Last week, I visited a farm called Solitude. Or should Eenzaamheid be translated as “loneliness”? In English there’s the distinction, which is sometimes an advantage – but not always, for ambiguity can have much in its favour.
I think of what the Cape was like in the late 17th century for that Dutch settler claiming and naming his tract of virgin land at the foot of Africa. Put aside the politics, and imagine: you had made that long and terrible sea crossing to a world which had nothing familiar in it. In 1683, 60 morgen of land was granted to you, and there you were, surrounded by fearful immensity with not even the stars familiar, with wild animals (that you were annihilating), and strange people (whose way of life you were destroying).
You decide to call your farm Eenzaamheid. Perhaps it means solitude, but surely it must mean loneliness too?
Today, Eenzaamheid is a tamed, but still beautiful place, on gently undulating land with grand mountains on all horizons; the views are spectacular. It’s a large, prosperous mixed farm, its 885 hectares effectively joined with another 300-hectare farm, all managed with immense professionalism by Christo Briers-Louw (the story behind that double-barrelled name is worth listening to, as are all Christo’s historical tales) and his son Janno. Janno represents the seventh generation of the family on the land, though the boundaries have changed since the early days.
There are other children (a lawyer and, says Janno a bit doubtfully, an entrepreneur), but Janno is the one for whom farming the land is life itself. Not viticulture, perhaps – he says looking after 400 hectares of vines involves too much management of labour, so he delegates that – and cattle are clearly his great love. But Janno studied winemaking, and for the past few years he’s been holding back grapes normally destined for Perdeberg Winery, and expertly vinifying them in makeshift circumstances in the corner of a large shed.
Wine was last made here in the early 1940s (when the Perdeberg co-op was founded) in the ancient and now finely restored original farm building – accommodation at one end; working space and slave quarters at the other. The long, low building, with its “wolf-nose” gable showing it as older than the curled gables most associated with Cape Dutch architecture, is depicted in a drawing on the Eenzaamheid labels.
There are three reds, all rich and ripe, their generous fruitiness untrammelled by wood flavours – Janno admirably holds back on new oak barrels. The current vintage, 2011, shows a welcome move towards lightness, but there is still plenty of power, perhaps a little too much, and too much sweet fruit (though the wines are properly dry) for some tastes.
A flavourful bargain, at R60, for those who enjoy very ripe and rich wines, is the nonvintaged shiraz-based blend called Cuvee 1693. The Pinotage-Cinsaut and Shiraz-Mourvèdre-Cinsaut are reasonable value for double that. In both, Janno cleverly deploys cinsaut juice to add some light, red-fruited freshness without detracting from the solid structure. The current releases are from the 2010 vintage. I slightly prefer the Shiraz-Mourvèdre-Cinsaut, which has less perfume but more in the way of savoury, spicy characters, and is a little drier in effect.
Unquestionably, though, Eenzaamheid’s star is the genuinely dry Chenin Blanc (also R120), deftly made from old-vine grapes in the modern-old-fashioned style that trendy Swartland winemakers have been treating us to in recent years. Only older oak is used for maturing the wine, so its purity is not challenged – though some complexity and breadth is added by time in barrel. The 2012 is full of character, with subtle aromas of dried herbs, fynbos and stonefruit; it’s gentle and silky, but there’s real force there, which should benefit from a few more years in the bottle. The 2011 is drinking beautifully now, but the 2012 is just that bit more alert and lively. Both have got a good few years development ahead of them. It’s an excellent wine, because it’s from a fine vineyard, and the grapes carefully managed to express its origins.
It’s wonderful to see ambitions unleashed in young farmers like Janno by the Cape wine revolution of recent decades. This is part of what the revolution is all about. It’s not just a matter of shiny new winemakers moving and breaking new ground, but also about wonderful grapes, whose juice used to disappear into million-litre blending tanks at the co-op, that are now making wines of character and grace. It’s a matter of reaching back into tradition and taking the past into the future.
This is a longer version of the column published in the Mail & Guardian, 18–24 October 2013