Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, some ancient sage apparently said. “Out of the Swartland always a novel liquid” is my translation – which any wineloving sage spending last Friday and Saturday with me would surely have enthusiastically endorsed.
1. Friday afternoon: Orange wine at Lammershoek
A week ago, Lammershoek winemaker Craig Hawkins tapped me on the shoulder at a post-harvest party of Swartland producers and a few hangers-on. Craig offered me a taste of the recently-bottled El Bandito Cortez, one of the two extraordinary wines he’s making under his own label, Testalonga. (What wonderfully extravagant names! – you can read about an earlier encounter with them here.)
That reminded me of the urgent necessity of visiting Craig at his winery, both to buy some of this wine (and the second vintage of the version simply named El Bandito), and to taste again around the Lammershoek cellar. Lammershoek has for many years been an improving, and excellent cellar (I included it in my vote for Top 20 wineries last year), but since Craig arrived in time for the 2010 harvest, it has changed emphasis in a big way – certainly without losing quality.
I will be writing more about Lammershoek once more 2010s start appearing. To give a simple summary now, though: what is happening there is firstly a dermination to harvest earlier, if the vineyard permits (and increasing the balance and harmony in the vineyards will hopefully make this increasingly an option) to give more freshness and less alcohol; secondly, in the cellar, there’s a move towards what is often called “natural winemaking” – including a near-total avoidance of additives, even sulphur, and little in the way of new wood.
The only Lammershoek wines which have so far appeared under Craig’s aegis are a Rosé and a Chenin-Viognier with the new, cheaper LAM label (about R50). Both are lovely, fresh wines with modest alcohol levels. But watch out for the Pinotage and the shiraz-cinsaut around August (I think) – the latter especially could well be South Africa’s best value red.
Craig’s El Bandito wines are altogether more radical – so far! Essentially, they are white wines made like red wines, but with even longer skin contact than is possible with black grapes. The 2009 Bandito comes from chenin grapes, totally undestemmed bunches, which spent nearly two years in a few old oak barrels just like that. It has a different array of flavours from the 2008 version (which was on the grapeskins for only six weeks), and even more different from any standard-made white wine. The Cortez 2009 is a little more conventional in its winemaking and its character. Both wines have a remarkable, brilliant acidity which is central to their delights.
I greatly enjoy this style of wine – which has something of a small but fanatic following around the world, with most of the “natural wine” producers working in France and Italy. It seems that often these are called “orange wines” – which well expresses the colour of white wines kept for long in contact with their skins, a colour different from the gold or yellow of simply oxidative, oxidised or old or botrytised wines. Not white, not rosé, but orange!
It all deserves many pages of discussion, but there is more that’s new on which to report. (Incidentally, these wines are made in tiny quantities, and some is exported, but you might be able to buy some directly from Craig at Lammershoek (firstname.lastname@example.org), at R120 a bottle. For a new and fine experience, that’s pretty cheap!
2. Friday evening: new wine in Koringberg
Through the glorious open Swartland, with its enormous skies rising over the mountains and the rolling golden slopes of winter wheatland, we drove to Koringberg somewhere in its heart – Eben Sadie, his wife Magriet, Bryan MacRobert who works with Eben in this cellar (and also makes a fine pair of wines under the Tobias label – yet another Swartland story to tell one day), and I.
And in the Cornberg Café in the minuscule (and that evening sweltering) dorpie of Koringberg, a group of us tasted a splendid array of 20 or so wines from the Southern Rhône and the Swartland. It was a way of introducing another new Swartland wine – one grown in the tiny vineyard (it amounts to her front garden, really) of Joanne Hurst – a wealthy, wineloving escapee from Natal who somehow found her way to this obscure place some years ago. She didn’t much care for olives, so she planted her Rhône-ish vines in the heart of the vast wheatfields of the Swartland, and got Marais de Villiers to make the wine in her tiny but well-equipped winery on the edge of the garden-vineyard.
The 2009 red is soon to be bottled under the Wildehurst label, selling for a little over R200. (The first part of the name is pronouced like the first part of wildebeest, apparently, rather than like Oscar’s surname, and connotations of wildness are definitely part of the idea.)
It’s a lovely fresh, unpretentious wine – perhaps reminiscent of the Badenhorst’s red blend, one of the wines it was in company with here – and showed most attractively.
Of the other locals being paired with wines from Gigondas, Chateauneuf, etc, I also much liked the Lammershoek Roulette 2007 (old-style!), and the two Columellas – 2007 and the particularly fine 2004. Spice Route Malabar 2006 was the only disappointing red, in fact – its good fruit spoilt by heavy oaking. And it must be said that Sadie’s sweet hanepoot, Eselshoek, from his Ouwingerdreeks (which I never much cared for, in fact) is not developing attractively at all!
Next morning, tasting the 2010 Wildehurst from barrel in the blissfully cool winery, we confirmed that the fine 2009 was not a fluke. And there’s a delightful, fresh rosé, and an old-vine chenin from brought-in grapes.
Yet another participant, no doubt, in the tasting of naturally-fermented wines at the Swartland Revolution festival to be held in Riebeek-Kasteel in November.
3. Saturday lunchtime: Sun wine on the Paardeberg
Saturday lunch was pizzas on the little sort-of-balcony outside the communal office at Sadie Family Wines. An umbrella protected us from the supposedly autumnal, but really very fierce, sun. But quite unprotected were some barrels and demi-johns of wine. Another of Eben Sadie’s experiments, and a fascinatingly successful one, as became clear when Brian siphoned off some of the wine and we drank it after it had cooled down in the freezer for 20 minutes.
This is perhaps as close as things get in South Africa to making madeira. That famous, wonderful wine used to achieve its maturation as ballast in the holds of Portuguese ships travelling around the world in the heroic age of discovery and early colonial plunder. Nowdays, the very best madeira endures brutal summers and winters under the eaves of the lodges, while the majority is heated less naturally, in casks in heated rooms or in tanks heated by hot water circulating through coils. As far as I know, however, it is not as directly in the sun as Eben’s wine is, and probably doesn’t get as hot.
Unlike madeira, what Eben calls his “sun wine” will not be fortified. And of course it’s made from old-vine chenin. It took him a while, he says, to work out the right sort of wine to subject to the attacks of Swartland summers and winters – you can’t do it with any old stuff.
Eben says that recently a team of top British buyers, after tasting everything in the cellar, pronounced this the best wine. There might have been a bit of joking involved, I suspect, but the wine is indeed extraordinary.
Somehow the ageing, apart from deepening the colour tremendously, has brought out the acidity (though it’s not as searing as madeira), and the element of oxidation from barrels which are losing plenty of liquid through evaporation has brought out some intriguing flavours without making the 2009 wine taste significantly oxidised.
The lighter, yellower wine in the demijohns (in the pic being tapped by Bryan MacRobert ) is from 2010. This ageing in glass is something new; soon this wine too will go into barrel, into a slightly complex solera system. Whether the sonwyn, sun wine, will ever be made commercially available is uncertain at this stage.
What is extraordinary about the Swartland as a wine region in its modern incarnation is not just the quality that is pouring out, not just the dedication of a small group of winemakers, but the energy and creativity, the determination to extend the parameters of South African wine. There is no one model here, no stylistic unity. The sheer range of approaches undertaken in the past decade and continuing still, the exploration of nooks and crannies of terroir (WO Koringberg!) and of winemaking practice, these are (to my knowledge) not to be found elsewhere in the Cape, even though excellence and devotion undoubtedly is.