Fledge & Co’s wines – bold and experimental
Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel from the Western Cape region of South Africa are attracting a lot of attention for their maverick approach to the craft. Fledge & Co’s wines are bold, experimental and express their origins, or terroir, through a combination of ‘old-school’ techniques and environmentally minded modern innovations. Their Vagabond Cape Dry White is now available at Vinmonopolet.
WRITTEN BY RUSSEL WASSERFALL
IMAGES BY FLEDGE & CO
Margaux Nel is a 7th generation winemaker from Calitzdorp in the Klein Karoo, a semi-arid region where the Nel family has carved out a celebrated name as wine producers. Leon Coetzee, although not qualified as a vintner, grew up surrounded by vineyards and has applied his extensive agricultural knowledge and fine palate to the production of a new generation of fascinating wines.
For Nel, it was almost inevitable that wine would be her life. Her family has been harvesting vines and making wine on Boplaas farm in Calitzdorp for seven generations. Growing up in the Klein Karoo area of the Cape – a semi-arid region akin to certain Portuguese or Spanish terroirs – had a significant impact on her career path. Nel’s M.Sc (viticulture) from the University of Stellenbosch was the result of family tradition. Her commitment to sound environmental practices in the craft came from being raised on a farm where the impact of climate change was an observable fact.
The significant other in the make-up of the Fledge & Co team is Leon Coetzee. He too is the scion of a Cape farming family, although his studies took him in a commercial direction with a BCom degree from Stellenbosch. Part of a youth spent in the Swartland surrounded by vines and wine revolutionaries fired his love of winemaking. He learned his craft from the old hands of the game.
As Coetzee says: “I was taught by an old winemaker to not think about the wine you want to make. Rather imagine the food and the company to share the bottle with.”
The same ‘oom’ (respected elder) taught him to choose vineyard sites based on ‘that feeling in the bottom of your stomach’. He took this to mean that it is important to have an emotional connection to where the vines grow in order to make a decent wine. This is the rich vein that runs through the craft of The Fledge & Co. It also talks to the connection between Coetzee and Nel, who are married and live their conviction in every single bottle of wine they produce.
The core range from Fledge & Co is called ‘Nest Egg’ and includes the Vagabond blend as well as an exceptional Pinot Noir, a Chenin and a Sauvignon blanc.
With 40 vineyards and about 23 varietals, spread across the entire length and breadth of the Cape’s winelands, there’s a lot of emotion going on with this couple and their wines. While Margaux is the head winemaker on her family estate and still directs production there, Fledge and Co has no fixed address.
It’s a passion project. Started in 2007, Fledge was an expression of the couple’s mutual desire to craft authentic wines to enjoy with fine food in good company. They also wanted to showcase the very best of the Cape’s wines, while driving an agenda of concern for their soils and environment with a carbon-neutral or carbon-sensitive footprint.
Leon and Margaux go out looking for interesting or unusual blocks of vines spread out all over the Winelands. From the semi-arid Karoo to the wetter south peninsula climate of Elgin and the old vine stands of The Swartland their palates are mapping every inch of the region.
They describe themselves as “proudly terroir by truck”. The Fledge doesn't own vineyards but work with the best farmers and “terroir” they can find. They buy the grapes and truck them to their cellar for crafting into signature wines.
As a rule, their grapes are hand-harvested. Wines are then crafted using traditional techniques combined with a twist of modern sensibility which first and foremost respects the fruit.
White wines are either aged sur lie (on the lees) in Innox stainless steel tanks or transferred to 228L old French oak puncheons (casks) depending on the varietal.
Reds go into traditional “kuipe” which are open-top cement fermenters similar to Portuguese lagars and are punched down by hand in the French pigeage style, or gently pumped over. Barring a portion of Tinta Barocca, they are all then matured in oak casks of varying sizes.
The Fledge & Co is a journey born out of the union and the passion of two people who are as passionate about wine as they are about each other.
The production and structure of Vagabond, their Cape White Blend provides a fascinating insight into the sheer wine ‘geekery’ that goes into The Fledge’s labour of love. By releasing it ‘unfined and unfiltered’, the couple express their sheer belief in the quality of the grapes they have sourced for this wine. The passion runs deeper though.
Vagabond is described as an independently minded wine. It’s a multi-varietal, multi-regional, old-school barrel fermented and matured white blend. The couple has set out to showcase the Cape in a single glass by combining fruit from sixteen low-yielding, prime vineyard sites scattered across the Swartland, Stellenbosch, Elgin, Tradouw and the Klein Karoo.
The wine combines a myriad of ancient soils, aspects and climates. Each site was hand-harvested at dawn and allowed a few hours skin contact prior to gentle pressing. After that, the juice is settled overnight prior to racking with a fair share of fine lees into old 400L French oak casks. Each climat is fermented separately, using only neutral yeasts and long, cool ferments of three to four weeks.
Post ferment, the wines are racked with a portion of fine lees nad sulphured up. Some of the barrels undergo malolactic fermentation, some don’t and after approximately 9 months the components are blended into a temperature controlled Inox tank with fine lees.
Each vintage the blend changes, but it's always Chardonnay, Steen (Chenin blanc), Viognier, Verdelho, Grenache blanc and Roussanne. Seeing some of these varieties in a blend would give a classic French winemaker a heart attack. Specifically, the 2018 vintage comprised Chardonnay at 34%, Steen 33%, Viognier 12.5%, Grenache blanc 12.5%, Verdelho 5%, and Roussanne at 3%.
It’s certainly a bit of a mouthful, but it was named the best blended Cape white of the vintage and is consistently the most awarded unknown Cape white blend. Vagabond 2018 yielded 4,062 bottles, some of which are now available in Norway (11962901 Vagabond Cape Dry White 2018 NOK 214,50). It has turned out to be a superb food wine. The 2018 is a tad leaner at the moment, making it perfect for fresh seafood dishes and lighter fare, while with time it's more suited to richer bolder dishes with a bit more fat, like lemon-butter sole.
The 2018 Vagabond Cape Dry White is available through Vinmonopolet in Norway, and the 2019 vintage will soon follow.
The 2019 is also destined for the Norwegian Vinmonopolet, and is a far richer, riper vintage with little more Chardonnay and newer barrels making it more suited to dishes with a little more fat and bolder flavours. Confit duck legs worked into a wild mushroom risotto, venison medallions over roast pumpkin mash with a berry compote, or lamb chops gilled on the fire with lemon, olive oil, rosemary and fleur de sel come to mind.
There are three tiers to The Fledge’s range of wines. “Nest Eggs” have been crafted since 2007 working to explore the soils, vines and specific climates of the grape in each year’s harvest. This range includes Vagabond, but also the super-accessible Katvis Pinot Noir. It’s an African rendition of the most tempestuous French grape, a multi-clonal, multi-vineyard proper Pinot.
Klipspringer Swartland Steen is a chenin from old-vine parcels of dry land bush vines from Piketberg, Riebeekberg and Malmesbury and is very much a Swartland wine in character and delivery. While for their Fumé Blanc they cross to the cool-climate, barrel-fermented and matured Sauvignon blanc which can convert the most determined Sauvignon-hater.
The ‘Jikken Barrel’ range allows Leon and Margaux to experiment with different techniques to produce interesting single varietal wines. While Dancing Skeletons” is a delightful range of once-off or never-to-be-seen-again wines produced in small batches and particularly sought-after by their Fledge & Co’s winemaker friends.
The next tier of wines in their range is the “Jikken Barrels”. These are experimental wines where craft is everything and new techniques are explored. It is anchored by an unwooded, cool-climate Sauvignon blanc sourced in Stellenbosch, Elgin & Agulhas. Nel + Coetzee Steen is a Swartland and Stellenbosch chenin blanc, while the Portuguese varietal Tinta Barocca combines fruit from a selection of 15 to 40 years old vineyards, that are fermented in open cement tanks and matured in old oak. It’s a proper red table wine.
The final range is “Dancing Skeletons”, a collection of once-off wines, or wines from vineyards that have since died or been cleared or grubbed up. The current offering includes a serious cool-climate Elgin Viognier, an ‘orange’ wine from old bush vine Steen or Colombard called Skn 'n Bnz, a single varietal bottling of Souzão, and a Sangiovese.
Continually pushing at the boundaries of what is acceptable for their craft, Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel have become celebrated producers among the hip winemakers of the region. Their limited bottlings, ranging from as little as 50 cases to some popular lines topping 1,000 cases are quickly snapped up, often by other winemakers.