It's summer in South Africa. I've got a tan and I'm in my element—kicking the dirt amidst the vines and talking to winemakers.
So how fitting is it that after nearly two weeks of of checking out bush vine Chenin Blanc and comparing granite and schist soils, my very last visit her would be to the most Francophile one of the lot, Vins d'Orrance. As I walked down into the dimly lit cellar at the Steenberg winery, a few bottles were standing up on the head of an upturned barrel. It was an SRO tasting, and one right out of any Rhône cellar that I've ever been in.
Opening the bottles was Christophe Durand, 45. Broad-shouldered, Normandy-born and English speaking with a distinct French accent, Durand arrived in South Africa in 1995 while selling Gillet and Darnajou barrels to the local market (his first client was the rugby player-turned-cult Pinot Noir producer Jan Boland Coetzee of Vriesenhof). It was here he met his wife, Sabrina, who is from Durban. Now married 10 years, they work together on Vins d'Orrance, which he started in 2000.
Located just next door to Klein Constantia is Buitenverwachting (bay-tun-veer-vak-ting). It's always been one of my favorite South African names, but alas, market pressures have forced them to change their label: Bayten will now be in large font on the labels in the U.S. market, with the winery's historical name shrunk to fine print. I say, "Boo." After so much time with the original label, I would have liked to see them stick it out and not worry about tongue-twisting their customers.
But at least the wine isn't changing. This is still one of the top Sauvignon Blanc producers on the Cape, along with excellent Chardonnay and a characterful Bordeaux blend. Lars Maack, 46, is the owner of this 370-acre property, which has an ample 260 acres of vines. For background, you can reference my notes from my 2007 visit here.
Klein Constantia is one of the Cape's most historical wine estates. But if may be seeing more change now than it has in its entire history, which dates to its founding in 1685.
The Jooste family, which resurrected the estate in the 1980s, sold in 2011 to a pair of international businessmen, as well as a pair of Bordelais, Hubert de Boüard de Laforest and Bruno Prats, who folded their Anwilka joint venture into the new ownership structure.
Located in the verdant Cape Town suburb of Constantia, which gets considerable rainfall (63 inches annually) and has a lush appearance thanks in part to its many stately homes, Klein Constantia is a 370-acre estate with 200 acres currently under vine. The property produces primarily white wine and production now stands at 33,000 cases, with plans to eventually reach 60,000.
The road up to David Trafford's place in Stellenbosch is an adventure. The road out to Sijnn, his second project, in Malgas, is something else entirely. It's a 2.5-hour drive from Walker Bay, with over 45 miles of gravel roads. The constant clanging and thumping of rocks underneath, along the side and occasionally off the windshield of the car drown out any music you might have on the radio.
But of course, it's worth it.
Continuing the family tree lineage from Hamilton Russell, winemaker and owner Kevin Grant started his own Ataraxia Mountain after leaving Hamilton Russell in 2004, following a 10-vintage run there. Located a 20-minute drive up the valley from HR, at the highest elevation in Hemel-en-Aarde (1,300 feet, versus 600 feet for Hamilton Russell), Ataraxia is located in the newly created Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge ward, a windy site with a convoluted mix of convex and concave hillsides, though the soils are very similar (clay/shale) to what's down below.
Walker Bay wine history starts with Hamilton Russell, when Tim Hamilton Russell founded his winery in 1979. At that time, the wine industry was ruled by a quote system for production, and the early vintages of Hamilton Russell were made in a, shall we say, slightly clandestine manner, sourcing fruit from what are now the estate's vineyards, though at the time were not "legal."
Today the winery is one of the most recognized brands in the U.S. market, and rightfully so, as it has become the flag bearer for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from South Africa. Tim's son, Anthony Hamilton Russell, now runs the estate, zipping down from his house on his favorite motorcycle to the winery which sits at the bottom of the slope. In between are 160 acres of vines (the estate totals 420 acres) which often show the telltale band of red leaves along the base of the canopy that marks the leaf roll virus. The virus, which shortens a vine's lifespan and makes ripening difficult, is a fact of life on the farm, brought in with the original plantings. Hamilton Russell is constantly replanting and trying to stay ahead of the shorter life curve of his vineyard parcels.
After finishing up in the warm Swartland it was time to take in some ocean-fed breezes in one of South Africa's cooler wine regions, Walker Bay. Located less than two hours drive east from Cape town, along a beautiful coastal road and over a dramatic mountain pass, Walker Bay is the home of the Cape's best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers. Among them, is Bouchard Finlayson.
With his white beard and slow cadence, Peter Finlayson, 64, easily evokes the person of one of the Cape's elder statesmen. He earned his stripes at next door's Hamilton-Russell as that winery's first winemaker starting in 1979, at just 31 years of age and working alongside Tim Hamilton-Russell.
A sit-down with Charles Back is like attending a State of the Wine Industry speech. Back, 57, is one of the South Africa wine industry's elder statesmen, though he still has plenty of pep in his step. He's one of its most respected leaders and one of its craftiest marketers as well. He combines quality in his Fairview wines with business smarts and a genial hands-on approach. Back has been and will continue to be critical to the success of South African wine.
On the surface, writing a blog about a winery that makes one wine should be easier than writing a blog about a winery that makes dozens. But for Marc Kent's latest project, it's not quite that simple. There's too much energy and passion going in to a remote, previously undeveloped spot to make this an easy report. I'm lucky to get to see places like this and kick the dirt or, in this case, kick the jagged chunks of blue schist, right at the beginning of a project and to try and convey what is going on here to you. Don't tell Marvin, but these are the ones I would do for free …
In the Swartland, a new brand of winemakers is shaking things up. At Sadie Family, Eben Sadie is one of the devoted winemakers rescuing abandoned old vineyards.
In the Swartland, a new brand of winemakers is shaking things up. At A.A. Badenhorst Family, Adi Badenhorst.
In the Swartland, a new brand of winemakers is shaking things up. The young husband-and-wife team of Chris, 36, and Andrea Mullineux, 33, already has a fair amount of experience—they worked at Tulbagh Mountains Vineyards, where I first met them during my visit here in 2007. The couple leases vineyards and purchases fruit, but does not yet own any vines. They work 26 parcels covering 47 acres and are focusing on Rhône varieties based on three main soil types: schist and granite similar to what you might see in Côte-Rôtie, along with the iron/clay soil in the area known as koffieklip.
Anthonij Rupert, owned by Johann Rupert, has gone into a hyperdrive pursuit of quality since 2005 when Rupert took over control of the estate following the death of his father, Anton. The estate has been renamed (from the original L'Ormarins) for Johann's brother, Anthonij, who died in 2001 and whose dream it was to see the Cape produce world-class wine.
Boekenhoutskloof, despite the tricky name, has become one of the most respected South African wineries in the U.S. Market. Owner Marc Kent is a Rhône lover, and his Syrah and other Rhône-style blends display a more Old World profile, while his Cabernet and Sémillon bottlings show how South Africa has an uncanny knack for both diversity and quality.
Ken Forrester is known for several things: bow ties, Chenin Blanc and a youthful passion for living hedonistically. Forrester, 55, is as affable as they come, and nothing gets his hearty laugh going going like a good bottle of wine, a good cigar and a few good jokes. The former restaurateur still has his hospitality skills from his early days, but he has added winemaking to his repertoire. His tireless work in the U.S. has been responsible for him building a 54,000-case operation, of which half goes to the U.S. market. And he seems to relish being one of the flag bearers for his country's still-developing wine industry.