The Swartland revolution, 100 years on…

This was – more-or-less – my introduction to the tasting of eight wines at last weekend’s Swartland Revolution event in Riebeek-Kasteel, with two each from Eben Sadie, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Adi Badenhorst, and Callie Louw of Porseleinberg.

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This seminar is subtitled “secret sidelines and private prospects” and the idea of all the surprises in our glasses put me in mind of the famous saying (better known in Latin, but apparently around already in Ancient Greece), and anyway translatable as: Always something new out of Africa. To which Aristotle and so on might well have added: And out of the Swartland always something new AND surprising and good.

swartlandrevolutionSo I turned to ponder a bit about the Swartland and newness. We’re all aware of the vital role the Swartland has played in the revolution in Cape winemaking of the last few decades – the re-emergence of this region datable back, I’d say, to the release of Sadie Columella 2000, not coincidentally one of the modern Cape’s first naturally-fermented wines. The changes in the way that Columella has been made since then (lower alcohol, greater freshness, less new oak etc), illustrate the continuing revolution, as do the notable contributions of the other people at this table. But we must note that much of what the Swartland pioneered in South Africa – with these winemakers a leading part of an international vanguard – is now spreading widely here. One sign of this I became increasingly aware of while proofreading my way through the latest edition of the Platter Guide: the remarkable number of wines being naturally fermented in other regions too. Frequently without acidification, addition of enzymes, etc, and without fining and filtration too. Nearly everywhere, freshness is being more sought after, at the expense of the extremes of ripeness, alcoholic, heavy extractions, and lashings of new oak.

What happens to an avant-garde when all (or at least many) join in? As the others catch up, is the Swartland still in the vanguard, still the radical force, still leading Cape wine forward? Probably much less so – though the wines we’re tasting at this seminar show why these winemakers and this appellation are so important: partly through their experimental nature, they are forward-looking while building on the best parts of old and new traditions.

Newness, radicalism, is only one sign of vitality, and at later stages of development there are other, more important signs. Sheer excellence becomes even more significant. I don’t think it’s trivial or even totally obvious to stress this. All along, it’s not just through being the avant-garde that the leading Swartland winegrowers have achieved success, it is also through excellence, and excellence is the way forward for this region (and all regions) once the buzz of newness and the radicalism of experimentation has quietened down. Any number of winemakers have jumped on the already-moving Swartland train, and they wave excitedly from the windows offering their wares at smart prices, but it is only excellence and hard work that will keep them there. (In brackets, let me point out just how very hard the people at this table have worked, and continue to work.) That’s what keeps producers successful in the world’s classic regions where, mostly, experimentation, newness, surprises and avant-gardism are comparatively rare. You don’t look for innovation in the likes of Chave and Jamet. In fact, when it happens it’s a bit worrying.

Swartland 2As we all move on, much is uncertain. Global warming, for example, is one of the big uncertainties which could affect the Swartland substantially. Who’s to say whether syrah will always be the red king here if water becomes even scarcer and temperatures rise? Some are already doubting it. Hence some of the experiments by forward-looking Swartland winemakers like we have here today.

But perhaps in 100 years the time of experimentation will be largely over, and things will have settled down nicely. It took the classic regions of Europe many hundreds of years to achieve something like understanding of their terroirs, but with our level of scientific understanding, it should take less here. Who knows, in a century from now it might be a bit dull.

Chris and Andrea Mullineux are talking about planting a special vineyard on their Roundstone farm – one amongst various plantings – expressly designed to grow genuinely old. When those vines are getting seriously venerable, in that 100 years I glibly speak of, much of the context is likely to be very different, for good and ill (as I mentioned, climate change is a big worry for the Swartland, for example, and we can hope that society will be rather better organised than it is now) – but whatever the differences, let’s hope that there will still be Mullineux descendants farming around Riebeek Kasteel – and Sadies and Badenhorsts still on the Paardeberg, and Louws on the Porseleinberg or some other magic Swartland mountain.

And I like to think of young, descendant Sadies living in the old house that Eben and Maria are right now building on the Paardeberg, working in the old vineyards (perhaps replanted a few times already) that Eben is planting now. And a Mullineux or two in their ancient vineyard celebrating its centenary. And what if they think back to 100 years before, and rifle thorough tatty, yellowed old records and souvenirs of those days, and read about the long-past days, when there was a famous celebratory event called the Swartland Revolution?

Perhaps they will look around them, at the Swartland mountains and the Swartland vineyards, world famous for its wines, a prosperous and happy place, and they will think a little wistfully: OK, things are good now, but, gosh, it must have been so exciting back then….

And back then is now, and gosh, it is exciting, isn’t it? and full of marvellous surprises and stories.

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