Spice Route Grenache 2013/4 Swartland

Swartland and Table Mountain

From 570 rand (for six bottles), £9.45, 149.95 Danish krone 

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This is a keenly priced wine that combines two of my current interests, both rediscoveries or re-interpretations. I wrote recently positing A new way ahead for Grenache, and I feel I am always banging on about Swartland, South Africa’s fashionable inland farming country that is home to old vines and young winemakers (see, for example, South Africa’s wild north west).

The man behind this wine is rather different from the young guns represented in force at last September’s South African New Wave tasting in London. But it was Charles Back of Fairview winery in Paarl, an early adopter of improved farmworker conditions and producer of, inter alia, the wine called Goats do Roam, who played the crucial role in the elevation of Swartland from ‘the bread basket of South Africa’ to an internationally famous wine region.

Back in 1997 he bought Klein Amoskuil, an old tobacco farm in the wheatlands of Swartland with a strange ancient planting of Sauvignon Blanc. Below is one of the old tobacco sheds.

He was interested in growing vines not tobacco though and began to replant the most suitable 25% of this relatively warm site with varieties such as Carignan, Mourvèdre and Grenache better suited to the hot, dry conditions. Klein Amoskuil is in the western foothills of the Paardeberg, on a mix of South Africa’s characteristic decomposed granite mixed with iron and some ancient Malmesbury shale.

Spice Route was the name he came up with for the produce of Klein Amoskuil, once made by Eben Sadie who went on to lead the new wave pack in Swartland (crucially assisted by viticulturist Rosa Kruger who has worked tirelessly to seek out the best parcels of vines in the region). Once Sadie Family Wines was established, Eben Sadie’s place was taken by winemaker Charl du Plessis who has been responsible for Spice Route wines for the last 15 vintages.

The unirrigated bushvines for this Spice Route Grenache were planted in 2006 on the highest block on the farm at 250 m elevation on poor, sandy, decomposed granite over a deep koffieklip (ferricrete) layer. It has been described by du Plessis as ‘the worst part of the farm – only Grenache would grow there’.

Charles Back also produces Grenache from grapes grown in Darling, Piekenierskloof as well as Paarl and comments, ‘I believe this variety is going to play a significant role in Cape reds of the future’. Much of the most exciting South African Grenache is grown in old vineyards in the rugged hills of Piekenierskloof described in A Cape road trip.

This Spice Route Grenache 2014, the third vintage of this wine, is not as nervy, distinctive and ambitious as this previous wine of the week from David Sadie (no relation to Eben). But it delivers far more sophistication and reward than most wines at this price level. It’s pretty dark for a Grenache, the result of fermenting in open concrete and manual punchdowns. The 2014 vintage benefited from some late 2013 rains. The nose is round, rich and gamey (though this is not a euphemism for young Beaucastel-like aromas). On the palate there is the most attractive gentle texture and relaxed, readable fruit with just a suggestion of oak – only old oak is used apparently. It is 14% alcohol but, as any grower will tell you, Grenache is pretty characterless if picked at low alcohol levels. I’d suggest drinking this with hearty food some time over the next three years.

Spice Route was a project originally dreamt up by Charles Back, wine writer John Platter of Platter’s Wine Guide fame, Gyles Webb of Thelema and Jabulani Ntshangase, then winemaker of Spier, but it is now wholly owned by Back. This restless wine producer more recently bought the farm next to his main base Fairview in Paarl and has rapidly transformed it into Spice Route Destination Winery aimed slap bang at the thriving Cape tourist industry. It is already the most-visited South African wine farm apparently (even though, strictly speaking, the wines it showcases are made elsewhere).

The site just outside Paarl has a view over Table Mountain (as does Klein Amoskuil, as you can see if you peer into the distance of the image top right) but Back was convinced that he needed to offer visitors much more than wine tastings and a bit of decent food. He has set about installing artisan producers in the historic farm buildings on the estate. So now visitors to Spice Route Destination winery can inspect a craft brewery and a distillery producing grappa and fynbos gin, see ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate production and glass blowing, and choose from one of three restaurants. Spice Route wines have a major presence here, even though they are still made at Klein Amoskuil in Swartland. I can only imagine how nimble Back had to be in nagivating his way round South Africa’s maze of nomenclature restrictions.

From today Spice Route wines are being distributed in the UK by Liberty Wines who cite the following retailers as either stocking or about to stock this wine:


The Case Shop, Leicester 

The Fine Wine Company

Lockett Bros

North & South Wines


Symposium Wine Emporium


Noel Young Wines, Trumpington 

I came across the wine under the auspices of The Wine Society who are currently offering the 2014 at £9.50 a bottle. 

As for the 2013, although it says 14.5% on the label, it's a little lighter than the 2014 in impact – but some palates will welcome its extra freshness and hint of fynbos dried herbs. It starts very sweet and light with good natural acid balance and is much more subtle than most wines at this price. There are lots of Châteauneuf 2013s I like less than this. Adnams of Southwold have good stock of the 2013 in their many shops in East Anglia at £11.99, and the online retailer Winedirect.co.uk have it on special offer as I write at £9.45.

Spice Route Grenache is also available in the US through Vineyard Brands, in Holland through Pallas, in Denmark, in Norway through Vinmonopolet, in Sweden through John Lidby, and in Germany through Ahwas – although it may be a while before the 2014 Grenache filters through the system and on to lists and shelves.

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