South African rockers

Thursday, 01 March 2018 08:01

After journeying the country for two weeks and tasting hundreds of wines at one of South Africa’s most prestigious competitions, the spirit of the country’s wine scene pervaded our senses with renewed freshness and vitality.

Some people claim that South African wines have one foot in the Old World and the other in the New World. The country’s winemaking tradition is certainly long –the first vines were introduced by the Dutch in 1659– but it is only during the last decade that the true revolution began, with more than 40% of all vineyards replanted in an effort to ensure the best terroir for each variety. But without doubt, the greatest change has been at the emotional level: growers are now instilled with a renewed sense of pride and the new generations are not afraid of shaking the scene with wines that are unique, loud and unmistakably modern.

Since the arrival of the Huguenots in the second half of the 17th century, South Africa has looked at France as the winemaking model to follow, with some very welcome contributions by German and Italian immigrants. With a mediterranean climate and a landscape dominated by Chenin Blanc, the country’s wines used to feel ripe and woody. But today’s offerings are not only livelier and more varied; the search for fresher wines of richer personality is almost frantic, planting in more extreme areas, harvesting much earlier than the founding fathers, and exploring the age-old soil (some of the rock formations are more than a billion years old) to create a new, colorful and compelling identity.

Since the return to democracy in 1994, the old stereotypes have faded and the Atlantic winds have brought on fresh air to the Afrikaner winegrowing culture. Gone are the bureaucratic rules that chained wine production, such as the prohibition to sell wines with AO that were not “estate bottled” or the hegemonic tyranny of the large wine cooperatives. This new freedom has attracted new actors (and new investments) to an industry that relies less and less on predictable reviews but instead on new sensations that can make critics jolt out of their seats.

A COASTAL PARADISE

As soon as we leave the airport, we rush towards Hermanus, an old fishing village turned into a cosmopolitan resort and one of the defining spots for the new generation of South African wines. With a tall range of mountains along the coast, the area has become a hotbed for reinvented classical French varieties, especially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Today, its wines compete on an equal footing with the best wineries of Stellenbosch, but without the burden of tradition and the responsibility of carrying the fame of South African wines, thus giving them ample room for non-prejudiced experimentation.

Proceeding with our journey, we spend the night at a beautiful cottage in Hemelrand surrounded by ancient olive trees, vineyard espaliers and columns of lavender and rosemary. In this fragrant corner, where the sea breeze moderates the scorching effects of the sun, we tasted some of the New World’s best Pinot Noirs in the company of Peter Finlyson, a true South African legend and a pioneer in this valley. Planting his first vines in 1990, he marked a turning point and “stirred the envy of Stellenbosch producers”. Not only did he prove that he could produce Pinot Noirs of great fruitiness and freshness, but also that he could endow them with profound elegance. “I do not believe in showcasing my wines, but in making them drinkable,” he says.

In fact, as a condition to buy the property, the current owners of the Bouchard Finayson winery (the Tollman family) demanded that Peter remain as head of winemaking. And their bet is already bearing fruit. We tasted some incredible Pinot Noirs –especially a 2001 vintage that is aging beautifully with its juicy notes of raspberries, mushrooms and dry leaves– as well as savory Chardonnays, white blends and a very daring Hannibal 2015, which combines such dissimilar varieties as Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Shiraz, Barbera and Mourvèdre.

The wineries that flank the winding highway have different winemaking and commercial philosophies, but they all share an uncompromising passion for quality. The only thing they have not agreed on is the name. The appellation is called Hemelen-Aarde (Heaven and Earth), but instead of pushing together towards recognition, producers have divided it into four sub-appellations, competing for which winery is higher than the rest: Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Sunday’s Glen and Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

In the case of the young Creation winery, the managing winemaker Jean-Calude Martin and his wife Carolyn (Peter’s niece) decided to retain the Hermanus appellation in the labels. The ultra modern concept blends art, winemaking, haute cuisine and wine tourism to showcase the couple’s wines, especially their very well-achieved Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. The Art of Pinot 2014 is a true work of art, especially if accompanied by Carolyn’s fantastic pairings, like an incredible brioche with maple syrup and smoked duck magret with mushroom chips.

The valley is always busy. This weekend, most wineries are open to visitors who come in by the hundreds for some wine tasting or a family lunch at one of the wineries’ restaurants. This is the case of La Vierge, which offers such unsanctified names as Nymphomane, or Newton Johnson, which produces one of South Africa’s best Sauvignon Blancs together with some eccentricities like Albariño and a great Pinot Noir that reflects the valley’s different mesoclimates and soil types –from chalky to gravel to decomposing granite– under the labels Walker Bay, Family Vineyards, Felicité, Seadragon, Block 6, Mrs. M, and Windansea.

The area between Walker Bay and the Kogelberg Nature Reserve is the calving ground for whales, a phenomenon that has inspired all wineries to commit themselves with biodiversity. Whaleheaven, for example, is located at the valley entrance and combines the production of classy Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs with whale protection efforts. Through its Conservation Coast brand, “we try to capture the untouched nature of this idyllic coastal strip,” says owner Silvana Bottega.

A CHIC VALLEY

Our rented car takes us up a steep mountain range towards the Franschhoek Valley and the homonymous town that boasts Huguenot architecture and the exquisite touch that only the French can imprint, with many diamond shops, native handicraft stores and upscale restaurants.

Driving into Franschhoek can be risky, as baboons cross the highway out of nowhere. These animals can indeed be very dangerous, for they not only eat ripe grapes (they have undermined the production of some of South Africa’s best sweet wines) but also because they often show aggressive behavior.

From the terrace of the Boekenhoustskloof winery, we spot a very large baboon (dogs are barking their lungs out) while the winemaker Marc Kent opens some of the region’s most famous wines. They started in 1996 with 6,000 bottles. Today, sales have soared to over 7 million, mostly thanks to the success of The Chocolate Block, a wine born in Swartland that blends 1,551 barrels of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier. “In South Africa you have to apologize for your success,” he says with an ironic smile.

With vineyards of his own since 2009 and lots of gadgets in the cellar, which include concrete vats made by Cheval Blanc, Marc uses grapes sourced primarily from Franschhoek and Swartland to produce jewels like his delicate Semillon 2015 from vines planted in 1902 and fermented in concrete eggs, and a 2004 vintage made without malolactic fermentation to avoid having to adjust acidity while retaining its lively and vibrant character despite the years in the bottle.

Marc also makes an extraordinary Cabernet Sauvignon from the vineyard closest to the winery, which he uses exclusively for enhancing some of his blends, as he does not want to lose his focus: to be the greatest Shiraz specialist in all of South Africa. Proof of that is Porseleinberg 2015, a finely crafted wine of outstanding firmness and freshness.

The valley is also home to Le Lude, one of the most famous sparkling wine houses, where we tasted some great examples like Prestige 2012, an elegant blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, of which only 300 bottles were made. According to winemaker Paul Gerber, the Pinot Noir produced here is not very elegant. “It is riper and you can feel the sun. But Chardonnay is something else. My wife is jealous of all the time I dedicate to this variety,” says this former math teacher and rugby player with winemaking experience in France and Germany.

Franschhoek is a luxury district that has received multi-million investments in recent years, such as Mullineux & Leeu. This is a place of captivating beauty where wineries share the landscape with flowers and sculptures, with two separate projects managed by Chris and Andrea Mullineux. Chris has a degree in Finance from the University of Stellenbosch, while Andrea studied Enology at UC Davis. The couple met at a festival in Champagne and their love for wine took them back to South Africa.

In partnership with different investors for each one of the projects, they vinify really impressive wines from various origins, highlighting the soil types in each label, such as Mullineux Schist Chenin Blanc, Granite Syrah, Schist Syrah and Iron Syrah.

FLOWERS IN THE DESERT

We take the highway again and whizz through a winding road that leads to the Swartland appellation – the Far West of South Africa– and its ochre landscape peppered with old green ungrafted vineyards. During the last decade, this dry-farmed area has regained its value and is now the epicenter of innovative experimentation projects.

This is also the birthplace of the Swartland Independent Producers association, which has a clear mission statement: to produce wines from ungrafted mediterranean varieties, without irrigation or intervention whatsoever, like the use of commercial yeast strands, manoproteins, dilution processes or de-alcoholization (reverse osmosis). In other words, wines that are as natural as possible.

We soon arrive in the David & Nadia property. Established in 2010, the winery produces some of the most interesting Chenin Blancs of the new South African wine scene. Despite the warm climate, the wines are surprisingly elegant and juicy. Without vineyards of their own, the couple rents an old winemaking facility. Determined to settle down in South Africa, they made a bet for life: “Enough. We will spend the rest of our lives in Swartland,” said Nadia Sadie.

In this cellar they vinify Chenin Blanc of incredible purity, along with Semillon, Pinotage, Grenache and some peculiar blends like Aristargos (Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Semillon, Roussanne and Clairette Blanche) and Elpidios (Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache and Pinotage). “If we ever buy a vineyard, we will continue to source grapes from different origins. We believe in blends. In fact –jokes Nadia– we disagree on almost everything else except on our blends.”

A few kilometers away is The Sadie Family Wines, where we are greeted by Eben Sadie himself, who is well-known for saying colorful sentences like: “The problem with the New World is not poverty, but the lack of vision. Europeans are not the fossils, we are.” Or “I do not watch TV. I do not read the paper or magazines. My only focus is wine.”

Established in Paardeberg with his family, he gives us a tour of his new plantations that include varieties from different corners of the world, like Grenache, Assyrtiko, Aglianico and Carignan. “Many of these cultivars have not been recognized by the South African legislation yet. The legal process takes an eternity, and I simply do not have the time,” he explains.

In Swartland, he says, they make wine in the desert. The climate is very dry and the wind is strong. But he does not believe in irrigation. It is simply not part of his terroir concept. Instead, he believes in the differences between vintages. That is why in the new plantations he uses a system developed in Israel to create a shield around the vine that captures sunlight and channels water while preventing weed growth. After three years, the device is removed to avoid depleting the soil. “We must protect the microflora,” he adds.

Mr Sadie says he got tired of airplanes. He only takes one from time to time to go surfing somewhere. He hasn’t been to the UK for five years now, but next October he will have to travel at the insistence of his importer, but “I am essentially going to surf in Portugal. All our wine sells in just 3 days. I am politically incorrect, so it would be a disaster if I got involved,” he says.

His stance on life is much more relaxed now. It has been a while since he left critics dumbstruck with his impertinent wines. Today he tends towards a happy compromise where he can feel comfortable without having to listen to anyone. “Extremes are the result of a faulty state of mind. Use 100% new oak if you want to get 100 points. Make some natural wines if you want to attract lots of girlfriends. I stopped making perfect wines. I have become resilient to critics’ reviews,” he affirms.

His winery is packed with all sorts of gadgets to make wines of overwhelming personality. Today, he produces 60,000 bottles (too much, he points out) using a vinification system that seems all too simple: Introverted wines go to the concrete eggs, where contact surface is larger. Donald Trump wines, as he calls them, go to the amphorae. And when asked why his amphorae have such dissimilar sizes, he answers bluntly and simply: “The artisan promises they will all be the same size. Then he smokes a joint and says that clay speaks to him,” he jokes.

We then taste some of his latest harvests: Soldaat 2016 (Grenache Noir from 50-year old vines and fermented in old casks and concrete vats); Columella 2014 (a mixture of 8 vineyards of Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault fermented in casks and tanks); Kokerboom 2016 (a co-fermented blend of Semillon Gris and Semillon Blanc fermented in wood casks for 8 months. “This is the most serious wine I make,” he says); T’Voetpad 2016 (made from a vineyard planted in 1887 that combines Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Palomino and Muscat, vibrant and nervous from beginning to end); Mev Kirsten 2011 (Chenin Blanc from a vineyard planted in 1905, which smells like grandma’s old closet. I just loved it); and the famous Palladius 2015 (a true folly made with Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Verdejo).

Eben then takes us to his neighbor and friend Adi Badenhorst. Established in 2008, AA Badenhorst Family Wines grows 40 hectares and produces 200,000 bottles of Chenin Blanc. The terroir reflects the house’s style very naturally. Here everything seems very spontaneous. Wines are shiny, light, festive and lovable. “My wines are more austere and imperfect,” says Adi.

We are invited to taste AA Badenhorst Sout van die Aarde Palomino 2016 (a wine of vibrant acidity); Family White Blend 2015 (made with nothing less than 13 varieties and vinified in wooden casks and tanks. “This was our first wine, this is where it all began”, says Adi); The Golden Slopes Chenin Blanc 2016 (a wine of great character and personality); Ramnasgras Cinsault 2016 (a very pristine and fruity wine loaded with red fruits); and Raaigrass Grenache 2016 (the wine that embodies the future of this region, vinified informally but with absolute respect for the variety).

Adi’s wines not only represent the spirit of Swartland, but also the more refreshing, honest and attractive side of South African wines. The story is just beginning, but it is already a success, as reflected by Adi’s response to the comments of a wine critic:

“The Springboks score today looked like my last CWG rating from Miguel Chan! The review reads like the match report – bitter, unstable in the set-phases, flat on defense, lean on attack, no style, scoreline flattering.” Impressions about South African wines."