Glories and mysteries in the Swartland

It’s always startling to go to the Swartland in winter: the outsider forgets how green it is. The gold and ochre tones of the wheatlands which dominate the area’s character are transmuted to the tender colour of young plants. The scrubby stretches of gnarled chenin bushvines which are the region’s glory (if one likes wine even more than bread) are increasingly carpeted, even now in early winter, with either weeds or sown cover-crop. True, the high-yielding vineyards which owe more to the agro-chemical industry than the terroir are rather less lush than in summer, but on a mild, sunny winter’s day they look more in tune with the landscape.

So lovely a day was it on Saturday that the minute I arrived outside Eben Sadie’s cellar he said “Let’s go for a drive!”. So we did, and Eben being Eben I learnt quite a lot about the idiosyncracies of his beloved Swartland landscape and about viticulture (or I was at least given the chance to do so). So, he showed me how the lupin stores its nitrogen (but I was taking the picture so didn’t pay enough attention), and how he’d like to put down an expensive blanket of straw over the vineyard as this would, via a complicated process involving bacteria and arcane aspects of the ripening process, help increase the acid levels in the ripe grapes. (I confess I can’t recall quite all the details, but I was convinced, as most people are when they talk to Eben – or listen to him, which is rather commoner.)

But Eben is also quite happy to find some things inexplicable. We were tasting through all his barrels of the 2009 wines made from old vineyards, mostly isolated ones far up the West Coast, from which he’s preparing six traditionally made wines to be sold in mixed cases in tiny quantities (described here). Some are from the mix of normal and red semillon which I also wrote about before in that context.

There were two barrels of one of these wines (the vineyards’ produce is all kept separate, of course) which were for space reasons being kept in two different cellars – Eben also rents a 300-year old barn on the Perdeberg mostly for barrel maturation of his brilliant Sequillo wines. The point is that although the very old barrels themselves seemed identical, and the wine in each came from the same tank, they are developing remarkably differently. So much for terroir, you might say – but Eben is under no illusions about the crucial role that the vigneron  plays in the expression of the possibilities allowed for by terroir.

Incidentally, Mrs Kirsten’s Old VIne Chenin, the old-vineyard Stellenbosch wine which has been made for a few vintages will become part of this new “Heritage Series” . And there was another example of cellar mystery. Sample the 2009 version and it is the palest straw colour, fresh and essentially typical young chenin; move to the 2008, which has filled an old inert barrel for a firther year, and it has already acquired a deeper gold colour and the markedly oxidative character which some like so much (and which appals Michael Fridjhon, for example). This rapid development happens each year, says Eben.

There was much more to taste. Including the components of the 2009 Columella, all foot-trodden this year, much of it not destemmed, some of it headed for the huge maturation barrels (nearly half a million rands each, which is why there’s only one so far) which Eben sees as the future for all of his top red wine. And we also raided a couple of the wines made here by Dirk Niepoort, of the famous Port house which is now also responsible for some of the finest Portuguese dry red table wines. The 2008 Port (which includes pinotage in its blend) is most impressive – drier-finishing than most local “ports”, intense and fiery; apparently Dirk thinks it quite up to the standards of his vintage port back home in the Douro. It will no doubt remain a little longer in the three ancient barrels which Dirk brought out from Portugal for it – after that, I’ve no idea what will become of it.

I was by now overdue for my meeting with Chris and Andrea Mullineux, the most recent of the bright young things to arrive in the southern Swartland. But it didn’t matter – we were all going out to dinner that night, anyway, with a few more of the aforemented bright young things. But I’ll take the memory of that delay as an excuse to stop this rambling account forthwith, to resume later with something about the auspicious first Mullineux releases.

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