South Africa Part III - Swartland

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Leaving Stellenbosch we started to wind our way through the beautiful landscape of the Cape winelands towards the Swartland, the region of the trip I was most excited to visit. Over the past six or so years the Swartland, thanks to a small group of quality minded, marketing savvy producers, has put itself on the global wine industry’s map. No small feat for a region which up until a few years ago was known predominantly as a bulk wine region supplying fruit to the local co-ops. Out of the four wineries which made up The Swartland Revolution I had got in touch with three and managed to make appointments with two.

Chris and Andrea Mullineux set up Mullineux in 2007 and in 2014 they acquired the original Syrah vineyard from which they had been sourcing some of their best fruit, along with the more land which they are currently planting up with vines. The Roundstone farm is situated on the southwest slopes of the Kasteelberg Mountain, one of the prime locations for grape growing in the Swartland. The bedrock is deep schist with veins of quartz as well as some deep colluvial soils that have settled from the erosion of the Table Mountain sandstone on the top of Kasteelberg. These heavy, rocky soils produce deeply structured red wines and whites with lovely texture. Farming is as natural as possible, with no recourse to weedkillers/pesticides/synthetic chemicals. Cover crops are planted to prevent against erosion, build organic matter, provide shade and to prevent weeds. Winemaking is as hands off as possible, allowing the purity of fruit and expression of vineyard site shine through.

For me the white wines of Mullineux really stood out this tasting. The Kloof Street Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2015 is one of the best value white wines I’ve drunk all year. Tropical, ripe citrus, yellow stone fruit, perfumed with honeysuckle, textured, round, mineral, with wonderful freshness and long length. A step up in terms of concentration and complexity is the Mullineux White 2014, 80% Chenin Blanc with smaller proportions of Semillon Gris and Clairette. This is from 80 year old Paardeberg fruit aged in 100% old French oak and one large foudre, 15% new. Subtle oak spice, ginger, flinty minerality, hugely textured and creamy a bright, crisp finish. Another unique offering is their Straw Wine Chenin Blanc 2012, deep gold in colour, very aromatic with honey, apricot, figs, quince, ginger and sultana touches. Crisp acidity perfectly balances the sweetness and huge flavour intensity makes for a long lasting finish. Ideal paired with fruit desserts, apricot tart springs to mind. Available in Hong Kong via Berry Brothers & Rudd.

Next on my list was Eben Sadie, whose wines I first discovered in Hong Kong and have always thought very highly of. Unfortunately, however, when I got in touch he said he has a rule about not taking visits during harvest so sadly we missed out there. But Adi Badenhorst had no such problem, so much so he invited us to stay at Kalmoesfontein Farm, the stunning location of his winery overlooking the Paardeberg mountain. A pack of dogs the size of small ponies greeted us upon arrival and adopted us during our stay, guarding us vigilantly each night. We followed the reggae tunes being played from an ancient record player until we stumbled into Adi round the back of the small winery, smoking a rollie, deep in conversation with one of his growers. He greeted us casually and gave us a short tour of the winery, before enquiring whether we had enough wine to drink. If not, he pointed to a huge fridge, we should help ourselves to whatever took our fancy. My kind of place, exceptionally hospitality! Our room was up the top of a small Rapunzel-like tower, the ground floor of which I later discovered housed a small solera system for Adi’s fino sherry. We grabbed a bottle of Chenin Blanc, settled ourselves down to watch the sunset over the Paardeberg and discussed how we could engineer a permanent move to South Africa!

The next morning, up bright and early as usual, we set of to find Craig Hawkins. His latest, and possibly last he later told us, project up in northern mountain regions of the Swartland is where he plans to be for the foreseeable. The Testalonga label has been in existence since 2008 but last year Craig and his wife purchased an untouched piece of land that will form the basis of the project going forwards. Gradually they intend to plant vines, a massive task judging by the sheer rockiness of the soil and uneven, undulating terrain. Showing us how much work was going to be needed just to prepare the land for planting gave me a new level of respect for winemakers trying to break new ground.

In the meantime they rent 11 hectares over in Adi’s neck of the woods in the Paardeberg. They are focused on old vineyards of Grenache, Syrah, Muscat, Carignan and Harslevelu that allow them as little manipulation as possible. In good years Craig says winemaking is as simple as picking, pressing, waiting, watching, bottling with nothing added at any stage. He wants the wines to express who they are both in the bottle and on the labels which is why humour plays a large role in communicating their story. Pictures taken by Craig himself or friends of his feature on a number of the labels. Each has a unique story to tell. Playing around with skin contact is one of Craig’s signatures and can be seen at work particularly in Mangaliza Part II 2015, a Harslevelu with skin contact, cloudy pale gold with floral, citrus, herbal, pepper notes with a phenolic grip making this a serious food wine. Vs Mangaliza Part I which is zero skin contact, slightly less complexity perhaps but just as much freshness and plenty of mouthfeel. El Bandito Skin Contact 2015 is a super aromatic Chenin Blanc, golden in colour with stone fruit, almond, floral, citrus and tropical notes, chalky structure, needs more time to soften and develop but will deliver greatness once settled. El Bandito The Lords of Dog Town 2015 is one of my favourite labels, particularly because it announces that with this wine ‘Tonight we go full bull horn!’ – fairly self explanatory I think. It’s a captivating image, taken by Craig himself, to express a captivating wine showing high degree of flinty minerality, ripe citrus/tropical fruit, and textured mouthfeel.

My favourite red was The Dark Side -100% Syrah, 100% whole bunch, 8-9 days fermentation. Dark and inky with spice, vegetal tones, savoury nuances and lovely blackberry fruit, fynbos and chalky tannins, a signature of many of these wines. Another curiosity and surely one of a kind is I Wish I Was A Ninja, a lightly sparkling Colombard made by the method ancestral whereby fermentation starts, is stopped before completion and a secondary fermentation begins in bottle ending with disgorgement at the desired balance of sugar and alcohol. Tons of lemon citrus fruit and fresh acidity is balanced here by an off-dry palate. The perfect foil to begin a brunch or finish off an afternoon’s BBQ. Available in Hong Kong via Vincisive.

Having seen it all first hand, there is no doubt in my mind the quality of South African wines has never been higher, particularly with the stellar 2015 vintage now on release. Time to get drinking!

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