Jean Smith (Damascene) a South African Terroir Passionate

Jean Smith (Damascene) a South African Terroir Passionate

I grew up in South Africa, studying medicine in Stellenbosch. I wanted to be a doctor, but everything changed the day I drank a bottle in the company of a winemaker. I then changed path to go into viticulture. I worked in the Russian River and Napa in California, in Marlborough in New Zealand, then in France with Stéphane Ogier in Côte Rotie. Each time, I went there outside of the South African harvest periods. I am so attached to this country that I have never missed a harvest!

When I decided to make wine here, I supported Adi Badenhorst for 3 years, then I worked for around ten years at Boekenhoutskoof, before making my first wine in 2018.

With Damascene, what do you want to demonstrate?

I wanted to break preconceived ideas about what a wine can give in a region. I wanted to demonstrate the diversity that there is in South Africa, each time highlighting a specific place. For this, I work 35 different plots scattered around Cape Town. I sometimes drive 3 hours to taste a few grapes. Some vineyards give me goosebumps when I’m there and it’s a feeling I want to bottle!

How do you select these plots?

During my experience at Boekenshoutskoof, I visited quite a few vineyards for 10 years and I knew where I wanted to make wine. As I met with the plot owners, explaining what I was looking for, they sent me to other people. One thing led to another, word of mouth worked very well. Beyond the exceptional terroirs, these human encounters brought me a lot. There is a relationship of trust that has been established. For some, all it took was a shake of the hand to start working their vines. Now I have 25-year contracts to exploit their vines. I am convinced that the quality of the grapes from their plots will continue to grow.

What is the work in the cellars?

For my three Chenin Blancs, I work in the same way. They are pressed in whole bunches, fermented on lees (without making malolactic) then aged in 1,000 liter tuns.

For the reds, I use concrete vats for fermentation. Always the whole harvest and aging mainly in 2,000 liter tuns. Depending on the grape variety, I add a few different touches: for Syrah, I ferment colder to capture the freshness and spices; For Cabernet-Sauvignon, I ferment at a slightly higher temperature to obtain the full intensity of the fruit. Depending on the vintage, depending on the plot, I move the lines: more or less stalking, more or less long contact with the skin…

We offer 2 Chenin Blancs (Stellenbosch and Swartland). What are their differences?

That of Stellenbosch is made up of three plots planted in 1982, 1980 and the 1970s. They are close to the ocean, at an altitude varying between 280 and 320 meters. For that of Swartland, these are two vineyards with old vines. It is surprising to note that the one further from the ocean (Swartland) produces a wine that is more saline and mineral. That of Stellenbosch reflects its terroir: an impressive intensity of stone fruits, a beautiful opulence and concentration.

Likewise, we have 3 Syrah. What makes them different?

That of Stellenbosch comes from 3 vineyards along the coast between 140 and 295 meters above sea level. It is the freshest and most aromatic of the three.

For that of Swartland, it is also 3 vineyards between 170 and 340 meters above sea level. It is warmer there, the imprint of the terroir is more marked, with aromas of red fruits and blueberries.

That of Cederberg comes from a vineyard around 1,000 meters above sea level, which is extremely rare in South Africa. It is a continental Syrah, with notes of black fruits. The acidity is more present than in the other two. The concentration, color, tannins are more intense.

It’s magical to see this difference between the reliefs and the terroirs.

We see that there is incredible positive energy from the different South African winemakers. How do you experience it from the inside?

It’s super exciting to be part of this movement. The world opens to us! We are a group of winegrowers who communicate a lot. We advise each other, we help each other. We move forward together as a collective. We love to travel and discover what is happening elsewhere. We share experiences and knowledge. This is an impressive opportunity!

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