Swartland and Stellenbosch

There was I wondering yet again why I do this bloody blog at all, and somehow ended up with the totally counter-intuitive idea that, instead of abandoning it entirely, I should try to do it more often. Irrationality piled high…..

Andre-Van-RensburgSo I thought that, with my newfound zeal, maybe I should write something about this extraordinary idea of André van Rensburg [not v d Merwe – was I drunk again?] of Vergelegen to make an “anti-Swartland wine”, supported it seems by Gary Jordan, owner of the eponymous wine estate and of the restaurant in London which will carry the wine.  According to Drinks Business, the Bordeaux-style blend will be called “NTS”, standing for “Not The Swartland”. (The pic alongside comes from there too.)

Not exactly devastating or greatly witty, is it? And I can’t see that the move does credit to two of the leading figures of Stellenbosch wine involved. Apparently, Gary thinks that “The Swartland thing is a fad”.  “There are some good wines coming out of the Swartland”, he kindly notes, which is pretty big of him, but loftily adds that “there are also a load of ‘natural’ wines from there which are faulty and shouldn’t be on the market”. Wow. He doesn’t name any of this “load” of wines, unfortunately. I would bet that I taste and drink more Swartland wines than Gary does, and I’ve come across rather few that would be called by their producers “natural”, in the sense that the international wine world is now using the term. Even fewer that  I think are faulty – though one or two, yes. I challenge him to name this “load” of faulty stuff.

Gary is also reported to believe that “it’s time for the media to turn its attention back to Stellenbosch”. Hmm. Is trashing the reputation of other areas really the best way to do this, I wonder? How about, rather, doing more exciting stuff? How about getting together cooperatively like the Swartland guys do and presenting an image of a dynamic region? In fact, there’s a great deal of great new stuff coming out of Stellenbosch – including Alheit’s wine from the Bottelary Hills, brilliance at Reyneke, increased focus on non-interventionist winemaking at Radford-Dale and Craven, quite apart from the more traditional places.

And, really, does Stellenbosch not get plenty of attention already? I know that I myself am in some quarters resented as being too enamoured of the Swartland – yet I can’t think when last I wrote about a Swartland winery, while I have very recently written glowingly about two of Gary’s Stellenbosch neighbours, Super Single and DeMorgenzon. And in my look at the latest Platter guide on winemag.co.za, I happily pointed out that Sadie Family Wines had scooped up some prestige for the Swartland, but that “Stellenbosch won both Wines of the Year [… and] was the runaway winner when it comes to origins of 5-star wines”. What, really do Gary and André want?

Poor old André
Actually, I must say that I’m feeling rather sorry for André at present. He’s undoubtedly one of the Cape’s best and most senior winemakers, yet I believe he now has to endure the insult of having a consultant thrust upon him. Heaven knows what Anglo American, owners of Vergelegen, are having to pay the famous (arguably notorious), and undoubtedly brilliant, bordelais winemaker Michel Rolland to give him advice. It must be a great deal of money.

A few years back, Rolland gave up all his New World consultancies, including the few he held in South Africa. It must be said, I’m afraid, that the results of his previous consultancies here were far from glorious – as elsewhere in the south. Mostly, it seems, he persuaded producers like Anthonij Rupert, Remhoogte and Rupert & Rothschild to pick ultra-ripe grapes.

All three of these wineries have improved wine quality since abandoning Rolland’s facile recipe. What is Vergelegen hoping to gain, I wonder? It’s hard to believe that André will welcome any interference in his winemaking, as though he’s a beginner – though it’s universally admitted, I think, that Rolland is a great blender of wines.

Perhaps he can help Vergelegen return to the public acclaim it enjoyed more widely a decade ago than now. But maybe it would have been cheaper, and more effective, to try to persuade one of the Swartland superstars to offer André advice, if the bosses aren’t happy enough with the way he’s been doing his job….

18 thoughts on “Swartland and Stellenbosch

  1. Michel Rolland – WTF?! They might just as well fortify all their wines. Boardroom wine decisions made by suits generally suck.

    I’m glad you’re writing more, Tim. You must invite Jörg over again soon.

  2. Abandon it!!! Hell no..Best bloody wine blog out there Tim.
    Would be great if you would couple your knowlege with a monthly wine tasting tutorial in a Stellenbosch location.

  3. I must say that I was really quite disappointed by this us vs them insecurity, but Gary was at great pains on social media to say he was quoted out of context and the reporting was bad. He hasn’t come out to explain what he actually said and meant, which will be most helpful to clear things up. Drinks Business said they stand by their reporting, which is rather interesting.

    As Roland Peens put it on Twitter – why should the Swartland be belittled because Stellenbosch do not promote themselves properly?

    As for Andre – I see you called him a van der Merwe above – he been telling you jokes again?

  4. Thanks Jonnie – that’s kind. But no, you wouldn’t want wine-tasting guidance from me. Plenty of excellent tasters who could give you much more.

    And thanks Hennie for the correction… I seem to remember I had a vague feeling at the time there was something wrong. And I’ve just been watching the distressing episodes of Wallander (proper Swedish version) where he is suffering increasingly from Alzheimer’s. Oh dear.

  5. Great article Tim. As a new entrant to the wine (selling) business I think one of the major issues with Stellenbosch farms and their respective wine makers is that they take themselves far too seriously.

    It is so much more fun marketing the crazy swartland bunch to the consumers!

  6. Tim, thanks for bringing this up. It’s very sad and tiresome all this bickering. We should all work to raise the overall status and recognition of SA wines, something that the Swartland collective have successfully been doing for a good few years. Their wines have a an identity and for the most part soul, that elusive facet that distinguishes good wine from that ‘light bulb’ moment! Gary makes good wine in my opinion, ticks all the boxes but it’s not special by any means and sadly lacks identity. Now to Andre, I believe the best way forward would be a healthy dose of Psilocybin and a good hard look at himself.

  7. I’ve received some corrective comments from Vergelegen MD Don Tooth, which implies that Drinks Business is guilty of some sloppy journalism at least with regard to Andre van Rensburg’s remarks (and I’ve also gathered that Gary Jordan is not pleased with them either).

    Don says:
    “Andre is not producing a “anti-Swartland” wine or any wine for High Timber;
    This was evidently a throwaway line used in the cellar when Noleen and Gary visited Andre and the comment was based on Noleen’s initials – NTS – very normal for Andre, quick wit and always happy to poke a little fun at anyone.”

    Further: “Andre has never issued that type of statement – Gary could offer me no explanation other than a vertical tasting of his wines held at High Timber that went very wrong, no Andre near present or anything.”

    I’d assumed – like everyone else – that Drinks Business would not have made this sort of report without good grounds.

    Don thinks it was wrong of me to write this blog, and also that I’m incorrect in my interpretation of the involvement of M Rolland. This was “at Andre’s request alone”. Of course, I accept the correction, and apologise for suggesting that Andre must have been bludgeoned into it! I certainly should have checked that first. (It seems to me a bizarre situation that someone like Andre needs and wants that sort of advice – but that’s a different matter entirely.)

  8. Methinks, Masters Tooth, vd “Merwe” and Jordan need a visit to the epicentre of the current Cape wine scene; where the energy is rife; the personalities are real and the wines have attitude! Let’s pass the hat around to secure them tickets for next years Swartland Revolution.
    Tim, the power of the force is strong within you.

  9. Tim, in 21 years I have only been completely misquoted and my aims hijacked twice by a journalist, once during the 2010 ‘Mining the Winelands’ episode and again in this week’s insidious article in Drinks Business regarding Andre van Rensburg, High Timber Restaurant or myself being anti-Swartland. I guess I should count myself lucky?

    When this story was published, I wondered whether I should give you a call, but then thought that if you were going to take this seriously you would have asked me for some comment first.

    I have written to many people directly and would have preferred to keep this out of the public domain as further discussion on blogs, facebook, twitter or other social media sites just keeps the article alive and drives negative debate which I believe will not do SA wine any good.

    One just has to read the title to know that this was meant to be a sensationalist piece of journalism designed to stir controversy and inevitably cause division within the South African wine industry. That is not what I am about and certainly don’t subscribe to and anybody who knows me will back this up. You too know me better than that.

    We happened to be at High Timber, arriving straight off a plane to host a vertical of our Cobblers Hill Blend, including the IWSC Blended Red Trophy winner (previously called the Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Trophy) which along with other significant medal-winning Jordan wines went on later that evening to reward us with the IWSC Trophy for the SA Producer of the Year. At no time did I ever say to Lucy that Andre was anti-Swartland – this she made up. What I did say was that the Swartland was receiving a lot of media coverage, and rightly so as some fantastic wines are being made there, but that the inevitable attention would bring many more people (winemakers) to the region and that the danger was that this could lead to faulty wines coming on the market as people cash in on a new region’s success (Lucy added natural, not that this matters, but they should not necessarily be used in the same sentence.) By now the discussion around the table had moved to the 66 and 68 GS Cab (you know these wines well … Durbanville Origin) and I mentioned that Duimpie Bayly had said that in those days they used either 1 blik/jam tin or 2 of tartaric acid depending on the vintage, and despite this those 2 vintage wines have stood out and are still amazing wines today. I said that Stellenbosch is waking up to regionality and that South African winemakers (Lucy wrote Stellenbosch) were no longer using a jam jar of acid nor whacking most wines with new oak as before in order to make better wines.
    For the record, Neleen Strauss (NTS, our business partner at High Timber) and I had a tasting with Andre van Rensburg in the Vergelegen cellar about 14 months ago if I remember correctly. Neleen said it would be great if a Bordeaux style blend could specially be made for High Timber Restaurant (we don’t serve one as yet at High Timber in case you were wondering.) Andre laughed at the time and quick as a flash, tongue in cheek said we’ll call it ‘Not the Swartland’. Did I mention at the time that Neleen Strauss’s initials are NTS? No, but the whole tasting and event was about the Jordan Cobblers Hill which Lucy hasn’t even touched on.

    Ironically, for the first time regarding any controversy involving Andre, he wasn’t there and had nothing to do with the event at High Timber. We sell wines from Vergelegen, Eben Sadie, Mullineux , Alheit, Paul Cluver , Hamilton Russell and many others from many regions of South Africa, all great wines from great winemakers. Subtle differences, different story but not worth losing sleep over. End of story.

    A prominent UK journalist wrote to me yesterday and said, “The drinks business guys are always looking for a story/ even at huge expense of producers – someone needs to call them on this – they are just a trade publication and this behaviour drives me mad.”

  10. Thanks Gary. I should have spoken to you and to Andre first – though I didn’t realise I was wrong in thinking that Drinks Business was a reputable publication and would have had its fact right. But clearly there’s only one real villain here, and that’s Drinks Business.

  11. Wow the absolute definition of lazy journalism.
    I have always maintained that SA wine scribes are the laziest bunch of free riders in SA media circles, yet some argue they are a necessary evil, but to write this drivel without actually taking the two minutes to call either Gary or Andre for confirmation really hammers my point home.
    Make that two villians Tim

  12. I have agreed, Stephen, that I should have spoken to the people involved, but I can’t agree that it was villainous to accept as reliable an article in a publication with a reputation for being respectable. Especially when it had been in the news for a few days and there had been no public refutation of it.
    As to your insulting extrapolation, I resent it. In what way am I a free rider? I get nothing apart from tasting samples and the very occasional lunch from the industry. I actually work quite hard for what little financial reward I get. I pay my own way generally – including for this website. What am I riding on? Given your concern for checking sources, I’m sure you have evidence for your assertion, and implicit inclusion of me in this category, so please provide it, or have the decency to acknowledge your mistake – as I did.
    Furthermore, throwing insults around from behind a screen of anonymity is cowardly and cheap.

  13. It truly worries me when a leading SA winewriter refers to an opinionated re-hash of a DB article without substantiating any facts as ” hard working”.
    Tim, I work in the industry and represent a handfull of very loyal and in my opinion hard working estates. If I was to reveal my name they would be associated with my opinions hence my annonymity.
    I have just returned from a gruelling 8 week trip abroad working 7 days a week, hand in hand with fellow SA producers, hand selling SA and SA wines, presenting tasting practically every evening and knocking down doors all day.
    We as producers work together not against one another as we all understand that we are working towards a common goal, building the credibility of the SA category abroad.
    I doubt you could imagine how frustrating it is when we compare the level of winewriting support enjoyed by Australia, New Zealand, Chilli and Argentina compared to us?
    SA winewriting is too busy conjuring up their own soap opera rather than serving a true purpose.

    • Oh, ‘Stephen’, you poor, poor soul. Life must be so challenging, knocking down doors all day. Must say though Tim, when I read the original Drinks Business piece, I immediately assumed Gary Jordan had been misquoted, it’s just not his style at all. (Andre’s, yes. Bless his Anglo socks.)

  14. Stephen – I nowhere referred to this particular blog as hard work. I did ask you, however, to substantiate your implicit suggestion that I am a “free rider” – and all I get is another bunch of cheap generalisations. I’m pleased that you’re working hard for the producers who presumably pay you well to do just that. Perhaps if the local industry was willing and able to pay a few more journalists decently, you’d see a rise in standards. Perhaps you also can’t imagine how frustrating it is when winewriters compare the level of support they get from the industry compared with Australia, etc. When last did you buy a book or even magazine by a local winewriter?

    Anyway, I could think of quite a few circles both internationally and nationally where it would be considered, dare I say it, that I have done rather more for the wider SA wine industry than you have (and I know who you are), for much less financial reward.

    But if you don’t like my blog or other writings, I suggest you force yourself to keep away.

  15. Hats off to Gary for explaining the whole misunderstanding. Now we are patiently wating for Eben Sadie to clarify his comments to Decanter regarding Robertson’s unsuitablilty for chardonnay and being copycats. I have a hunch none will be forthcoming.

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