South Africa has been experiencing renewed international interest for its wines of genuine quality, thanks in part to The Swartland Revolution; a winemaking movement that took root in the hot and dry Paardeberg area, roughly 20 years ago. But it was in fact in the Voor-Paardeberg that Swartland Icons like Adi Badenhorst and Eben Sadie started to notice potential in the region. Two decades later, on the Southern end of the mountain, this less-talked-about ward of the Voor-Paardeberg (often disparagingly referred to as “Swartland Lite”) is starting to come alive, as queues of South Africa’s most exciting new-wave winemakers are lining up (sometimes literally) to buy both fruit and land.
Scanning the list of winemakers currently working in the area (Donovan Rall, Miles Mossop, Bernard Bredell, John Seccombe, Jacques de Klerk, Thinus Kruger, Pieter Walser, Tremayne Smith…) I began wondering what it takes for a region to go from obscurity to “so-hot-right-now”. Or in the case of the Voor-Paardeberg, what it would take to shift its perception from “Swartland Lite” to “next big trend”.
The Anatomy of a Wine Trend
Wine trends are like the word “Monopoly”. The longer you fixate on them, the more bizarre they seem. Mostly because they are oxymoronic in their make-up.
Here’s what I mean: If a wine trend is really to take root, it needs two seemingly mutually exclusive qualities. (1) It needs a new sort of excitement to over throw the establishment, while (2) also being as old as the hills. You need bothcomponents for it to really work. If the trend lacks that ancient quality, it’s seen as a fad. But conversely if there is no new, tangible change to the product, then the consumer has no novel narrative to grasp.
Here are just a few examples of what I’m talking about:
- The orange/amber wine wave – ‘new’ styles of wine, based on 8,000-year-old Georgian techniques.
- The global wine community’s blossoming romance with regional cultivars saw age-old, long-forgotten cultivars punted by fresh-faced, inked-up somms.
- The still growing natural wine movement references an era before technology or cellar additives, while adopting a thoroughly “now” design aesthetic.
- And, finally, down on the Southern tip of a continent known for jungles, deserts, racism, and poverty, The Swartland Revolution combined the ancient sites of the Swartland and Paardeberg, with fresh styles of winemaking that enabled “wines of place” to defy what South African wine was known for at the time (big, brash reds, stinky Pinotage, and cheap Chenin).
So, following my ancient-&-modern thesis on what makes a wine trend, I began wondering if the surging list of Who’s-who winemakers working in the Voor-Paardeberg ward might not be a precursor to a far wider shift in the reputations of this modest ward.
But does Voor-Paardeberg have the right stuff?
I was on my way to visit Vondeling Estate – one of the Voor-Paarderberg’s more established estates – when it struck me that the road to the Voor-Paardeberg serves as physical manifestation of the region’s recent shifts in perception.
From Cape Town, one heads North on the N7, tracking the West Coast, except slightly inland, so you’re without the benefit of idyllic ocean scenes. Instead, one passes unsightly oil refineries, surrounded by barbed wire fences, punctuated by rusted gun turrets. These turrets – like the political system that birthed them – appear abandoned, but are still very central to one’s view of the region. And then there are the poverty-stricken townships and endless power pylons. Beyond that, the landscape is filled with vast, drab, brown grasslands that are not even arid enough to be beautiful in a stark-desert-scene sort of way. The romance of wild bush vines and barrel cellars could not be more distant.
But as times passes, the scene starts to soften.
One turns off the god-forsaken N7 onto the R304, and the first signs of commercial agriculture appear. The drab grasslands are replaced by monotoned wheat fields and, against all odds, a few vineyards begin to surface.
Then, quite suddenly, there is a sharp shift in focus. Where previously one’s gaze could not avoid the flat featureless sea of wheat, you’re confronted by distinct, jagged, rocky outcrops rising up on your left, hemming you in on one side, while (lo and behold) beautiful vineyards slope away on your right. The combination of jagged rock and lush green vines renders you in a cinematic mood that’s somewhere between A Land before Time and A Good Year. You’re in wine country now.
Standing on a veranda overlooking the Vondeling Estate vineyards, I watched the leaves start to rustle in the afternoon breeze.
“Ah, someone just turned on the air-conditioning!” said a young man on my left. It was viticulturalist Jaco Engelbrecht, the founder of Visual Viticulture, and consultant to the likes of Eben Sadie, Duncan Savage, Adi Badenhorst, Pieter Walser’s BLANK Bottle, and Overgaauw Estate.
“Every afternoon, one can feel that cool breeze roll in from Tafelbaai [to the South]” he continued. “The cool air pumps in through the trough between Paarl Mountain, and Paarderberg Mountain. It makes such a massive difference to that afternoon heat crunch. It also plays a significant role increasing the diurnal range.”
“And what about the soils?” I asked, secretly hoping he wouldn’t launch off about decomposed granite, which seems to be the only soil type anyone wants to talk about when marketing South African wine.
“Well, of course we have loads of decomposed granite soils close the mountain…” he started out, but then salvaged my hopes by adding, “but that’s not the whole story.”
Jaco, like the Tafelbaai air-conditioning, is a breath of fresh air.
“Closer to the mountain, you have decomposed granite. Usually poorer soils. The vines struggle a little, but in return deliver a higher acidity, and freshness. But as you move further from the mountain, you see more shale soils, which often deliver fatter, fuller, bigger wines. In my mind, the best wines are a blend of parcels of fruit grown in both soils.”
But there are exceptions; the old vine Chenin in my glass at the time was an exceptional richly layered saline-chalk-&-wax affair from Henry Kotze’s Pilgrim Wines, which turned to be vinified from grapes grown in decomposed sandstone and clay.
And what of the fruit?
Looking at the spread of wines on the lunch table, there was everything on offer from a generously-styled wooded Ayama Vermentino(silky, sweet stone fruit and tart green apple, rolled up in a waxy mouthfeel; dusted with white pepper and almond) through to Tremayne Smith’s luminous crimson BlackSmith Innervision Pinotage (a carbonic maceration wine which is headily aromatic, fresher than a pair of Nike Space Hippies, and packed full of crunchy tannins). Incidentally, “luminous crimson” doesn’t do the colour justice. The closest I could come to describing it was “pantone #f2117d”; a colour that icolorpallete.com calls “razzmatazz”. However, the wines that expressed the most abundant focus and prowess were almost always Chenin Blanc-fronted blends, often supported by Rhône cultivars like Roussanne and Viognier, as well as Grenache Blanc. Grenache Blanc as a single-cultivar wine is also enjoying a surge in critical acclaim of late.
But why now?
There is still the cynical theory that Voor-Paardeberg’s recent popularity is simply a result of the Swartland being over-shopped. Stories abound of eager winemakers queuing up for fruit from Swartland wards like the super-trendy Piekernierskloof; having to buy parcels of fruit that they didn’t even ask for just to get access to a block of Grenache they had their eye on. And this, of course, comes with an increase in grape price, and a decrease in options. It’s only logical for young winemakers in this position to seek out other options. The Voor-Paardeberg, just down the drag, is an obvious choice.
20 years to become an overnight success
And yet a simple lack of options in a trendier region doesn’t explain why some of the bigger movers and shakers are not just sourcing fruit in the Voor-Paardeberg, but making sizeable investments in land, too. Regional giants,Bosman Family Vineyards,have recently bought Sonopfarm, which has the valley abuzz with speculation over what direction they will take. Thankfully, given winemaker Corlea Fourie’s track record of producing some of the country’s best Grenache Blanc (see their amber wine, Fides) and Cinsault (see their old vine bottling, Twyfeling) as well as owner Petrus Bosman’s prescient decision to begin working with the climate-matched cultivars like Nero d’Avola, it feels like their presence in the Voor-Paardeberg can only add momentum to what is already happening.
Which is what exactly?
As is the case with most exciting things about South African wine, Eben Sadie has very much been a part of the action. Well, Eben… anda reluctant reliance on the oft-villainised co-operatives.
“Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, the Voor-Paardeberg community was made up of a small group of family-owned farms that would sell grapes to co-operatives like Boland Cellars, or the Perdeberg Co-operative,” added Matt Copeland, senior winemaker at Vondeling Estate. Boland and Perdeberg mostly serve the bulk market, and so their demand would have been almost entirely for the so-called international cultivars (Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay etc).
“But when Vondeling was undergoing a sort-of rebirth, Eben Sadie was the man overseeing the plantings, clone choices and site selection. The reason we have such a diverse selection of cultivars on Vondeling today is because of what Eben did back then,” continued Copeland. Incidentally, Copeland’s favourite wine to produce each year is the Vondeling Babiana.True to form, it’s a Chenin-led blend, supported by Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier.
But for all the co-ops’ demands for “colonial” cultivars, part of Voor-Paardeberg’s current fortunes are owed to the resources and infrastructure of these very institutions. “Everyone wants to blame the co-operative system, and their focus on bulk wine,” said Engelbrecht, “but guys like Boland Cellar and Perdeberg Cellar has been getting some of their best fruit out of this region for decades. They have also had a role to play in helping farmers plant new vineyards and keep some old vines. People forget that! They forget that without the big co-ops, South Africa would hardly have any old vine blocks left! And with regards to cultivars, these were the guys who could afford to experiment with different clones and varieties. They could afford to fail, which gave them enormous scope. They are the ones we have to thank for the variety we see now.”
And then there is the enigmatic farmer of the future; the now-man, Willie Mostert. By all accounts, Mostert is an exceedingly guarded man, who doesn’t dabble with journalist types. However, his influence on the region is no secret.
“Willie Mostert has been pivotal in the Voor-Paardeberg,” said Engelbrecht.
“He has such an open mind to new things. He began planting new varieties long before it was fashionable. Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Verdelho, Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris, you name it, Willie has it. Recently he planted some Alicante Bouschet, too. Heunderstandsthe wine business, and that he is not just farming grapes; he’s farming wine. His whole ethos has intrigued and lured a lot of winemakers, and once they tasted the Voor-Paardeberg fruit, they’re hooked! It was his work that paved the way for other farmers to become serious wine grape producers. More recently, guys like André du Toit of Pakhuisdam have been doing the same thing. Again, Andre’s a rare breed. Another farmer who loves wine!”
The scarcity of genuine wine grape farmers (true vignerons!) seems troubling to me, but when I press Engelbrecht further on the topic, he insists that that is a topic for another day.
As I drove home, it occurred to me that my “ancient and modern” theory was entirely wrong. But not to worry; I have a replacement theory:
Wine purists are always insisting on wines that communicate place and time (vintage), but that never stoop so low as to reference the human element. Yet, in many of the great wine movements, it is precisely the human element that made those movements great. Even if no one wants to say that on the back label.
The natural wine movement would have struggled without champions like Isabelle Legeron MW. The orange wine movement needed tatted, bearded exuberant evangelist-cum-somms to repackage ancient Georgia. And one must ask if the regional cultivar wave would be where it is without prophets like José Vouillamoz and scribes like Jason Wilson?
Indeed, Voor-Paardeberg does have incredibly old soils, and exciting new cultivars. It also has cool south-west facing slopes, and a remarkably fortunate set of mountain peaks and troughs that allow cool air to flow at just the right time each day. But these have been there all along. It took some human visionaries, 20 years ago, to see the importance of matching cultivar to climate. It took human infrastructure and organisation to preserve old vines that, within the economy of the day, were essentially useless. And now, as some of South Africa’s most exciting wines start to pour out of the region, they are being produced by young, fired-up winemakers who dare to do something different, and communicate their human philosophy on what fermented grape juice should or shouldn’t be. Perhaps the Revolution has simply returned to its roots.
A few Voor-Paardeberg beauties worth hunting out
1. Vondeling Estate Babiana White Blend 2018 (58% Chenin, 21% Viognier, and then roughly equal parts Grenache Blanc & Roussanne)
2. Pilgrim Wine’s Chenin Blanc 2019 (35-year-old vines, which means this is the first vintage that they qualify to be part of the Old Vine Project. )
3. Ayama’s Vermentino 2018 (100% Vermentino; partially barrel-fermented; neutral oak)
4. Albert Ahrens WhiteBlack Blend 2018 (Roughly equal parts Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne)
5. Alheit Vineyard’s Fire By Night Chenin Blanc 2018 (43-year-old vineyards; fruit fermented in concrete eggs)