Craven Wines: making the most of exceptional Stellenboch vineyards

Craven Wines: of South Africa’s most interesting producers, making balanced single-site wines from Stellenbosch, report by Jamie Goode and Treve Ring


Craven is one of the most interesting wine projects in South Africa. It’s part of the rediscovery of the best vineyard sites in Stellenbosch that’s currently underway, with a whole group of young guns looking to find the gems and make interesting wines from them.

Jeanine has her hands full in the Faure vineyard

The folk involved, Mick and Jeanine Craven met in 2007 while working a harvest as cellar hands in Sonoma. The Aussie (Mick) and Saffa (Jeanine) hit it off right away, kept in touch while finishing off their enological studies, fell in love and took to the road to work, taste and learn as much as they could about what they shared a passion for: site-specific, honest wines.

They decided to return to Jeanine’s family base in Stellenbosch in 2011 to put their travels and experience into action and plant roots as Craven Wines. 2014 was their first commercial vintage. They quickly established themselves as Stellenbosch revolutionaries, became key members of the Zoo Biscuits collective, and, more recently, started off the next generation; one year old Sebastian is already a natural in the vineyards. Mick still has a day job working as a winemaker for Mulderbosch, which is where these wines are made.

To do less, you need to know more. Their low-interventionist winemaking is as much hands-off, as it is tuned on. The duo knows their vineyards intricately, and craft only single-vineyard wines, picked early and respectfully to best reflect site and vintage. They use no cultured yeasts, enzymes or fining agents, allow the wines to stabilize naturally, and utilize only older oak and larger format barrels whenever possible. A minimal amount of SO2 ‘which is our friend’ is the only addition, and the wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Faure vineyard, rocky soils

They sell out of everything they make, with demand high in the UK, Japan and USA. They produced 20 000 bottles in 2016, and projections are for 30 000 in 2017, aided in part by a few new vineyards and wines, including their first Chenin Blanc. Now into the third real year of production, the challenge is managing growth while staying true to the story of their sites.

Eikenhof: Clairette Blanche

‘Some markets love this and some don’t,’ says Mick, talking of his Clairette Blanche. ‘People love it when they try it, but it’s hard to get them to try this.’ One of the last, if not the last Clairette vineyard in the region, it was left without being farmed, and the farmer was just getting 1000 Rand a ton. ‘The farmer laughed when we made it, and then we started again the following year, and it was farmed a bit,’ says Mick. ‘It’s 34 years old this year, we think. John Seccombe, Franco Lourens and Francois Haasbroek takes some, and the other half goes to the coop. So it’s now financially viable.’ The vineyard is about 3 hectares, with decomposed sandy granite, opposite Reyneke in the Polkadraai.

Craven 2016 Clairette Blanche

(Treve Ring, TR) Lovely golden hue, shining in the glass. This textural wine is fuller on the palate, with vibrating spice and energy on the finish. Golden yellow apples, fine quince and a layer of marmalade are framed by a fine apple skin bitterness grip. 60% skin fermented, 40% whole bunch press, this was gently handled until fermented dry (around 12 days) and then pressed to old neutral tonneau for 10 months. The 34-year-old vines are on Eikenhof Vineyard’s decomposed granite and sand. According to Mick they could make 3x as much, but it’s hard to sell in all markets. I vote make much more because more people need to taste this smashable, interesting, waxy wine. 11% 5000 bottles in 2016. 91/100

(Jamie Goode, JG) 60% skin fermented, 40% whole bunch pressed. Mineral citrus and pear fruit with some ripe apple. Nice texture with some spiciness and a mineral core, as well as a hint of grip. Lovely weight here with some pear and spice complexity. Lovely stuff. 92/100

Karibib vineyard: Chenin Blanc

This vineyard was managed by an old school farmer who passed away. ‘His son took over and is passionate,’ says Mick. ‘His dad sold everything to Distell and coops and didn’t allow small guys in, but his son is the opposite and is almost co-op free.’ This Chenin is planted on weathered granite: a typical Polkadraai site. ‘We were nervous about acid so we picked it a bit early.’

Craven 2016 Chenin Blanc Karibib

(TR) Their first Chenin Blanc, sourced from early-picked, 35-year-old radial bush vines on the weathered granite soils of Polkadraai’s Karibib Vineyard. Grapes are whole-bunch pressed to neutral 500L barrels, and after a five month wild ferment and natural MLF, it was left on the lees for four more months before racking. Slightly cloudy, with intense dried fruit on the concentrated, expansive palate, lovely depth of flavour. Direct, nutty and salty, with layers of depth and mineral flavour. The easterly-facing site was always farmed for sweet wines, and has never had chemical farming. A stunner. 12%. 93/100

(JG) Beautiful aromatics with stones, pears and ripe apple. The palate is fresh and stony with nice creamy pear fruit with some fine spiciness. Has a fresh stony finish with length and precision. 93/100

Newlands: Pinot Gris

There’s not much Pinot Gris in Stellenbosch: maybe three vineyards. This vineyard consists of is 6 or 7 hectares opposite Mulderbosch, near to Boschkloof, facing east, with koffieclip soils. ‘We made a drinking barrel in 2014, and it has grown,’ says Jeanine. ‘We see this as a light red. It’s a pain trying to describing it to the trade, and to the wine and spirits board.’ The vines were planted in 2005, and this is their earliest ripening block, normally the first fruit in every January.

Craven 2013 Pinot Gris

(TR) Love this characterful wine. Pouring a cloudy peachy red hue, this Pinot Gris was fermented like a red. 10% whole bunch and with 8 days on skins before racking into older French barrels where it remained for 9 months. For the 2016, this carries ample large flake sea salts on the grippy and textural palate, with alluring pear oil, dried fruits and subtle dried raspberry / peach fuzz. Intensity and lightness. It’s quite rare to see Pinot Gris in South Africa (there’s pockets in Darling and Hemel-en-Aarde). I dream of this wine. 13%. 93/100

(JG) 10% whole bunch on the bottom, with 8 days on skins. Red/orange/pink colour. Lovely strawberry, cherry and herb fruit with nice stony mineral characters and some grip. Lovely mouthfeel to this wine, which has a delicious savoury character. Lovely weight here. 93/100

Faure Vineyard

Before she was a Craven, she was Jeanine Faure. The 650 hectare Faure farm was part of Jeanine’s family for a long time, was where she grew up and would return until it was sold. 450 hectares are planted to vines, and the Cravens source Syrah and Pinot Noir from here.

Faure: Pinot Noir block

One of the coolest sites in Stellenbosch, this is on a south-westerly slope facing False Bay, only 4km away. It was entirely planted to clone 115 Pinot Noir in 1998, on a very rocky site of decomposed granite and sand, with clay subsoil. ‘This vineyard has to be picked early because it gets botrytis,’ says Mick, ‘and if you miss picking by a day you are in trouble: it ends up tasting jammy.’

Craven Pinot Noir Faure Vineyard 2016 Stellenbosch, South Africa

(TR) Beauty thorny raspberry, florals, warm cherry and a fine sapidity lead this Pinot Noir. Whole bunch pressed, this was 70% foot crushed (purposefully leaving some grapes intact on the bottom), with gentle handling of the grapes (“no punch downs, just moving juice around a bit”). It’s rare to see Pinot Noir in Stellenbosch, a region known more for big, gutsy reds. 12% alcohol. 90/100

(JG) Fine and focused with a pretty cherry and plum fruit character, with nice texture and weight. There’s a nice stony quality to this. 100% whole bunch, with gives some structure, with some foot stomping. Gently pumped over and not punched down. Lovely grippy structure on the finish: there’s a lovely fruit purity and texture to this wine, which has complexity. 93/100

Bottelary Hills Cinsault: a one off

‘We’ve always wanted to make Cinsualt because it is what the cool kids do,’ says Mick. This vineyard is at the top of the Bottelary Hills down to the Devon Valley. 25 year old bush vines, dry farmed, and in 2016 they got 1.5 tons. ‘This is a Distell-controlled farm, and we approached the farmer and asked for more, and he said he can’t sell the grapes any more because of Distell.’ Says Mick. ‘There’s a farm near Rustenhof that has old Chenin and Cinsault as well as other stuff, and he’s offered Cinsault, and he offered 6 tons in 2017. So this is a bitter-sweet wine, because it is a one-off, but we are excited going forward.’ Janine adds, ‘The best thing about the new vineyard is that has acid.’

Craven Cinsault 2016 Stellenbosch, South Africa

(TR) This is 25-year-old dry farmed bush vines on Malmesbury shale. Super thorny, with resin, dark plum, wild blackberry, blackberry leather. Brooding and peppery, this is quite dense on the palate with a thick layer of black raspberry to base and a florality to lift, though acidity is characteristically Cinsault: low throughout. This was the only wine they destemmed in 2016 (90%). A one-off wine, they’ve sourced a new higher-altitude, sloping Cinsault site for 2017. 90/100

(JG) This wine is 90% destemmed in order to preserve acidity. ‘I don’t think it’s the grape to work carbonically,’ says Mick. Interestingly, with Cinsault, some wine stores are reporting a fall in demand after a big fashion boost. Unlike most of the Craven wines, this isn’t the freshest, smashable example: it has more structure and depth. Fresh with a nice silky, stoniness under the red cherry and plum fruit. Grippy and appealing with a lovely complexity to the fruit. This tastes richer and sweeter than many Cinsault, with a grown up personality and good structure. Lovely finesse here. 94/100

Faure Syrah block
Close to the ocean (3km away), this rocky soiled vineyard features a mix of granite, dolorite, quartz and shale. The easterly aspect on the Helderberg Mountain, cooled by the ocean breezes, was planted to Syrah in 1995.

Craven Syrah The Faure Vineyard 2016 Stellenbosch, South Africa

(TR) Lovely dusty florals, black raspberry lead this whole bunch Syrah, followed by a core of black plum, dried blackberry and cherry. Big stones line the bed of this youthful wine, finely textured and peppery throughout, with a gentle tug of tannins to frame the ripe fruit. You can feel the granitic soils here. A lovely flush of peppery warmth on the grippy finish sings Stellenbosch. As with all their reds, this was 100% whole bunch, lightly stomped, gently handled and into old puncheons for 10 months. 93/100

(JG) Same farm as the Pinot Noir. The Pinot faces the ocean, and this Syrah faces the Helderberg. Only site on the farm that is properly rocky, with a bit of clay in the subsoil. 20 year old vines, clone 22. The vines are really balanced with small canopies. 100% whole bunch. Fresh, fine and floral with lovely cherry and plum fruit. Youthful with red fruits to the fore and an underlying stoniness, with some pepper. ‘Stellenbosch is hot and a lot of sites have ripe fruit characters at this alcohol level,’ says Mick. ‘We don’t pick stupidly early, but we have strange conversions from this site.’ Lovely supple fruit here with nice weight and texture. So fine. 94/100

Devon Valley: the Firs Syrah

This is from dark clay soils in the Devon Valley. ‘There are some cool vineyards around Faure and the Polkadraai but they are all on granite,’ says Mick. ‘We wanted to find Syrah on a completely different soil.’ They spoke to one of the growers they use and he said he had really good Syrah planted on the Firs. ‘I had worked with Chardonnay on here and it was dark clay, in the Devon Valley, and vigorous,’ says Mick. ‘He said these were the most expensive grapes sold to Distell. The vineyard looked so balanced even though it was vigorous. So in 2015 we took a couple of tons.’

Craven Syrah The Firs Vineyard 2016 Stellenbosch, South Africa

(TR) Firs Vineyard is a new site for Craven, and an experiment to show Syrah through a different lens. The wine is vinified in exactly the same way as Faure Syrah (100% whole bunch, lightly stomped, gently handled, into old puncheons for 10 months). The Firs fruit comes in one week before Faure. Situated on a warm site in the Devon Valley, an area of Stellenbosch prized for intense red wines, this has deeper, darker, red clay soils. Brisk and bright black cherry carries into a broody, thicker palate of dark plum, thorns, black pepper and stones. Firm and tight now in youth. 11.7%. 91/100

(JG) Faure is rocky, bright and mineral whereas this is dark and black: punchy and moody. This usually comes in a week before the Faure. Complex, vivid and dark with lovely black cherry and blackberry fruit. Has supple fresh fruit but also some structure. Tight and wound up. So supple and structured. 94/100