My day typically starts out with a lively conversation with my driver, Havelin—politics, South African history, local etiquette, languages—you name it, we talk about it. I just roll out of bed, grab an apple on the way out the door, and off we go. I sure don’t need the morning paper.
I thought I had traveled on some bad roads in the last few days … until I took the road up to David Trafford’s small winery, nestled in the narrow triangle formed by the common endpoint of the Stellenbosch and Helderberg mountains. An agonizingly slow 30-minute drive up a tiny, winding road (Littered with a few dozen speed bumps to boot!) on a nearly empty stomach was no fun. His wines are worth the effort though.
Trafford was bringing in some Cabernet grapes this morning, and he had a smile on his face as he came out to meet me. He's soft-spoken and thoughtful, an architect-turned-self-taught-winemaker whose wines have set the benchmark for the country’s vintners.
He was gracious enough to pour a vertical of his Chenin Blanc, back to the ’96, and his Syrah, back to the inaugural ’98 vintage. Trafford only has 5 hectares of vineyards on his estate (1 hectare equates to about 2.47 acres), so he also purchases some fruit for his wines. This is a small, boutique operation, where the wine is made in a simple, traditional manner, with little intervention. The result is a Chenin Blanc that ripples with fresh acidity and minerality, and ages well, along with reds—Syrah, Cabernet and a Cabernet blend—loaded with dark plum, blackberry and currant fruit, as well as sage, mint and cocoa notes. Think Dunn Cabernet, but with velvety texture.
Trafford has no plans to expand much: He’s added an acre here and there of vineyards, but he’ll also be replanting some other blocks. He doesn’t want to cut down any more of the mountainside, preferring to manage his 3,500-case-per-year winery at its current quality level. As his vines start to mature (his top Syrah block is only 10 years old), I expect even better things.
|Grapes arrive at David Trafford's small mountainside winery.|
On the way back down the hill, I made a last-minute stop at Waterford, where Kevin Arnold was kind enough to see me on short notice. The former Rust en Vrede winemaker has set up his own operation, focusing on estate-grown Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet. The wines are modern and polished but show good mineral and loam notes as well. In recent vintages, I’ve particularly liked the tangy, fresh Chardonnay, but some prerelease samples of reds showed strong improvement too.
After making it back down the worst road in South Africa (in my opinion, anyway), we drove through town and around the mountain, and headed up into the Jonkershoek Valley to see the Stark-Condé and Neil Ellis wineries. No sooner had I finished telling José Condé about Trafford’s road than he drove me up another challenging route—a heavily rutted, steep dirt road with even bigger speed bumps (supposedly to funnel run off water)—to the top of his estate.
“I just blast it up here, I’ve gotten immune to this,” said Condé as my head bounced off the inside of the truck roof.
At the top, about 650 meters above sea level, we could look down on the patchwork of vineyards that forms the Oude Nektar (old nectar) estate. Condé oversees the vineyards, about 70 percent of which are contracted to Neil Ellis, his father-in-law's winemaking partner. The other production Condé keeps for himself, and he’s making Cabernet and Syrah in the same vein as Trafford’s—dark, rich and smoky, but with a bit more modern polish.
Condé was also bringing in Cabernet today, and his team was doing a berry-by-berry sort that resulted in clean, ripe grapes going into the fermenting vats—no stems, no green pips, no unripe berries. A tasting of ’06 reds from different blocks, different yeast strains, different barrels and different clones showed just how much work goes into understanding one’s vineyards, and how much work goes into making one’s wines. This is another 3,500-case-a-year winery focused on one thing: quality.
A two-minute walk down the hill put me at the door of Neil Ellis’ operation, which now produces 40,000 cases annually, and is sending a good amount of that wine to the U.S.
Ellis is one of the most thoughtful men in the business, and he combines a no-nonsense approach with a laid-back demeanor. No PR talk, just the straight dope. He’s got a longterm view of the South African wine industry, and realizes how far it still has to go. Like Charles Back and the other experienced winemakers I’ve talked to here, Ellis feels that the lack of healthy old-vine vineyards is the major obstacle for South Africa’s wine industry today.
|Grapes are sorted by hand at Stark-Condé winery.|
We talked for almost two hours about the state of the business before deciding to actually do some work. We tasted through a range of ’06 barrels, whites and reds, from fruit sourced from the estate and from vineyards as far away as Elgin, a new cool climate spot that is drawing a lot of attention. We also tasted a few older vintages of his reds—2000 Cabernet and Shiraz—which were holding up well. Still, his current wines, particularly the ‘05s, are an improvement over what he was doing just a few vintages back.
We shared a simple grilled fish dinner at the Fishmonger in Stellenbosch, which is a hopping, casual seafood restaurant that serves its food in dented skillets. Only 80 rand (less than $12) for a filling piece of yellowtail coated with chili peppers and garlic, an ideal match with Ellis’ crisp, gooseberry-filled Sauvignon Blanc. By American standards, you can eat and drink very well in Stellenbosch and Cape Town.
It’s been another long day, but it’s one week down and one week to go now. Tomorrow, it’s another mix of producers specializing in Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc ...
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