Lowerland, Vaalkameel Colombard 2018 Prieska

Lowerland vineyards in the Northern Cape

An ugly-ducking grape turns swan in a remote region of the arid Northern Cape to celebrate tonight's #SpectacularSouthAfrica initiative to encourage everyone to open a bottle of South African wine.

From 275 rand (per bottle in a case of 6), €29.95, £31.95, $39.99, 38.90 Swiss francs

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NB I have included prices for the 2017 vintage, and the link to Wine-Searcher includes 2017 and 2019, because this wine is going to be good, no matter which vintage you can get hold of.

No wine-producing country has been more severely affected by COVID-19 than South Africa. Not because of illness or death, but because the South African government made a momentous prohibition-style decision to ban all sales of alcohol (and tobacco), including exports, during lockdown (see this thread in our Members' forum). Lockdown has now eased, leaving in place the ban on national sales or any movement of alcohol but allowing exports since 1 May. Who knows when that will change. The decision-making body has been capricious, to say the least.

Alcohol-related violence and abuse is rife in South Africa. The reasoning was that it would reduce domestic violence, free up police to focus on making sure that people were obeying the lockdown and ease pressure on hospitals which dealt with an average of 34,000 hospital trauma admissions a week (now down to 12,000). Whether this is due to fewer people out and about and less traffic on the roads in general (South African roads are a death trap) or less alcohol, is a matter of controversy. Not everyone agrees and it has certainly created other problems.

South African wine producers and wine merchants have not been able to sell or move a drop of liquid. Devastating for hundreds of businesses with thousands of people dependent on them for their livelihoods.

So when I got an email from WOSA telling me about their Spectacular South Africa campaign to support the SA wine industry through this tough period, I decided that my wine of the week would be South African.

Usually I pick a wine that is well under £20. A bargain. This one is not. And that’s because sometimes, to celebrate and support something, you need to push the boat out. This wine is well worth pushing the boat out for…

As anyone who is familiar with South Africa knows, the Kalahari is not exactly what you would describe as wine country. My childhood memories are of bleak, never-ending hours driving through red dust and skinny thorn scrub on our way from Zimbabwe to Cape Town (three days in a clapped-out tank of a station wagon smelling of boiled eggs and salt and vinegar crisps), and it filled me with a sense of enervation and loneliness. It was dry and rocky, and even the goats on the side of the pocked tarmac road were bony.

I’d never heard of Prieska, nor wine from the Northern Cape, nor, indeed, Lowerland, before this bottle crossed my path. This makes Swartland look like Bordeaux. It’s a remote, high-elevation (1,000 m/3,280 ft above sea level), semi-arid region, 900 km (560 m) inland from the rest of the Cape wine regions. Rainfall is under 250 mm (9.8 in) a year. Soil is Kalahari red sand on limestone. Bertie Coetzee fought long and hard to have Prieska recognised as a Wine of Origin.

But this is a seriously exciting producer. Lowerland was a Merino sheep and horse farm owned for four generations by the Coetzee family before the first table grapes were planted there in the 1960s. In 1999 the first wine grapes were planted.

When, in 2013, Bertie Coetzee joined the farm to work with his father Hennie (pictured below), his vision was for conservation and regenerative agriculture, holistic management and sustainable practices across the spectrum of human, environmental and economic. The whole direction of Lowerland changed.

Bertie and Hennie Coetzee of Lowerland in their vineyards
Bertie and Hennie Coetzee of Lowerland in their vineyards

The vineyards are organically certified, farmed naturally without chemicals, and they use kudus to prune the vineyards (!), bat-eared foxes and owls for pest control, and pecan shells (pecans are one of the farm’s crops) and Bronsmara cattle manure (cattle, not manure, pictured below) to fertilise the vines. Winemaking is all natural fermentation, basket pressing and manual pumpovers. They invest heavily in their local community and in building national farming knowledge.

Bronsmara cattle on the Lowerland farm
Bronsmara cattle fertilising Lowerland vineyards
Lowerland vineyards in flower
Lowerland vineyards in flower

This is a family with big hearts, and they not only wear their hearts on their sleeves but they walk their talk.

Bertie Coetzee and his wife Alette
Bertie Coetzee and his wife Alette

And now to wine. Believe me, if it weren’t stunning, I would not have wasted all these words on the preamble.

It’s made from the oh-so-humble workhorse grape Colombard, about which Jancis gave, in The Oxford Companion to Wine, a career-ending coup de grâce: ‘It would take some sorcery to transform Colombard into an exciting wine.’



Winemaker Lukas van Loggerenberg and farmer Bertie Coetzee are sorcerers.

Bertie Coetzee with Lowerland's Valkameel Colombard
Bertie Coetzee with Lowerland's Vaalkameel Colombard

This wine stopped me in my tracks. Is it possible to make something so beautiful out of a Cognac blending grape?

It smelt of golden-green figs, mimosa, ripe avocado and Mexican orange blossom. On the palate it plumbed the depth of rocks and apricots, swirling in wide, satiny circles around the mouth. An amazing play between acidity and richness, scalpels and cream with halyards of lightly toasted oats, ginger root and a billowing sheet of bay-leaf green spiciness twisting into the finish. Long and sculpted and complex. Unbelievable length. The wine just rides the light, on and on.

This is, quite simply, a stunning wine.

It’s from a 3-ha (7.4-acre) vineyard of 19-year-old vines, harvested at 15 tons/ha. The grapes are shipped south in a refrigerated truck to be vinified in what the 2020 Platter Guide describes as 'a simple shed atop a Devon Valley hill' by rising star Lukas Van Loggerenberg, already snapped up in the UK by Justerini & Brooks. Alette Coetzee wrote in an email, that he had been making their Tolbos Tannat since 2015, and 'then wanted to try the Colombard as a still wine. With his Midas touch and very hands-off natural methods he turned this grape into something really special.'

Whole-bunch-pressed grapes were left to settle overnight in stainless steel and then put into old French oak for spontaneous fermentation. 10 months on primary lees, no bâtonnage, no additives and only a little SO2 before bottling. Total acidity is 7.1 g/l, pH is 3.2, residual sugar 1.7 g/l and alcohol 13.3%. Total SO2 was 78 mg/l – it would be interesting to see what the free SO2 is now.

We paired it with coal-grilled scallops and this scrumptious roasted carrots and tahini yogurt recipe from Thomasina Miers and it soared. It’s a wine that loves food. It would be just as beautiful with a simple roast chicken, or pork chops in an apple-fennel sauce, or caramelised butternut with harissa spice and a sweetcorn puree. You could have a glass of it with a handful of pan-warmed almonds or Nocellara olives. You could drizzle feta with honey and a green fig and it would tuck itself into the salt and sweetness with a grin.

In addition to the #SpectacularSouthAfrica celebration today, there is the Great British Braai Off over this coming UK bank holiday weekend. The weather is perfect here in Europe, so get out there! (But to be blunt, you don’t have to be British or have a bank holiday to just get in there and stick something delicious on the coals. WOSA supplies some yummy SA recipes and if you’re going into winter (thinking of you, Australia), bobotie is the perfect cold-weather pairing for this wine.)

Vallkameel is, by the way, the Afrikaans name for the Grey Camelthorn, or Acacia haematoxylon. That’s the skinny thorn scrub I told you about.

The wine is imported into the UK by Graft Wine Company and you can buy it from Red Squirrel online shop as well as Phoenix Wines (Cirencester) and the Whisky Exchange (London). It’s also available in South Africa (when lockdown alcohol restrictions ease), the Netherlands, Switzerland and the US. There is also a pallet on its way to Brazil as we speak.

Lowerland Vaalkameel Colombard 2018 Prieske
Lowerland Vaalkameel Colombard 2018 Prieske

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