SOUTH AFRICA: Christine Austin reports on the creation of a piece of the Rhône Valley in Swartland.
Stéphane is the latest generation of his family to cultivate plots of vines in the northern Rhône, from Condrieu to Côte Rôtie, but it was only in recent years that Stéphane and his father, Michel, have moved away from the local co-operative to market their wines under the family name. And it is a great move. These are wines that consistently score 90-plus points from Parker and other commentators.
As Stéphane talked about his wines, in a lofty tent pitched in the middle of a wine region, I began to understand the complexities of making good Rhône wines – attention to details, matching grape to the right soil and allowing the wine to express the terroir and climate rather than the skill of the winemaker.
Côte Rôtie wines showed depth and real concentration with silky, elegant tannins, in particular 2007 which was still quite stiff with dense, savoury fruit and structuring tannins, while the special plot of Côte Rôtie Lancement 2007 produced extraordinary wines, complex, long, precise, and shot through with liquorice and meaty, savoury flavours.
With prices heading northwards of £40 (Halifax Wine Company) for the regular Côte Rôtie, and £80 for the Lancement (Berry Bros), this was an exercise in finding out just how good wine can be when the grapes are really top quality.
The whites were equally good, showing that both reds and whites can be made in the same areas, with Viognier and Rousanne gathering intense fruit without losing the essential acidity needed for a balanced wine.
But this tasting did not take place in the Rhône – I wasn’t even in France. The lofty tent was pitched on a stretch of green grass in the middle of the Swartland, which is turning out to be South Africa’s up-and-coming wine region.
The reason for Stéphane’s presence in South Africa that day is because Swartland shares many of the characteristics that create some of the Rhône’s finest wines. The soil is complex with granite, clay, slate and river shale creating individual pockets for different varieties; the climate is hot during the day but a cooling breeze spreads over the region in the afternoon; and there is enough distance between the Swartland and the manicured vineyards of Stellenbosch to feel that this is the pioneering, Wild West of wine growing.
The revolution started some years ago when wine producer Charles Back, of Fairview, saw the potential of the Swartland region and created the wine brand, Spice Route, using grapes from old vines that struggled to grow in these dry, shallow soils. The wine became a success, offering deep complex flavours and layers of spice, wrapped up in amazingly ripe fruit.
The winemaker on this project was Eben Sadie, and in addition to his Spice Route work, this ambitious young winemaker managed to fit in some work on his own wines in a corner of the shed which was the rudimentary winery.
After a couple of years, Eben left the Spice Route project, with 14 barrels of wine, very little capital and Charles Back’s blessing. He set up his own winery, making individual hand-crafted wines such as his dark, chocolate and spice-driven Syrah-Mourvèdre blend, Columella (£43.99 Harrogate Fine Wine), which is consistently rated as one of South Africa’s top wines. There is also a white, Palladius, a Chenin Blanc-based wine shot through with Viognier, Grenache and other varieties.
Eben has always travelled to make wine in different corners of the globe, and even with his own project he continues to do so, now making his own wine in Priorat, in Spain. This gives his a wider view of winemaking than many other producers, and he inspires confidence, especially in other winemakers who have followed his lead into Swartland.
Adi Badenhorst used to be the winemaker at Rustenberg and he made a significant contribution to the quality of their wines, but now he has set up on his own with 60 hectares of farmland on the Paardeberg, near Malmesbury, in the Swartland region. With 30 hectares of vines planted on rolling hillsides, he is making wines that are forward-looking, but in an old-fashioned, hand-made way.
“I use very basic winemaking,” says Adi. “Whole bunch pressing, half-a-day settling and natural fermentation. The natural yeasts mean that they have to dig deep into their souls and metabolic pathways to produce a different range of flavours than added, commercial yeasts.” Clearly Adi is an evangelical winemaker. “After 12 months in oak, I just blend the barrels, without making a barrel selection, mainly because I find that my winemaking philosophy is guided by my financial circumstances,” he says with his trademark grin.
Adi Badenhorst makes Secateurs White 2010 from Chenin Blanc, grown on his own and his neighbour’s land, and it is a creamy, toasty, honeysuckle wine, densely textured and long (mail order, around £10 Swig 0800 272272).
There is also a Secateurs Red 2009, which gathers together herbs, spice and fresh juicy fruit and delivers them in a seamless, ripe, delicious blend of flavours.
For a real treat, trade up to the fresh-tasting complex, pepper and aniseed Badenhorst Family Red 2007, (£24, also Swig) which is on its way to becoming one of South Africa’s great wines.
Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst are not the only pioneers in Swartland, and there are many other winemakers whose wines I tasted while I was in the region. But establishing a market for new wines from a new region is difficult which is how ‘The Liberator’ has come into being. Made from parcels of wine, which have been made but not sold, these wines have been blended by a Master of Wine and liberated from their tanks to find a niche here.
You won’t know exactly what is in the wine, where it has come from, or even the vintage, because they are known as episodes rather than vintages, but the quality is extraordinary.
The white seems to be Chenin based, definitely barrel- aged, but nutty, complex, silky and tasting of honeysuckle while the red is Grenache-based, full of vibrant fruit with deep, complex flavours at its heart.
At £12.99 each, these are bargain wines that have to hide their true identity but the quality is definitely in the glass.
Available at Harrogate Fine Wine (01423 522270) and at Yorkshire Vintners (01765 601701). These are the first signs of the quality revolution in Swartland.