Grapevine Archive for Swartland
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
Great because verticals are always instructive; this one was educational and fun in equal measure.
Great because the man himself was in inspirational form. Once met, never forgotten!
Great because all the wines were good, and several superbly, deliciously so. Wine journalist Jamie Goode was, with me, one of the small group of lucky tasters, and you’ll find his excellent photos as well as a short video on his blog. My stars coincided well with Jamie’s – 2004, 2005, 2008, and probably 2009 (just a bit early for this one, not yet released), but I had a soft spot for the first vintage he made (and we bought), the 2000, which was the most Rhône-like, ready for drinking but no haste required, and for the 2002, which was full of charm and was likened, at least in spirit and drinkability, to 1997 Bordeaux.
Great because the venue was fun too (Vinoteca, St John St, Smithfield, a regular wine trade haunt). Their downstairs tasting room was a bit cramped for all those keen wine enthusiasts, but absolutely nobody gave this minor detail a thought, such was the focus in the room. The food is absolutely delicious too, if a little unfair on the subsequent tasting of Portuguese wines I attended (more on which anon).
Great because these were South African wines that wowed the crowd. My personal interest and belief here is well-known, but it is always a pleasure to witness much deserved recognition, in this case for winemaker and for South Africa alike, and for Swartland in particular.
The only downside to the whole affair is that we did not keep back any stock. More fool us. So I’ve put in my bid for some 2008, the current release, which will be well worth saving up for.
Joanna Locke MW
South Africa Buyer