Grapes with a scorpion’s sting

The Cape’s Atlantic coast, inland from where the serious guys surf, is austere. This arid landscape, without magnificence or overt charm, is an acquired taste. It took a walk through a vineyard before I felt it start to grip my imagination.

skerpioenAnd what a vineyard! Surely the most remarkable and toughly characterful I’ve seen in wandering the Cape winelands. It took a while to get over feeling that these vines simply couldn’t – or at least shouldn’t –  exist.

There are two adjacent blocks, in fact, although only one produces grapes for wine – a fine white called Skerpioen (“scorpion”). The other is still, as both once were, sacrosanct to witblits: “white lightning”, the Cape’s “moonshine” spirit, one that is to fine brandy or suave, modern grappa as a steel hawser is to silk ribbon.

I was spending the day driving and talking with winemaker Eben Sadie, who was making an early summer check-up tour of the far-flung vineyards that produce grapes for his Old Vineyard Series of wines. That is, Eben did the driving and much of the talking. (I sometimes recall the narrator’s comment on the entirely less benign character of Mr Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: ‘Heavens! how that man could talk…. He had faith – don’t you see? – he had the faith.”) Talking persuasively, yes, and I swear Eben’s Afrikaans accent grew thicker as we approached the coast – for these are the parts where he was born and bred, and it all clearly quickens his heart.

This was our first call, after an early start and a long drive. The blue of St Helena Bay was only imaginable, invisible beneath a bank of fog – whose significance I was only later to realise. Then suddenly, a few kilometres short of the coast, somewhere near the fishing village with the unlikely name of Dwarskersbos, we were there: modest farmbuildings and a palmtree or two amid the scrub, Klein Tafelberg (“small Table Mountain”) rising abruptly and not so majestically in the mid-distance, and the edge of the vineyard.

The farmer greeted us. His first name, perhaps even he has forgotten, as he’s universally known as either “Vogie” or “MW” – MW Voges – which in the Afrikaans we spoke sounds something like “emveer foorghis”. Sadie, as I’ve said, had partly reverted to his childhood, and addressed him in the respectful third person, calling him Oom.

skerpioen2In MW’s ancient yellow Land Rover we drove to the vineyards. Wino experts like to talk knowingly about soil. What if there isn’t any? At least, any that answers to the usual description. These vines (mostly chenin blanc and palomino in the wine vineyard, hanepoot in the witblits one) appear to be growing in beach sand. There are parts where the usefully cooling Atlantic wind creates tiny shifting dunes, and places where it carves away the sand to reveal a tangle of vine-roots. Rainfall is pathetically low in this area, and that these unirrigated vines could establish themselves is thanks to the rolling fog that every so often swathes the plants and drips on to the thirsty sand.

The roots plunge half a metre or more into a bank of limestone – of chalk so chalky that you could break off a piece and write on a blackboard with it. This substratum, too, is rare in the Western Cape, adding to the sheer unlikeliness of this unique (radical Sadie calls it) site. skerpioen3It’s hard to imagine that any respectable modern viticulturist wouldn’t laugh or shudder at the idea of planting a vineyard in this spot. Yet here it is, with the unanswerable riposte of its venerable existence, having proved, in fact, that it is a superb location.

There were no expert opinions to hand when the vines were planted some 60 years ago. Heroic days those were, for farmers continuing the bucolic Boer tradition of distilling  a rough brandy at home. Doing so for most of the 20th century was to challenge the all-bestriding KWV and its monopolistic control over making and marketing spirits. Inspectors and excise men across the country seached out illicit stills and over-the-limit stocks hoarded by those few with a licence. They wrenched open outbuildings and pulled aside artful mounds of straw, probed suspect piles of manure, even prodding the earth to find buried distilling kettles. Such adventures and misadventures happened here too, although now respectable MW Voges has a licence, as well as an enviable reputation for his distillation skills.

Viticulturist Rosa Kruger heard tell of these obscure vineyards a few years back, when word got around that she was seeking out old (and often unappreciated and neglected) vines. Her plan was to save unique sites. If she could persuade a few of the right sort of winemaker of their potential, the farmers could get a far better price for their crops than they were currently getting from a co-op, and some interesting, often remarkable, and occasionally superb wines could be made.

To MW’s Dwarskersbos vines she brought her friend Eben Sadie, the innovative winemaker from the Swartland, knowing that he would be smitten. He was. On his first visit he turned up a nest of scorpions under a stone, and that inspired the name of the wine he later made from here, back in his Perdeberg winery. Not only does the name reflect the wine’s “stinging acidity”, as Sadie dramatically calls it, but it expresses the essential character of the place. As he says, “you’re not going to call a wine Skerpioen if it comes from Elgin or Constantia!”. So, with the 2011 vintage, Skerpioen joined the eight other wines in the internationally renowned Sadie Famiy Ouwingerdreeks, or Old Vines Series.

After we toured the vineyard, and MW, Sadie and a pair of labourers discussed the work to be done on the vines, it was time for witblits. And witblits before morning bacon and eggs is a considerable proposition. The set-up is very low-key – no proud, burnished copper still as one sees at wine estates that dabble in fine brandy, but something half-buried in concrete and notably unimpressive.

skerpioen4Not hard to discern that this is the hard stuff; nothing effete here. And in the thoroughly locked and untidy shed that passes for the maturation cellar are the few modest old barrels of elixir. MV finds a glass and draws off a little of the pale gold liguid for us (the colour telling of its time maturing in the oak cask – a treat not often accorded witblits). Those hanepoot grapes harvested from vines a few hundred metres distant reveal their grapey essence amongst the forthcoming fumes. Then a gingerly sip, and – pow! Delicious is far too restrained a word for the experience of a good witblits, even one as comparatively smooth as this; compelling, rather.

MW fetches two empty bottles and, before carefully filling them and presenting them to us, carefully positions his self-adhesive labels: Vogie se Voggie his witblits is called, the latter word meaning something like “a little moisture”. At 60% alcohol!

Some people mix their spirits, but I’ve never enjoyed the dilute effect. Thanks to the Voggie, I have discovered that even a moderately refined wine-lover can make alarmingly rapid inroads into a bottle of this most traditional of Cape beverages, provided the challenge is faced appropriately – with pleasurable anticipation of a digestif, a little reverence for the past, and just a touch of trepidation.




Cape brandy has a venerable tradition of awfulness (now happily abandoned). “One of the worst and most pernicious spirits ever produced” sniffed a critic in 1824, entirely typically. And this was the official stuff (mostly husk brandy, incompetently made from the watered dregs after the wine had been pressed) that made its grim way on to the least discerning levels of the market.

Even the remotest frontier farmers wanted to have a barrel of brandy (French if possible) available – and where viable to grow a few grapes to transform into fiery spirits for themselves and friends. They could (and did) claim medicinal qualities for their concoctions if other pretensions failed. Witblits, as it later came to be called, drunk young, powerful and raw, became part of Boer tradition – one that travelled by ox wagon, with the ocasional distilling kettle it seems, on the arduous trek to the Promised Land.

Grapes up north were hard to come by, but any fruit would do – amarula worked brilliantly and, later, peaches. These non-grape-based spirits came to be called mampoer.

First published in the Mail & Guardian, 18-24 January 2013 (but this version slightly amended)

One thought on “Grapes with a scorpion’s sting

  1. very interesting. sad thing is that farmers will probably not be allowed to plant vines in locations such as this anymore thanks to the NEMA regulations! unless off course they do it without permission.

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