The Revolution is over. Long live the Revolution
South Africa has regained its rightful place in the world of wine in the past 10 years. Much of the recent excitement has been driven by the winemakers in a small region only an hour north of Cape Town – Swartland. And one of the ways they have grabbed global attention is with their annual Swartland Revolution. I travelled to the sleepy town of Riebeek Kasteel at the start of November to find out first-hand what made this event so special.
Little did I know as I was doing so, that it would be the very last Revolution. But let’s not start at the end. To understand where Swartland and the Revolution evolved from, we need to step back more than a decade, to the seminal year of 1995. It was then that Charles Back, already well established in the wine South African industry with brands like Backsberg and Goats do Roam, tasted a sauvignon blanc from Swartland. The quality of this wine, from a hot region, amazed him. By the end of the day he had purchased the farm it was from, and three years later a young winemaker called Eben Sadie produced the first wines for Charles under the Spice Route label.
At that time co-operatives dominated the region, producing commercial-quality red, dry white and sweet white wines, without a particular focus on quality or marketing.
It didn’t take long for Eben to cause a stir in the domestic and international wine markets with his 2000 Columella red blend from Swartland old vines. Since then his star has kept rising, and the cheap (then) land, the wealth of old vines, wide array of grape varietals as well as many different soil types have attracted a swag of other young and passionate winemakers to the region – names like Callie Louw, Marc Kent, Adi Badenhorst, Andrea and Chris Mullineux, Andrew Blake, David Sadie and many more.
(To find out more about the history of the region, go to: www.spiceroutewines.co.za/the-swartland-revolution/ or www.theswartlandrevolution.com)
Four of these winemakers banded together as the Swartland Revolutionaries and in 2010 hosted the inaugural Swartland Revolution. I was first pointed towards one of the founding Revolutionaries by friend and customer, Melissa Morrow of Ponsonby Road Bistro. She has a very close family connection with the Badenhorst family and Adi. I visited Adi in his ramshackle office and winery in 2010 and was impressed by the motley collection of art and paraphernalia, including a now collectable Swartland Revolution poster. Since then, the Badenhorst Family wines have been making a strong impression in New Zealand.
With glowing reviews of Swartland wines flying in from UK and US reviewers and magazines on a regular basis it was essential that, as the pre-eminent importer of premium South African wines into New Zealand, I acquaint myself with the region and the winemakers more fully. What better way than to attend the Swartland Revolution?
In November 2015, that’s exactly what I did. The two-day event of serious wine tasting and equally serious partying is so sought after that the 500 tickets sell out within minutes of going on sale.
The weekend flew by in a blur, but some of the highlights were:
- Friday afternoon, arrive and check into the Oak Manor, stroll down the hill into Riebeek Kasteel.
- Refreshing craft beer at Garagista bar.
- Lunch with Adi, Eben and John Platter at Bar Bar Black Sheep.
- Registration at The Royal Hotel, G&T at the Gin and Tonic bar.
- Tasting of Californian Pax Mahle’s range of Pax Mahle and Windgap wines.
- Dinner, dancing, charity auction in the Grand Marquee on Town Square.
- Babbalas (hangover) burgers and great coffee on Saturday morning; news that 2.7 bottles of wine per person had been consumed on Friday.
- 09h00 Swartland Stories – the Revolutionaries presenting secret sidelines and private projects.*
- Saturday lunch prepared by the Revolutionaries’ mothers – a family affair.
- Afternoon session presented by esteemed wine writer John Platter, showing some of his favourite wines.**
* Promptly at 09h00, The Revolutionaries hosted a Swartland Stories session, showing off some of the secret sidelines and private projects they are working on. Andrea and Chris Mullineux offered their ‘Free Radical White’, reminding of and inspired by the wines of R. Lopes de Heredia Viña Tondonia in Rioja (which we will be receiving in NZ in December 2015) and a semillon gris, made of grapes that are a vineyard mutation of semillon. Eben showed his trial with agiorgitiko, a Greek variety well-suited to warm-hot climates, and a verdelho. Adi shared his rare wine made from a plot of Barbarossa vines (with bunches of up to 7kg!) and a cinsault from granitic soils. Callie Louw shared his trials with cinsault and grenache noir.
** The last of the formal wine sessions was led by John Platter, showing some of his favourite local wines. These incuded a riesling from Spioenkop in Elgin, clairette blanche from Craven in Stellenbosch, Vriesenhof Grenache from Piekenierskloof, Momento Tinta Barocca, a carmenere, petit verdot blend from Philadelphia and the Crystallum Shale Clays Chardonnay from Walker Bay. Certainly not what an uninitiated person would expect from South Africa.
The Revolution showed me that South African winemaking is growing up. There is subtlety, trials with ‘odd’ old vine material, expression of terroir and soils. The revolution might be over, but the new concepts it promoted are now being tested and integrated, if deemed appropriate. Also, existing fundamentals within the industry are being tested and retained, again if appropriate. So, while there is a strong trend amongst the younger wine-making fraternity in newer or re-discovered winegrowing regions towards lower alcohol, elegant, subtle wines, it would be irresponsible to discard the higher-alcohol, riper, bigger wines that have been popular for a long time and have built the base for the new blood to experiment.
Always ahead of the game, the Revolutionaries have decided to call time on the Swartland Revolution after only six events. "We now want to focus our time and energy on the next phase, the evolution perhaps, of great things in this great region and country of ours,” the group announced in a message to followers. “We believe that last weekend’s event brought things full circle. The Swartland Revolution was a stone cast into the ocean that is the South African wine industry and we are all satisfied with the ripples and waves it has caused.”
Planet Wine’s Swartland portfolio currently includes the AA Badenhorst Family wines. The Sadie Family and Porseleinberg wines as well as Chris Alheit’s Cartology white blend are steaming their way towards Auckland now and we have placed our first order of Mullineux & Leeu wines for 2016. The Revolution has extended to New Zealand and we are tremendously excited to be able to share these wines with you now and in the near future.
The Revolution is over, long live the Revolution
Worth reading, from others:
- Callie Louw describes Porseleinberg as a zero barrique winery. “I hate those things,” says Callie. “They are good for pot plants.” Just concrete (Nomblot eggs) and large oak are used in his winery.
- The Mullineux family is Chris and Andrea. They got married and moved to Riebeek Kasteel to start their own venture. “The Swartland was our only choice,” says Chris. “It was a no brainer.” They were tempted to join the new Swartland pioneers over in Paardeberg (with its predominantly granitic soils), but in the end they opted for Riebeek Kasteel, and its shale and schist.
- Columella 2007: “I don't want to make powerful wines,” says Eben. “I want to make elegant wines, but this wine is different because of vintage conditions.” A blend of 80% Syrah with 20% Mourvedre. Amazing, brooding, taut spicy mineral dark fruits nose with some floral notes. The palate is intense with fresh dark fruits and vivid structure and acidity. Spicy, dense and quite robust with huge structure.
- Sadie, like Back, is an inspirational character who has attracted interest and followers in equal measure. His well-deserved success with Rhône varieties proved that the Swartland could produce high quality, as well as quantity. Sadie’s approach – born of necessity to a degree, since he could not afford to buy land – was to source grapes from local growers. This large region has a lot of old vines, the best of them on slopes where nothing else would grow. “Machines can’t move on mountains and you can’t farm wheat there,” he says.
- Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof, who sources the grapes for his best-selling Porcupine Ridge Syrah from Swartland and is one of the partners in the ambitious Porseleinberg vineyard: “The Swartland needs more brands,” he says, “and you can make a profit. It all depends on your business model. And if it doesn’t work out, people can always plant wheat again.”
- All of these winemakers are part of a group called the Swartland Independent Producers (SIP), the association that ran the Swartland Revolution every November for six years, and has established a certification programme for its 21 members’ wines. To qualify, they have to be ‘naturally produced’ (without added yeast, acidity, tannin or reverse osmosis) and must be aged in no more than 25% new oak of European (i.e. French) origin.
- The list of recommended varieties is more controversial, since it excludes cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, four of the most planted grapes in the Swartland. Any SIP wine must be made from a minimum of 90% of carignan, cinsault, grenache, mourvèdre, pinotage, syrah and tinta barocca (for the reds) and chenin blanc, clairette blanc, grenache blanc, groendruif, marsanne, muscat d’Alexandrie, muscat de Frontignan, roussanne, vallblaar and viognier (for the whites). Andrea Mullineux explains: “In the quest for rationality, we feel that certain varieties have adapted to and express the Swartland conditions best. Although one could make an okay sauvignon in here, it is just too warm/dry to make a great one. Varieties not on the Swartland Independent list can still make up 10% of a wine though.”
- Like the majority of its grapes, the Swartland looks southern European as much as African. Gaze out over its landscape, fringed by mountains and baked brown, yellow and gold by the summer sun, and you could be in Castilla-La Mancha. This is a place of far horizons and unpolluted, vaulting skies. Close your eyes for a second and you can imagine Don Quixote tilting vaingloriously at a windmill in the distance, pursued by a breathless Sancho Panza.