Fine wine from the cool Karoo

Daniël de Waal was not exactly bored with growing grapes and making wine in Stellenbosch, but the urge to try something new, something challenging, was nagging. He found his opportunity on the high plateau of the Great Karoo, near Sutherland. Now maturing in the cellars of Uiterwyk, the De Waal family farm in the Stellenboschkloof, are a few barrels of shiraz, the first wine to come from the initial experimental hectares he has planted on a friend’s farm there.

Sutherland is famously the coldest inhabited part of South Africa, and one of the most extreme places where (in the current adventurous excitement of Cape wine-growing) grapes are planted. It is, to my knowledge, the highest such place – at an altitude of around 1500 it easily tops the few lofty vineyards in the Swartberg mountains, in the peaks around Ceres and even the celebrated Cederberg. And it is deep inland – no question of sea-breezes here, and even the Wine and Spirit Board would have trouble calling this “Coastal Region” (though they manage with Tulbagh).

All in all, it’s far from the maritime conditions of most of the Western Cape’s viticulture, and there’s plenty to challenge Daniël, even apart from the logistics of farming and harvesting some 350 kilometres from the vines demanding attention at home. “It’s hard work”, he happily asserts.

Summer coolness is one thing – the hottest it gets in Sutherland’s summer is around 32ºC, with splendidly cool nights going as low as 7º – but winter cold has its problems. Frost is a menace to the vineyards – in fact Daniël’s first shiraz crop would have been from three-year-old vines in 2008, but frost destroyed the harvest, and made the next one rather smaller than it should have been.

Water is a help in a surprising way – and, although there’s good winter rainfall in this south-westerly spot of the summer-dry Karoo, this farm is fortunately placed to catch and dam snowmelt from the mountain behind. Water is therefore available not only for irrigation via a drip system, but also for overhead sprinkling as a means of slightly warming things and creating some air movement, which help to temper the threat of frost. The system kicks in automatically when sensors inform it that the temperature has reached 3ºC (in the dry air, frost happens at a slightly higher temperature than in more humid parts, apparently).

So this is how the man who makes good red wine for the DeWaal estate (including some  pinotages that are regularly amongst the Cape’s best – and most elegantly styled) is exercising his freedom. Freedom from the customary expectations of maritime climates, from the narrower restrictions of making estate wines (which must originate in the 120 home hectares), and crucially from the obligation to produce in fairly large quantities, which is not always consistent with the great quality ambitions lurking within Daniël’s breast. In fact, he’s been exercising some of this freedom for a few years now with his own label, Pella – a few more wines in that range are to be released next year, joining the Syrah.

But the Sutherland wine is going to be a different story entirely – and the name that the wine will carry when it is bottled next year has not yet been finally decided on. Next year’s harvest will also produce a maiden sauvignon blanc from the high, cool Karoo vineyards. As to what will join them in the future – well, working that out is part of the fun and the challenge. Current experimental plantings including 1000-vine blocks of a range of interesting varieties that might respond well to the climate and the gravelly shale soils (much deeper than soils in the Western Cape): nebbiolo, tempranillo, pinot noir – and, for some of us most excitingly pregnant with possibilities, riesling. No pinotage. Other experiments are under way – with pruning systems, for example. Half of the shiraz is bushvines, half on trellis.

The shiraz will probably sell for about R100, thinks Daniël, and (judging it now) it will be a bargain, on quality grounds alone, let alone for the story it tells. Out of the older oak it is in now, the wine has forceful, pure aromas and flavours – not easy to identify, we agreed as we sipped, but there was some dusty scrub (Karoo scrub?), plenty of berry characters with a hint of malbec-type lush wildness; fairly rich but also with some elegance despite the ripeness being perhaps a fraction more advanced than I might have preferred. The balance is convincing, with smooth and subtle tannins, and a gentle acid freshness. In fact I would have expected, from such climatic conditions, some more acidity in the balance, and Daniël had even adjusted this one’s level a little – but he says that, although the acid was actually very high initially, much of it was malic acid, which gets converted during the malolactic secondary fermentation.

It must be said that Daniël is not quite alone in pioneering the viticultural possibilities of Sutherland. Of course, wine-growing is going to be limited in the area, however splendid the results, by the availability of water, but a few others, including Eben Sadie, are making experiments there, albeit in a different part.

But this shiraz is undoubtedly the first wine to be made from those high, cool, inland vines, and the promise it carries is large. With due respect for the farmers of hot, irrigated vineyards along the Orange River, here’s a shiraz that’s going to change the significance of the label “Wine of Origin Northern Cape” – and if the process for creating a Wine of Origin Sutherland ward is not yet underway, I predict that it soon will be, before a few more harvests are in, and it will be one to welcome.

We are indeed living in interesting wine times in the Cape. It’s not just Daniël de Waal who’s enjoying it all.

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