Johan Malan is the winemaker at Simonsig Estate, located in South Africa’s beautiful Stellenbosch region. Wine is surely in the Malan family’s DNA, as Johan’s ancestor, Jacques Malan, a French Huguenot, planted vines in 1688, soon after he arrived in the country. Johan’s father, Frans Malan, planted vineyards in the foothills of the Simonsberg Mountain, which became the nucleus of today’s Simonsig Estate. Today the estate is managed by Johan and his two brothers. I sat down recently with Johan to ask a few questions, and we continued this discussion later by email.
Marguerite Thomas [hereafter, MT]: As with any successful beginning, let’s start with fizz. Your father was the first South African to produce bottle fermented sparkling wine (in 1971). I think Simonsig’s Kaapse Vonkel Brut, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, is a terrific sparkling wine, both on its own and with certain foods. I’ll bet you love it too, right?
Johan Malan [hereafter, JM]: I do love the Kaapse Vonkel for its freshness and finesse, but its versatility makes it a wine I drink very often as it is suited to any occasion, even breakfast of course! The wine in the bottle is very dynamic and can develop so gracefully over time. I started keeping some bottles on the fermentation lees back in 1999 and every vintage since. I enjoy the extra flavour and complexity of the older wines. Maybe its because I’m getting older myself!
MT: What is your favorite hobby, or what do you most like to do when you’re not at the winery or travelling the world promoting your wines?
JM: I have a number of hobbies, but fishing would take top spot. Whether its rock and surf or from my boat it is the one place where I relax totally. With the long and rugged coastline along the Cape we are fortunate to have access to great variety of fishing. Diving for crayfish is also one of my favourite pasttimes in summer. (It goes so well with our Brut Rosé!)
MT: What do you see as the next big market for South African wines?
JM: Our traditional market has always been Western Europe and we are well established there. Looking to the future I honestly believe the US market has huge potential for Simonsig wines, but it will require a lot of work. I have found the wines are received very positively and offer a good quality and value proposition, but getting better visibility and availability requires more effort.
MT: You are on a desert island, where you can have any type of food you want but you can have only one wine--and not one from South Africa. What will the wine be?
JM: I hope I never have to make this decision for real because in the world of wine variety is the spice of life. Assuming that it will be hot on a desert island and I eat a lot of seafood my choice would be a Blanc de Blancs Sparkling wine--and if it could be a 20 year old Salon Champagne, I might never want to leave the island!
MT: A winemaker in British Columbia once told me that the greatest “pest” in their vineyards was the black bear. The bears’ favorite grape was Syrah, but they had to trample through the Chardonnay vineyard to get to the Syrah vines. In many regions birds or deer do the most damage. What is the worst pest in your vineyards?
JM: Mealybugs. They are very small and white and wooly and fluffy. They live on vines and secrete honeydew [a clear, sugary secretion that damages vines]. They can also be a carrier of leaf roll virus.
MT: Are you a good cook?
JM: I don’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen so don’t rate myself as a serious cook. I do like to work with the ‘raw materials’ like making my own olives, make biltong (jerky) and dried sausage, quite often from wild game like springbuck, oryx and kudu. I love doing a traditional South African ‘braai’ (barbeque) on a wood fire and I’ll do lamb chops, venison loin or some of the fish I catch.
MT: I am often turned off by oaked Chenin Blanc, but I find Simonsig “Avec Chene” wooded Chenin Blanc uniquely fresh yet also densely flavored. It’s a wonderful food wine--I’ve had it recently with tuna tartare, and with lobster, and found it sublime with both. Do you have a favorite food you like to pair this wine with?
JM: The Chenin Avec Chêne is a gastronomic wine and it works well with a wide rnge of dishes, but my best experience has been with a very ripe creamy cheese such as an Epoisse or a Munster. The fresh acidity in the Chenin helps to break down the creamy richness and the flavours combine beautifully.
MT: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
JM: Growing up on the farm I was always drawn to the cellar in the afternoons after school, because there was always something interesting going on so wine was always a likely choice. I had a small shop on the farm selling basic goods to the labour force. I enjoyed it a lot and did consider going into commerce, but the smell of wine was stronger than the smell of money
MT: Your 2017 harvest was earlier than usual, and hot, dry conditions during the beginning of the growing season caused early-ripening varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to ripen quickly. Can you give us a brief, general forecast for Simonsig’s 2017?
JM: The 2017 harvest started at the same time as 2016 and with the Cap Classique varieties it is always early January, but we did finish earlier than normal with the Cabernets and Shiraz ripening a good 10 days earlier. The crop was very small and the vines were able to ripen the lighter vintage earlier with the help of a warm late season. The exceptionally dry summer made the soil moisture levels very low and also hastened the ripening.
MT: Who is the most impressive person you’ve ever met?
JM: This is a tough question and the first thought is my father, Frans Malan, who was such a pioneer in the wine industry and fearlessly fought for change in the bureaucratic system and for the interests of the small estate wine producers. He was also the founder of the Stellenbosch Wine Route in 1971(with two of his close friends) and was at the forefront of the South African Wine of Origin certification system in the early 1970s. He was way ahead of his time with improving the standard of living of the farm laborers of Simonsig but also across South Africa through the Rural Foundation.