As we’re being historically-minded this week, here’s an interesting statistic for you: in 1822 over 90% of the vines in the Cape were of a variety called “green grape”, or groendruif. And a fact: there was a red version of groendruif, and some evidence suggests it was the more common of the two. And another fact which I’m not yet convinced is totally true: groendruif is the same variety as semillon.
Put that all together and you get the proposition that the larger part of the Cape vineyard in the 1820s was planted with a red version of semillon apparently unknown in the rest of the world (except Australia, and they probably got it from us). Unlikely? Well, at least worth investigating, and it’s a problem I’ve been trying to solve for some time. So far I’ve uncovered some interesting material – including the preponderance of the red variety, and the reason why groendruif became so omnipresent at that time; and I’ve also found out (it was a lucky chance, in an obscure book giving guidance to those thinking of coming to farm in the Cape Colony a century ago) just when and by whom the identification with semillon was made.
But those are other stories. Here I want to report on my first sighting of red groendruif – red semillon, if you prefer. I’d asked my friend Rosa Kruger, the viticulturist for L’Ormarins, if she’d ever come across this grape, as I knew that she did some exploring in out of the way places, looking for interesting vineyards for L’Ormarins, whose owner, Johann Rupert, is more than willing to experiment in search of excellence. I didn’t expect much, but yes, she had, though only recently, and not in Franschhoek.
So next week I drove with her and Eben Sadie far up the West Coast. (Eben is another searcher after old vines and extreme locations, and has a fascinating project in mind which I will tell of shortly.) We were going to visit some pretty obscure vineyards that Rosa had discovered, and from which both L’Ormarins and Sadie are going to make wine this year (though the destiny of the wine will depend on the quality, of course). Hours later, on the windy high slopes of the Skurfberg, inland from Lambert’s Bay, I saw red groendruif, a week or two away from harvesting date. And red it is, rather than black – like pinot gris is to pinot blanc and pinot noir.
The vineyard was a mixed one, with red and green groendruif, chenin and hanepoot: good historic Cape varieties. All were splendid, healthy bushvines, not a trace of virus, and probably a minimum of 60 years old – and ungrafted (nearly all vines have been grafted onto rootstocks for over a century, of course, to avoid succumbing to phylloxera; here, a combination of sandy soils and distance from the mainstream seem to make these ungrafted vines possible).
Later, after visiting some other remarkable vineyards on the Skurfberg, amongst the rooibos tea which is the area’s specialty, we found our way to perhaps the most extraordinary vineyard I’ve ever visited, one that I never would have expected to find still existing in the Cape. But that deserves a blog entry of its own. I’ll leave you with us at lunch at the Afrokaan, a most unexpected bit of witty retro-kitsch in a tiny, dusty Sandveld town called Graafwater. Full of fun stuff, notably a magazine rack with magazines from the 70s mostly featuring Anneline Kriel on their covers. Friendly staff and low prices. We were hungry, so the quiche and salad (itself pretty retro and salad-creamed) was delicious, washed down with just-bottled Columella 2007 and an equally young, promising top-grade pinotage from L’Ormarins.
But my research into red greengrape continues (red semillon it’s called these days, and it does statistically exist in official Sawis records). Rosa Kruger is arranging to have DNA tests done on samples to see whether the grape is indeed the same as semillon (we presume that the authorities haven’t bothered to do this). If anyone knows of other plantings – en masse, or isolated vines among the white version, I’d be very grateful for information – please email me at timja*AT*telkomsa*DOT*net (the strange format to discourage machines from trying to sell me Viagra and the like; hope you can work it out, if you’re not a spam machine).