The last time I visited David Trafford's place, my lower back took a week to loosen up after driving up the steep, bumpy road to his winery. I was secretly hoping it would be better-paved this time, but no such luck.
No matter. The incentive to meet and taste with David is more than enough to power through. I'm often asked what my favorite wines are, and I always say I can't play favorites, especially as a professional critic. What I put in print is what I stand behind. But let me make this clear if a decade's worth of reviews haven't made it clear enough already: David Trafford makes some of the most distinctive, compelling wine in South Africa. And his Syrah is one of my favorites.
Just next door to Rust en Vrede is Ernie Els Wines, which carries the name of the internationally acclaimed professional golfer. While Els himself likes wine and puts his (slightly more than) 2 cents into the project, the day-to-day work falls to winemaker Louis Strydom.
Strydom was the winemaker at Rust en Vrede previously, and from 2000 through 2005 he worked at both wineries, which were coupled by Jean Englebrecht's helping Ernie Els break into the wine business and some shared fruit sources. But Els has developed and is maturing into its own stand-alone winery, and since 2006 has been running by itself. The 185-acre property now has 94 acres of vines with plans to plant up to 20 more acres.
From the slopes of the Simonsberg, I swung around from Kanonkop to the other other side of Stellenbosch, up against the Helderberg, an equally dramatic mountain that provides part of the constantly jaw-dropping view around these parts.
At Rust en Vrede (for background, see my March 2007 blog entry from a visit here), decomposed granite from the Helderberg mixes with sandstone from Table Mountain to form a yellowish, fine-pebbled soil. With the site protected from the prevailing sea breeze, it's decidedly warmer than most, so red wines are all that are made here, with an emphasis on Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Pinotage is a troubled grape—difficult to grow and vinify, never really very charming, yet held up by many in South Africa as the Cape's signature variety. Its plantings have dipped a bit in recent years in favor of more international varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and it seems to never have grabbed a foothold in the U.S. market, which Cape winemakers desperately want to crack open. Yet despite that, it still holds a significant place in the hearts of the home folks. And at Kanonkop, it sees arguably its best expression.
Bruwer Raats now has vines literally right next door, as he's planted the parcel that surrounds his house-cum-winery. Raats has sourced Chenin Blanc vines from France, preferring a clone called Montpellier that he found a scant amount of in the Swartland and fell in love with for its naturally low vigor, small berries and loose bunches.
A relative newcomer to South Africa's Cape wine scene, De Morgenzon has been quickly churning out some superb value Chenin Blanc and Syrah offerings, and has some new bottlings up its sleeve. Owned by Wendy and Hylton Appelbaum, who bought the estate in 2003, De Morgenzon debuted with the 2005 vintage. It has really taken off since the 2010 vintage, when they hired winemaker Carl van der Merwe, formerly of Quoin Rock.
The last time I was in South Africa, in 2007, all Glenelly was was an idea. It was basically a hole in the ground and a large crane. Now, the cellar is finished, the vineyards planted and winemaker Luke O'Cuinneagain has settled in nicely.
The estate, purchased in 2003 by former Château Pichon Longueville Lalande owner May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, was planted in 2004 and began making wines with the 2007 vintage, combining some purchased fruit with estate-grown grapes. Since 2010, all the bottlings are from the estate's 148 acres of vines, which are now producing a hefty 25,000 cases annually, with plans to max out around 32,000 cases.
O'Cuinneagain is a good fit: He trained in Bordeaux and brings that mindset to Glenelly, which is focusing primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, though Syrah, Chardonnay and other grapes are in the mix.
"Howzit, howzit, howzit?" enthusiastically asked Johan Reyneke as I walked up to his Stellenbosch winery. The wiry, flip-flop-and-sunglass-wearing, well-tanned owner of Reyneke Wines is both laid back and ebullient at the same time. "Come on man! Let's go look at my new cows."
A new pair of female Jersey cows have been brought in to augment the herd at this biodynamically farmed estate located in the Polkadraai Hills of Stellenbosch, and they've found a home with the herd of native cattle. They're all part of the biodynamics program at this improving Cape estate.
On the Banhoek mountainside, opposite Thelema, is Bartinney, a new face on the South African wine scene.
"A new face?" asked owner Rose Jordaan, looking at Ronell Wiid, her winemaker. "Maybe some old faces," she joked. "But they are lines of happiness."
Bartinney is a former fruit farm that had been in Michael Jordaan's family (Rose's husband) for generations, but had been sold off. Michael, a Johannesburg-based banker, bought the family property back in 2006 and it quickly became a labor of love for Rose.
Up and at 'em on my first full day back in the Cape since 2007, and I couldn't think of a better place to start than at Thelema, the estate of Mr. Precision, Gyles Webb.
Webb is enjoying his veteran winemaker status, spending a bit more time fishing and boating these days. His son Thomas, 36, continues to take on responsibility, while winemaker Rudi Schultz, 43, has been on board since 2001. Rudi has been joined by his brother Werner, 41, who has helped oversee the vineyards since 2008.
I'm loading up on espresso in the Swiss Air lounge, waiting for my flight to Johannesburg and then on to Cape Town. It's my first trip to South Africa since 2007, and it's safe to say things have changed since then.
I'll be traveling around the Cape for the next two weeks, visiting wineries throughout Stellenbosch, the Cape's wine center, as well as Paarl, the frontier-like Swartland, lush verdant sector of Constantia and out to Walker Bay and beyond. They drive on the left side of the road on the Cape, so I've hired a driver. That way I can focus on the vineyards and the people behind the wines, rather than fiddling with a GPS while driving myself. Since I taste in my office, these trips are more to kick the dirt and get to know what goes into the wines, technically and spiritually, via the producers who put the hard work in. So follow along here on the blog for notes on the producers I visit with, along with my Twitter and Instagram feeds for additional snippets, pictures and sometimes witty one-liners. As always, if you have questions, post them here or to my forthcoming blogs and I will try to get back to everyone in due time.