Again and again I marvel at the depth and spread of the winegrowing revolution in the Cape in its latest phase over the last decade. From Cape Agulhas to the northernmost reaches of the West Coast, there is interesting stuff, there are producers rescuing the grapes off old vines from mediocre destinies, turning away from heavily interventionist – or even industrial – viticultural and winemaking approaches. And we wine-drinkers are the beneficiaries.
Those producers range from the thoroughly professional to the garagiste amateur. I hope Gavin Brand won’t mind me hesitating over which category to put him in. His dad, Willie Brand, has been a long-time supplier to the massive co-ops in the Vredendal area of the Olifants River (now consolidated as Namaqua Wines). This is the sort of place where most grape-farmers would scorn to drink wine rather than brandy-and-coke; where the reps dealing in chemicals and other additives beam happily as they drive away counting their commissions.
Gavin reminded me recently (I need increasing amounts of reminding about most things) that in the good old days when I had a column in Noseweek I wrote about the ultimately unsuccessful bullying attempt by Distell to prevent them from marketing a wine in a flagon-shaped bottle embossed with a lobster – a Cape Rock Lobster. (Distell imagined that they had exclusive use of the “bocksbeutel” bottle.) Well, I don’t know what’s happened to that bottle, but the Cape Rock label lives on – with the lobster now much reduced in size.
Cape Rock were at this stage (from 2000 onwards) only making wine for bulk buyers. It was in 2005 (not 1905 – thanks Chris! memory not the only problem…) that young Gavin joined in to start bottling some own-brand wines from grapes off their farm – saved from the vast tanks and industrial winemaking of the combo of Vredendal and Spruitdrift cellars (now Namaqua). The wines, especially as some trendier grape varieties have been planted (shiraz was always interesting), have grown in reputation under the tender and non-interventionist winemaking care of Gavin.
Gavin has now also made a pair of more determinedly “natural” wines for his own label, blending Olifants River and Swartland grapes – and the “new Swartland” approach clearly in mind. The future of the “Amnesty” and “Asylum” wines seems a little shaky, however – Gavin is not sure what will happen with the 2015 vintage. I gather that a real problem for him is trying to juggle two jobs: winemaking in Vredendal, and his day job as a landscape architect in Cape Town. He loves both, but feels at present he’s unable to devote himself the necessary 100% to either. (I’ll be hoping for the wine, if the maiden vintages of “Amnesty” and “Asylum” are anything to go by.)
I’ve been living with five of Gavin’s wines over the past three days. I’m actually not sure how typical the two main Cape Rock wines are of the winemaker’s intentions. The red SMV 2012, with 10% mourvèdre and 5% viognier added to the syrah, is notably ripe at 15% alcohol, with 3.3 g/l of residual sugar. It’s not over-ripe in terms of flavour, has a lovely fragrance and flavour of dried herbs and spice along with blackish fruit, and it’s well and firmly structured; no new oak used; but there’s definitely some heat on the finish and a fraction more sweetness than I like.
The white on the other hand – GRV 2012 from a youngish vineyard of Grenache blanc, roussanne and viognier – is a mere 10.8% alcohol and bone-dry. It’s light, charming and elegant, with a fresh acidity. But I confess I wished it had just a little of the heft and weight of the red; plenty of flavour and not insipid, but you could perhaps have trouble in deciding whether to call it ethereal or thin….
No problems at all with the two more “natural” wines. Asylum White Blend 2013 is mostly from older Swartland chenin, with old-vine columbar and clairette from Olifants River. All natural ferment, the clairette and columbard fermented on the skins for five days; a mix of tank and older oak barrels, 60% on fine lees for 10 months. It’s actually even a fraction lower in alcohol than the GRV, but the tiny fraction more sugar and the added richness of the lees and a touch of tannin give it a (to my palette) much more satisfying weight, succulence and balance. Less fruity, more dried-herbal and earthy, with a lovely acidic freshness. Absolutely drinkable and more-ish. I really like this wine.
As I do the Amnesty Red Blend 2013. Again the majority, 75% component, syrah, is from the Swartland, with cinsaut and smidgens of Grenache, carignan and mourvèdre from Olifants River. Just 12.5% alcohol, with a pure, delicate fragrance, bright fruit, and wonderfully integrated yet informing tannins.
Returning to the Cape Rock label for what is definitely a once-off wine: Matrimonia Syrah 2013, made for Gavin’s recent marriage. From home grapes, whole-bunch-fermented (giving a stalky note and responsible I’d guess for the slightly drying tannins); unfiltered. Peppery, spicy and with none of the sweetness that troubled me a bit in the SMV. Interesting wine which will benefit from a good few years in bottle. Just 248 bottles were made, and I believe it’s only available from Norman Goodfellow in Johannesburg – at R250 by far the most expensive of the wines.
Viva the Cape wine revolution – and I look forward to Gavin Brand consolidating his position in it.