Last December, I visited South Africa for the first time. I found myself again making the long journey from California less than a year later, this second trip allowing me to explore the wine scene in greater depth. South Africa is a fascinating country, with a rich if contradictory history of wine production. In many ways, it's still a new wine-producing country, only emerging internationally in the 1990s with the fall of apartheid. However, its history of winemaking goes back centuries, and it's this contradiction between old and new which is at the heart of how South Africa views itself.
The pull of past and future is encapsulated in Swartland, a large, barren, rocky region to the north of Cape Town which may just be the most exciting winemaking area in South Africa. There are plantings of old vines, which producers are using to make wines with exceptional concentration and complexity. The history of the region is not solely one of quality though, with a focus throughout the twentieth century on inexpensive white wine and grapes for brandy.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to visit Testalonga, a fantastic winery which produces the El Bandito range, but I did get to speak to the winemaker and owner Craig Hawkins. He told me that in the past, "we planted 'some' of the right cultivars but planted too many cultivars that belong more in a climate suited more for 'colder cultivars.' If we had planted more Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Portuguese grapes, Southern Italian grapes etc I reckon this country would be much farther ahead." It's the combination of using old vines and practices and learning from the mistakes of the past that makes South Africa such a fascinating wine-producing country. Each producer I met was determined to marry the heritage of the region with their vision of how Swartland will best move forward.
Swartland is a warm region, currently suffering from drought. This is where old vines are beneficial, as they have deep enough roots to access underground water, and the wines can have an extra intensity and concentration of flavour. However, producers realise they can't rely on old vines due to the limited amount of them and low yields. A number of producers I met want to plant varieties they feel work well in Swartland to continue and develop its identity, but the drought makes it difficult for vines to establish a deep root system without excessive irrigation. This encapuslates the challenges producers face in trying to replicate the practices of their predecessors.
The warm Mediterranean climate makes Swartland ideal for grape varieties that originate from southern France, Spain, and Portugal. Syrah/Shiraz has long been considered the premium grape of the region, and it certainly produces rich, ripe wines not dissimilar to those made in Australia. Mullineux, who have emerged in the last ten years as one of South Africa's most acclaimed producers, make a range of Syrahs expressive of the different soil types found in Swartland. Swartland Syrahs are meaty, powerful, and concentrated. As the climate is similar to the southern Rhône, there is a discussion whether Syrah is best here or whether blends produce more complex wines. This is where, unusually, Cinsault comes into play.
The oldest surviving black grapes in South Africa are of Cinsault, often used in France for rosé. Mark Kent of Boekenhoutskloof (based in Franschhoek, but who source a lot of their Rhône grapes from Swartland) describes Cinsault as “a missed opportunity in South Africa, as there are an abundance of old vines we haven’t been using.” I see that slowly changing. It’s a common component of blends in Swartland, adding red fruits and acidity and softening the wine. There are also a small number of single-varietal Cinsaults being made. In Cape Town, I had a glass of Flotsam and Jetsam’s old-vine Cinsault 2016; made with 100% whole-bunch fermentation, it had a ripeness and concentration I would not normally associate with the grape while being fun and easy-drinking (R130; ✪✪✪✪).
In the blends are also found Carignan, Mourvèdre, and Grenache, as well as South Africa’s notorious Pinotage. David and Nadia’s Elpidios 2015 is a blend from six vineyards of Carignan, Cinsault, Syrah, Grenache, and Pinotage. Made with 50% whole-bunch fermentation, there’s a slightly carbonic feel to this wine, which is grainy, herbal, spicy, and very balanced and restrained (R330; ✪✪✪✪✪).
The blend has been evolving each year, from being Syrah-dominant to Carignan-dominant with the expectation that Grenache will become the most important component. Grenache is the grape that David Sadie has come to believe best expresses Swartland because of the similarities between the climate of the region and Mediterranean France and Spain. He doesn’t want the wines to simply reflect the heat of the dry, inland region, however; for the 2016 Grenache, he picks the grapes early, which produces a wine with acidity, medium body and alcohol (13%), and a fresh fruitiness (R330; ✪✪✪✪✪).
There are only 11.5ha of old-vine Grenache in the country, which is a great shame, as these wines could be to Swartland what they are to McLaren Vale in Australia. Swartland’s pioneer is Eben Sadie, who makes a Grenache from vines planted in the 1950s at 700m altitude. Soldaat 2016, made with 9% whole-bunch fermentation, is an elegant, smooth, subtle, textured wine, smoky, herbal, floral, and spicy: firm evidence that Grenache is very well suited to the region (✪✪✪✪✪✪).
It’s not just the southern Rhône that can serve as a possible inspiration for Swartland. Sadie make a wine called Treinspoor from Tinta Barroca vines planted in 1974 next to some train tracks (R280; ✪✪✪✪✪). The climate of Swartland is certainly not dissimilar to that of inland Portugal and there are a number of old Portuguese vines once planted for the production of fortified wine. I’m not sure producers have fully explored the possibilities Portuguese varieties offer, but there were a handful making single-varietal wines (such as Sjinn’s Touriga Nacional) or using them as part of a blend.
Production in Swartland is small, but a number of producers are transforming the reputation of the region to one associated with a serious commitment to quality through respect for the past and through innovation. Amazingly, the wines get even better with old-vine Chenin Blanc - as outlined in my next post ….
All prices listed in Rand: $1 = R14; £1 = R18; €1 = R16