10 February 2008

On the Stormhoek Trail

I went looking for Stormhoek’s Winery, and it wasn’t what I expected. The South African winery that is one of the most talked about on the web, whose Pinotage won the International Wine & Spirit Competition Trophy, whose wines grace the shelves of all the major UK supermarkets and wine shops, are distributed in the USA and Europe and on the business class wine lists of international airlines and restaurants around the world, doesn’t really exist. Well, not in the way I expected. I visualised a modern shiny winery building with smartly dressed receptionists, surrounded by vineyards, accessed by a wide road for the constant flow of trucks bringing in grapes and shipping out pallets of wine destined for the four corners of the world.

My directions led me through the town of Wellington, down into a valley along a dead-end narrow road which turned into a mud track. The track got bumpier and narrower. “I can’t see a fleet of trucks loaded with cases of wine navigating this,” I thought and turned around till I got a cell-phone signal and checked with Stormhoek’s Shane Walton who provided my directions. He sent me back down that track with instructions to keep going till I saw a Stormhoek sign. So down it I went until in an oak forest a small sign pointed up an almost vertical track up a wooded hill. The track was riven with deep grooves gouged by rain and the car jerked and grinded till finally it came to an end at a low old building. Sitting on its veranda was Graham Knox, the driving force behind Stormhoek. He immediately gave me new directions back to Wellington where newly picked Pinotage were being delivered.

The directions led to what looked like an abandoned warehouse behind a rusty chainlink fence next to the railway line. No sign of life, except for a small red car. Another phone call and I found that the padlocked gate could be opened, and once through the fence I found an open door into the warehouse.

Inside were barrels and Stormhoek’s winemaker, Koos Bosman (pictured above). Within moments a beat-up old pick-up truck towing a trailer loaded with plastic boxes full of purple pinotage grapes backed into the warehouse. Koos discarded bunches with unripe grapes and the rest were tipped into a destemmer. “I am working the entire winery off two electric sockets,” Koos told me. They had just moved to these premises and the power supply didn’t match what they expected.

These grapes came from a block next to Graham Knox’s hillside house. They and the other grapes grown in Graham’s vineyards would be made in this winery and bottled as Stormhoek’s premium range. They are small quantity wines made very much in a garageist manner, with low technology, and long barrel aging.

Back up that dirt track, Graham Knox opened the current 2004 vintage of the wine I had seen being made. It is called ‘The Guava’ Pinotage because the vineyard had been previously planted with guavas, some of which still remain in a corner.

Graham’s vineyards, planted on red clay and shale, get progressively steeper and the higher vine rows are planted on terraces.

The Guava Block

Guava Pinotage 2004

Really intense deep red/black colour, chewy figs on
front palate leading to a creamy middle. Tremendous fruit with sweet berries and a lick of coffee. The wine had spent 2 years in new oak, 70% French and 30% American. (Koos had told me at the winery that he thought American oak suited Pinotage). I thought this wine was superb, and drank far more of it than perhaps wise.

Prior to the Guava Graham poured the standard Stormhoek 2006 and 2005 Pinotages.

The 2006 had really plumy fruits and was inviting and very drinkable. The 2005 was a bit funky on the nose, and delivered blackberry fruits. A bit more restrained.

The standard Stormhoeks come from Wellington fruit, not from Graham’s own vineyards, but from other growers blocks that he has selected.

Koos Bosman makes samples of wines to show to potential buyers. When Stormhoek have an order, they then source the fruit or wines and make and blend them to Stormhoek’s standard. They have inverted the usual winery practise: instead of making wines and then trying to sell them, they only make wines when they have a customer for them. They don’t use the small scale warehouse winery for the large volume wines, instead they rent facilities at the nearby modern Bovlei co-operative winery. “Stormhoek is a virtual winery,” Graham told me.

As to the future, it is early days how the relationship with Origin Wines will work. Origin bought the assets of Stormhoek’s UK partner Orbital Wines. Those assets include the Stormhoek brand name in the UK. Graham is keen to get Stormhoek back on all the UK supermarket shelves.


  1. Anonymous17:52

    Hey Peter;
    Thanks for the wonderful post. Sorry about the clash of meetings, but it does appear that you had a great day.

  2. Hi Peter - do you have an email address that i can write to you personally on?
    Many thanks

  3. Yes, as per the blog you can email me at peter@pinotage.org also peter@winelabels.org

    My cell phone in SA is 076 542 8789

  4. Hi Peter,

    Great Blog! I am so pleased Stormhoek have survived the Orbital predicament. It's good to see them thriving - they are a fantastic team and I enjoy their Blogs.



  5. Anonymous14:44

    Hi Peter, I found a bottle of the Stormhoek Guava Pinotage in a Liquor City recently. I was mad about it and went to my local Liquor City for more only to be told Stormhoek no longer exists. I am desperate for another bottle - don't suppose there is any hope?

  6. Hi Anonymous

    The Guava is great. But I think you'd better buy up all remaining stocks because I don't know where the juice from that vineyard is going now.

    Graham Knox is involved in several ventures including The Township Winery and sourcing wines for Virgin Wines.
    Peter May)06Sep12