Renowned winemaker David Trafford’s exploration of the uncharted soils near the mouth of the Breede River – at Malgas, some 15 kilometres from the Indian Ocean – is proving to be one of the more interesting adventures of modern Cape winemaking, and certainly amongst its most surprising. Last Saturday night at the Lemoentuin farm there was a celebration of the first vintage to be made in the new cellar. It wasn’t a characteristically low-key affair, largely for friends, family and neighbours – as well as the two partners with David and Rita Trafford in the venture: Simon Farr, the eminent British wine man, and Quentin Hurt from Durban.
Previous vintages (the first bottling was of the 2007) had been made in the De Trafford cellar in Stellenbosch. Now, new resident winemaker Charla Haasbroek has a modest but clever building in which to craft the wines from the 16 hectares of vines on the farm – mostly of grapes other than the international blue-chip varieties. In fact, five more hectares are about to be planted, furthering David’s ambition to find interesting varieties suited to the warm (but not hot) maritime climate; the list of new arrivals is long, and includes a couple of, as yet, great rarities in South Africa: garnacha peluda (“hairy Grenache”!) from Spain and assyrtiko from Greece.
Incidentally, planting is not a straightforward matter in the Sijnn soils. In fact, it seemed to me as I stumbled through though the vineyards that “soil” is not easily noticeable among the tightly packed alluvial stones and shale. It was the smoothly-rounded rocks that first drew David’s attention here, as they reminded him of the rather similar boulders characteristic of part of Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe in southern France. The extremely poor but complex soils and low rainfall (supplemented by irrigation, however) at Malgas mean low yields, and the decision to grow all the vines as bushvines was a response to the conditions.
David is clearly still full of enthusiasm for the developing project. It’s a big contrast to the situation at the small Stellenbosch family farm which is the base for the now well-established De Trafford wines, and perhaps that’s exactly the point. In Stellenbosch, he says, the point is to “stick to what you do and continually do it better” in the delimited space. (I think of those making syrah in Hermitage according to the practices of a dozen generations: there is no doubt job satisfaction – but excitement?) Malgas is more of an adventure for David – here’s room to expand and experiment, and the pleasure and challenge of skilfully developing something new.
Whether the new plantings will lead to new Sijnn wines is uncertain at best – but they should certainly have an effect on the two blends which are the real focus here: Sijnn Red and Sijnn White. The flagships, yes, though many winelovers would rate, as I do, the elegant, fine and even grandly austere Syrah as the standout achievement thus far. (Part of the pleasure of it, I suppose, is the radical difference from the richer, riper, more opulent De Trafford versions.)
On Saturday we had the privilege and pleasure of vertical tastings of the Red and White, on the night we celebrated the new cellar, sampling them with a splendid view across the vines down to the Breede River as it glittered and then disappeared in the gathering darkness.
The natural-ferment White was for me particularly appealing. It’s based on chenin, with some viognier giving more weight than specific flavour or aromatic character perhaps and somewhat less roussanne adding to the cleanness of cut. The current-release 2013 is good, combining refined elegance with a subtly rich texture, and the 2010, with added complexity, is a good advertisement for keeping this wine a good few years. But the next vintage, 2014, is fresher and even better.
If the vertical tasting of the White showed a growth in interest and quality, so did that of the Red, with the current 2010 drinking well already – more complex, less obviously sweet-fruited and generally better balanced than earlier vintages – but the 2011 improving further on that in terms of refinement, freshness and convincing structure.
It must be a mental conflict for producers of a newish wine: they both need to sell the current vintage and also want recognition of continuing progress (consequent on maturing vineyards and on a better understanding of how to deal with them). Rest assured that the current releases will give a lot of satisfaction. Forthcoming wines should give even more. In a decade or two we will surely know if this is a great terroir or merely a decent one. Meanwhile it’s an honourable, exciting and – for winelovers as well as the protagonists – rewarding experiment.