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Why South Africa Is One of the Most Exciting Wine Regions in the World

Mullineux Vineyards in Swartland

Mullineux Vineyards in Swartland. All images by Lauren Mowery

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Lurching forward, rocking back, the black Jeep fought for purchase on the jagged rocks and loose soil of the Paardeberg mountain slope. Perched on the edge of the leather seat, I grasped the roll bar above me to avoid swaying into my co-passenger’s lap. Four adults had squeezed into the barely three-person rear of the vehicle as rides into the eucalyptus forest, our destination that evening, were scarce.

The Jeep continued climbing parallel to a vineyard studded with waist-high, twisted, thick trunks. Old bush vines, clearly, given their knobby appearance and the vineyard owner’s penchant for working with them. We had alighted just above the A.A. Badenhorst Kalmoesfontein Farm, the site of the Badenhorst family’s annual harvest party, and the vintage had just concluded. As dusk descended, the Jeep’s driver, a harvest intern at the nearby Mullineux farm, snagged a shadowy spot cast by two towering trees. Getting out of the car, I was enveloped in glowing pinpoints of light. Dust particles suspended in the late summer air sparkled with the last of the waning sun’s luminosity, setting the tone for the dreamlike night ahead.

I found myself tagging along to the party after working a few weeks of the 2015 vintage in South Africa this February. The Paul Cluver winery in Elgin (a cool-climate region southeast of Cape Town) was my station, but after the stint concluded, I’d scurried northwest by two hours in time to catch the precious ride I’d sourced via email through stateside South African wine importer Pascal Schildt. Rumors about previous years’ antics — all-night alcohol-fueled debauchery — coupled with a few outsiders’ impressions of Swartland as an ego-driven, insular community, left me feeling vaguely like an interloper crashing the clandestine celebration of a wine-worshipping cult. Whatever I would find, my goal lay less in rallying with strangers in the inky darkness of the South African woods, than in seizing the opportunity to encounter a multitude of the region’s vinous visionaries in one spot, even if they’d likely be plastered.

While Swartland’s winemakers are not actual members of a cult, they do fervently profess to abide by a common ethos: to sustainably produce transparent, terroir-driven wines with natural ferments and indigenous yeast. And those wines have ignited a cult-like following, with Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wine, as the early de facto leader, soon joined by cheeky, charismatic Adi Badenhorst. Sadie’s study in syrah and mourvedre, blended to produce his now-legendary Columella (first vintage in 2000), first galvanized interest and investment in the region.

Swartland begins around 35 miles north of Cape Town, along with a creeping shift in scenery and terrain. It’s a hot, dry place with low rainfall and poor soils like schist and granite, once known for bulk production; vines planted decades ago in a burst of experimentation were practically forgotten as the fine wine industry moved on to focus firmly on Bordeaux-style blends in Stellenbosch or Franschhoek. Driving through its wide dusty expanse dotted distantly with golden, wheat bearing hills and rocky outcroppings, Swartland reminded me of a frontier region left to the devices of pioneers and ranchers, and evoked the last untrammeled enclaves of rural California.

Thus, the apparent chasm between Swartland’s wine producers and those of the rest of the Western Cape is not defined by miles, but by their collective outlook and ability to see opportunity in the region’s uniquely challenging growing conditions. Plus, they are imbued with an anti-commercial spirit (although prove shrewd at branding and pricing, which may strike outsiders as philosophically incongruous, perhaps explaining a measure of Swartland-directed enmity). With land priced much more economically than elsewhere, a likeminded set of younger, intrepid winemakers decamped for it, many seeking to plant new vines while rescuing some of the country’s oldest fruit — e.g., chenin, grenache — from demise by cash-strapped farmers on the brink of ripping out the low-yielding plants. The wines’ styles are largely unaltered; for example, producers eschew robust new French oak treatment (which requires money anyway) in favor of natural, balanced expressions that articulate the secrets shared between dirt and vine.

SwartlandMullineuxVineyards2.jpg

Loire (chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc), Rhone (syrah, grenache, viognier), plus Spanish and Portuguese varieties as well as South Africa’s hallmark pinotage, exemplify the diversity of plantings. Blends, especially for whites like Andrea and Chris Mullineux’s fragrant and full-bodied clairette, chenin, and viognier, and single vineyard expressions, such as their granite-based syrah, are a focus of production.

Swartland’s self-described “revolution” (actualized by an annual party in November celebrating the people and their wines), has spurred newfound international attention on the country as a whole. A rising tide lifts all boats, helping to spotlight the growing ranks of cutting edge producers hailing from other areas like Hemel-en-Aarde, Bot River, Elgin, and even a few newer projects in Stellenbosch. There has never been a more exciting time for South African wine, especially for American drinkers who now have access to them.

As for the rest of that moonlit night in the eucalyptus forest, what happened in Swartland, will stay in Swartland, although a highlight I can comfortably reveal was the sunglass-donning, cherub boy fountain urinating gin for self-serve G&Ts. I also discovered an eclectic, cautiously hospitable group of winemakers (shock that a New Yorker had made it to their remote party was a recurring conversational theme), who had developed a fierce sense of community. To move there, farm, and make wine paradoxically strengthens one’s independence while fostering dependence on one’s neighbors; such an endeavor will inevitably cultivate strong bonds.

Here are ten South African producers to watch (all available in NYC):

Mullineux, Swartland. White Blend ’13, $30. Husband and wife team. She’s originally from California. All of their wines are fantastic, from the entry-level Kloof Street label, to their high-end soil studies through chenin and syrah. White blend is one of their richer wines at a lower price point. It’s redolent of flowers, apples, and hay. Broad but focused. (Importer: Kysela)

Three Foxes Project, Swartland. Clairette ’13, $29. Joint project between importer Pascal Schildt, his brother, and Chris Mullineux. Made from 70-year-old dry farmed grapes rescued from destruction. A textural wine from skin contact, it’s bright, citrusy, and low-alcohol. (Importer: Pascal Schildt)

Fram, Swartland. Chardonnay ’14, $15. Young guy also making killer chenin, syrah, and pinotage at accessible price points. This chardonnay, the fruit sourced from Robertson, not Swartland, exhibits an unusual intensity of tropical perfume for the variety. Full of pineapple, ripe pears, guava notes, it’s surprisingly clean and refreshing on the finish. (Pascal Schildt)

David, Swartland. Grenache ’14, $45. Rising star with the last name Sadie, but since he’s unrelated to Eben, he uses his first name to avoid confusion. Wines coming soon to the U.S. The grenache is earthy and dusty with plums, red fruits, and a hint of mint on the finish. (Pascal Schildt)

Thorne and Daughters, Bot River. Rocking Horse White ’13, $30. Another promising young label blending wines with grapes sourced across the Western Cape. Roussanne, chardonnay, semillon, and chenin compose this broad, textured, floral, and fruity white. (Pascal Schildt)

Crystallum, Bot River. Peter Max Pinot Noir ’13, $30. Two brothers (descendants of pinot pioneer Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson brand) focusing on pinot and chardonnay out of Walker Bay. A savory, smoky, red fruit driven wine with firm tannins. (Pascal Schildt)

Botanica, Stellenbosch. Western Cape, Chenin ’12, $25. American female Ginny Povall moved to South Africa to make wine. She runs a wonderful guesthouse in Stellenbosch but sources fruit from all over, including from the same area as the acclaimed Sadie Family Skurfberg chenin. Similar old vine dry farmed fruit goes into her mineral-focused, slightly oxidative version. (Pascal Schildt)

Riebeek Cellars, Swartland. Cabernet Sauvignon ’13, $11. Value-focused producer with unbeatable wines for the prices. This cab shows dark black fruits, cassis, and herbs, with a soft structure. (Kysela)

Keermont, Stellenbosch. Red Blend ’11, $50. One of Stellenbosch’s newer projects, this merlot, cab franc, cab sauv, and syrah blend delivers a smoky, meaty, rich, dense and ripe experience. Filled with cassis, blue fruit, plum, spice, it makes a great swap for a Howell Mountain Napa Cab at a relatively economical price. (Kysela)

Tierhoek, Piekenierskloof. Sauvignon Blanc ’14, $18. Small, certified organic producer with a new female winemaker. The high altitude fruit for this wine brings a tingly grapefruit, citrus character with striking, fresh acidity. Not pungent like an NZ S.B.; rather, refreshing and well-priced. (Pascal Schildt)

Other notable producers available in New York include Swartland icons A. A. Badenhorstand Sadie Family, plus Savage, Alheit Vineyards, and Radford Dale. Paul Cluver in Elgin makes beautiful pinot, chardonnay, and riesling, but is not yet available in our market.

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Q&A with Paul Cluver Winery in Elgin, South Africa

Paul Cluver and Winemaker Andries Burger

Paul Cluver and Winemaker Andries Burger

Yesterday’s post posited the argument that wine writers should join a harvest at some point in their careers in order to better grasp the fundamentals behind the bottle. I’ve decided to take that challenge and have joined the winemaking team at Paul Cluver Winery for a short, but hopefully illuminating, two week stint over February and March.

The Cluvers pioneered winemaking in the Elgin Valley, touted as South Africa’s answer to the global call for “cool-climate” wines. A review of their line-up confirms it: they produce Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer. The family has owned the property since 1896, but came from Bremen, Germany originally. The vast farm boasts a renowned mountain biking track, and an amphitheater employed for summer concerts, in addition to commercial pear and apple orchards (and two zebras).

Prior to my arrival, Paul Cluver, managing director of the family business, answered a few questions about the farm, his best memories in 20 years at the winery, and the wines he likes to drink (other than his own Seven Flags).

Striped Donkeys or Zebras?

Striped Donkeys or Zebras?

When were the first vines planted and how have the vineyards/winery evolved since inception?

My father planted the first vineyards in 1987, and in 1990 Paul Cluver Wines became the first wines bottled as wine of origin in Elgin. We planted a wide variety of grapes in the beginning, including varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz.  Over time we have focused more on the varietals which we found we excel at: cool climate white varietals and Pinot Noir.   Our winery was founded after apartheid, so the dissolution of it did not affect our business.

How many wines do you currently produce? How did you decide on those varieties?

We produce a total of 10 wines from five different varietals.  Sauvignon blanc, two Chardonnays, three Rieslings, three Pinot Noirs, and a Gewürztraminer. Our focus is to produce the best wine we can within South Africa for each wine we make given the area we are in and what our terroir can produce.  Over the last 20 years we have started to better understand our terroir and which varietals do well here.

What are some of your best memories at the winery?

Being rated in the top ten wineries of South Africa, our winemaker joining the Cape Winemakers Guild, the release of our first Seven Flags Pinot Noir, and being recognized for our contribution to sustainable production.

Has keeping the winery a family operation been difficult?

We have an amazing family that has worked well together through the generations. Sure there have been challenges, but those challenges have helped us become better at what we do.

Has climate change impacted your region yet?

No, although it is something that we are very conscious about.

How has Elgin changed in the last decade?

The fruit industry in Elgin experienced a very negative cycle from the mid-nineties to about 2005. During this time, the wine industry took off in Elgin Valley.  Luckily, the fortunes of the fruit industry have improved in the last couple of years.

How has the South African wine industry changed in the last decade?

One of the major changes has been the fact that the world has opened up for South Africa.  This has given us the opportunity to travel and learn. Most South African winemakers end up working at least one season overseas, learning and experiencing the quality of what the world has to offer. At the same time, we have been privileged to be visited by some of the most passionate wine personalities in the world.

What excites you most about South Africa’s vinous future?

Our ability to pursue excellence without being limited by legislation like in European wine growing regions.

What frustrates you most about South Africa’s wine industry? What could be improved?

The fact that we have such a low image overseas.  I believe our wines offer exceptional quality but they are not recognized for the quality they offer.  We all need to work together to improve our image overseas.

Do you ever visit the U.S.? 

Yes.  I have been there every year for the last several years.  I usually go to the East Coast (New York, Boston, Richmond and Florida), Chicago and recently have also been to Seattle and Dallas.  I love New York City

Where do you like to go for a holiday?

My wife and I love going on safaris, although we also love travelling in general.  We have our favourites like New York, Paris and Burgundy although we also love discovering new places.

What non-S.A. wines do you like to drink?

I try to drink as many different wines from as many different places as I can in order to learn as much as possible.  My favourite areas are Burgundy, German Rieslings and Pinot Noir, and Loire wines.

 

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