Swartland magic

Those who’ve been hooked by the subtle magic of the Swartland (so much less showy than the splendour of Stellenbosch and Constantia!) will understand my pleasure at my first winelands visit of the year starting along the N7 out of Cape Town towards the unlovely town of Malmesbury. The best approach is admittedly from Paarl, and seeing the sprawling isolated granitic mass of the Paardeberg grow larger among the wheatfields (golden stubble in January), under the enormous skies.

But the N7 takes you efficiently, then the R45 from Malmesbury, then the turn-off marked “Paardeberg”, which rapidly becomes joltingly corrugated sand. My first destination was a new one for me, though I’d unknowingly often passed it a few times on my way to Lammershoek and Eben Sadie, both just a little further down the track.

Annex Kloof has been bottling its own wine for a couple of years now. They’ve been selling vast volumes of grapes to the likes of Distell for many years, but Hugo Basson caught the bug from seeing what his neighbours could do, and set up a working cellar to make some for himself. There are a lot of Bassons around there, some of them Hugo’s brothers, with a lot of grapes (six contributing farms with a total of 440 hectares of vines), and Hugo makes three wines from some of them. The yields for these three Annex Kloof wines are less than half of what is farmed for the big brands, and they’re made with a good deal of passion and a good deal of naturalness (no new wood, for example). Hugo wants to show off, unobscured by oak, the fruit and the structure which make the Paardeberg such a fine area for winegrowing.

A bit of unnaturalness, incidentally, is that all the mines have a some alcohol removed; they’re still not wimps, at 14 -14.5%, but the winemaker is satisfied that the reverse osmosis machine does good service in improving the wines’ balance.

I sat down and chatted to Hugo (and his adorer, a pure white Jack Russell) while sampling his two vintages thus far of bottled wines. First, there’s an interesting white blend, unusual for the region in that it has a good whack of sauvignon as well as chardonnay  and trademark chenin. This makes it fresher than most.  I preferred the 2008 to the 2007; it had less of sauvignon’s passionfruit, more honey and straw; more interest and a better balance. Decent value at about R50 ex-farm (15/20 points – I must get into the habit of scoring).

The Red Blend is also changing – though in this case I preferred the maiden 2006. The current 07 is dark, flavoursome and intense, the fruit piqued by a light spicing; typically subtle and fine Swartland tannins and a fairly fresh acidity cope with the ripeness. In fact it was just a touch too ripely fruity for me – that’s the 25% merlot, said Hugo: “it was a bit over-ripe”. There’s also 30% cab, and the rest is shiraz. The 2006 was also shiraz-based, but with more cab, and a little pinotage and malbec too; it seemed to me that much tighter and fresher. But the younger wine is a good example of the excellent modern Swartland blend that there is, thankfully, more and more of, most of it – like Hugo’s – unspoilt by intrusive oak (15.5 points; 16 for the 06).

But for me the surprise, and the great treat, was the Malbec 2007, made from unirrigated vines. It it is dark, dark, dark velvet plush to look at – the sort of appearance I tend to misrust. But there’s no sweet thickness; it’s rich but there’s a fresh elegance to the mulberry-loganberry fruit, and again a bit of spice, and a hint of an iron fist beneath the deep-piled velvet. Undeniably delicious, if not profound. Ready for drinking – and I wouldn’t dare predict  it’s next five years, but it seems to have sufficient balance to age. I drank nearly half a bottle of it before and with my dinner tonight between the first sentence of this paragraph and the second, and while it’s lovely by itself it has the structure to go with robust food. A good buy at R70 ex-farm (R5 more than the Blend), and 16 points for me.

Annex Kloof is open by appointment. The website noted on the leaflet doesn’t seem to work, but the phone number is 022 487 3870. Worth going to stock up, when you venture into the delights of the Aprilskloof section of the Perdeberg, as you should.

Then, for me, it was on to spend the rest of the afternoon trying to catch up with what Eben Sadie is doing in the Swartland and in Priorat, his Spanish home from home. Too much in each place to report here now (including mules for ploughing in Priorat, and a whole range of new wines; radical decisions about earlier picking and less new wood for Columella; a visit to the 300-year-old old barn-cellar he’s renovating as a barrel cellar for Sequillo… and there’s more).

Building my strength for more visits the next day, I had a wonderful dinner with the Swartland boertjies (as Adi Badenhorst’s wife Cornelia calls the group of young and youngish winegrowing friends in the area) in the courtyard of a friendly, easy-going restaurant in nearby Riebeek-Kasteel. Bar Bar Black Sheep it’s called, and I recommend it enthusiastically for delicious and thoughtful food, remarkably well priced. (Short Street, Riebeek Kasteel; Tel: 022 448 1031; Email: bbbs@telkomsa.net)

The table next to us was full of the Ceres rugby team – some famous names of the past, I was informed – who were drinking beer much more raucously than we were drinking a good deal of wine: a very good 30-year old Swartland Co-op Pinotage, a brilliant young red from the volanic slopes of Etna in Sicily; mature Bordeaux and Mosel; Priorat; a very fine Swartland Syrah 2008 soon to be bottled by Chris and Andrea Mullineux. The wine culture of the Swartland is in safe hands.

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