It’s no secret that I’m some distance from being a Swartland groupie. While there are some very good wines from this recently re-discovered treasure trove of generally older vines, and many of the country’s most adventurous young winemakers have made the region a home base, the appellation alone provides no guarantee of great wine.
The Swartland (which, for purposes of this discussion, includes the Voor-Paardeberg) owes much of its current status to Eben Sadie. He began his career in 1998 at the newly established Spice Route winery (owned at the time by Charles Back, John Platter, Gyles Webb and Jabulani Ntshangase) near Malmesbury. When he moved on a few years later to start what in time became Sadie Family Vineyards (now widely regarded as one of the country’s top 5 cellars), he made the region the focus of his grape sourcing. As his fame spread, so the reputation of the Swartland grew.
Other new generation winemakers, struck as much by the wines he was making as the visibility he was achieving, arrived to seek out their own blocks of old vines. Their commitment to fruit authenticity and minimal intervention winemaking added altitude to the region’s profile and momentum to their ‘natural wine’ movement. When Steven Spurrier (of Judgement of Paris fame) and Jancis Robinson came to South Africa to judge the 2007 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, the one area they earmarked for a visit was this new frontier.
Adi Badenhorst migrated from Stellenbosch to Kalmoesfontein in about 2005. When the Chris and Andrea Mullineux left Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards to start their own venture, the Swartland became their natural destination – and their winning the Platter Guide Winery of the Year Award last November continued to add to its already substantial cachet. Perhaps more so than any other appellation in South Africa, the region is dependent on the profile and the personalities of its front-runners.
Still, there is no doubt that the reason that some the Cape’s most independent-minded and creative cellar-masters settled on the area was the ready access to long-established dry-land vineyards. Unirrigated bush-vines, thirty to forty years old, were in relatively abundant supply – a unique situation, considering also the proximity to Cape Town. The value of old vine fruit is that it can deliver greater flavour intensity, especially when the vines have been forced – through the absence of irrigation – to develop deep root systems.
Before Sadie made the region his home, most Swartland farmers sold their grapes to the local co-op or to a couple of the wholesalers. They were paid such derisory amounts that they could hardly afford to replant their vineyards. They were obviously willing to consider any better offer. For many of these start-ups, ready sellers of concentrated small berry fruit obviated the need to invest in land or to establish vineyards. It’s not difficult to see the attraction.
But some – admittedly better capitalised – players have also begun to plant vines and to develop real wine estates. Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof has been doing this at Porseleinberg since 2009, followed in 2010 by Irishman Edwin Doran (in partnership with Adi Badenhorst’s father Andre – the man who played a key role in the renaissance of Constantia.) Whereas Kent is intent on creating a site-specific single vineyard wine pretty much from scratch, Doran is making use of existing vineyards while establishing his new plantings.
So far he seems to be doing most things right. He has a delicious 2012 old vine Chenin Blanc, one of the most exciting new release Shirazes (from the 2012 vintage) I’ve tasted this year and a Bordeaux blend (The Romy D 2012) which delivers balance and freshness instead of the more customary mule-kick. Of course it’s early days – but with three thoughtfully-made wines from one vintage at a new venture, even the most cynical among us would have to concede there’s more to this than the luck of the Irish.