Tasting the origins of the Swartland revolution

At a dinner party in Malmesbury last Friday, Eben Sadie served (blind) the Spice Route Syrah 1999 – from his second vintage working for the pioneering winery that was Charles Back’s great inspiration. It was Spice Route that inaugurated the revolution that has seen the Swartland becoming one of the most exciting parts of the fantastically developing Cape wine scene.

But in 2000 Sadie made his first Columella (in the Spice Route Cellars) and within a few years he had left to found his own winery – and so to take the Swartland revolution crucially forward.

It’s good to be reminded of these things (what a lot has happen in the past decade), and to be recalled to it by a wine that has matured so well. I didn’t make notes, but all were agreed how well it was drinking, and it certainly has some time to go. Perhaps only the element of ripe sweetness on the wine was something of a detraction, but it showed beautifully those firm but gentle Swartland shiraz tannins. And certainly wasn’t embarrassed by the august company in which it appeared that night (see pic) – including two fine mature Bordeaux (Cos d’Estournel 1966 and Leoville las Cases 2001); you don’t all that often see Bordeaux in the Swartland, where the revolutionaries are pretty firmly on the side of Burgundian peasants in that particular war.


Anyway, I later looked up the Spice Route Syrah 1999 (it was the second vintage) in Platter 2001, the wonderfully spacious, expansive Platter of those good old days, with eight lines available to the wine. It would be three lines max for a 4.5 star wine these days, and virtually no technical information. Here we’re told that the wine had “18 mths Fr oak, 30% new; malo in oak after 6 weeks on skins. Perfectly balanced 14.5% alc/6.1 g/l acid”. Look up the latest vintage of the wine and there’s zilch!

So 4.5 stars the Spice Route 1999 got – while the Merlot which I remember as being dreadfully ripe, soft and lush (a triumph of its kind) got 5! But the Platter writer (it might well have been Angela Lloyd, I think) correctly called the Syrah the “standout, in many ways” of the top trio of Syrah, Pinotage and Merlot. And Sadie is quoted as saying: “Was slowest developer in oak. Will take years to mature – 15?”. Well, I’m now in the position to say that I reckon it is mature at 13 – but I’d be only too delighted to try it again at 15.

The sad note about the reminiscence is to see that the Platter intro suggests that “in just 3 vintages Spice Route has become a cult label, its wines … radical and explosive”. It’s not any of that any more, although of the reds the shiraz-based Malabar blend has sometimes been very good indeed, and all the wines are at least quite good. But nowadays there’s too much ripeness, too much oak, and not a great deal of interest  – the Swartland revolution that Spice Route inaugurated has long since passed it by.

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