Oceanfront locations, older vines and terroir-driven philosophies are part of the appeal for these winemakers, redefining what they do
Although South Africa’s vinous heritage stretches back more than 350 years, we’re still considered a New World nation in the world of winemaking. While some may perceive this a snub, it’s actually a gift, a licence to innovate unshackled by the weight of history and the bureaucracy of onerous regulation. Instead, unhindered, a handful of maverick winemakers are pushing the boundaries of viticulture and oenology in a bid to discover new terroir, forcing us to rethink our connection with the vineyards.
The wild west
What comes to mind when you think of the Winelands? Verdant vineyards beneath-towering mountain peaks? An oak-lined driveway sweeping towards a stately Cape Dutch manor house? How about a wind-whipped coastline and barrels in a former crayfish-processing factory? That’s precisely what you’ll find at Fryer’s Cove, the lone winery in far-flung Bamboes Bay, 300km north of Cape Town. What began as a good (or was it crazy?) idea around the braai came to life in 1999 when Jan Ponk van Zyl and Wynand Hamman planted the first vines in their small vineyard between Doring Bay and Strandfontein. Both have decades of experience in the industry – Van Zyl as a large-scale grape farmer near Vredendal, Hamman as winemaker for Backsberg and Lanzerac – but Fryer’s Cove was a passion project for these two winemakers with deep roots in the region.
‘This was a hobby that turned into a dream,’ says Van Zyl, gazing over their four hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and two of Pinot Noir.
With the ocean just 800m from the vineyard, the sea breezes maintain perfectly cool temperatures for Pinot Noir, while the salty spray keeps vine mildew at bay and lends a distinct minerality to the Sauvignon Blanc. The cellar and tasting room are as dramatic as the vineyards: in 2010 a mothballed crayfish factory in Doringbaai’s old harbour was transformed into the Fryer’s Cove cellar. Today it’s one of the most memorable wineries in South Africa, the dramatic seafront location reminiscent of broody Scottish distilleries. And the wines? Past vintages of the Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc have scored well in the respected Platter’s Wine Guide, while the Doring Bay Sauvignon Blanc offers a well-priced, approachable taste of the West Coast. The Pinot Noir is also delicious, a blend of bright fruit and balanced minerality. fryerscove.co.za
Going it alone
To be a winemaker, conventional wisdom has long held that you need a large estate planted with vines, alongside a cellar fitted with tanks and barrels. If it’s all packaged up with a dollop of neat Cape Dutch heritage and charm, then so much the better. But that wisdom is changing. Some of the most exciting local wines are from winemakers with not a vine to their name, instead holding the (rented) keys to someone else’s multimillion-rand cellar. These négociant winemakers are free to shop around the Winelands for vineyards that suit their winemaking vision, with no need to invest millions in a private cellar. It’s perhaps an unconventional approach to the industry, but then the wines speak for themselves. Trizanne Barnard taps into grapes from both Elim and the Swartland for her acclaimed range of Trizanne Signature Wines. Duncan Savage, long famous for cool-climate white wines while cellar master at Cape Point Vineyards, has released remarkable reds under his own label Savage Wines, with grapes drawn from the Piekenierskloof to the Cape Peninsula. At Fram wines, Thinus Krüger taps into vineyards from Citrusdal (Pinotage) to Robertson (Chardonnay) for his notable ‘wines of exploration’. Time for wine-lovers to join the journey? trizanne.co.za; savagewines.com; framwines.co.za
‘Over time the vine grows into balance’ –
Andre Morgenthal, Old Vine Project
Here be dragons?
As winemakers strive to capture a unique sense of place in each bottle, it’s little wonder that adventurous cellar masters are searching for the blank spaces on South Africa’s viticultural map. Whether it’s the availability of affordable land or the prospect of dabbling in unusual climates and soil types, winemakers are exploring new frontiers. In KwaZulu-Natal, Abingdon Estate outside Howick is crafting some particularly fine Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, while in the hills around Knysna and Plettenberg Bay sun-seeking tourists are pleasantly surprised to discover the wonderful Méthode Cap Classique and Sauvignon Blanc from Bramon Wine Estate. In the Southern Cape, there are also interesting moves afoot. Since the first vines were planted on the windy plains near Cape Agulhas in 1996, the most southerly vineyards in Africa are turning out excellent white and red wines. Bordeaux-style white blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are the stars here, but Rhône-style red blends also excel in this cool and windy wine ward. Black Oystercatcher is particularly known for its white blends, while nearby Strandveld Vineyards produces Sauvignon Blanc and red wines. Winemaker Conrad Vlok has a deft touch with both Pinot Noir and Syrah, showing plenty of cool-climate spice and pepper, while The Navigator – which adds Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier to the blend – honours the region’s nautical heritage.
Strandveld Vineyards, near the historic mission village of Elim, boasts the most southerly vineyards in Africa. Look out for the acclaimed Pofadderbos single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, an impressive combination of texture and intensity. Their reds are no slouch either: The Navigator is a spicy blend of Rhône cultivars that pays homage to the sailors of yore who navigated their way around the southern tip of Africa.
Not far off, Stellenbosch winemaker David Trafford is also breaking new ground with Sijnn Vineyards. Set halfway between Swellendam and the coast, near the Breede River hamlet of Malgas, it was the pebbly soils here that first caught Trafford’s eye. ‘Wine is about the only type of agriculture where, for the highest quality, you want poor soils,’ explains Trafford, who says the area reminded him of the iconic French region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In deference to the harsh climate, Trafford is focusing on Mediterranean cultivars such as Syrah and Assyrtiko. abingdonestate.co.za; bramonwines.co.za; strandveld.co.za; blackoystercatcher.co.za; sijnn.co.za
South Africa’s winemaking heritage may stretch back more than three centuries, but until fairly recently the industry’s farmers and winemakers weren’t much bothered by exploring the potential of wines from old vines. Yields plummet after 20 years, so why keep an old vineyard producing only a few tonnes per hectare in the ground, when vigorous new vines can push out 15 or 20 tonnes of quality grapes from the same patch of land. Balance and complexity is the answer, and while the costs of working with old vines are considerably higher than high-yielding younger vineyards, winemakers of the calibre of Eben Sadie, Chris Alheit, Andrea Mullineux and Adi Badenhorst are some of the maverick winemakers realising – and releasing – the potential of old vines. ‘A young vine is like an immature person,’ explains Sadie, whose Old Vine Series sets the bar for old vine wines in South Africa. ‘But then life batters you down a bit.Life is slowly but surely sanding you down into a smoother, more rounded individual. It happens just the same to a young vine.’ ‘Over time the vine grows into balance,’ explains Andre Morgenthal who, with viticulturist Jaco Engelbrecht, is spearheading the Old Vine Project, a remarkable undertaking begun by viticulturist Rosa Kruger in 2003.
Their lofty goal is to catalogue South Africa’s 2 600 hectares of vines older than 35 years – the local threshold for ‘old vines’ – and help keep them in the ground by matching winemakers with farmers. For oenophiles, this can only be good news. Taste the remarkable single vineyard wines in Sadie’s Old Vine Series. Try the Cape of Good Hope Semillon and Pinotage from Anthonij Rupert Wines. Sample the Optenhorst Chenin Blanc from Bosman Family Vineyards or the Camino Africana from David Finlayson’s Edgebaston Winery. In common? They’re each made from old vineyards, some close on a century old. And all would be threatened by the farmer’s plough unless proud winemakers saw the potential of their deep roots in South African soils. thesadiefamily.com; rupertwines.com; bosmanwines.com; edgebaston.co.za Fruit from coastal vineyards, like these near Elim, are increasingly sought-after by winemakers further afield. While the likes of Strandveld Vineyards and Black Oystercatcher have put down roots on the Agulhas Plain, vintners from Stellenbosch to Franschhoek to the Cederberg are increasingly sourcing grapes from cooler wine-making regions Opposite, clockwise from top left: Stellenbosch stalwart David Trafford has pioneered winemaking on the banks of the coastal reaches of the Breede River with his terroir-driven wines from Sijnn; at The Drift outside Napier, Bruce Jack plays with unusual cultivars such as Tannat and Barbera; a visit to the new tasting room at Sijnn, coupled with a stop at the Elim wineries, makes for a captivating coastal wine tour.
Credits: Photos: Richard Holmes and Supplied, Text: Richard Holmes