South Africa's maverick winemakers

South Africa's maverick winemakers

Although South Africa’s vinous heritage stretches back more than 350 years, we’re still considered a ‘New World’ nation in the world of winemaking. While some may perceive this a snub, it’s actually a gift; a licence to innovate unshackled by the weight of history and the bureaucracy of onerous regulation. 

Instead, unhindered, a handful of maverick local winemakers are pushing the boundaries of viticulture and oenology in a bid to discover new terroir, redefine the concept of winemaker, and force us to rethink our connection with the vineyards. 

The Wild West (Coast)

What image springs to mind when you think of the winelands? Verdant vineyards beneath towering mountain peaks? An oak-lined driveway sweeping towards a stately Cape Dutch manor house? 

How about a wind-whipped coastline and barrels in a former crayfish-processing factory? That’s precisely what you’ll find at Fryer’s Cove, the lone winery in the far-flung Bamboes Bay wine ward 300-kilometres north of Cape Town. 

What began as a good (crazy?) idea around the braai came to life in 1999 when Jan Ponk van Zyl and Wynand Hamman planted the first vines in their small vineyard between Doring Bay and Strandfontein. 

Both have decades of experience in the industry – van Zyl as a large-scale grape farmer near Vredendal, Hamman as winemaker for the likes of Backsberg and Lanzerac – but Fryer’s Cove was a passion project for these two men with deep roots in the region.

“This was a hobby that turned into a dream,” says van Zyl, gazing over their four hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and two of Pinot Noir. With the ocean just 800-metres from the vineyard the cooling sea breezes maintains perfectly cool temperatures for Pinot Noir, while the salty spray keeps vine mildew at bay and lends a distinct minerality to the Sauvignon Blanc. 

The cellar and tasting room are as dramatic as the vineyards: in 2010 a mothballed crayfish factory in Doringbaai’s old harbour was transformed into the Fryer’s Cove cellar. Today it’s one of the most memorable wineries South Africa has to offer, the dramatic seafront location reminiscent of broody Scottish distilleries.

And the wines? Past vintages of the Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc have scored well in the respected Platter’s Guide, while their Doring Bay Sauvignon Blanc offers a well-priced, approachable taste of the West Coast. The Pinot Noir is also delicious, a blend of bright fruit and balanced minerality. 

Going it alone

To be a winemaker, conventional wisdom has long held that you need a large estate planted to vines, alongside a cellar fitted with tanks and barrels. If it’s all packaged up with a dollop of neat Cape Dutch heritage and charm, then so much the better. 

But that wisdom is changing. Some of the most exciting local wines are coming from winemakers with not a vine to their name, and instead holding the (rented) keys to someone else’s multi-million-rand cellar.

These négociant winemakers are free to shop around the winelands for vineyards that suit their winemaking vision, with no need to invest millions in their own private cellar. When buy, when you can rent?

It’s perhaps an unconventional approach to the industry, but then the wines speak for themselves. Trizanne Barnard taps into grapes from both Elim and the Swartland for her acclaimed range of Trizanne Signature Wines. Duncan Savage, long-famous for cool-climate white wines while cellarmaster at Cape Point Vineyards, has released remarkable reds under his own label Savage Wines, with grapes drawn from the Piekenierskloof to the Cape Peninsulsa.  At FRAM wines Thinus Krüger taps into vineyards from Citrusdal (Pinotage) to Robertson (Chardonnay) for his notable ‘wines of exploration’. Time for wine-lovers to join the journey?

In tune with the earth

Terra est vita, reads the label on every bottle of wine from Avondale. Soil is life

Just three simple words, but they neatly encapsulate the sustainable philosophy underpinning the award-winning wines from Avondale, a family-owned estate near Paarl in the Western Cape winelands.

Many wine estates like to hitch their brand to the popular bandwagon of environmental sustainability, but few in South Africa live their philosophy to the extent of Avondale’s Johnathan Grieve. A quietly passionate farmer and winemaker, Grieve’s unique BioLOGIC approach blends organic and biodynamic principles with a modern scientific approach. 

“In the wine industry you hear so much talk about terroir, but at a farming level the irony is that by applying chemicals you’re nullifying the impact of your soil,” explains Grieve. “BioLOGIC is about creating living systems naturally using those three different disciplines. At the end of the day we want to create wines that are uniquely Avondale, and expressive of its terroir. That’s why we farm this way.”

Celebrating and nurturing the soil is key for Grieve, whether it’s applying biodynamic preparations to feed the earth or introducing natural predators to curb pests in the vineyards. That terroir-driven philosophy continues into the cellar, where the focus on wild yeasts and natural fermentation dovetails with whole-bunch ferments, clay amphorae and restrained use of oak to express the true taste of Avondale. 

“If you’re trying to create natural wines it doesn’t make sense to overwork the grapes in the cellar,” explains Grieve. “We just want to nurture those grapes to release their own unique character.” 

Here be dragons?

As winemakers strive to capture a unique sense of place in each and every bottle, it’s little wonder that adventurous cellarmasters are searching for the blank spaces on South Africa’s viticultural map. Whether it’s the availability of cheap land, or the prospect of dabbling in unusual climates and soil types, winemakers across the country are exploring new frontiers. 

In KwaZulu-Natal Abingdon Estate outside Howick is crafting some particularly fine Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, while in the hills around Knysna and Plettenberg Bay sun-seeking tourists are pleasantly surprised to discover the wonderful Méthode Cape Classique and Sauvignon Blanc from Bramon Wine Estate. 

In the Southern Cape there are also interesting moves afoot. Since the first vines were planted on the windy plains near Cape Agulhas in 1996, the most southerly vineyards in Africa are turning out excellent white and red wines. Bordeaux-style white blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are the stars here, but Rhône-style red blends also excel in this cool and windy wine ward. Black Oystercatcher is particularly known for its white blends, while nearby Strandveld Vineyards produces exceptional Sauvignon Blanc and wonderful red wines. 

Winemaker Conrad Vlok has a deft touch with both Pinot Noir and Syrah, here showing plenty of cool-climate spice and pepper, while The Navigator – which adds Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier to the blend – honours the region’s rich nautical heritage. 

Not far off, Stellenbosch winemaker David Trafford is also breaking new ground with Sijnn Vineyards. Set halfway between Swellendam and the coast, near the Breede River hamlet of Malgas, it was the poor pebbly soils here that first caught Trafford’s eye

“Wine is about the only type of agriculture where for the highest quality you want very poor soils,” explains Trafford, who says the area reminded him of the iconic French region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In deference to the harsh climate Trafford is focusing on Mediterranean cultivars – including Syrah, Grenache Noir, Vermentino and Assyrtiko – well suited to the hot, dry and windy conditions. 

Old vines, great wines

South Africa’s winemaking heritage may stretch back more than three centuries, but until fairly recently the industry’s farmers and winemakers weren’t much bothered by exploring the potential of wines from old vines. Yields plummet after 20 years, so why keep an old vineyard producing only a few tons per hectare in the ground, when vigorous new vines can push out 15 or 20 tonnes of quality grapes from the same patch of land.

Balance and complexity is the answer, and while the costs of working with old vines are considerably higher than high-yielding younger vineyards, winemakers of the calibre of Eben Sadie, Chris Alheit, Andrea Mullineux and Adi Badenhorst are some of the maverick winemakers realising – and releasing – the potential of old vines across the Cape winelands. 

“A young vine is like an immature person,” explains Eben Sadie, whose Old Vine Series sets the bar for old vine wines in South Africa. “But then life batters you down a bit. Life is slowly but surely sanding you down into a smoother, more rounded individual. It happens just the same to a young vine.”

“Over time the vine grows into balance,” explains Andre Morgenthal who, with viticulturist Jaco Engelbrecht, is spearheading the Old Vine Project, a remarkable undertaking begun by viticulturist Rosa Kruger in 2003. Their lofty goal is to catalogue South Africa’s 2600 hectares of vines older than 35 years – the local threshold for ‘old vines’ – and help keep them in the ground by matching winemakers with farmers. 

For oenophiles, this can only be good news. Taste the remarkable single vineyard wines in Sadie’s Old Vine Series. Try the Cape of Good Hope Semillon and Pinotage from Anthonij Rupert Wyne. Sample the Optenhorst Chenin Blanc from Bosman Family Vineyards, or the Camino Africana from David Finlayson’s Edgebaston Winery. In common? They’re each made from old vineyards, some close on a century old. And all would be threatened by the farmer’s plough unless proud winemakers saw the potential of their deep roots in South African soils. 

 

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.