The story of a vinous revolution

It seems so long now since that amazing weekend in Riebeek-Kasteel celebrating the new wines and new wine culture of the Swartland. But it’s just weeks, and the print media is slow by internet standards, so here is the fairly lengthy article I wrote for the Mail & Guardian, which appears in the current edition (3-9 December); it includes some of the historical points I made when introducing the tasting of terroir and varieties offered by Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst.

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Wine flowed copiously instead of blood, though they cheerfully called those two mid-November days in Riebeek-Kasteel “The Swartland Revolution”. Even a vinous revolution is a process rather than a weekend, however, and the transformation of the wine culture of this wheat-dominated area inland from the Cape west coast has been rolling and gathering for over a decade now.

The celebratory appropriation of the concept of revolution wouldn’t have made me uneasy if it weren’t for the posterised imagery of winemakers-as-fighters. But the green star hovering over Riebeek was a version of the red one twinkling on a million pretty images of highjacked Che Guevara, and I kept any dour political thoughts to myself.

Instead, I told (at a tasting seminar I moderated) a story from the early days of the Swartland Revolution. It reminded me, at least, of the wider transformation of South African wine from the mid-1990s – which was, in turn predicated on political changes; and reminded me too that changes in Swartland wine must come to include a social dimension.

Spice Route, the winery founded by Farview’s Charles Back in the latter 1990s, marked the first crucial point in rediscovering and re-imagining the Swartland as a wine-producing area. Back had three partners in Spice Route then, one of whom was Jabulani Ntshangase, who had spent many years in the United States and had now come home, where much had changed, but much had not.

While involved at Spice Route, Ntshangase would jog to work in the early morning, like any good middle-class American. A local farmer had been observing this black man in a hurry, and one morning stopped his bakkie alongside and good-naturedly thumbed an invitation for him to climb aboard. “Weer laat, ek sien – luister, sê vir jou baas hy moet vir jou ‘n bicycle koop!” [Tell your boss to buy you a bicycle!]

That was more than a decade back. Spice Route’s winemaker had been enticed from Romansrivier Cooperative – no doubt that was the last time Eben Sadie made wine in large quantities, or inoculated his grapejuice with industrial yeast rather than following the riskier track of allowing a spontaneous fermentation with yeasts originating mostly in the vineyard.

Eben started making a few barrels of his own red wine while at Spice Route. He left the larger winery after a few years, committed to exploring and expressing the soils, aspects and all the possibilities of the area which had gripped his imagination. An utterly original white blend, Palladius, soon joined shiraz-based Columella, both now amongst the most internationally respected Cape wines.

The rest is history – the history of modern Swartland winemaking thus far. Eben Sadie wanted much more than building a successful wine-business: his vision encompassed, precisely, a revolution based on the area’s extraordinary quality potential. Charles Back’s inaugural gesture now grasped at the future. I once asked Back why he had turned to the Swartland. The place had been in his mind for nearly 30 years, he said, since working at a local co-op as a newly graduated winemaker: “In Paarl, I always remembered just how easily quality was achieved there in the Swartland.”

When Sadie’s energy and charisma came into play, the circle of revolutionary cohorts widened. They included not just young winemakers inspired to make interesting, challenging wines, but also established grape-growers of the region. Suddenly some of those (stolid tipplers of brandy and Coke among them) were lit by new ambition – something finer, they felt, could come off their slopes than huge volumes of grape juice encouraged by heavy irrigation and the eager ministrations of the agro-chemical industry.

Of the young winemakers who poured their wines for some hundreds of visitors on the Revolutionary festival’s Saturday afternoon in the streets of Riebeek, a remarkable proportion had served some sort of apprenticeship with Eben Sadie – both in his cellar on the slopes of the Paardeberg and in the winery he simultaneously established in Priorat in Spain. The international experiences and influences brought home have also been significant. Aspiring young winemakers left Sadie’s cellars with stained and calloused hands, with stars in their eyes, the Swartland in their hearts and natural winemaking in their minds.

That’s the happy paradox, and the excitement and significance, of the Swartland revolution in its ten years: a return to older, simpler, more artisanal methods of growing grapes (natural fertilisers, vastly reduced chemical interventions) and of making wine (native yeasts, no additives or acidification, little new-wood influence, etc). But the move is accomplished on the basis of great experience and scientific understanding.

Producers from elsewhere in the Cape have for a long time used the Swartland as a source of good, cheap grapes, but the region’s rising reputation has brought in more, and more ambitious ones. Some of the region’s already-eminent winemakers arrived only a few years back, leaving comfortable and prestigious jobs elsewhere. Chris and Andrea Mullineux, for example, came from Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards to set up shop in the middle of Riebeek – usefully establishing a second centre for Swartland winemaking, which had mostly been around the Perdeberg.

Most of the revolutionary generation, including the Mullineux, do not own vines, but buy in grapes from elsewhere – preferably from leased vineyards they can manage themselves. One of the most important farms in the area, Lammershoek, is large enough to not only make its own increasingly excellent range but also to provide grapes to wineries based locally and as far away as Stellenbosch and the Hemel-en-Aarde.

Another recruit, Adi Badenhorst, is lucky to have at least some vineyards of his own. He brought investment from a cousin when he left the white-gabled Stellenbosch grandeur of Rustenburg for what was then a scruffy, run-down Perdeberg farm.

More recently, the great Franschhoek winery Boekenhoutskloof acquired a Swartland property, where some 30 hectares of vines are being organically grown by Callie Louw. Most grapes will go to the Franschhoek cellar, but Callie is makeing a small range for the forthcoming Porcelain Mountain label. Find them among the many newcomers in next November’s Swartland Revolution happening –  doubtless a bigger occasion than the last and, if it can match the thrill, unmissable.

For the revolution is developing, as the best revolutions do. Simultaneously an element of institutionalisation is necessary – but not inevitably alarming. The Riebeek celebration also announced Swartland Independent, an association of like-minded wine-producers, of those determined to take forward the revolution, the vision of wines expressing a sense of place through the personality of a winemaker committed to minimal intervention.

Speaking at the launch of Swartland Independent (pic on the right, with the logo of the new forum), and musing about how the revolutionaries will gain focus and sustainability through it, winewriter Michael Fridjhon said that for the forum to survive it would have to enshrine individuality, commitment and passion. Its rules “must ensure that these key elements are not compromised – even when the children of those making wine here today are working in the Swartland’s cellars, and when the young vineyards planted since the millennium have become the old vines whose very existence speaks of the prescience of those who planted them and the wisdom of the Independents who saved the Swartland from the imperialism of agri-business.”

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Not only winemakers have been inspirited by the Swartland’s vinous revolution. I have observed it for a decade, but was surprised at just how many wines were offered at November’s public tasting in Riebeek-Kasteel. The criterion was that the wine had to be made with native, rather than inoculated, yeast, and some 20 winemakers turned up – from established names through to those whose wines you might just find at the Wine Kollektiv in Riebeek Kasteel, a shop and a town full of delights.

The standard was high, especially for the white wines, mostly based on old-vine chenin blanc, one of the Swartland’s treasures. It is difficult to single out any – but let the blend (of chenin, chardonnay, viognier, clairette, rousanne and grenache blanc) made by Albert Ahrens, formerly of Lammershoek, stand for them. It is both deliciously refreshing and profound – a R100 bargain called White Black 2009 (“Black” referring to the Swartland; there’s also a red blend, Black 2008); they’re available from the BLANKbottle mailing list (see the website).

One favourite among the lesser-known reds is the Two Mile Square Syrah 2009 from Dean David – in tiny quantities at R90. Such an honest wine! It seems to have moved straight from vineyard to bottle with nothing more than Dean Thompson’s tactful guidance – not that the wine is merely fruity, for its sweet-fruited charm is not simple and it’s certainly vinous and well-structured, but the clarity and genuine freshness are all too rare today.

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