Getting Site Specific in South Africa

Jonkershoek ValleyThere are few wine regions in the world that can rival South Africa’s natural beauty. The Groot Drakenstein Mountains, for example, are equally as picturesque as the Dolomites in Italy, and they set the dramatic scene as backdrops for the Cape winelands, and along the southern coast other mountains splay like tentacles breathtakingly into the Indian Ocean. Blue shadowed stacks of Table Mountain sandstone and decomposed granite rise from the vivid green pastures dotted with the brilliant white facades of 300 year old Cape Dutch homesteads. To the casual observer the landscape may look just as it did in the decades leading up to 1994, but in reality the wine map, the vineyards, the cellars, the people, and the wines have changed out of all recognition.
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Jose Conde of Stark-CondeI don’t claim to be an authority on South African wine, but after a recent visit there for 2 weeks I certainly got an education. I covered great distances from the Swartland an hour and a half north of Cape Town to the semi-arid Klein Karoo, close to 6 hours away the opposite direction, along the lush Garden Route where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans divide. Exploring the cool climate Overberg region with new appellations like Greyton, as well as terroir driven pinot noirs and chardonnays from Elgin and the Hemel-en-Arde Valley was convenient since the communities are close knit. Even a long, cruisy afternoon out in one-time bulk wine mecca Robertson was illuminating for the highly individualistic producers now crafting their own estate made wines. All of this back and forth had a meaning, however: to discover which areas and people on the Western Cape were producing exciting, delicious wines. It’s not a bad job, I know, although I was crook as a dog by the time I left.Stark-Conde Vineyards, Stellenbosch
I had been to South Africa (SA) before for a 10 day trip as a restaurant wine buyer in April of 2006 as a guest of Vineyard Brands, a US wine distributor. They only had six SA brands so unlike most sponsored wine trips, we had a lot of free time on our hands to visit places like Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other dissidents were imprisoned during Apartheid, and the colorful craft markets with their slightly murderous glare in Cape Town. We even had a full day to wander around the unique ecosystem atop of Table Mountain, the remarkably flat-topped mountain whose base expands like tree roots thru the sidewalk that is coastal Cape Town.
Marie Conde
The lone producer of that group we visited in 2006 that was doing interesting work was Stark-Conde in the stunningly picturesque Jonkershoek Valley of Stellenbosch. They had painstakingly cultivated a new high altitude vineyard in their stubborn search for the right spot to produce the best examples of cabernet and syrah. I poured their syrah by the glass at Bouley Restaurant in NYC up until the end of my days there. The wine was delicate and spicy; a curious amalgam of the new and old world styles of syrah rolled into one. I also liked the Condes. Jose Conde, the winemaker and a fellow American, and his wife Marie, were both very bright and funny people. So it was no surprise that I sought to visit them again on my second trip to SA two weeks ago, and, to my pleasant surprise, was welcome to stay in the “Kato Kaelin Cottage” next to their home. They have a new red blend called “Lingen” which is crafted by Jose from a neighboring estate.
I used the cottage as a basecamp. I made trips to visit dozens of producers around Stellenbosch. The best of which, besides Stark-Conde and sleeping lion Quoin Rock led by Carl van der Merwe, was the innovative Winery of Good Hope. Alex Dale and Edouard Labeye are making terrific wines by remaining true to the fundamentals of the terroirs from which they select fruit. The wines, from chenin blanc and viognier to pinot noir and shiraz, are made in a decisively French tradition with lots of style and care. The Radford-Dale range is extremely smart, but unavailable in Oz due to an agreement with winemaker Ben Radford who makes riesling and shiraz in Eden Valley, Australia now under the name Radford Wines. Ben was an early collaborator with Alex Dale and the two are still friends. The Winery of Good Hope was one of the first of many wineries I would visit that were passionate about being distinct, impossible to find at night, and most importantly quality driven. You can’t help but like these guys. We ate tremendous steaks after the barrel tasting at nearby 96 Winery Road Restaurant, the unofficial HQ for wine luminaries, so they say.Jeanette Bruwer of Springfield Estate A two hour drive from Stellenbosch thru the baboon festooned Hugenot Tunnel lead me to Jeanette Bruwer at the family run Springfield Estate in mountain ringed Robertson. She was a great hostess, and paid particularly close attention to her trouble loving German and Swiss Shephards that followed along with us. The winery had a strong connection to the land, with a herd of Springbok penned up nearby, and the people who worked it, many of whom own their own homes. They were also one of the many organically farmed properties I came across. Sauvignon Blanc @ Springfield Farm labor is still inexpensive in SA, and predominately colored. Average wages were 1200 Rand per month or US$154.00. These lower labor prices, compared to Australia, for example, allow for more organic work to be done in the vineyard, for the hand picking of grapes, and for manning a sorting table at harvest while still turning a profit. The class system in SA is still in place. Springfield, nonetheless, seemed like a loving hommage to terroir in every sense of the word, and the staff there was happy and well looked after. Plus the rocky, schisty soils produced flinty, minerally sauvignon blancs that left the rest of the SA wine industry admirably wondering if something funny was happening in the winery. Most SA sauvignon blancs were big on green bell pepper flavors, not these. The Bruwer Family seemed to respect their positions as born stewards of their land and have helped the district of Robertson become a serious producer of fine wines, and not just wine grapes and apricots for the bulk market as it was in the past. Jeanette moved with an ease and patience that seemed to reflect the vibe of Springfield (and that she already exported all over the world)-it was a place where there’s no need to rush and where life is dealt with one dog at a time. Her brother, and winemaker, Abrie, is a small engine pilot and is known for leaving early on Friday to fly off to their weekender in Namibia.
Walker Bay
Over the weekend I headed to a wine show on Walker Bay highlighting the wines of the Overberg, a large area on the Southern Cape including Elgin, Hermanus, and Greyton to name a few. I made the two hour trip to Hermanus along False Bay admiring SA’s great ocean road hugging the side of Buffelstalberg Mountain. I had made contact with Peter Finlayson, the iconoclastic winemaker at Bouchard-Finlayson, one of SA’s best known pinot and chard producers, earlier in the week and he invited me to watch the South Africa vs. Australia Tri-Nation rugby match at his home in Hermanus on Walker Bay and to stay for dinner and the night. Peter Finlayson This was a big deal. I was at Newton Johnson winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley admiring their gravity fed cellars when I called Peter to find out where he was at. There was a silence on the other end of the phone when I said I was at Newton Johnson tasting a smoky Elgin pinot noir. He was at the Hermanus Wine Fair and said he’d meet me down the road at Bouchard-Finlayson in 5 minutes. I followed him to his home to watch rugby and was greeted by 3 other couples there, including his affable son, Peter-Allan. The match was won by South Africa, thankfully, and it raised the group’s spirits for the delicious feast to come. I was able to pick up a few pointers about rugby, but the biggest newsflash was a balanced chardonnay from Crystallum, a new negociant project from Peter-Allan Finlayson and his architect brother, Andrew. The wine tasted great and the pinot noir Crystallum made in 2008 called “Cuvee Cinema” was lithe and subtle, with good length. This will be one to watch, as was Peter’s face when someone pulled and opened a rare 2001 Bouchard-Finlayson pinot noir from the cellar during dinner. The Finlayson’s are in the process of building an eco-friendly straw bale (a la rammed-earth) constructed winery in a nature reserve off Walker Bay. At the end of the visit I think Peter Senior and I were getting along. He has a wry sense of humor, a keen photographic eye, and a great love for his country’s abundant wildlife. He and his goldsmith wife Geta, Harbour Gold, are great people and made my trip to the Overberg a rich and heady one. I look forward to seeing where our relationship heads.
Bouchard Finlayson 2001 pinot
Peter Allan Finlayson
The next night Geta Finlayson pointed me towards Ocean 11 guesthouse on Walker Bay. It was nice watching the whales jumping around breeding in the bay whilst lounging poolside. Security is tight, and there is always someone wandering along the trails on the coast keeping an eye on things. Which is an interesting point about SA. Colored folk greet you when you get out of your parked car in order to let you know they’re going to watch it for you. Same goes at a gas station; full service windshield wiping and gas pumping will cost you a few Rand (7 Rand to the dollar), no pressure, of course, but the look you get if you don’t cough up something is a bummer. It’s something the locals pay, since they may get a flat tire and need help out there, but as an outsider (and as a New Yorker) it seems bizarre. There are many mysteries surrounding these issues that I won’t delve into here. Don’t get me started about the people walking on the side of the road or the autobahn-like driving conditions. Suffice to say pedestrian road casualties are numerous in SA.
Lismore Wines, Greyton
On a completely different note, I met a very cool Californian winemaker at the Finlayson’s named Samantha O’Keefe. She single handedly runs the pioneering Lismore Estate that was the primary force in gaining recent appellation status for Greyton. Lismore makes finely etched viognier that could be a new benchmark for SA, as well as classy chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Sam O'Keefe:Brad HickeyThe vineyards are in a cool area and are still getting their roots down as Sam figures out the terroir’s demands, but the place will be one to watch. The home is grand and sits at the foothills of the Sonderend Mountains. I had a wine epiphany sitting on Lismore’s verandah taking in the mountainous landscape. Looking out over the newly planted vineyards, I was washed over by the immense amount of labor and passion that it takes to truly benefit from the proper choice of the best vines to thrive in a specific soil, on a completely individual site. The force of one’s will to grow something special on a completely indifferent mountain. The trial and error involved to find the right combination of plant and micro climate before even thinking about irrigation, or what barrels to use, or which labels will get across the right message is rigorous. Thoughts of Samantha’s story becoming a Dickensian novel crossed my mind. Bella and the Big FireI then proceeded to forget all about it as I shifted my focus to igniting a big log fire with large lion-hunting dogs lying next to me in the comfort of this beautiful homestead. Lismore is at the beginning of an epic journey. There is no finer setting for a wine estate in the world, although you can find yourself saying this many times traveling around South Africa’s winelands.
Lismore Estate, Greyton
From Greyton I zoomed up to Swartland on my final afternoon, north of Cape Town, at the end of my trip to taste Eben Sadie’s (2005 Sequillo or the 2006 Columella) and Adi Badenhorst’s (ex-Rustenberg) wines over a leek and chicken pie by the fire at Bar Bar Black Sheep in Riebeek-Kasteel. Southern Rhone style reds are coming out of this region in good to great quality. Badenhorst’s red was one week’s wages (US$50 or 350 Rand) for my waiter. “One week in that bottle there!” he exclaimed. I offered him a glass, but he declined. Mullineux Family is also a young operation (ex-Tulbagh Mt. Vineyards) that looks promising.
Bar Bar Black Sheep, Riebeek-Kasteel
I drove like Jehu from the Swartland, the swathe of cereal-growing fading fast behind me, to get to the airport in time to catch my 22 hour flight back to Australia. Strangely enough, I was happy to be heading home. Partially from a desire to get off the highway before I was involved in a collision and partially from a wicked cold building up in me from lack of sleep. I’d met a lot more people, driven a lot more kilometers, and tasted a lot more wines than I expected and can reasonably report about here. Safe to say that the South African wine industry is growing at a fast clip, and from the gang I met, it seems to be heading in the right directions: great values, rich diversity of styles, consistent vintages, terroir respect/exploration and organic farming to sustain it. All wrapped up with a bow by a group of headstrong, well-travelled winemakers at the helm. Today there seems to be a better awareness of what each vineyard is best at and smaller producers are daring to specialize in one or two wine styles. The slow but increasing focus on location in wine is the core to the evolution of a mature producing nation. The dogged question remains, unfortunately, how do we get those key tastemakers to jump on the bandwagon, as well? You can count me in, and with any luck in 2010 there should be a small army of these dynamite SA producers available in the US in time for the kick off of South Africa’s international debut as host of the World Cup.