This is a longer version of an article also published by the Financial Times.
See also South Africa’s wild north west.
Like all journalists, I love a scoop. So when the South African wine writer Tim James suggested we make a day trip to uncharted vineyards up in the north-west corner of the Cape wine map, I jumped at the chance to be the first foreign wine writer to do so. The plan was to take with us and taste sur place a range of wines that had been produced from these vineyards, many of them with hugely celebrated labels, even if the vineyards are in terra incognita.
But as with many a road trip, almost as good as the destination was the journey. Our driver was the eminence grise of Cape vines, Rosa Kruger, about whom I wrote last year. So tentacular is her influence that the notes I made during a week on the Cape last month are scattered with ‘RK’s. She adores vineyards, the older the better, and enjoys recuperating the most obscure and finding a buyer, often a complex network of buyers, for their produce. She has just completed the painstaking task of assembling and posting online at www.iamold.co.za a complete and rather beautiful directory of all the old vineyards of South Africa – and is somewhat depressed to find that a grand total of two people have so far reacted to it.
The fourth seat in her four-wheel drive was occupied by Eben Sadie, the talented, charismatic leader of the pack of young guns who have shaken up the South African wine scene. Like the great majority of them, he is based in Swartland, the vast, bleached wheat-growing district well north of the traditional winelands around Stellenbosch. But we drove three hours north of Swartland’s wine town Riebeek-Kasteel, following the N7 road to Namibia, to see one of the vineyards that has supplied one of his many celebrated Old Vine Series bottlings in another district altogether, Olifants River.
‘This really feels like Africa', said Eben excitedly as we pushed north between mountain ranges with fynbos, the mix of wild herbs and low bushes that characterises the Cape’s flora, dominating a generally treeless landscape. ‘Not colonial-inspired like Constantia', he added dismissively, referring to the well-heeled, wine-producing suburb of Cape Town. ‘I always think of bushmen here', agreed Rosa, ‘the nomads who used to roam these lands'.
At 9.40 am Eben was instructed to ring the van Lill farm that was our destination to say we were en route. Having been driven at high speed past his favourite truck stop for egg and bacon sandwiches, he was cheered by Rita van Lill’s report that ‘our oven is already hot’. A chicken pie had been promised.
Just after crossing over the pass that leads to the narrow Olifants River valley, we took a diversion off the N7 turning left towards the Atlantic. Soon the road became an unpaved track, its colour changing often from sandy to bright orange according to the soil types identified by Rosa’s frequently used index finger. This was Piekenierskloof, a wild, unpopulated area that turned out to have a surprising density of vines – as well as many a leopard, according to Rosa. I learned that the likes of Neil Ellis, Vriesenhof, Fairview and Ken Forrester had been buying top-quality grapes here, old-vine Grenache in particular, for years. This is where Eben sources Grenache grapes for his Soldaat Old Vine Series wine, initially inspired by the fragrant style of wines made from similar vines in the Gredos mountains near Madrid. He is an inveterate traveller and had spent the previous week in Burgundy with his neighbour and fellow Swartland young-ish gun Adi Badenhorst, so our journey was punctuated by swooning recollections of this trip to France’s Pinot Noir homeland.
We stopped at a dramatically rocky lookout from which Eben assured me I would see cargo ships on a clear day. There was only a heat haze in the blue distance but the oncoming sea breeze was unmistakable. He mentioned his surfing habit wistfully (his 2015 grape harvest had just got underway) but waved his arms expansively at the rolling country far below us. ‘There’s room for another 40 wineries here', he assured me, pointing out a vineyard said to be the country’s oldest, dating from 1887. ‘In my mind I own all these vineyards', Rosa admitted with a smile, and not too much exaggeration.
We joined the N7 once more, navigating our way round the continuing roadworks that plague those trying to get freshly picked grapes to their wineries in the south as fast as possible, and turned towards the ocean once more just after the about-to-be-flooded Clanwilliam dam. Rosa described this current growing season as the driest she had ever known, so dry that grapes were being picked a good two weeks earlier than usual, almost before some winery owners were back from their summer holiday. Stellenbosch would strike any Californian or Australian as well-watered. Unlike Swartland and Olifants River, most Stellenbosch vineyards are irrigated, and during our stay there we were frequently soaked by sprays designed to keep lawns and garden plants green.
As we neared Rita’s chicken pie and her husband Basie’s vines, passing fields of the low rooibos bushes that are today so much more profitable than vines, Rosa recalled her discovery in 2008 of the treasure that is van Lill’s well-tended, decades-old vines. She tried and initially failed to interest her clients the Rupert family in them but was then thrilled to find that Eben, a long-time associate of hers, grabbed the fruit sight unseen. ‘I’d always wanted to come up here', he shrugged.
We drove past neat rows of low bushvines to the van Lills’ classic 1950s homestead, scattering dogs and dust. I had been warned in many an email to bring sunhat and sunscreen. The vineyard tour in the back of Basie’s pickup was to follow our tasting and the chicken pie. First Eben hauled the heavy, bottle-rattling chiller into the van Lills’ kitchen and set up the row of 13 whites, all based on fruit from one or more of the three farms up in this rugged corner of southern Africa, either Chenin Blanc or Sémillon (respectively – now and 200 years ago – the Cape’s most planted vine varieties).
Supplemented by a red wine based on South Africa’s own Pinotage grape that Rosa initially found much more difficult to place, these were stunning wines by any measure, from vines between 40 and 70 years old, all but the Alheit pair retailing in South Africa for under 200 rand (the equivalent of £12 or $17) a bottle.
The great fashion today is for wines with a sense of place. The memorable place these wines come from with its views to the Cederberg Wilderness Area in the distance is far indeed from wine drinkers. (Eben brought a corkscrew.) The van Lills’ farm is 80 km from the local wine co-op, to which they truck the grapes not bought by the young guns. I could not even communicate with Basie and the young farm foreman Uys (pronounced Ace); only Rita spoke English rather than reticent Afrikaans.
But these intensely terroir-driven wines, like most of what I tasted on this trip to the Cape, deserve to be known and celebrated around the world.
WHAT TO SEEK OUT
These are all wines made from grapes grown in the region described here, with UK and US prices and stockists.
Botanica, Mary Delany Collection Chenin Blanc, Citrusdal Mountain
£14.99 Cape Wine & Food, £22.70 Hedonism / $20-26
Fram Wines Chenin Blanc, Citrusdal Mountain
£21.55 Prohibition Wines
Fram Wines, Pinotage, Citrusdal Mountain
£21.55 Prohibition Wines / $22.99-$31.99 various US stockists
Anthonij Rupert, Cape of Good Hope, van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc, Citrusdal Mountain
£15.99 AG Wines, £73.50 for six bottles Christopher Keiller
Sadie Family Vineyards, Old Vineyard Series Skurfberg (Chenin Blanc), Olifants River
£25-32 / $41-55 quite widely available
Sadie Family Vineyards, Old Vineyard Series Kokerboom (Sémillon), Olifants River
£32.10 Harrogate Fine Wine, £37.10 Hedonism, £175.80 for six bottles WineBear / $59.99 K&L
Alheit Cartology, Western Cape
The main ingredient in the Alheits’ Cartology blend is Chenin Blanc from Citrusdal Mountain in Olifants River. It costs a fair £24-28/$40-53 and is quite widely available in both the UK and US. Their Magnetic North Mountain Makstok is 100% Citrusdal Chenin and is a cult wine in South Africa.
Stockists from wine-searcher.com and tasting notes in South Africa’s wild north west.