The Mentors: Pioneering Wines, Inspired By The Vines

Situated on the outskirts of Paarl, the vast KWV production cellars are, at 24 hectares, the largest single winery in the southern hemisphere, producing upwards of 15 million litres of wine each year. Yet hidden away beneath the sea of warehouse roofs and rows of massive fermentation tanks you’ll find a special corner of this award-winning cellar; a tiny space of small tanks and hand-labelled barrels. This is the home of The Mentors.

Since its launch in 2006, The Mentors range has established itself as one of the most sought-after premium brands in the South African wine landscape. Built around a philosophy of expressing terroir and pioneering new wines and wine-making techniques, it’s a portfolio that showcases the founding philosophy of KWV, and the rich history and depth of expertise at one of South Africa’s leading wine producers.

The Mentors cellar was initially a space for us to push the boundaries of our winemaking knowledge,” explains The Mentors winemaker Izele van Blerk, who marks her 11th harvest with KWV in 2018. “A place to experiment with different coopers and winemaking techniques, to discover the best ways to work with new cultivars, or to try new yeasts and perfect natural ferments.”

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The Mentors Winemaker Izele van Blerk

The insights from this unique cellar, often home to post-graduate oenology students trialling pioneering new winemaking techniques, were initially put to use in KWV’s extensive range of wines. But the winemaking team soon realised that the boundary-breaking approach in The Mentors cellar was leading to remarkable terroir-driven wines that deserved their own spotlight. Though the first wines were bottled in 2006, it was in 2009 that The Mentors range took flight. 

While a permanent portfolio of eight wines – Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Noir, Petit Verdot, Pinotage, Orchestra and Canvas – are released under The Mentors label each year, Van Blerk and the winemaking team have the enviable freedom of pursuing innovative new varietals and blends from every harvest. Each year they take their cue from the vineyards of the Cape winelands, in deciding which wines deserve a space in The Mentors cellar.

For it is the vineyards themselves that provide the inspiration and guiding hand, the true mentorship, to the cellar. Whether they come from the wind-swept West Coast or sun-splashed Stellenbosch, the vine is the true muse for this handcrafted range of award winning wines.

The vineyard is crucial. As a winemaker I can’t do anything if I don’t have the best grapes. I have the very rare privilege to be able to go into a wide range of vineyards, to taste the grapes and look at the soil, and decide on the very best grapes to be used specifically for The Mentors,” adds Van Blerk.

And on that score, she’s perhaps the luckiest winemaker in town. KWV purchases grapes from dozens of producers farming thousands of hectares across the Western Cape winelands, allowing the winemaking team unparalleled access to some of the most interesting sites South Africa has to offer, from specific blocks to the very best rows of vines in a sought-after vineyard.

With the vineyards providing the inspiration for each vintage, being guided by the very essence of each site – and expressing it in the cellar – is the driving philosophy behind this terroir-driven selection. The winemakers work closely with KWV’s viticultural team, led by Chief Viticulturist Marco Ventrella, to understand each and every vineyard – to be tutored by the vines, in a sense – and in the run-up to harvest the winemaking team cover thousands of kilometres to inspect vineyards from Lutzville to Elim.

It’s incredibly important to spend time in the vineyard. I visit each vineyard block at least three times during harvest, to taste the grapes and make sure we harvest the right rows at the right time. In the first few weeks of January you won’t see me in the winery, only in the vineyards!” laughs Van Blerk.

Along with a dedication to expressing the vineyard, there is an unwavering commitment to quality in The Mentors cellar, with meticulous attention to detail determining everything from pressing time to punch-downs, fermentation approach to barrel selections.

Everything is about quality, and we’re not going to put it in the bottle if we’re not entirely convinced it is up to the standard we expect of The Mentors. It has to rank amongst the very best that South African vineyards can produce,” says Van Blerk, who has the freedom to decide which wines are bottled as blends or single varietals. “We can even skip vintages if we don’t feel the quality is up to scratch.”

The aim is simply to capture an expression of both vintage and vine, and in a very real sense the character of the vineyards inspires the final wine. A perfect example is The Mentors Cabernet Sauvignon.

In both the 2012 and 2014 harvests the Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch and Darling were so typical of their region they all but demanded to be released on their own, and so two Cabernets were bottled under The Mentors label that year. In other harvests the wine has shown better vintage expression as a blend of regions, leading to a single release.

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The art of blending is a key consideration in The Mentors cellar, and the winemakers pour enormous effort into retaining the guiding character of each vineyard, while ensuring the final blend is greater than the sum of its parts. Their success is evident in the two red blends in The Mentors range: the enigmatic Rhône-Style Canvas, and classical Bordeaux-style Orchestra.

The permanent range is complemented by an ever-changing line-up of exclusive limited-releases each year, the choice of cultivar reflecting, simply, what has been the best performer in the vineyards that year.

It could be a Malbec. It could be Tannat. It could be Grenache Noir. Anything that stands out, we’ll try and get it in the bottle. But it has to be exceptional,” says Van Blerk.

Exceptional. It’s a word that has long defined The Mentors, and for Van Blerk it’s a process of constant refinement. A process of discovering new ways to express the remarkable vineyards of the Western Cape winelands, and translating the inspiration of the vine into the bottle.

Just as the range evolves with each harvest, so 2018 will mark a subtle adjustment of The Mentors packaging, with revamped labelling and a switch from screw cap closures to high-quality corkamorimcork The Mentors: Pioneering Wines, Inspired By The Vines
by Amorim Cork
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The Mentors tasting experience at the KWV Wine Emporium has also been reimagined, with a duo of tasting journeys on offer. For the hungry, four wines from The Mentors range have been paired with artisan pies hand-made in a local bakery, the perfect showcase for these food-friendly premium wines. Expect the likes of The Mentors Chenin Blanc alongside a chicken curry pasticcio, or The Mentors Canvas paired with a proudly South African bobotie pie.

For those with a sweet tooth, the Chocolate Pairing is equally inventive, with handcrafted chocolates unlocking new layers of flavour, from herbaceous notes in The Mentors Orchestra to the inspired pairing of goose-berry-infused white chocolate with The Mentors Sauvignon Blanc.

KWV Wine Emporium is situated at Kohler Street, Paarl. For more information call 021 8073007/8 or visit the website wineemporium@kwv.coza. To keep up to date with KWV The Mentors, follow the social media channels: Instagram @KWV_thementors / Twitter @KWV_TheMentors / Facebook @KWV The Mentors #TheMentors

To buy the wines online visit http://kwvonlineshop.kwv.co.za/