Raats Family Wines – A Deep Delve into Granite Polkadraai Hills

Raats Family Wines – A Deep Delve into Granite Polkadraai Hills.

The international winepress is full of praise for South African winery Raats Family Wines. Tim Atkin MW lately rewarded Bruwer Raats as ‘South African winemaker of the year’. Their wines leap out at wine tastings, continuously receiving high marks. Most recently Platter’s declared the Raats Eden High Density Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc as ‘Cabernet Franc of the Year’.

Raats Family Wines seems to be a bit an odd one out. In the Bordeaux blend haven of Stellenbosch, they focus on single variety wines. Their legacy is based on just two varieties: Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. What drives them to do that and what has terroir have to do with that? It is time to get acquainted with this self-willed winery from the Stellenbosch Polkadraai Hills. What is the secret of this success story? In this article we delve ourselves into award winning winery Raats Family Wines. 

We will discover the relative short but very eventful history of South African wines and Raats Family Wines, we meet Gavin Bruwer – one of the driving forces behind the winery – and we taste and review a representative cross selection of their wines.


Bruwer Raats and Gavin Bruwer – Partners Connected by Familiar Bonds

Raats Family Wines was established in 2000 as a partnership between the brothers Bruwer and Jasper Raats. Bruwer Raats studied winemaking at South African’s Elsenburg College and went abroad working in Germany, Italy and France. After returning to South Africa, he worked as a cellar master for Delaire Wine Estate and Zorgvliet Wine Estate. Together with his brother Jasper he started Raats Family Wines. At first parallel to winemaking at Zorgvliet and since 2005 full time. Jasper Raats stepped aside and their father Jasper Senior passed away in 2009, leaving Bruwer Raats to further determine the direction of the winery.  

In 2010 Bruwer Raats got his maternal cousin Gavin Bruwer involved. Gavin Bruwer got his winemaking degree at the Agricultural College of Stellenbosch. They divide tasks: where Gavin Bruwer runs the production side in terms of viticulture and vinification, Bruwer Raats focuses on sales and day-to-day business, but it is no rigid separation: at the end of the day they operate the winery hand in hand. ‘We work very narrowly together. We taste together, we strategize together, we assess goals together and we execute together.’ 

Journalism – The Importance of Independent Opinions

Mentioning the spotlights of the international wine press on South Africa and Raats Family Wines, Gavin Bruwer recounts the importance of that. ‘It was not that long ago that South Africa was overlooked as a premium focused producer of fine wines. Commentators form an important resource to the international wine public. Journalism helps people to form an independent opinion. Journalism shows the potential of South Africa.’ He sees a huge improvement of knowledge on South African wines. ‘There already is a great level of knowledge on South African wines. The good work of commentators and people traveling to South Africa contributes to a better understanding on South African wines. 

South African High-Quality Wines in Historical Perspective

To understand high quality South African wines, we have to dive into the history books. The history of quality wines in South Africa is not that long as one would except. Between 1948 to 1994 the history of South Africa was governed by a black chapter called ‘Apartheid’. Apartheid was an institutionalized system of racial segregation. Due to worldwide trade embargoes South African wine export collapsed. South Africa’s wine industry was controlled by the heavily regulated systems of a cooperative called ‘Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Suid-Afrika’ (KWV). To put it all in one sentence: there was no open market and wine drew the short straw. When borders reopened in 1994 the South-African wine industry had to regain a seat on the table. Re-entering the international wine market leaded into multinationals dominating the scene with high volume wines.

Focus on high volume wines is remarkable. ‘We would never be able to sustain a volume driven focus because we simply do not have the volume’. South African instead has the required competences to compete on quality. In general, the climate is warm, but there are several cooling influences. South Africa is surrounded by both the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Mountains varying between 400 and 1500 meters provide various expositions. Variations in soil types are innumerable, verifying form sandstone to granite and from schist to shale. ‘We have got such a magnitude of diversity. We have to focus on quality and position ourselves in terms of quality. We can do that by pinpointing regionality.’

South African Wine Revolution – The Best is Yet to Come

Due to the reopening of the borders in 1994, South African winemakers where capable to pick up inspiration from all over the world. The South Africa wine industry had to rediscover its identity and South Africans were eager to get South Africa back on the radar. Brim-full of gained ideas winemakers started revolutionary new projects. South African wine revolution was about to start. Focus on high volume wines gives way to focus on high quality wines. In the past 20 years the evolution from South Africa to a world leading wine country has taken a flight. Data shows South Africa is decreasing in volume, but increasing in value. The amount of high quality wines has grown tremendously.

South Africa is back on the quality track and the unstoppable train rumbles to an unknown but certainly bright future. Although South African already have gained a solid position, according to Gavin Bruwer the South African Wine Revolution just got started and best has yet to come. ‘If we were drilling for oil, we would now only have laid down the area where we are going to drill. We haven’t put in the drill yet. I think that we are still going to hit the great resource. The next decades producers will define themselves more and more in regionality. We are improving and adjusting each vintage. We learn to understand microclimates, soils and varieties more and more. I feel it is going to improve in leaps and bounds. I’m very excited about the future’.

Polkadraai Hills – Fresh Air Through High Quality Wine Epicentre Stellenbosch

The epicentre of South African high-quality wines is Stellenbosch. Its success is partly due to the diversity in hights, expositions and soils. To express the diversity, the district is divided into several so-called wards. In perspective to regions like Swartland, Stellenbosch might be seen as an established and traditional winemaking region. According to some wine writers Stellenbosch is dozed off in its own success. We don’t agree to that. Fresh South African ‘wine winds’ blow through Stellenbosch. Polkadraai Hills is the best example of this.  

The Polkadraai Hills are a small range of granitic slopes, located only 13 kilometres from False Bay. There is are no obstruction between the ocean and the hills, so the vineyards are directly maritime influenced. ‘We sit at the southern tip of Africa within two oceans colliding. The oceans temper the climatological conditions. Because of the oceans we have moderate temperatures during the growing season. We don’t see extremities. We have more than enough rainfall to grow our plants and make sure that everything is in balance.’ On these maritime influenced granite hills spectacular things are going on. Being the youngest declared ward, Polkadraai Hills is a breath of fresh air in an established wine producing region of Stellenbosch. Taking a closer look is worth every penny. And by close we mean really close: we dig into the granite soils of Polkadraai Hills.

The Beauty and Richness of Polkadraai Hills, Stellenbosch.

Granite – Solid Gamechanger

The soils of Polkadraai Hills contain a high amount of decomposed granite. Higher elevated vineyards are composed out of rocky granite and lower vineyards contain loamy and sandy granite. Referring to the dogmatic discussions on the role of granite we ask Gavin Bruwer about his opinion. According to him, the essence of granite is the natural lack of nutrients. On these poor granite soils the lag phase for sugar accumulation is longer, causing higher acidity levels and a lower pH value. ‘Due to the sand and rocks, our soils warm up early. Everything happens earlier in our vineyards, but the soil contributes to a gradual ripening. The soil holds together the physiological phases and prevents from a shoot of sugar’. Perhaps unnecessarily to mention, but soil cannot be tasted, at least not directly. The wines of Raats however excel in poise and moderation. There is no question that soil plays a key role in that.

Varietal Focus – Less is More

In the early stages of South African wine revolution Raats was able to gain access to good grapes. Raats decided to focus on only two varieties: Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Back in the days that approach was quite unique. ‘It was a shotgun approach: everybody tried to hit the dartboard somewhere.’ It turns out Raats throwed a nine darter. Nowadays Raats Family Wines is regarded as a leader of South Africa’s Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Below we will discuss both Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.

The choice for Chenin Blanc was a natural one. South Africa has the highest amount of Chenin Blanc vines in the world. Chenin Blanc grapes were initially used for brandy production. At the time Raats Family Wines was grounded there were many good Chenin Blanc spots. ‘It made sense Chenin Blanc was the variety for us to focus on’. Chenin Blanc is a non-aromatic grape containing a high natural acidity level. Remarkable characteristic of Chenin Blanc is unequal ripening of the grapes, even between grapes in a bunch. Therefor vinification and ripening of Chenin Blanc requires extra attention. 

Chenin Blanc brings a wide range of wine styles, depending the level of ripeness. Not at least climate and soil do influence the style of wine made out of Chenin Blanc. While the origin of Chenin Blanc has to be found in the French Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc has positioned itself as white signature grape of South Africa. High quantity wines do give approachable easy drinking wines. Better producers produce more concentrated and complex wines, in particular when the grapes are coming from old vines.

Chenin Blanc Harvest in Full Swing at Raats Family Wines.

The red key varietal of Raats Family Wines is Cabernet Franc. The story of Cabernet Franc is opposite to Chenin Blanc. ‘When we started Raats Family Wines there hadn’t really been a history of making varietal wines in South Africa. There were only five South-African single variety wines produced from Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc mainly was used for red blends.’ The Raats family does carry a deep-rooted love for Cabernet Franc. They identify Cabernet Franc as capable of producing high quality wines and suited into the area of Stellenbosch. They started to produce single varietal wines out of Cabernet Franc. Nowadays Raats Family Wines is seen as benchmark for South African Cabernet Franc.

Cabernet Franc is, alike Chenin, known for its single variety wines from the French Loire Valley region. There is an intensive knowledge exchange going on between wineries from South Africa and the Loire Valley. According to Gavin Bruwer these exchanges are highly necessary. ‘Together we can improve. The agricultural sector is heavily under pressure, considering social developments and climate changes.’ He thinks this knowledge exchange will get more and more relevant for Europe. ‘We always went to Europe to see how they do it. Due to climate change temperatures are rising in Europe. Winemakers from Europe come to us for advice now how to handle warmer circumstances.’

Cabernet Franc, Raats’s Red Wine Key Focus.

Wine Reviews – Tasting the Essence of Raats Family Wines

We tasted four wines of Raats Family Wines. Through the eyes of their key varietals we taste the essence of Raats Family Wines. On the whites we review two single variety Chenin Blanc’s: The ‘Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2022’ and the single vineyard ‘Eden High Density Chenin Blanc 2021’. On the reds we review the Cabernet Franc dominated Jasper Red Blend 2021 and the single variety Family Cabernet Franc 2020.

Four Wines (two Chenin Blanc and two Cabernet Franc) out of the Raats portfolio as reviewed by Dutch Wine Apprentice.

Raats Family Wines – Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2022

The Raats Family Wines ‘Old Vine Chenin Blanc’ draws back to vineyards initially planted for the brandy production. The vines are coming from three vineyards with an average age of more than 40 years. The vines are partly bush vines. Gavin Bruwer: ‘we feel we are custodians of these treasures.’ Older vines procedure lower yields. While young Chenin Blanc vines produce 70 hectolitres per hectare, the older vineyards procedure between 30 and 35 hectolitres per hectare. The vineyard soils on which these old vines grow are composed out of decomposed dolomite granite.

The grapes for this wine are handpicked and whole bunch pressed. The juice is naturally fermented. 50% is fermented and aged in 300 and 500 litre French oak barrels, 30% in concrete and 20% is fermented and aged in stainless steel. The three components are blended after 11 months and left on the lees for a further 2 months. The 2022 vintage marks 22 years of producing this wine, and was an exceptional vintage for Raats Family Wines. Let’s find out how that works out. 

Poured into the glass, time allows this young ‘Old Vine Chenin Blanc’ to leisurely unfolds itself. De gentle bouquet gives impressions of just ripe white and yellow peach, nectarine, pear, yellow and red apple, combined with titillate fennel seed, tarragon, ginger and nettle. A touch of mandarin, candied lemon and lemon peel is accompanied by a scent of pure vanilla bean, chalky wet stone and unroasted almond.  

The ‘Old Vine Chenin Blanc’ by Raats Family Wines is a textbook example of the unique characteristics of South African Chenin Blanc. The luxurious feeling wine is simultaneously broadly mouth filling and upliftingly fresh and clean. The wine combines a deep fruit intensity with elegancy and fraîcheur. The attack fills the mouth with soft juicy fruits like creamy peach, nectarine and apricot. Under the succulent fruit lays a pronounced texture, giving the wine power and tension. The structure is best to described as little satisfying chalky pinpricks. The clean acids obstruct opulence and unwieldiness, leading into a medium, long-lasting, warming aftertaste with hints of lemon peel, gentle ginger tea and almond.  

We reward this gastronomic South African Chenin Blanc with excellent price performance ratio with a 92-point DWA score.

Raats Family Wines – Eden High Density Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2021

The Raats Family Wines ‘Eden High Density Chenin Blanc 2021’ is rare and special in all respects. Rare and special in terms low quantities – only 2.300 bottles were made – but particularly rare and special in terms of viticultural aspects. Just like the ‘Old Vine Chenin Blanc’ (OVC) the ‘Eden High Density Chenin Blanc’ (HDC) is a deeply concentrated wine. Other than the ODC, in the HDC the concentration is not derived by old vines. Actually, it runs contrary: the vines for the Eden High Density Chenin Blanc are young, and only planted in 2009. The concentration here is obtained by planting the vines in high density, close to each other, as the name suggests. 

Before elaborating on high density planting, we mention another special aspect on this ‘Eden High Density Chenin Blanc’. It is the used Chenin Blanc clone, called ‘Montpellier’. The Montpellier clone has small berries, small bunches and a lot of concentration and flavour. Back in the days these characteristics weren’t suitable for the main production goal of Chenin Blanc: brandy. Growers therefor massively uprooted Montpellier vines. When Bruwer Raats came across one of the last vineyards of Montpelier – that was being uprooted at that moment – he harvested some of the Montpelier vines and used them as a mother block. 

In 2009 Raats planted a selection of the farm with these clones, in high density. High density in this case means a vine on every square meter. The vines are trellised on a pole, supporting the vine to grow in an upward direction. Due to the higher density planting there is more competition between the vines and the vines are forces to root deep into the soil. Pole trellising contributes to sunlight exposure and wind flow. Because of the high density of the vines, the work in the vineyards has to be done by hand.

Gavin Bruwer is sharing his thoughts on the high-density project. “Our motto is quality by design. Quality is obtained by well thought through plans. If we wanted to go into the next phase of quality we needed to plant new vineyards. At the same time, we wanted stay close to our philosophy. We wanted to go into a next phase of specialization. We wanted to do something that had not been done in South Africa before. Please read along to find out if the ‘Eden High Density Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc’ fulfils its promising expectations. 

After pouring the medium lemon coloured wine needs some time to fully express itself. With time the wine slowly unfolds its secrets. As time goes on fifty shades of citrus fruit come along. It starts with lemon and lemon peel, widening into mandarin, orange and orange peel. Time is sweetening and ripening the fruit, making it lusher and more perfumed. After a while the bouquet is filed with kumquat, white peach, apple and pear. The fruit is tied together by fresh and mineral scents, preventing hedonism. Flavours like lemon thyme, ginger and white pepper spices things up. 

Once the forbidden fruit is tasted, there is no returning back. The attack is filled with pressures and mind-blowing intense fruits. Profound citrus dominated fruits like lemon and mandarin are accompanied by mouthwatering white peach and crunchy apple. Energizing acids prevent from exhaustion. Thrilling intensity and focus goes hand in hand with poise, decency and self-confidence. 

Despite its strong presence it shows not a single trace of opulence. Lean and clean acids carry the wine to the moon and back, meanwhile serving lemon curd on clouds. Back on the granite ground we listen to a pounding stony bass, leaving the impression of salty liquorice. Ginger, unroasted almonds and stimulating white herbs complete the minutes long lasting aftertaste. 

High pressure, intense, complex, linear, distinguished and long lasting; words marking a great wine. And that is exactly what this Eden High Density Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2021 by Raats Family Wines is. 

We reward this beautiful Chenin Blanc with a 95-point DWA score.

The Home of Raats’s Eden High Density Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc.

Raats Family Wines – Jasper Red Blend 2021

The Jasper Red Blanc is named after Jasper Senior, the father of one of the founders of Raats Family Wines. Jasper Senior was a retired schoolmaster and helped planting the first vineyards. Before he could see the fruit of his labour, he tragically passed away. As a tribute to him, Raats Family Wines released this wine called ‘Jasper Red Blend’.

As a differentiation from all the other red wines of Raats Family Wines, the ‘Jasper Red Blend’ is not a single variety wine. It is Cabernet Franc dominated, but blended with other grapes. The exact blend is depending the vintages, but the second biggest component is always Malbec, ranging between 20 and 30 percent. ‘We want to expose Cabernet Franc to a wider audience. Cabernet Franc on its own can be a bit linear. The addition of Malbec and other grapes has to attract more people’

Gavin Bruwer explains the use of Malbec: ‘Malbec broadens the horizon of the wine. Malbec gives you a whole new dimension, were as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc almost rub into each other’. Where Cabernet Franc brings fruit and spicy herbs, Malbec gives the palate more weight, lushness and darker coloured fruit. Malbec suits into the Loire Valley based assortment of Raats Family Wines. Malbec is used in the French Loire Valley, were it locally is called Cot.  

The ‘Jasper Red Blend 2021’ is made out of 53% Cabernet Franc; 20% Malbec, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot. The vines grow on decomposed granite and Table Mountain sandstone soils. The grapes were hand sorted three times, crushed and left to cold soak on the skins for five days. After fermentation the grapes were basket pressed and allowed to undergo malolactic fermentation in stainless steel tanks. The wine aged for 16 to 18 months in French oak barrels (20% second, 30% third fill and 50% fourth fill).

The deep purple colour tips the hand a little on the profile of the wine. The ‘Jasper Red Blend’ offers a wide, deep en open bouquet. It is flirting a bit with a classic Bordeaux. We would say at this stage it is more open and primary fruit driven. The purple fruits are warm, velvet and soft, offering blackberry, bramble, black cherry and purple plum. Fresh and uplifting secondary aromas like tobacco, cigar leaf, pure chocolate and laurel do offer a welcome complementing contrast to the fruit, completed by a touch of purple rose, graphite, fresh watered wood floor and thyme twig. 

One the palate the ‘Jasper Red Blend’ is surprisingly tight and inky. It all starts with bound black and purple forest fruits. The fruit is ripe, compact and tight. Is slowly fans out towards slightly velvety purple fruits. The wine is worn by ripe fine-grained tannins. Lean orange alike acids lead the inky concentrated purple fruits to a slightly warming aftertaste. Cherry dominated coffee and orange zest leave a clean palate. 

The ‘Raats Family Wines Jasper Red Blend’ is the perfect start to discover the true potential of Cabernet Franc. The splash of Bordeaux blend grapes fills up and rounds the edges, without denial of heritage. 

We reward this attracting interpretation of Cabernet Franc with a 93-point DWA score.

Raats Family Wines – Family Cabernet Franc 2020

As the name suggest, the ‘Family Cabernet Franc’ is fully made out of Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc is early blooming and ripening. Depending the climate and soil Cabernet can bring forth a wide range of wine styles. In general Cabernet Franc has a moderate acidity and tannin levels. In general Cabernet Franc produces wines with flavours of red and purple fruits and flowery notes. Cabernet Franc is known for its contribution to Bordeaux blends. In the French Loire Valley Cabernet Franc is used for single variety wines.

Cabernet Franc is known by lovers – and notorious by haters – by its greenish notes, caused by an uncomplete ripening. Whether you love it or you hate it, it surely catches the attention. In Stellenbosch ripening Cabernet Franc is not an issue. Thanks to the soil ripening finds place in a controlled way. The Cabernet Franc grapes are growing on decomposed Dolomite granite. The dry farmed vines are somewhere between twenty and thirty years old. The granite soils are poor in nutrients and temper the warm growing conditions. 

Grapes are hand harvested and hand sorted tree times. After crushing the grapes undergo a pre-fermentation cold soak on the skins for five days. After fermentation the grapes are basket pressed and allowed to undergo malolactic fermentation in stainless steel tanks. The wine is aged for 18 months in French oak barrels (25% new, 25% second, 25% third fill and 25% fourth fill).

To enjoy the full potential of the ‘Raats Family Wines Family Cabernet Franc 2020’ we advice to deep it down for some years or double decant it now. The medium transparent purple wine definitely needs time to open up. Without oxygen the wine appears slightly loose incoherent, but patience will be rewarded. We decanted the wine and tasted it at various stages of exposure to oxygen. After a minimum of 2 hours decanting the Family Cabernet Franc starts showing its true face. And once you have seen it, you will not forget. We can even imagine the magic after a couple of years of cellar storage.

Once the bouquet has opened up, it is not easy to stop sniffing. Pure and crystal clear on the one hand, intense and perfumed on the other. Perfect ripe crunchy and velvet black fruits like bramble, blackberry and blue berry goes hand in hand with a fresh flowery scent of purple rose. Pronounced herbaceous aromas of rooibos, cinnamon and luxurious oriental spices do accompany modest scents of vanilla, clove, cedar and laurel. Underlaying tiny greenish layers do cause exciting contrast. 

The Family Cabernet Franc is a gem in every sense of the word. Crystal clear juice provides incredible high concentrated fruits, without weight. The fruit is pure, crunchy and ripe. The intense forest fruits are tightly tensioned by an airy floral character. A deep graphite core and compact fine-grained tannin structure provide guidance. Strongly present but almost imperceptibly acids lead towards an infinite aftertaste.

The ‘Raats Family Wines Family Cabernet Franc 2020’ is sophisticated and high class without pretentions. This wine is good company in any occasion. Brilliant brains and athletic shoulders in a tailor-made suit. The only thing you need is a little patience. And patience is a virtue. 

We reward this top-notch bench mark South Cabernet Franc with an incredible 95-point DWA score.

Stellar DWA Ratings for the Raats Whites and Reds.

Reinvigorating South Africa’s Wine Legacy: The Triumph of Raats Family Wines

Fresh winds are blowing on the granite Polkadraai Hills. Formed by a black page in South Africa’s history, the firm will to improve has put South Africa back on the high-quality wine map. The unstoppable quality train rumbles on, energized by regionality and focus. The choice to focus on limited varieties seemed a shotgun approach back in the days, but turns out to be nine darter now. The reviewed wines proof Raats Family Wines rightfully is regarded as a one of the leaders on South Africa’s Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. 

Raats Family Wines is imported in the Netherlands by Vinites and available through selected retail and hospitality partners. We thank Gavin Bruwer for his time and the interview and Vinites for providing the wines. This article is written by our own Hermen Jansen (Origine Wijnen). Picture Credits: Raats Family Wines and Dutch Wine Apprentice.