Swartland past

More or less my little opening speech at the “Swartland stories” seminar at the Swartland Revolution, at which we were privileged to taste five old wines.

Here are two pithy quotations that seem appropriate to this tasting. First, from the actress Joan COllins who famously retained her sexiness long past its usual sell-by date (and still does at 80, some people say – but maybe they’re just kinky). “Age is just a number” she said. “It’s totally irrelevant – unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine.”

Secondly, the famous opening lines of LP Hartley’s novel The Go Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

This is a particularly apposite idea in many ways. In 1973, exactly 40 years ago, some of the wines we are about to taste were a few years old already. Joan Collins was 40, I was 18 and having the most awful nine months of my life doing military service; Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst were babes in arms – troublesome noisy ones, I suspect; Callie Louw and Andrea and Chris Mullineux were still bits of blissful stardust. And South Africa was a foreign country indeed. John Vorster was firmly lodged as Prime Minister, Steve Biko was banned that year, there were major strikes signalling the resurgence of the workers’ movement. More immediately relevantly for wine, the international boycott of South Africa was starting to bite. And if the government had its thumb on the populace, the KWV was very firmly in control of the wine industry – for better and for worse (but that’s another story).

The huge British market for so-called South African sherry was declining, although it was certainly pretty big here. I have a local 1966 book on SOuth African wine which lists 54 brands or bottlings of Cape sherry available here – many more than there were of red wines. But the Lieberstein revolution of off-dry white wines, depending for their fruitiness on cold fermentation, had long since come by the early 70s – and brought huge plantings of chenin blanc to the Swartland.

Chenin was now nationally the most planted variety – it took over from cinsaut in 1968, when they both had about 22% of the national vineyard. Palomino, the sherry grape, was second, but losing ground. By the end of the 1970s, chenin had nearly 30% of the vineyard, and Pinotage and Cabernet were, apart from cinsaut, the only red varieties amongst the top 15 – and each with less than 3%. Only 40% of the grape harvest was used for wine, the rest going for juice or distillation. Nowdays 80% of the harvest goes to wine.

It was a very foreign country. But one important link from 1973 – it was the year the Wine of Origin system came into play – a very important development.

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I was thinking about the idea of the Swartland Revolution and wondering if maybe “Swartland renaissance” or “rebirth” mightn’t have been a preferable name – it contains more acknowledgement of the past somehow, as well as fundamental change. But I suppose we tend to associate renaissance with changes in world-views, in ideas, rather than a fundamental, more material change – though in fact social reality and ideas tend to go pretty closely together in their progress and decay. Also, perhaps, the idea of revolution has more energy about it, a more youthful bit of aggression to the status quo, which makes very applicable to what has happened in the Swartland.

I’m anyway, very pleased to be plunged in the middle of the Swartland Revolution with a big R and the Swartland revolution with a small r – the extraordinarily lively rebirth, reinvention of winemaking philosophy and practice in this lovely part of the world.

But of course it’s not as simple as rebirth, revolution, rejection. After all, that’s why we are here at this extraordinary tasting of wines which celebrates the past. More than that, it’s a tasting that brings the past right into the centre of the present.

And this bringing together of past and present is, I think, very significant. Even more importantly, it’s not only in the Swartland that we see it. In the last five or ten years in many areas of South African winelife there’s been increasing interest shown in the legacy of Cape wine. Cellars have been searched for old bottles, and they’ve been reverently dusted off, opened and marvelled at. This hardly happened in the 1990s or the early 2000s as I recall. Then it was all about the new, about the revolutionary present and future. Winemakers were travelling the world and bringing back what they’d learnt about growing vines and making wines. New areas were being opened up, old areas (like the Swartland) were being reinvented, and reinvested with a new energy.

One aspect of the latest stage of the whole Cape wine revolution is the invocation of what is local and specific – we know how to make good wines, we’ve become part of the wider world. Now we’re learning how to make good Cape wines – responding better and more expressively to what this soil and this climate does best. The best winegrowers of the Swartland are in the vanguard of this movement. So it’s very fitting that this particular celebration is also doing that other important part of establishing the local and the specific – reaching back into the past, recognising tradition. We are seeing ourselves in a continuity with what has gone before – doing things very differently in some ways, certainly, but sometimes learning from the past. Sometimes the past challenges the present, not the other way round. You taste a modest Swartland wine made in the 1970s, still alive and balanced, but with an alcohol level of little more than 12%, perhaps, and with a bone-dry finish. It’s a challenge from the past to the present that needs an answer.

These are two things which help the revolution stay fresh and vital and moving – the movement outside to other parts of the world, and the strengthening of roots. The Swartland Revolution weekend has always had an international dimension. It’s great that this year we have a historical dimension too.

Traditions are there to be first of all recognised and respected – then they can be challenged by other traditions, new techniques, new understandings. What results is a synthesis of the two that takes the present to a higher level and brings something entirely new, but linked to the past. I think this is much the way many aspects of progressive human history happen.

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This tasting has taken quite a lot of organising and effort to get here – and the work continued this morning, at six oclock we were amongst these bottle tasting and sniffing and decanting and blending. It didn’t go to make wine seem like a glamorous occupation. I hope it’s going to be worth all the effort – and all your time and money too, of course. Undoubtedly, though, it is a tasting that is never going to be repeated. This is it. We and these wines together are it. In some cases these are the last bottles of these wines in existence.

All of these wines in your glasses were made by the Swartland Cooperative, which many of you passed as you left Malmesbury on the way here. The generosity of the co-op, and of the KWV for one of the wines, as will be explained, in giving us these wines to taste has been marvellous, and was done in a great spirit. The people alongside me are going to say more about each wine, but let me conclude this intro by saying a few words about the coop in those earlier days.

It was founded in 1948, a year of great significance of course as it brought the National Party to power, at a time when the co-op movement was hugely expanding, partly because of the need for better facilities to make “good” wine rather than distilling wine.  Soon, expensive technologies like cold fermentation encouraged the move away away from private production. Before the war there were 6 co-ops, after the war there were 19 (on of them Riebeek, by the way). By 1955 there were 46. For better or for worse, it was the age of the co-op.

In the early days, the bulk of the production was white wine, especially Palomino, but also Semillon and a slightly mysterious variety called False Pedro. The only red-wine contribution was cinsaut. But the first edition of Platter, in 1980, also lists wines made from Pinotage and Tinta Barocca, and in fact a 1969  Pinotage won a second prize at the 1972 International WIne Show in Budapest, which was clearly regarded as pretty significant.

Interestingly that early Platter mentions that the co-op’s bulk red wine went into KWV’s famous export brand, Roodeberg, but ten years later it points out that the 90-member co-op was now selling its entire crop through its own efforts, rather than selling the bulk of its wine to the wholesale merchants. Platter speaks of “consistent and sometimes amazingly good quality”. In those days, the Swartland was included under Stellenbosch for the Young Wine Shows – and it was champion co-op producer for the whole area four times during the 80s.

The wines were pretty good. Let’s taste them, and see if they’ve lasted as well as Joan Collins.

One thought on “Swartland past

  1. I mentioned to Chris Mullineux almost a year ago [ and I claimed then that it was my intellectual capital, and it still is] that the Swartland Revolution should, over the next few years, start “dropping/decreasing the size of the R in Revolution. The “big idea” is that as the “R” starts fading/dropping out, the lower caps of evolution become more bold/prominent. the “e” starts to capitalise,and that in a few years time, it becomes “Swartland Evolution “.

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