charge of for 15 years. At the same time Trevor Noah was picking out his new chair, Mocke’s understudy, Thinus Neethling, became the head winemaker at Chamonix.

Now I’m not drawing a parallel between these ok I’m definitely drawing a parallel. As if the above were not enough, both of their initials are TN. They are also, apparently, just as good looking. Actually I believe my wife’s exact phrase was “easy on the eyes”.

Of course, their looks weren’t going to help them make jokes or wine. So how are their new gigs working out?

Well, Trevor had a difficult start. Expected to fail, he clearly started more than a little nervous. But in time he became more comfortable, and now that he has started to make it his own he has been able to slowly shift the show's identity so as to avoid comparison altogether.

As for Thinus, well many will say we won't know until all of his wines are available. I have a different take.

He grew up on a vineyard farm between Worcester and Villiersdorp. His sister is a winemaker in Tulbagh. He studied at Elsenburg, worked for a year under David Niewoudt at Cederberg and in 2014 began as assistant at Chamonix. That’s a pretty tidy resume for a guy in his mid 20’s.

From the moment we first spoke, Thinus was unbelievably respectful and deferential towards his mentor. He assumes no credit for some very impressive wines that he had a big hand in. In fact his exact words were “I can’t take any credit for that”. Three of them (the 2015 Chardonnay, 2015 Chardonnay Reserve and the 2014 Troika) were all awarded 5 Platter Stars in 2017. And because he doesn’t claim them as his own, to many they are the yardstick by which he’ll be measured.

“I think if you work there, even if you visit there, a little piece of you stays there”

- Thinus on Cederberg

One of the great things about wine is that the “results” aren’t immediately available. And even when they are, they’re always changing. At Chamonix, there are barrels, bottles, eggs and kegs that will all have a story to tell. In the coming months and years, you’ll be able to buy them and make up your own mind about Neethling’s wines. You’ll be able to compare them to other wines and, should you want to, to those of his predecessors. I’m very confident that you won’t be disappointed.

A few of the bottles from his 2016 vintage will no doubt go straight down to the private cellar. A beautiful, quiet little pleasure-cove that could just as easily transport you to south-east France. Thinus is adamant that he doesn’t come here to pick up something inspirational after a long day. Since “borrowing” the key, I can’t say the same. It’s the sort of room you want to be locked in for an evening with a cheese fondue, 10 of your favourite people and a working bottle opener. Even then, you’ll struggle to do any serious damage.

In an attempt to put wine into context, it’s easy to over-simplify it. In an effort to produce talking points and sound bites, we can overlook the fact that it’s not as binary as it we might want to believe. Winemaking is fluid, complex and unremitting.

Six years ago, they started something at Chamonix. Presumably after an extended Joni Mitchell listening session, they put away their DDT and instead chose to counter potentially harmful organisms by introducing ladybugs and wasps to the vineyards. Every year in October, instead of pesticides they would scatter a potpourri of frozen eggs amongst the vines. Like many of Gottfried’s initiatives in and outside the cellar, this practice continues today.

“If you see a ladybug, please don’t kill it. We’re paying for those.”

While Thinus was busy deflecting praise, it occurred to me that humility was just one of the things he had learned from the previous winemaker. He speaks of him reverently and with obvious admiration:

"At the moment, we’re building on the legacy that Gottfried left. I think a big concern from some people was that the new winemaker would come in and change the whole thing. But why fix something that isn’t broken. Having said that, I’ll definitely leave my own fingerprint on the wines. I’m not Gottfried and I wasn’t hired to copy him."

So it looks as though Thinus Neethling and Trevor Noah indeed have a lot in common. Thinus is clearly very competent, so as he grows and as time goes by and future barrels are bottled, we can expect him to carve out his own identity, sidestep any pointless comparisons, and write another great new chapter for Chamonix.

Wines Tasted

2015 Sauvignon Blanc - It was a Sauvignon Blanc. That's about all i got.

2015 & 2016 White Reserve – Sauvi and Semillon blend. Fresh and zingy and fantastic and jeez Semillon makes everything better.

2015 Chardonnay and Reserve Chardonnay – Woof. Stop it Thinus. Or Gottfried. Or Steven… whoever you are. Couldn’t tell these wines apart in fairness, but no surprise they are so highly rated.

2014 Feldspar Pinot Noir & Pinot Noir Reserve – The feldspar is a lighter, fruitier pinot. The Reserve is more serious with more structure. Both with a hint of mint owing to the eucalyptus trees on the farm. Both are dynamite.

2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve – Our highlight. Forget what they say about Pinot Noir being the winemakers grape. Thinus seems to have a soft spot for this grape. With good reason.

2014 Greywacke Pinotage – Outstanding wine. Would have picked it as a Shiraz. Would have been wrong. Would not have not cared. Would have poured another glass.

2014 Troika Reserve – Runs the Cab Franc close… Outstanding Bordeaux blend.

There was not one disappointment amongst the many wines tasted.

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