Poor old Paarl is not the wine district it was. In recent years various choice bits have been lopped off and given autononomy, as it were: first Franschhoek and then Wellington. Two named wards remain. On the district’s southern border, against the majestic mountains dividing it from Stellenbosch, is Simonsberg-Paarl, with such well-known wineries as Glen Carlou, Backsberg, Rupert and Rothschild, and Vrede en Lust.
Up north another mountain, Paardeberg (named for the zebra-like quaggas massacred into extinction by the early settlers), marks the boundary with the Swartland. The formation of Voor-Paardeberg ward was in, fact, inspired by a small group of wineries (especially Scali and Vondeling) influenced by the exciting developments in the Swartland.
Between Simonsberg and Paardeberg is a wide flatland, known casually as Agter-Paarl in relation to the third defining mountain – Paarlberg itself, sheltering the historic town on the other side of it. There are wineries on the lower slopes on the Agter-Paarl side – most famously Fairview – and near the mountaintop is a splendid old vineyard now supplying shiraz for KWV’s lush, rich and expensive wine bearing the name of the great viticulturist Abraham Perold.
Down on the plain, however, are large hectarages of vines farmed to deliver big yields and often indifferent quality to the co-ops and big merchants, and also some good vineyards cared for with greater ambition. Most of the vines survive without irrigation – there’s simply not much water around these parts – which does restrict the yield and help to concentrate flavours. Many grow in long neat rows of “bushvines”, rather than being trained on trellises (the consequent need to bend over them makes the work of pruning and picking that much more backbreaking).
Some of those better grapes go to the cellar of an outfit called MAN Family Wines – the name deriving from the initals of the wives of the three founders: Tyrell Myburgh of nearby Joostenberg and his brother Philip, and Jose Conde of the eminent Stark-Condé Wines in Stellenbosch’s distant Jonkershoek Valley.
They make two ranges. Eight wines in screwcapped bottles (all costing around R60) bear just the MAN brand, while five more grandly and moodily-labelled wines go under the Tormentoso name (for Cabo Tormentoso, Cape of Storms, as the brave early navigators around the foot of Africa called it), costing half as much again.
Both ranges offer value – the cheaper ones rather easier, simpler, a little sweeter and fruitier in character. Tasting through all the wines recently, however, I wasn’t surprised to find which varieties stood out: this is prime chenin blanc and shiraz country and it shows. The pinotages in each range are also successful.
Skaapveld Shiraz 2011 is a particularly good buy in the MAN range: succulent, firm but gentle, fruit-filled but with a smoky, leather edge adding interest. For Tormentoso, the shiraz gets renamed Syrah and is joined by Mourvèdre on the label and in the bottle. More seriously built and ambitious, but still with a sweet-fruited succulence and a forceful, rich spiciness partly derived from oak-maturation.
Tormentoso Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2012 is also oaked, unlike the MAN version (also very appealing in a lighter-hearted way), and is perhaps the real star of the show. Fresh, balanced and dry, more elegant than many modern chenins, and with that elusively delightful, cool taste-sensation like a round stone on the tongue.
First published in the Mail & Guardian, 28 June-4 July 2013