By the time we got to Dirk Brand’s vineyard I was lost. My sense of direction is never very good and it was more than an hour from our lunch at Die Afrokaan in Graafwater, mostly driving along a deserted gravel road that didn’t go to Elands Bay (or did it?). Eben Sadie was convinced we on the right track (and some roadworkers we stopped for and asked seemed to agree that this was likely). Rosa Kruger was not entirely sure. But Eben was driving, and fortunately Eben was right, as Eben so often is. Those crags were the Piketberge; that was surely the mountain we were aiming at though Rosa hadn’t seen it from this angle; not long now.
The landscape was ruggedly beautiful (I suspect that phrase has been used before), and it was amazingly empty. Scarcely the sign of a habitation; the occasional sheep but almost never a person. Tucked beneath some tough mountains in one of these large lovely, empty valleys was Dirk Brand’s farm – frankly I’m not sure now if it was mostly rooibos or potatoes or just bleak obscurity he farmed, but next to an old homestead and its little cluster of trees was the vineyard that somehow Rosa had discovered.
The nearest vines to these were a long way away, across at least a mountain or two. These two-point-something hectares of lushly tangled-looking vines were planted during the first two decades of the last century, before the First World War mostly, before the KWV was formed to save the rashly overproducing industry. Bushvines, of course, on their own roots: groendruif-semillon (red and white), chenin (I think) and hanepoot – these are the oldest vines, from about 1900. I’m sure that this was never a normal commercial vineyard, but rather one of a type that must have been scattered thoughout the farmlands of the old Cape colony: planted to make wine for domestic consumption and to sell to neighbouring farms. This was a time, of course, when the dop system was widely used, and farmers would have wanted wine for their farmworkers as well as themselves (no doubt it was a useful source of nutrition, too, as it was for the peasants of Europe).
Viticulturist Rosa had as yet had little influence on this wonderful vineyard that so emphatically belongs to the past, to the neglected and little-known history of Cape wine. Next year it’ll look a bit better groomed, I’m sure, after some of her meticulous and intelligent care. But she and Eben are happy with what they see. Eben will make wine from here this year, and Rosa will send a cool-truck from L’Ormarins to bring the grapes to the splendid home cellar in Franschhoek, in whose grandeur surely these modest country grapes will feel a little embarrassed. Rosa and Eben discuss picking dates with farmer Dirk – while I simply look on, mesmerised by his hat, which might well be as old as the hanepoot, and more in need of some attention.
I didn’t know that a vineyard like this could still exist in modern South Africa, but I’m profoundly glad that it does, and grateful that Johann Rupert also cares enough to give his viticulturist a brief to search them out. What old vines there are around the Cape are fast disappearing – it is scarcely worth anyone’s trouble to nurture them and pick them, for the paltry rewards offered by some co-op that is simply going to chuck the paltry few grapes amongst the mass-production resulting from chemicals and irrigation.
I hope the wine from this vineyard is good. I know that I will like it if I’m privileged to try it, because it will have a soul; it comes from deep within the troubled, interesting history of Cape wine.