Is South Africa One of the World’s Most Vibrant Wine Countries?
by John Szabo MS
Part One: Revolution in the Swartland, South Africa’s hottest region; Buyer’s guide to South African Wines (Watch for Part Two next week: The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley) Cause for Excitement
Though 354 years old, the modern South African wine industry is barely celebrating its twentieth birthday. It’s only been a couple dozen years since Nelson Mandela walked to freedom, and twenty years since the first multiracial elections in the country, which effectively ended decades of international embargos and sanctions. The number of cellars crushing grapes has nearly tripled since 1991 (from 212 to 564 in 2013, with a high of 604 cellars in 2009). What was before an entirely insular industry has grown in the last two decades into one of the most vibrant and exciting wine scenes in the world.
Night falling over Table Mountain, view from Durbanville Hills
Change of course hasn’t been easy. When the Cape opened up in the early nineties, the lure of chasing seemingly limitless international wine markets (and a very limited domestic one) was irresistible. Since the fashion of the time dictated red wine, many growers were motivated to rip out old vineyards of white grapes destined mainly for brandy and replant them with fashionable jet-setting grapes like cabernet, merlot and shiraz, which were minor players under the old winemaking regime. In 1990 cabernet represented just 4% of total acreage, and merlot and shiraz just 1% each. In 2012, the proportions had shifted massively, with those grapes representing 12%, 6% and 11% respectively. In the same period, chardonnay quadrupled to 8% of plantings, and sauvignon blanc moved from 2% to 10%, while at the same time, chenin blanc acreage was nearly cut in half from 32% to 18%.
New Plantings In Paarl
The strategy at the time appeared reasonable enough, were it not for the reality that South Africans were a couple of decades behind the rest of the world. Revamping a vineyard is not like switching from corn to barley or cotton to sugarcane; it takes many years to establish a new variety. And there’s a truism in the world of wine: if you chase what’s fashionable, by the time you get there fashion will have moved on.
It’s not hard to see why in the rush to join the rest of the world, mistakes were unavoidable. In many cases, grapes and places didn’t match up. Although South Africa is blessed with a variety of climates and soils, many regions are simply too warm to make fine cabernet and merlot, or interesting chardonnay, while the regions that are suited were still being discovered. Not to say that there aren’t fine cabernets and blends – there are, particularly in Stellenbosch, but exceptions always prove the rule.
Many bet heavily on sauvignon blanc, made fashionable in the nineties by New Zealand, but it has proven over time, with rare exceptions, to make mildly interesting wine at best – nothing to shake the world or cause anxiety in Kiwi land. The hope that pinotage – a grape virtually unique to (and created in) South Africa – might one day become the country’s flagship grape were all but dashed by planting it in areas that are patently too warm for a variety that ripens earlier than pinot noir. The lamentable solution: mask the shortcomings with mocha-chocolate-coffee flavours. And there are other examples.
It’s easy in hindsight to say that the South African wine industry should have stuck with what it was already doing well, but that of course would never have happened. Often in this business you have to take a step forward in order to be able to take two steps back. And this is where I see South Africa today: the early leap forward into an uncertain future has allowed the industry to look back into the past with clarity and renewed purpose. Today it is so much clearer which regions and grapes, and their combinations, work, and yield wine that can truly be called distinctive. It would have taken a mighty visionary surveying the wine scene circa 1994 to see the future as it is today.
Fine-tuning the complex matrix of cultivar, climate and soil is well and truly underway, guided by both the important hand of history as well as hyper-acute technological tools. What used to take centuries and multiple generations has been accomplished in a mere couple of decades.
Always with us: Nelson Mandela still watches over vines at Fairview Cellars
And the technical proficiency and open-mindedness that comes from travel and exchange of knowledge, unavailable to the previous generation of South African winegrowers, is widely enjoyed by today’s cohort. It has given the necessary confidence to both neglect fashion and be lazy in the winery, letting grape and place speak more loudly than technique. Such an attitude is possible only with self-assurance and a belief that one’s patch of dirt and distinct variety can make something of worth, and something that can finally and truly be called South African. And that attitude is spreading like wildflowers across the Cape’s astonishingly beautiful and incredibly bio diverse landscape.
That’s what makes South Africa one of the most exciting and vibrant winegrowing countries in the world, with so much more great wine to come. And when you throw all-important value into the mix, driven in part by the country’s weak rand, the story is even more exciting.
A full report on the SA wine scene would require far more words than even internet publications accept (not to mention time more time to read than anyone has), so I’ve written up mini profiles on two diametrically opposed but equally exciting regions that give a flavour for the overall South African wine scene. Part one covers the Swartland, along with the producers whose wines you’ll want to find, and drink, and part two next week looks at the Hemel-En-Aarde Valley. I wrap up each with a buyer’s guide of South African wines currently available in Canada.
Part One Places to Watch: Revolution in The Swartland
We drive down a dusty, unpaved bumpy road passing parched fields of grass and wheat, grazing cattle, and vineyards scattered here and there with gnarled old vines spread like shrubs across the dry and stony ground. This is the land that was forgotten: The Swartland. The name means literally ‘the black land’, from the now endangered indigenous renosterbos (rhino bush) which once coloured the landscape dark. But it too has been forgotten.
Swartland Landscape – the land that time forgot (or at least the 1990s wine industry boom)
When the wine industry upheaval came in the nineties, excitement was focused on Stellenbosch. Swartland wasn’t part of the boom. But recently it’s been Swartland’s turn for an all-out revolution, and it has become South Africa’s hottest zone for prospectors, punters and winegrowers fuelled by passion but with bank accounts running on empty. But some larger companies are already moving in and/or sourcing fruit in the region (Fairview, Mulderbosch, Boekenhoutskloof), and it’s only a matter of time before everyone is saying “Sf-var-t-lande” in proper Afrikaans.
The cause of the excitement is in plain sight, for anyone who takes the three-hour car ride up from Cape Town: old bush vines of unfashionable grapes. Land prices are still cheap (at least relative to areas like Stellenbosch where creeping urbanization is putting immense pressure on vineyard land, driving up values to unsustainable levels), I’m told about $5,000 per hectare (although most properties are large and can’t be subdivided), which in turn draws an anti-corporate, post-modern collection of young maveric winemakers seeking to make a unique artistic statement rather than simply collect a pay check. And voilà – you have a quality revolution. It’s more or less the same set of circumstances that have made places like Italy’s Mt. Etna or Spain’s Bierzo and Priorat (and what might make Southern Chile’s old vine pais and carignan) the sin-qua-nons of any cutting edge wine list over the last decade.
As a result of being spared participation in the first phase of the industry revamp, a disproportionate number of old vineyards in the Swartland were left untouched, farmed without fanfare by anonymous cooperatives churning out anonymous wines from grapes nobody had heard of or cared much about. But now in the ongoing worldwide search for distinctive regional authenticity, these ancient vines, perfectly adapted to their surroundings, have moved up to the order of national treasures. South Africa is simply identifying and acknowledging its own national viticultural treasures. Today Swartland has the highest percentage of old vines in South Africa, and South Africa has the greatest acreage of old white vines in the new world – that’s cause for excitement.
Grapes that were once thought useful only for distillation or jug wine, like chenin blanc and cinsault are proving otherwise. And they’ve been joined more recently by varieties that fit the region, like grenache, syrah, mourvedre, roussanne and viognier. Considering the scarce rainfall (300-500mm per year) and a heat summation equivalent to region IV – that’s like scorching southern Spain – Mediterranean varieties are logical. And the palette of soils ranging from decomposed granites to shales, schists and iron-rich red soils called Koffieklip provide for diverse expressions and intriguing blending possibilities.
Still, there are many old vineyards whose grapes are pumped into bulk tanks or cheap bag-in-box, so there’s ample opportunity for fine Swartland wine to grow. For now it’s believed that the market is not yet ready to absorb a massive influx of high end wines from this as-yet little known region, which is undoubtedly true. As consumers, we’d be smart to get in and buy what’s currently available before the rest of the world finds out how good these wines can be.
The Swartland Producers To Know
Sadie Family Wines
Winemaker Eben Sadie is one of South Africa’s most reflective and philosophical characters. On arrival I’m treated to a well-rehearsed one-hour discourse on his beliefs including, for example, the logic of blending grapes in the Swartland, as is done in other warm climates around the world (single variety wines are the domain of cool regions – think about it: Loire, Burgundy, Alsace, Germany, northern Italy, vs. southern France and Spain), or the dangers of dogmatic idealism (he’s on the minimal intervention side of the spectrum, but if the wine needs a touch of sulphur, he’ll add it), or the need to evolve over time (there used to be lots of new wood in the cellar, which has slowly given way to old barrels, large old wooden vats and more recently concrete eggs and clay amphora).
Sadie has one of the best collections of empty wine bottles in his office I’ve ever seen – all of the world’s greats are there – which I find highly comforting. He clearly knows what fine wine is. His passion for wine is matched only by his passion for surfing “I love it like you have no idea. It’s what I do”. He pours his wines in Zalto Burgundy glasses – in my view some of the best vessels in the world out of which to experience wine, and what Sadie describes as being like “flying to the moon”. It’s also reassuring: here wine is treated with care and respect. I later find out that he acquired his large and expensive glassware fleet by trading bottles of his top wine, Columella, with the owner of Zalto glassware in Austria “one for one”. I’m tempted to say that Herr Karner got the better deal, given the finite scarcity of Sadie’s wines; only 4000 cases in total (all labels) are made annually, with no intention to grow.
Sadie and his latest clay amphora
I appreciate Sadie’s confidence and thoughtfulness, almost as much as his wines. These are among South Africa’s best wines without question, hitting the right spot on the continuum of naturalness, with depth, precision, genuine complexity, purity and clarity. The multi-cépage blends Columella (red) and Palladius (white) sit at the top of the estate’s hierarchy; they’re also among the South Africa’s most expensive (approximately $130 and $70 respectively), but in an international context, are worth every penny and more.
He has recently introduced a range of single vineyard wines that should expose more consumers to his wines, if not in quantity, than at least in price, at around $40-$50 per bottle. These wines are the result of an obsessive search for old vine parcels that can produce at the highest quality levels. Starting from literally hundreds of potential sites, Sadie has slowly whittled the options down to a mere handful. The collection includes an astoundingly good chenin blanc ‘Skurfberg’ made from vines planted in 1888, a lovely, fine and firm cinsault ‘Pofadder’ (a grape Sadie describes as being “like your brother in jail – you love him but you can’t talk about him”), a floral and powerful, whole bunch-fermented grenache ‘Soldaat’, and a rare and arresting tinta barroca ‘Treinspoor’, which he describes as being like “syrah married to nebbiolo”.
Sadie Family’s latest single vineyard range. No concessions made to international markets – these labels are unapologetically South African
The second label of sorts is called Sequillo (a red and white blend are made) and offer tremendous value. Sadie describes Sequillo as his R&D company. The wines change every year, and “all of the freak stuff goes into it”. But since even the freaky here is freakishly good, these are wines you’ll want to drink.
Mullineux Family Wines
In many ways Chris Mullineux and his wife Andrea are emblematic of the Swartland revolution. Chris has both an accounting degree (useful in the wine business) and a winemaking degree from Stellenbosch, so he is technically well-prepared. Andrea is from a winemaking background in California, and the couple met in the south of France while she was making wine in Chateauneuf and he in Bandol – so both are well traveled and experienced (and they continue to make a little bit of wine together in Napa from fruit grown in the Sierra Foothills). Chris made wine for five years at Fable Vineyards (formerly Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards), where he worked with purchased fruit from all over South Africa, including the Swartland, so he’s familiar with multiple regions.
When it was time for the Mullineux to strike out on their own, the choice of region was easy. Chris already knew that fruit from the Swartland was “the easiest to make into interesting wine without much manipulation”, and the grapes are suited to wine styles they both like to drink. The dry climate makes it easy to farm organically, yields are naturally low, and diverse soils and growing conditions provide lots of possibilities. Plus, Chris already knew all of the top growers and best sites in the region, grapes were available and inexpensive, and it was possible to set up a functional operation with minimal overhead, which would have been impossible in Stellenbosch. The pair moved in 2007 and crushed their first harvest in 2008.
Today they lease 42 different parcels, about 25 hectares in total. Emphasis is on blending, as Chris says “it’s tough to find a single site that has the full balance”. The Mullineux, like all of the avant-garde in the Swartland, are minimalist winemakers, a luxury made possible in part by working with old vines which tend to come into the winery already in balance. There are no additions to any of the wines, Chris tells me, but he’s not “dogmatic or fundamentalist”. He’ll filter if necessary, and bounce out bretty barrels. “It’s not a philosophy. It’s to make the most authentic expressions possible”, he says.
The spartan tasting bar at Mullineux, though outfitted with vineyard rock samples (left to right: schist, koffieklip, sandstone), always a reassuring sign
The Mullineux Family White, a blend of about 3/4 Chenin, 35-65 years old, clairette blanche and viognier, fermented and aged in mostly old foudre is rich and expressive, layered and textured with intriguing nutty/almond/marzipan flavours. The syrah, blended from parcels grown on granite, schist and koffieklip soils and fermented with 50% whole bunches offers lovely perfume in the violet spectrum, with pure dark fruit, blackberry, a touch of leafiness and lively acidity. “Weight and bigness happen naturally here”, says Mullineux, “it’s the freshness that we focus on, and what takes the most effort”. Mission accomplished, I’d say.
A second label called Kloofstreet has evolved over time from leftover wine that didn’t fit into the main range to a fully fledged brand. From two barrels in the first year that they didn’t want to sell in bulk, the Kloofstreet wines are now purpose-made from earlier picked, younger vines. The chenin blanc, from the ‘young’ 35 year old vines is crunchy and fresh, while the Kloofstreet Rouge, mostly syrah, is pure, spicy and peppery. Both are highly drinkable and fine value at about $20/bottle.
Lammershoek winemaker Craig Hawkins, old vines and Swartland landscape
Craig Hawkins, winemaker since 2010, got doubly lucky when he met Carla Kretzel, the sales and marketing manager for Lammershoek. In one shot he scored a lovely girlfriend and a job in one of the most beautiful corners in the country (Carla’s father owns the property). It’s a relatively small operation, producing 150,000 bottles annually, and it’s fair to say the style has changed dramatically since Hawkins’ arrival. The wines have lightened up in every sense except character and quality, and the blazes here now mark out unbridled experimentation and rigorous non-interventionist winemaking.
Craig admits to being inspired by his brother, who makes and sells natural wines, and the painted words over the cellar door, “Made From Grapes” sums it up succinctly. Novelties under the “Cellar Foot” range, like the “Underwater Wine”, a carignan-grenache-mourvedre blend aged for a year in barrels stored underwater, the Hárslevelú, one of the only examples of the grape I’ve ever scene outside of Hungary, are just some of the ongoing tasty experiments.
Lammershoek: ageing wine underwater in a concrete vat
Not everything is successful, mind you, – cidery notes and oxidation creep in here and there – but by and large these are pure, fine, fresh, low alcohol, infinitely drinkable wines. The Lam rosé is one of the most delicious I’ve tasted: pale, 11% alcohol, bone dry and savoury beyond, while the Roulette Blanc, a blend of chenin, viognier, chardonnay and clairette, manages an impossible balance of richness and depth on a lithe 12.5% alcohol frame. The predominance of sandy, decomposed granite soils on the farm tend to yield lighter wines for early drinking, but then again, most are so delicious they wouldn’t last in my cellar anyway.
Lammershoek crest and credo: “Therefore, we drink wine”
Porseleinberg Syrah, Boekenhoutskloof
Boekenhoutskloof. Mark Kent’s celebrated operation is based in Franshhoek, but recognizing the potential of the Swartland and the need to secure a reliable grape supply from the region, he recently purchased land on the Porseleinberg. The original parcels were planted in the late 1980s, while others are recent – Kent’s plan is to expand. The fruit finds its way in the excellent value Wolftrap and Porcupine Ridge labels, among others, but the real gem is the Porseleinberg Syrah, a wine of spectacular aromatics and massive depth and structure, made from 100% whole bunch fruit and aged in foudre and concrete eggs. The 2010 is years away still from prime drinking. And check out the beautiful label hand-pressed on a nineteenth century printing press.
AA Badenhorst Family Wines. Although I haven’t visited the estate and their 28 hectares of old bush vines in the Paardeberg Mountain, what I’ve tasted from here has been enough to cause excitement.
If you wish to join the Swartland Revolution, plan to be in the region November 7-8th of this year, where you’ll get to taste what all the excitement is about.
Buyers’ Guide: South Africa
The following recommended wines show inventory in the LCBO, SAQ or BC Liquors stores at time of publishing:
Sequillo Cellars Red 2009, Wo Swartland
Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc 2012, Stellenbosch (231282) $17.95
Fairview Petite Sirah 2011, Wo Paarl (366252) $23.95
Avondale Cyclus 2010, Wo Paarl (295220) $24.75
Bosman Adama White 2010, Wo Western Cape (282764) $15.60
Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2012, Coastal Region (12724) $22.95
Waterkloof Circle Of Life 2011, Stellenbosch (284588) $24.95
Newton Johnson Pinot Noir 2012, Wo Upper Hemel En Aarde Valley, Walker Bay, (660878) $26.95
Cape Point Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Wo Cape Point (285221) $15.95
Bayton Chardonnay 2012, Wo Constantia (269084) $17.95
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
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