Thu 15 Aug 2013

Swartland: South Africa’s Most Exciting Wine Region?

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Over the past decade, the pace of change in what is, literally and figuratively, South Africa’s hottest wine region has been difficult to fathom.

Vines in the Swartland

Chris and Andrea Mullineux

Chris and Andrea Mullineux

‘Not everyone’s caught up with what we’re doing,’ Swartland winemaker Chris Mullineux tells me over a tasting of he and his wife Andrea’s latest wines with Society buyer Jo Locke MW. ‘Even now, when I go into city wine merchants and say I’m a winemaker from the Swartland, sometimes I’ll be told they don’t like Swartland wines – they think I’m from the co-op; they still don’t know about us guys who’ve set up on their own.’

Others, however, are getting people up to speed: hugely positive reviews – from a South Africa cover feature in the self-consciously pulse-fingered Wine Spectator to Tim Atkin’s excellent recent article – are encouraging more and more people to take notice of this rugged patch of plains, rolling hills and mountains that begins some 50km north of Cape Town.

‘As a wine region, South Africa is starting to feel like a teen coming-of-age movie,’ said South African wine writer Harry Haddon (whose thoroughly entertaining blog is worth checking out) recently on jancisrobinson.com: ‘…it is as though someone has cued the montage… the odd kid is starting to gain some popularity.’

How does Swartland fit into the montage?

Like many a Hollywood plot, a thrilling and oddly serendipitous combination of elements is at work. Firstly, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the region’s incomparable resource of rediscovered old vines, capable of producing outstanding intensity of flavour and complexity.

Then there are the winemakers themselves. The vinous riches in the Swartland (available, for now, at far more attractive prices than land in the ritzier Stellenbosch, Walker Bay et al) have attracted the country’s brightest talents, including a fair share of vinous risk-takers and well-travelled autodidacts determined to do something different, exciting and innovative. Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Adi Badenhorst, Chris and Suzaan Alheit, and the astoundingly gifted Eben Sadie are among those making the most inspiring wines from grapes exclusively or in large part from old Swartland vineyards.

Eben Sadie

Eben Sadie

It is also well worth mentioning the refreshing spirit of co-operation among many of the winemakers. This is epitomised by the SIP (Swartland Independent Producers) group, which now includes some 24 of the 34 or so wineries in the area, making wines under a series of mutually approved guidelines in a truly collective spirit.

‘It’s all about the quality, and also the camaraderie – we’re not really a marketing body,’ explains Chris Mullineux. ‘We meet up fairly regularly to taste each other’s wines – just to share experience and knowledge, and hopefully lift the overall quality of the wines.’

Quite apart from the undoubted improvements this approach has produced, the marked departure from the cloak-and-dagger competitiveness seen in so many other regions is as conspicuous as it is inspiring.

'The winemakers are revolting'? Poster for The Swartland Revolution's 2013 event.

‘The winemakers are revolting’?! The poster for this year’s ‘Swartland Revolution’ event.

Their most successful marketing initiative hasn’t been anything as mundane as glossy brochures, trade tastings or the like; as it happens, it’s a party. The Swartland Revolution event started three years ago, with the curious and the captivated coming in greater numbers each year to taste, drink, eat and enjoy themselves in a flurry of tastings and Che Guevara t-shirts.

Anyone tempted to dismiss the unfettered creativity of the region as gimmicky is unlikely to have tasted the wines, the best of which share the lack of traditional constraint alongside the benefit of old-vine fruit and relatively hands-off, terroir-focused winemaking.

Rhône grapes thrive in the region’s accommodating soils, with syrah, grenache (red and white), cinsault, carignan, viognier and clairette all contributing star turns in the vineyards and blending rooms. Unlike so many of California’s ‘Rhône Rangers’, however, there is a delightful freshness so many of the wines, the heat of the region being tempered by altitude and, in some parts, proximity to the Atlantic. Chenin blanc and semillon are other calling cards, giving winemakers a significant pallet of varieties to choose from.

The Swartland Valley

A hat-trick of warm and relatively trouble-free vintages from 2009 to 2011 helped further quality. 2012 was more challenging, but while lower yields dictated the results were scarcer, ‘there’s fantastic richness and concentration,’ says Chris. Qualities that describe the region very well.

Whether the Swartland is indeed the most exciting of the Cape’s wine regions, of course, subjective. If you have yet to try anything from this region, though, I urge you to unburden yourself of any preconceptions about what South Africa’s wines are capable of. Indeed, in some ways it’s starting to feel like a cliché to tout the area’s ‘up-and-coming-ness’.

Then again, the thing about clichés is that they tend to be true.

Martin Brown
Digital Copywriter

Look out for The Society’s forthcoming South African offer at the end of this month, which will feature a section devoted to the Swartland, including Chris and Andrea Mullineux’s ‘Kloof Street’ red and white, a new exclusive release under ‘The Liberator’ label and wines from Adi Badenhorst, Painted Wolf and Boekenhoutskloof.

Categories : South Africa

Comments

  1. Gervase thomas says:

    We go every year, near Darling and always buy wines from Alexanderfontein, and Ormonde. We enjoy them very much.

  2. Jon Charley says:

    Having visited South Africa regularly for the last 25 years and often tasted wines from the Swartland region, the impression was that their wines were cheap and sometimes, not so cheerful. The climate however made it clear that with appropriate expertise and dedication there was enormous potential for the area to produce great wines. I’m glad that this has now been realised.

  3. Andelean says:

    I have recently re- located to the Swartland and live in Riebeeck Kasteel. Truly we are blessed. At Mooreesburg show I tasted the 2013 Riebeeck Kelders Chinin Blanc, what a wonderful wine.

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