The language of labels – and the Sadie Ouwingerdreeks

It’s easy to forget that Cape wine is basically an Afrikaans industry, such is the power of hegemonic English in marketing it. Not only are the overwhelming majority of vineyard and cellar-workers Afrikaans, but – despite a comparatively recent infusion of others – that is also the home language of the majority of grape-growers, owners of estates, viticulturists and winemakers.  Even if it’s not the public relations language.

Dutch, German and French settlers, their slaves and also some of the indigenous Khoi, together first made wine from the vines they planted amongst the lovely valleys at the foot of Africa – which must have sometimes been less lovely than disheartening, even terrifying, to the newcomers. The descendants of their mingling share, at least, a common language in today’s wine industry.

It’s the language most spoken in vineyards and wineries – and its antecedents are  present in the often poignant names of many farms and estates, from Allesverloren to Plaisir de Merle. But it’s not the language on most bottles. I think that, or the major players, Hermanuspietersfontein (a first-rate winery) is alone in having only Afrikaans on its labels – only, that is, except for the declaration of country and region of origin and the admission so beloved of bureaucrats that the wine contains sulphites.

The Hermanuspietersfontein website is, however, in English. A similar, no doubt reluctant, pragmatism is apparent on the bottles of Eben Sadie’s range of wines from old vineyards: it’s all Afrikaans on the display label, but all English on the informative and descriptive side. (The new vintages of the Ouwingerdreeks are due out in early July, by the way – they sold out within a few weeks last year, so be alert if you want some. See below.)

Celebrating the Afrikaansness of Cape wine is a fine thing. Another winery that does it persistently is Solms-Delta in Franschhoek, famously immersed in local history and culture. Gemoedsrus, Hiervandaan, Lekkerwijn, Africana and Koloni are not whimsical inventions as wine names – there’s genuine meaning to them.

Two wines from here, with recently released 2011s, in the lower-priced Solms-Astor range are called Langarm and Vastrap, after traditional local dances. The Astor bit in the name comes, incidentally, from Richard Astor (about as English as you get, despite American connections), who owns one of the farms producing grapes for Solms-Delta. He has been vital to the estate’s splendid revival of traditional Cape folk music.

The Vastrap back-label says: “Vastrap [trample] music unites Khoesan trance-dance with Dutch folk music. It is played on anything: concertinas, home-made violins, banjos and ‘blik-kitaars’. The traditional excuse for a Vastrap party was the trampling of a newly laid cow-dung floor; but the ancestors are said to have preferred the open air.”

Does the wine dance too? Well the white blend Vastrap strikes me as wanting a fairly serious conversation more than a jol. There are hints of honey and lanolin, but its not really aromatic, certainly not fruity. Nicely balanced and dry, though, and it would be a good food partner.

The tasty shiraz-based red blend Langarm I prefer. It’s also R55, but possibly better value, given the plenitude of good cheap white wines around (especially chenin). Like Vastrap, Langarm is not dumbed-down, but offers fun and charm, with a red-fruit sweetness as well as a firm structure. Very recommendable, for both dancing and discussion. In any language you wish.

The above first appeared in the Mail & Guardian,15-21 June 2012

Sadie Family Ouwingerdreeks

July 2 sees the third release of the Sadie Family’s Ouwingerdreeks (Old Vineyard Series), but for the 2011 vintage there are three new wines to add to the original six. (Where will it end, one wonders, as Eben Sadie discovers compelling new blocks of old, often neglected wines from which great wines can be made, and the vineyards saved from being rooted up as uneconomical).

A pre-release tasting of the whole range (as well as of the two well-established Sadie Family Wines, Columella and Palladius) was held on a beautiful green winter’s morning at the Sadie winery on the slopes of the Perdeberg in the southern Swartland (pic right). As expected, these wines, sensitively and subtly made with minimal intervention, are never less than interesting and often rise to very high levels of quality and fascination. They are mostly not “easy” wines, sometimes austere, but amply repay attention. (They are sold only by the case of 6 from the winery itself; case prices are given in brackets here – and they are remarkably low, in many cases – let it not be said that an international reputation, tiny volumes and high quality always lead to exploitative pricing.)

Skurfberg comes as before from 3 remote Olifantsrivier vineyards of chenin blanc. Something like fragrance on the stony, mineral aromas, with a dry saline quality joining in on the palate – it’s dry and powerful, with a big succulent acidity, though lingering and supple. Characterful and fine. (R1022)

Skerpioen is a new wine, from palomino (the great sherry variety) and chenin, from a sandyAtlantic-side vineyard. A bit more floral and soft than Skurfberg, but more pungent in flavour and a touch less graceful, I thought. Rich and powerful. (R1022)

Kokerboom is from an old vineyard of semillon (both the standard white and the red versions of this grape) on the Skurfberg, and like Skurfberg itself, tells a story of triumphant endurance in the harsh conditions of this austere mountainside. This wine showed itself very reduced at first, but opened in the glass with a bit of swirling. Lovely flavours, rich but refined, balanced and already harmonious. A firm grip, and a long, wonderfully flavoured finish.  (R1244)

‘T Voetpad is a blend of various varieties in this remote old vineyard in the far north of the Swartland (the pic shows Eben in it). Distinctive aromas – some dust, incense perhaps, hints of fresh tropicality. Complex flavours, fresh acidity which doesn’t dominate; grippy minerality; lingering. Elegant, despite the alcoholic power which does reveal itself on the finish. Unique wine, and a national treasure (as is the next). (R1244)

Mev. Kirsten. The most remarkable vintage yet from this mostly very old, absurdly low-yielding Stellenbosch chenin vineyard. This isa very expensive wine beacuase of the costs of producing it and its great rarity, but I am convinced it is amongst the greatest South African white wines available. I’ve always loved this wine, but this is the best vintage yet, as Sadie seems, after many vintages of grappling, to have learnt how to fully control the vineyard’s tendency to oxidation. There is an oxidative element, and there’s firm stoniness, but also lovely fresh fruit. (R4001)

Pofadder. From Riebeek Mountain cinsaut, and a great advertisement for the grape which was the dominant red variety in the Cape for much of the first half of the 20th century and found its way into many great wines thought of as cabernet-dominated. Perhaps reminiscent of the 2009 and less concentratedly present than the 2010, but still a wine that demands a lot of consideration after the first happy sips. Much perfumed charm, and a stunning balance of acidity, fruit and tannins; elegant and refined. Can cinsaut get better than this? (R1111)

Soldaat. My favourite of the reds, this new wine from Piekenierskloof grenache shows what Piekenierskloof grenache (also used by, eg, Neil Ellis and Ken Forrester) can be without overt oak influence. The charm belies the gravity and seriousness which is discernible – if you wish to locate it. Lightly intense; very firmly structured but carrying its tannin freight with great aplomb. Should mature interestingly if you can bear to wait. (R1244)

Treinspoor is from tinta barocca – and could almost call itself Tina Chocolat like the Boplaas version does. The most difficult and truculent of the reds, it’s dominated now by grainy but supple tannin and doesn’t seem to me to have the balance, let alone harmony, of the other wines. There is plenty of fruit lurking and I guess it will mature – but how gracefully, I wonder. I will pass on this one (and, given my respect for the others and their producer, suspect I may be wrong). (R1022)

Eselshoek is the dried-grape “straw wine” from the ancient muscat d’Alexandrie vines on the Voetpad vineyard. I must disqualify myself from judgement here, as I have a quirk which rejects most vins de paille. I know that some people find this wine fantastic. I myself am pleased that the plan is to (from 2013?) include all the grapes in the Voetpad blend. (R481 – 375ml)

What a wonderful tribute this range is to the old vineyards of the Cape!

Enquiries and orders to the winery.

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