One of the most satisfying things of being involved with wine is experiencing the progress made by winemakers from the start of their career. The adrenaline level has been upped over the past 22 years or so thanks to the scary speed the current batch of young and not-quite-so-young guns have scaled the ladder.
Some have personal relevance. Marc Kent’s Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 1997 has long been a wine of legend, in part because it was a one-off from a vineyard in Somerset West which was subsequently ripped up. It also set a benchmark for South African shiraz, giving a nod toward the classic syrahs of the Northern Rhône. Marc also went against then current trend of new oak, the older barrels aiding the wine’s savouriness. I was lucky enough to be one of the first to taste it, prior to bottling, for Platter and was suitably enamoured. I’ve not had a bottle for several years, but I know it has thrived far longer than its analysis suggested it should.
The following year, Eben Sadie made the first wines at Spice Route, the wines as characterful as the cellar just outside Malmesbury. Those 1998s heralded serious interest in the Swartland, which Eben went on to drive a few years’ later with his own wines. Merlot, cabernet, pinotage as well as syrah were admired for their softer, integrated tannins and subtle oaking. ‘One of thrilling new-genre of SA shirazes’, I wrote in Platter 2000, as the range made its first appearance in the guide. Let’s not forget the barrel-fermented chenin blanc from 36-year-old bush vines, surely an eye-opener to the distinctive character the Swartland could produce. If the wines received appreciative noises from the local cognoscenti, a later vintage (2001?) of Eben’s Spice Route syrah got a nod of approval from Gerard Chave, one of the greatest wine producers in the Northern Rhône; Chave Hermitage is arguably the most revered.
Add Chris Williams to these two; all three were at Elsenberg together and inspired by the Rhône wines they experienced on a trip together. Chris, under his own The Foundry label (his day job is Cellarmaster at Meerlust), has concentrated on producing wines from Rhône and Southern French varieties, both white and red. He says this is more of a coincidence than they are all interesting single sites grown on granite, some from Voor Paardeberg, alongside the Swartland. Chris also hit the road running when his first Syrah 2001 was awarded Platter 5 stars (guess who was the taster!). His philosophy of restraint with purity and freshness follows through his range.
Marc, Eben and Chris are at the top of their game, but they’re only at that level as all understand that producing quality wine is a never-ending journey rather than a destination. For that reason, their attention today extends beyond the cellar into the vineyards and marketing.
A steady stream of like-minded, free-wheeling producers are still following in their wake; many from the Swartland, but the rest of the winelands is also well-represented. Not only does the quality and distinction of their own wines raise their image but that of South African wine generally.
David and Nadia Sadie are one of the more recent teams to join the ranks of the young guns; they too caught the media and public’s attention with their first wine, the 2010 chenin-based Aristagos. The Sadies are unrelated to Eben but for obvious reasons, have avoided using the surname, choosing the brand name David and Nadia. Wine of Origin Swartland, the area where David was born, has been their motivation from the start; their current focus is on old vine chenin, ‘showing the beauty and honesty of the vineyards and soils.’
I clearly remember David bringing his early wines for tasting to my home or my colleague, Tim James’s, who then lived down the road. The philosophy hasn’t changed, though his confidence has grown, as was apparent when he introduced their latest 2018 wines last week. The wines too have changed, following the positive trend from bigger and bolder to more restrained and fresher.
A better understanding of their vineyards encouraged them in 2014 to keep separate a few barrels from each vineyard: Skaliekop (1985 vineyard on shale) and Hoë-Steen (1968 red iron, clay-rich vineyard west of Malmesbury) receive regular recognition from Platter with 5* ratings and high scores from Tim Atkin. In 2018 these have been joined by Plat’bos (‘small, low bushes’, planted early 1980s on 100% granite, next to Skaliekop) on the Sadie’s Paardebosch farm. It also contributes to the main chenin label and Aristagos blend.
The question was raised whether the market can absorb all these chenins, especially as prices between R200 and R300 are now commonplace. David’s response reflected his belief in a collaboration like the Swartland Independent Producers, ‘which aim to farm, make and market wines from the Swartland as an appellation, a collective and collaborative team effort in creating awareness around the Swartland and therefore also the Cape.’
A great goal, but one that can be met only when the wines do display the necessary distinction, which this trio does: being good isn’t good enough.
Skaliekop floral and tropical peach aromas, concentrated flavours and tangy acid.
Hoë-Steen complex juicy ripe flavours, infused with tension, incisive, long finish
Plat’bos arresting, steely and linear; more structure than fruit for now, but all three will benefit from age.
With a lower yield anyway due to the drought, 2018 has produced a measly 1200 – 2000 bottles for each of these chenins. That said, there will be much more reward from buying all three to discover their individuality.
For the unlucky or empty of wallet, the regular chenin, also from old vine blocks, offers great quality with affordability..
As does the rest of the range, where the Grenache with its elegant power, fine structure and fruit, was my stand-out red.
The journeys these and the other guns, of whatever age, are undertaking cannot fail to inspire and excite. We live in an ever-golden age of South African wine.