The wine industry attracts eccentrics the way cliffs attract lemmings. Nothing else explains the way that otherwise intelligent people throw themselves headlong into a space whose defining characteristic is free-fall. After all, even the most cursory examination of the ground immediately below shows a landscape littered with the parched bones and rotting carcasses of those who have gone before them.
For those who need the investment, persuading people of means (and besotted with wine) that they need to put it into a foundering wine business brings to mind the nonsensical expression “as easy as falling off a log.” Falling off a log is easy – avoiding injury while doing so requires a degree of skill.
But here’s the thing. Very few of these enterprises go to the wall. Just as surprisingly, many of the punters who’ve exchanged their hard-earned loot for equity in a wine farm would happily do it all over again, despite balance sheets painted in red, and good money turned into sometimes mediocre bottles.
Occasionally the wayward eccentrics, passionate about wine and persuasive enough to bring partners on board, confound the odds and create real businesses. Even more rarely, they do so by making the kind of wines they dreamed about in their idealistic geeky days. It’s fair to say that Alex Dale may be the perfect business school case study for this kind of outcome.
He came to South Africa almost immediately after Nelson Mandela became president. His vision was shaped by the time he had spent living and studying in Burgundy. The Cape offered a brave new world, its nascent independent sector an open space cleared by the sheer momentum of the era.
Initially he settled at Longridge, where he also imported – perhaps with more enthusiasm than the market at the time could comfortably absorb – some of the most exciting European wines South Africa had seen. However, he soon set up the enterprise known today as Radford Dale. His focus was always on the Cape’s strengths, but with an important limitation. Given his Burgundian roots, he hardly strays into the realms of cabernet and merlot.
I recently tasted across the range of wines currently available from Radford Dale. Very few are mainstream in the way that well-made commercial wine presents itself. They are generally more textural than fruit driven, none have been visibly worked, and oak does not form a discernible part of their flavour or aromatic profile. However, they are not austere, nor are they, like many edgy wines, parsimony dressed up as a virtue.
The Vinum Chenin 2017, made with fruit sourced from two Stellenbosch vineyards both around 40 years of age, is earthy and pithy, with lovely mid-palate intensity and a flinty freshness. At 12.5% alcohol, it’s certainly not over-ripe. The 2017 Renaissance Chenin – pretty much the top of the Radford Dale range and selling at over R350 per bottle – delivers density and concentration on the palate rather than on the nose (or even at this stage, on the finish). Harvested from a single 50 year old vineyard, it is so far off its peak that even the release date has yet to be announced.
The 2017 Chardonnay is also worth tracking down: naturally fermented, it’s not been racked, nor stirred, nor overtly oaked. It’s so unshowy that it’s probably five years off passing from the blueprint stage to the three dimensional product. Once again, the hallmarks are reticence (11.5% alcohol), linearity, purity. As a Burgundian companion, the 2016 Freedom Pinot Noir 2016 is the one to go for: packed with pure cherry fruit of great concentration, it’s the wine to drink while you’re waiting for the Chardonnay to evolve.
There are other wines – a delicious Gamay, an intense yet restrained Rhone blend, an organic, no sulphur-added Syrah. They all reflect the same craft, the same absence of distraction. They also require an element of patience: it’s taken Dale 25 years to get to this point: deferred gratification is part of their DNA.