South Africa: Day 6—A Vineyard Safari

Mar 13, 2007

“You’ve seen enough of the fancy Stellenbosch side," quipped vintner Charles Back of Fairview Wines when he picked me up this morning. "So I thought I’d take you to see the ‘other side’ to see some real vineyards.”

There are vineyard tours, and then there’s what we did today, which was more of a vineyard safari.

We drove about 90 minutes up the coastline to Darling and then cut in eastward to look at some of Back’s Sauvignon Blanc vineyards. They’re bush vines, on a windswept hill cooled by the ocean, which looks like it's only a stone’s throw away.

Then we drove into Malmesbury to take a look at the vineyard of Spice Route, one of Back’s two wineries (along with Fairview). Here Back has nearly 300 acres of vines covering three distinct soil types: a well-drained soil made of decomposed granite and gravel locally called Koffieklip; a rust-colored, fine powdery soil made of granite and iron referred to as Oakleaf; and a rocky, rugged soil loaded with large broken pieces of shale. The first two soils are ideal for Syrah, with Oakleaf providing finer tannins and plusher texture compared to the spicier notes and more acid-driven wines produced by grapes from Koffieklip. The third soil suits white varieties such as Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.

Large chunks of shale make up the vineyard used for Fairview's Beacon Shiraz.  

Then we hooked up with Back’s winemaker at Spice Route, Charl du Plessis, who joined us for a tasting of some ’06 and ’05 wines, as well as some lots of varietals that he and Back are experimenting with, including Tannat, Barbera, Petite Sirah and Souza, a Portuguese variety. With its warm climate, Back feels Malmesbury might set up well for something other than the typical Cabernet or Shiraz, and based on the samples we tasted today, he’s definitely on to something.

“There’s so much land here, you can plant a few acres of something and just take a flyer on it,” says Back.

We then got back on the road, taking another windy, dusty trail up into the Voor-Paardeberg, one of the striking mountains that define the winelands. As we approached, Back said, “Look at that mountain—from here it doesn’t look very interesting. But as we get closer, you’ll see.”

He was right—it seemed grey and lifeless from afar, but it took on a different profile as we wound our way up into one of its valleys. Suddenly vibrant-looking vineyards were covering its slopes, featuring changes in elevation and exposures every few hundred yards.

“You have to get in and explore,” says Back. “You might be surprised by what you find. Like that high-elevation Pinotage vineyard up there, or a 40-year-old Grenache vineyard that’s here as well.”

We then headed to Paarl, home of Back’s better-known Fairview winery. Here, along with winemaker Anthony de Jagr, Back is producing top-flight Syrah and a host of other wines, including his popular value brand Goats do Roam.

Back took me to the block that provides the fruit for his Beacon Shiraz, a prime 4-hectare parcel situated in the midst of a massive vineyard that produces nearly 300,000 cases of wine for one of the local co-ops. The vines are bush trained, on low-yielding soils with large chunks of shale, and the wine is a bit of a brute, with layers of dark fruit.

Then we drove to a spot just a few kilometers away as the crow flies, but it might as well have been a world away, with its fine, grainy, decomposed granite soils that hold their water better than the shale in the Beacon block. Back has the vines on a trellis system to reduce their canopy vigor and keep yields low.

"Same climate conditions, same vine age and same grape—but different soils—so you need a different viticulture,” explains Back. “This is what makes South Africa so difficult to work in, but potentially so interesting.”

Both vineyards produce outstanding wines, but they’re young, only about 15 years old. They don’t show any effects of leafroll virus, which still plagues the Cape’s vineyards, and hopefully they won’t. Back and I agreed that the next step to making classic wines in South Africa hinges on getting some healthy, old-vine vineyards—which are in short supply right now.

Looks like I might actually get a bit of rest tonight for a change. Then it’s back to the dusty, mountain roads tomorrow, with another stop in Voor-Paardeberg and then over to Tulbagh...

South Africa




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