Pieter’s Walser’s BLANKbottle project in South Africa has a reputation for idiosyncratic small-batch wines, each with their own hand-designed label. His avant-garde approach and ‘story-in-a-bottle’ philosophy have struck a chord with the UK’s independent trade.
He takes a break from the 2022 harvest to talk us through a dozen of his curious creations
It’s vintage time and today Pieter Walser has six presses to organise, and his online banking has just crashed. As is the case in any given year, he has 50 wines on the blocks. Other winemakers might be stressed and tetchy in the circumstances, but Pieter is happy to chat about his idiosyncratic project and the stories behind a dozen of his wines.
BLANKbottle got its name from Pieter’s original policy of abandoning the idea of labels altogether and packaging wines in the wrong-shaped bottles. A police raid made him aware of the legal complications of this free-and-easy approach, and a hefty fine and retrospective tax bill followed.
But by this time, BLANKbottle had established a following, and it wasn’t about to be derailed by the enforced arrival of labels bashed out on Microsoft Word.
“What makes us different, if you like, is that we bottle stories,” says Pieter. “If someone puts a bottle on a table I want it to be almost like a show. I want the label to look amazing, but I don’t want any information on it. It’s just to give people a hint about what’s inside the bottle.
“I want them to experience the wine and then go and find out more about what’s in the wine. All our wines are very much connected to a specific site. The stories about these wines are more human stories, but there are also these geeky wine things.
“My true passion is stories, so if I can communicate those with wines, I’m happy.”
BLANKbottle has no vineyards of its own. “It’s actually not that complicated,” Pieter insists. “We have our own winery, so we have everything under one roof. We’ve got long-term relationships with all the farmers we buy from.
“Look, we make 50 different wines in a year and that is maybe complicated, yes. But it’s easy to sell 50 different wines.
“Harvesting and bottling and logistics are complicated, but our whole system is designed for small volumes. We can’t take in 10 tonnes of a variety because we don’t have a tank for that.
“There’s always something that someone will like within our range. If you have to fly around the world selling the same five wines every year, and you’ve got big volumes of those, that is not an easy job. But if you’ve got 50 different wines that are all in short supply, it goes sort of organically.
“It started as fun, it definitely didn’t start as a business, because it is a stupid business model. Making 50 wines just doesn’t make sense on paper. But it’s what we like and it’s who we are, and we can’t actually change that.”
Moment of Silence 2021
There’s a poignant story behind the name of this lush Chenin, Chardonnay and Viognier blend that Pieter is not keen to share publicly. But he is happy to chat about a freaky coincidence involving the land it’s from.
“In 2007 I ended up in Wellington, a warm dry area about an hour north from where I live,” he says. “I had no connections there; a friend of mine had invited me. I stopped by at a winery and tasted their wines and looked at their vineyards where they had old Chenin, Chardonnay and Viognier vines. I rented space in their winery before I started my own winery in 2010.”
Pieter’s mother had been researching her Polish roots and discovered that her ancestors arrived in the Cape around 200 years earlier, settling on a certain small farm in Wellington.
“I was buying grapes from that specific farm that was owned by my family seven generations ago without even knowing it,” says Pieter. “That’s the reason this wine has been in our portfolio the longest.”
Epileptic Inspiration 2020
Pieter describes this as “a straight Semillon from Elgin”, which doesn’t really do justice to its complex and exotic flavours, or to the life-changing story that led to its creation.
“As a child I could never draw pictures,” he says. “I’m not artistic in any way. Right up until 2012 I did my own labels with Microsoft Word.
“Then in 2012 I started getting epilepsy; I had three big fits. After my third fit I wasn’t allowed to drive and I wasn’t allowed to surf. I sat at the computer to design some labels but the light from the screen bothered me.
“So I started scratching on paper and playing with paint and I designed a label – the first one in my life that I actually liked.
“After that I started designing all my own labels. I wouldn’t say that I’m good at all, but now I lie on a couch with woodcuts, drawings and charcoal and design all my labels myself.
“This label is actually an MRI scan of my brain. Something in my brain changed with the epileptic fits and all that electricity.”
Jan Niemand 2021
This part of Elgin bears a similarity to the Mosel. It’s a steep sandstone slope, with Riesling vines attached to individual poles in the German echalas style. Obviously using the Mosel name was out of the question and so Pieter pays homage by naming the wine after its own river, the Jan Niemand.
But that’s as far as the traditional approach goes. “It’s a super-weird bottle,” Pieter admits. “I don’t ever like to use the traditional bottle. If you put Riesling in a Riesling bottle, people don’t even ask you what the wine is. That we don’t want.”
He adds: “It’s a very small vineyard and we normally make 300 bottles of that wine. But this year we picked four times more grapes so I think we’ll end up with 1,100 litres. We had a good season and lots of rain in winter. But we also changed the pruning system.
“We handled the vine wrong at first, as a bush vine. What we never realised was you need to prune your vine so that the little spurs that carry the grapes are positioned like a spiral staircase around the pole. The bunches are then spread out so none of them touch, there’s aeration, they dry out quickly and they get a lot of sun, so they become really yellow.
“We walk around the vineyard and say to the guys there, ‘where’s your staircase?’”
Orbitofrontal Cortex 2021
“My brand is based on having no preconceived ideas but actually, in reality, I do have preconceived ideas towards different producers of grapes,” says Pieter. “That all influences my opinion of wines that are finishing in barrel.”
To put this to the test, a team of neuroscientists attached probes to Pieter’s scalp and skin and trained a camera on his face as he blind-tasted 21 samples.
“They monitored my subconscious reactions, then went away and drew up graphs, and from there they worked out a blend of the best wines,” he says.
“I said to my assistant, ‘we have to have some sort of control wine: is my conscious mind better than my subconscious?’ We pulled out the wines we liked the most and made up a blend, not connected to a particular varietal or area.”
It turned out that the “subconscious” wine was totally different to the “conscious” blend, not just in its varietal make-up but in its voluptuous style. It was abandoned, but the winery’s own creation was released as Orbitofrontal Cortex.
“That’s the front part of your brain that you make conscious decisions with,” says Pieter. “The wine is there just to keep the story alive. Every year we make up a blend of whatever we like the most. It can be anything.”
Still, a fascinating experiment. Pieter must have learnt so much.
“Er, no. I learnt absolutely nothing,” he insists. “Actually the experiment wasn’t of much use. You’d have to do it with lots of people. This was only me, so it was only for fun.”
“This is a straight Chardonnay from Helderberg in Stellenbosch, which is kind of at the back of my winery. When you’re young, you feel you have to travel far to find something nice. I rented some space in Somerset West but had never actually looked at the mountain right behind me.
“Helderberg is known more for Bordeaux varieties but higher up it’s got some really great Chardonnay. I was known for only using older French oak, but that’s because I never had cash to buy new barrels.
“I like Chardonnay in new oak, not 100%, but with a sense of the oak. You can’t actually taste the oak, but it forms part of the palate. So in 2019 I picked that block and bought my first new barrel.
“We destemmed the Chardonnay, pressed it, and the next day we put it into barrel on top of a stack of barrels so everybody could see it. I stepped back and said, ‘this feels like luxury’. In Afrikaans, my first language, luxury is ‘luuks’. So I wrote it on the barrel and it just became the name.”
Kortpad Kaaptoe 2021
The name translates as “the short road to Cape Town”, which is what Pieter once required due to a pressing appointment with the passport office.
On his way, he encountered a field of Fernão Pires in Swartland.
“Fernão Pires is not a variety you see often in South Africa … in fact you don’t see it ever,” says Pieter.
“The farmer said it was an old Portuguese variety that his grandfather got hold of somewhere. Back when the brandy industry was booming in South Africa, they needed high-yielding white varieties for distillation purposes.
“Fernão Pires is very thick skinned and robust against heat and sunlight but eventually most of it was taken out, except one area in Worcester and one in Swartland.
“Look, this is never going to be a five-star wine, but I love it because it’s fragrant and fresh and floral, with a little bit of a Muscat feel to it.”
None of which you’d necessarily divine from the heavy-metal typeface on the label. “The font is based on the AC/DC font, but I did it as a linocut.”
Master of None 2021
“At the time we first made this wine,” Pieter recalls, “there was an article about us saying, ‘how can one winery be a specialist in so many different styles and varieties?’ Because we make anything from everywhere. We just like doing different stuff.”
That sniffy review provided the inspiration for a wine that almost goes out of its way to prove the journalist both right and wrong at the same time.
“We’d just made this blend that didn’t have a real story to it,” Pieter says. “I was chatting with my assistant and saying: it was never my idea to make the best wine in the world. We said from the beginning we want to have fun and we want to be free.
“So we called the wine Master of None, because that is what we are: a jack of all trades.”
It’s almost quicker to list what’s not in this blend than what actually is.
“It’s driven by Grenache, Pinot Noir and Cinsault and there’s also lots of white grapes in there,” says Pieter. “There’s Fernão Pires and Chenin and Chardonnay, and a little bit of Pinotage and Shiraz.”
1-Click Off 2021
“Pinot Noir is something we made for many years, but it never worked,” is Pieter’s honest assessment of his own efforts.
“The first year I made it was 2012. I had a picture in my brain of what it was going to taste like and when we bottled it, it was way off what Pinot was supposed to taste like.
“I called it 2-Clicks Off. If you take a cannon and your aim is two clicks off, you miss the target completely. The wine stayed two clicks off for many years because each year the wine just didn’t taste like Pinot. It was just big; there was too much fruit, and the alcohol was always too high.
“It was also a complicated site because we didn’t have full control over the farming of the vineyard in Elgin. We couldn’t pick on the day we wanted, so the wine always came in slightly more alcoholic than I thought it should be.
“Then about three years ago a new guy bought the farm. We worked out a plan and I employed a viticulturalist to assist him.
“In 2020 it started to get better. 2021 is the closest we’ve ever got to a proper Pinot, so I changed the name to 1-Click Off. I feel we’re pretty close to what we can get from that vineyard.”
Retirement @ 65 2021
This 50-50 blend of Cinsault and Shiraz comes from a once-neglected vineyard in Darling.
“I first saw the vineyard in 2016,” says Pieter. “I was told it was a horrible vineyard, planted 64 years ago.” Its original owners had sold the grapes for blending but the site was in a poor state, and now only the resident birds seemed interested in its fruit.
“It’s really hard to find old Cinsault vines like that so I said, if I buy nets to keep the birds out, maybe we can pick something from that vineyard,” explains Pieter.
“We pruned the vineyard a little bit better, and it started growing. Then one Sunday this farmer phoned me and said his sheep had broken through the fence and eaten all the new shoots which were about 30cm long. There was nothing left.
“The next year we netted the vines so they could recover from that. We didn’t harvest anything.
“A fence around the vineyard kept the sheep out, and the nets kept the birds out, and the following year it was the first time anyone had made a vine from a vineyard that was now 65 years old.”
“I’ve got a friend, this really cool English guy, and when he picks up the phone he always says ‘jaa, bru’ which means ‘yes, my brother’,” explains Pieter.
“This Malbec grows on his farm. I knew I would have to call the wine Jaa-Bru because with him it’s the first thing I think about.
“The label is something different – it’s like this screaming mouth. In Afrikaans, the word mal means crazy, and bec is like a slang word for mouth, so in Afrikaans if you say Malbec it means crazy in the mouth. Afrikaans guys pick it up immediately and it’s quite fun.
“It’s all in old French oak. Earlier versions had almost a minty chocolate kind of vibe, but in 2021 we had higher alcohols throughout the cellar and it shows in this wine quite a bit.
“The 2021 is slightly more muscular, but still very fresh.”
Confessions of a White Glove Chaser 2019
Word had got round that a European-backed producer was forensically analysing plots in Helderberg on a mission to create South Africa’s answer to Screaming Eagle, but the project was shrouded in secrecy.
“They started identifying rows that were better than the rest of the plot,” says Pieter. “The farmers had to sign big contracts and were not allowed to tell anybody who was buying their grapes.
“One day I drove past a vineyard where the farm workers were busy picking and they had these white latex gloves on. I realised this must be this secretive fancy winery and I started calling them the White Gloves.
“I decided I wanted to invest in Cab so I went to that farm and said, ‘I’d like to buy grapes from you, next to where I saw the White Gloves picking’.”
Pieter struck a deal for the fruit on the neighbouring 10 rows, and after noting the distinctive markings on the White Gloves vineyard poles, was able to identify three sites that bordered premium land controlled by the enigmatic Europeans. Similar deals were agreed, and the result is a graceful yet earthy blend of 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon.
“It’s my confession that I’m a White Glove chaser,” says Pieter, with no obvious sense of shame in his voice.
“Oh my word, this is a long one,” sighs Pieter. “I sort of got accused of killing my son. But I didn’t and he’s not dead.”
To summarise: one Saturday night Pieter raids a large vacant neighbouring property, built on dunes, for sand to create a play pit for his son. Darkness is falling so work isn’t quite finished. Before leaving, Pieter playfully tosses the delighted boy into the hole, where he disappears from sight, and proceeds to cover him in more sand from his spade.
Teenagers lurking in the street naturally assume they are witnessing a murderer burying his victim in a shallow grave, and before long the area is sealed off. It’s not until Monday that Pieter even notices the yellow tape, hears the news about the killing, and realises he’s almost certainly the man the police are looking for.
“It was this huge misunderstanding, and a newspaper wrote a story about the mystery of the boy in the sandpit,” he says. “I wanted to preserve this story for the next generation, so I took an iPhone photo of the newspaper and put it on the label.”
The wine has nothing at all to do with any of this, except for its name, which translates as “family murder”.
“It’s a Grenache,” says Pieter. “We’ve tried different Grenaches over the years, but from the 2021 vintage I think we’ve been on the right track.
“It was the first time we picked from this particular vineyard. We picked slightly later, and it was a warm season, so the grapes were a little bit on the ripe side. But it was the most beautiful Grenache that we could find.”