The great garden

It is better to travel hopefully than arrive. Well now, I know this idiom shouldn’t be taken literally, but my arrival at Lismore was just as rewarding as the lengthy, hot yet enchantingly scenic drive to get there.

From my home to the tiny spot of shade on Sam O’Keefe’s driveway is 153 kilometres; in the early stages along the N2 there’s all the hustling traffic of mainly cars and taxis but once over Sir Lowry’s Pass it’s more heavy trucks, fewer taxis and, further still, past the turn off to Hermanus, just very much less traffic altogether.

The scenery too noticeably changes: a progression from the huddle of informal settlements, shopping malls and distant towns to the orchards and vineyards of Elgin to the plunge from the top of Houw Hoek pass and the sweep of wheatfields below. Wheatfields which are now brown and stubbly but there’s still grace in the way they embrace the contours of the gentle as well as steeper slopes. The road to Greyton I’m now following, after leaving the N2, itself weaves around the contours, as if describing a giant slalom.

As the fashionable village of Greyton and the Riviersonderend mountains draw closer, the hypnotic gentleness yields to the drama of these granite peaks, running like an impenetrable barrier parallel with the eponymous river towards the eponymous town to the south east.

‘Turn right at the third stop street by the Greyton Superette.’ O’Keefe’s instructions lead me on to a dirt road – thank goodness one of the better of its type – which 10 kilometres and a left turn towards the mountains later, brings me to Lismore. My journey had been without rush, so I could savour all the scenery afforded me. I hope the photo taken at the bottom of the last stretch to the farm will illustrate the general remoteness.

Samantha O'Keefe's home is just visible on top of the mid-distant hill.
Samantha O’Keefe’s home is just visible on top of the mid-distant hill.

So why did American O’Keefe and her then husband, also American, buy here? ‘We could only afford an old dairy farm in Greyton, not a wine farm in Stellenbosch.’ An entirely logical answer, but not only is the farm remote, there wasn’t another vine in sight. But one look at the soils – shale with a clay base, so poor and water-retentive – reveals a wine growing gem.

Lismore ShaleLismore lies within the summer rainfall region, the annual average being around 1300mm but drought conditions also occur, creating problems for these dryland vineyards, however water-retentive their soils. Summers can be very hot, up to 35C is not unusual, but days are followed by a dramatic night time dip, sometimes close to single figures, allowing the fruit to regain its pure, cool-climate flavours.

In such an untested area, how did O’Keefe decide which varieties to plant? Climate and soils obviously played a role, but I prefer her honest market-oriented answers. ‘Sauvignon blanc because that was what everyone was planting then as it had (still has) wide consumer acceptance. Chardonnay because I’m from California. Shiraz and viognier because everyone else was going for Bordeaux varieties. I had the idea of blending a little viognier with shiraz, as in the Côte Rôtie then; now more producers are bottling 100% syrah. That’s why I’ve got only .8ha of viognier; it was intended as a blending partner. I never envisaged its popularity as a varietal wine.’

Lismore's south facing chardonnay and syrah vineyards
Lismore’s south facing chardonnay and syrah vineyards

On her first and recent visit to the Rhône, O’Keefe met her Condrieu hero, Georges Vernay, recognised as the man who rescued the appellation from near-extinction and who she describes as ‘wedded to viognier’. He nodded approvingly at her wine; while both agreed it’s not Condrieu, Vernay recognised it as something special and individual. Lismore fans will be glad to hear more plantings are planned; not just of viognier, as the plan is to increase the current 65 ton harvest to 100 tons.

Yes, the viognier is special; special in its subtlety yet purity of fruit – spice, orange citrus and finally its characteristic ripe apricot. Contrast is found in the textural density and a pleasantly bitter, pithy conclusion. Like all Lismore wines, it’s hailed by sommeliers as a fantastic style to match with food; Asian in this case.

Chardonnay, (the only 2013, the rest 2014s) too captures this cool climate purity with its more lime and lemon pith than flesh, spice too. Focused and fluent, with just enough weight from its evolution in well-used 225 and 300 litre barrels, O’Keefe confirms curries make a wonderful partner.

But both, in my opinion, are surpassed in individuality and completeness by the Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc (oxidised juice, fermented/aged in 300 litre very old barrels without S02 until bottling after 11 months). There’s more nuance and complexity in the wine’s chalky, citrus, red apple tones; the texture, gently grainy and braced by wonderfully balanced tension, offers a perfect contrast to those pure flavours. This is the wine to watch as it ages.

Syrah is the sole red, in 2014 fermented with 40% whole bunches, which provides a more punchy, spicy, energetic wine with nice juicy tannins but a little too noticeable heat on the tail.

All these wines are fermented and aged in oak barrels of different sizes, simply because O’Keefe doesn’t have any stainless steel. She doesn’t even have a cellar. Space is now rented in, believe it or not, Olifantsberg, a heck of a long way from Lismore. Thankfully, she does have the use of a cottage there, where she stays over harvest.

Originally she used the cellar constructed under her home (which she and her ex also built), but it became too small to hold the harvest. Once the new planned plantings come into bearing, she’ll re-think erecting a simple cellar on Lismore. The name is an old one, dating from 1830 and meaning ‘great garden’.

Sam O'Keefe with Leo (Boerbul/Great Dane) one of her canine companions
Sam O’Keefe with Leo (Boerbul/Great Dane) one of her canine companions

Samantha O’Keefe has the handsome, strong features to match her own mental strength; her 12 years on Lismore haven’t been easy and, to an extent, it still isn’t. She has two young sons to look after, as well as making and selling her wine. Every cent counts. Thanks to her philosophy of ‘allowing the fruit to tell its own story’, the wines which do this so eloquently and her own gregarious nature, she is deservedly successful. This without entering shows or Platter (we have extensive off-record discussion about this and much else!). She does feel now that she’s reached the end of a phase where being alone here has been an interesting story; now she would like to see others come to the area and plant vines. She hints there is a cattle farmer neighbour serious about establishing vineyards; she will be pleased if he does.

Her sons return from school and I leave for a rather quicker drive home, this time reflecting yet again on the excitement that continues to bubble through the South African wine industry, in no small part due to O’Keefe and Lismore.

Birds, buck & baboons do their best to eat all Lismore's fruit. Sam O'Keefe is driven to trying any method to chase them away, including human hair in a bag.
Birds, buck & baboons do their best to eat all Lismore’s fruit. Sam O’Keefe is driven to trying any method to chase them away, including human hair in a bag.
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