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.
"I started with one barrel, my first experience making wine. The 2000 was crap. 2001 was OK. 2002 put us on the right path," said the matter-of-fact Durand.
The couple now makes 2,500 cases annually, exporting to 13 countries, with 20 percent going to the U.S. market.
Durand owns no vineyards, but contracts for 30 acres of vines over which he controls the viticulture, renting space in the Steenberg facility, located on the outskirts of Cape Town, to vinify his wines.
"I have vineyards all over, so I just need a place where I can bring everything in easily. I'll get more exposure with my own place, but Cape Town is where everything is, so if I do set up my own place, it will be in Cape Town."
There are three wines here, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Syrah, with production spread equally over the three,
The 2011 Chenin Blanc Western Cape Kama is sourced from Willie and Tania de Waal's vineyard at Scali, and it delivers anise, fennel and green fig fruit, with a pure, lovely finish. The 2012 Chenin Blanc Western Cape Kama shows bright star fruit, lemon peel, green almond and pear skin notes with a long, pure, stony finish and a kiss of salted butter. Fresh and almost brisk right out of the gate, it opens nicely as it airs in the glass, showing the richness that should develop with moderate bottle aging.
Durand's skill with Chenin is intriguing, since he was a Burgundy drinker while growing up in France.
"Chenin was totally new for me when I got here, but it clearly belongs in South Africa. And now I'm comfortable with it. I don't feel comfortable with Merlot though," he said with a wry smile.
Durand's French background meshes well with the strict Wine of Origin system in South Africa, one of the country's strong suits, though it is often underplayed in the market.
"I play with terroir, so I appreciate the WO system. It works," he said. "And it's the only way we'll go further. We need to think about terroir and approach wine that way first: from the origin. You can't just plant Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay everywhere. Different grapes have their place."
Durand said he likes to harvest his whites on the early side for acidity, but still with good ripeness. The grapes are whole-bunch pressed directly into barrel, with no new oak or malo on the Chenin; full malo with 40 percent new oak for the Chardonnay.
The 2010 Chardonnay Western Cape Cuvée Anaïs is sourced from vineyards in Elgin and Franschhoek, the former a cool spot, the latter a warm area. It's showy in style, with plantain, fig and pear fruit, a creamy mouthfeel and extra green apple and melon notes lacing up the finish, where a lingering kiss of toast chimes in. It combines a tropical feel with fresh fruit and purity. The 2011 Chardonnay Western Cape Cuvée Anaïs is a touch plumper still, with pineapple, fig and pear fruit and a caressing feel, integrated toast, and a long, bright, engaging finish that has deliciously mouthwatering acidity despite the wine's overall weight.
For the Syrah, grapes are destemmed then put in 500-liter bins for cold soak and ferment before being moved to 225-liter and 500-liter barrels for malo and aging, which is long at 24 months, but the barrels see only a blond toast, to mitigate any overt oak flavors.
The 2010 Syrah Western Cape Cuvée Ameena, like the Chardonnay, combines fruit from two sources. The riper fruit is brought in from the Scali vineyard in the Paardeberg in March, while the cooler climate Elgin vineyard fruit is brought in in April. It shows dark bitter cherry, steeped plum and black licorice notes with a singed alder frame and a tight-grained, long, violet-filled finish.
While Durand bottled a 2009 Syrah, a vintage considered superb by nearly every producer on the Cape, he has yet to release the wine, unhappy with the way it is showing so far. It's likely he'll go from 2008 to 2010 for the U.S. market.
"It's just not very good," he said, looking slightly forlorn.
"But the last time we tried it, it was getting better," said Sabrina with an air of hopefulness.
"But still not good enough. I'm not releasing it if I don't like it. Turning a grape into wine is a privilege," he said, squashing further debate.
And with that, my trip had come to an end …
It had been a while since my previous trip to South Africa (2007), and the changes I saw these past few weeks were drastic. Many winemakers I saw my first time around have since moved to other gigs, some even setting up their own operations. Attention had shifted from modernizing cellars to readjusting vineyards. And there's a growing appreciation for old-vine vineyards, many of which are on the verge of being torn out, because their low yields don't coincide with the still-lingering quantity-over-quality culture leftover from South Africa's co-op dominated years. As the industry steadily moves toward a quality-first culture, many of these old-vine vineyards could yield some of the country's most compelling wines, such as those from Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and the Cape of Good Hope line from Anthonij Rupert.
In addition, South Africa's wine lands feature Napa-level wine tourism (primarily in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek), and there's been an explosion of high-quality restaurants, both in Cape Town and the wine lands in general. South Africa's wine industry is gearing itself for tourism, and with the rand at a very agreeable exchange rate with the American dollar, now is a terrific opportunity for wine lovers to explore this rapidly improving wine country.
Look for full coverage of more than 400 wines in my upcoming annual tasting report this summer, along with additional coverage on travel to Cape Town and the wine lands. In the meantime, I'm off for vacation to Barbados to reenergize for my annual Bordeaux barrel tastings at the end of March.