Something Special in the Swartland

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 10-21-2014

If you doubt the quality of South African wine, the Swartland will make you a believer. Thanks to terroir, winemaking philosophy, camaraderie, and personality, there is something special going on there.

Named after the indigenous rhino bush that turns the soil a dark color during certain times of the year, the Swartland – which translates as “black land” — is about one hour north of Cape Town. In appearance, the Swartland is reminiscent of the Texas wild west combined with a Mediterranean climate. It has a rugged terrain and an untamed, wild personality complete with gnarly bush vines, rocky soils, and seemingly unkempt planted rows. It’s also a very hot region, tempered by the altitude and by the neighboring Atlantic Ocean.

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Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines describes the region and his decision to make wine there in this way: “Why the Swartland? There are no people there! It’s the biggest appellation in terms of size in South Africa. And we have some of the best soil — iron rich soil like the Douro and also brutal, pure granite.”

The winemaking style is most loudly all about dry farming, old bush vines, and minimal intervention. Appropriately summarized by a South African Tourism article, “This minimalist, some might say old-fashioned, philosophy is at the center of a winemaking revolution, spearheaded by a new generation of boutique, family-run, and garagiste producers.”

Old bush vines in the Swartland

Old bush vines in the Swartland

The people of this “revolution” are mostly making Rhone-style whites and reds, along with some Chenin Blanc.

Originally, I was struck by the exceptional whites of the Swartland. Of all the wines I tasted over a week-plus stay in South Africa, the only one I brought home was a Swartland white — more specifically, Palladius from Sadie Family Wines. The blend of 10 grapes has layers of textures and flavors that hit all over the palate — a lush mouthfeel turns to a touch of smoke and then a refreshing zip of fresh apple and chalky stone, followed by lemon and white flowers, and a long, satisfying finish. Yum.

Terroir-driven "recipe" for Palladius

Terroir-driven “recipe” for Palladius

More recently, I had a chance to experience a more in-depth tasting of the reds from the Swartland during a vertical tasting with Eben (see our previous interview with him here). We tasted through his Columella line (a blend of Rhone grapes, mostly Syrah), from his very first vintage in 2000 through his current release, the 2012. There wasn’t a dud in the line-up.

That said, Eben’s maturity and viewpoints as a winemaker punctuated various vintages throughout the tasting. For example:

  • 2000: “Thank God I didn’t have more money!” His first year, Eben used 30% new oak and he fears he would have used more if he’d had the funds. Also in reflecting on the 2000, while he didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, the vintage was a phenomenal one in the Swartland with near perfect conditions. Today, the wine is elegant with black pepper, spice, and soft notes of dark red fruit and a finish that’s savory.
  • 2003: Like other places around the world, this was a hot, hot vintage. Eben had low expectations for this wine, but sees it now as that “walks out of the hospital, takes off its oxygen mask, and takes a drag of a cigarette.” It’s certainly still alive with ripe fruit, sweet spice, and tea leaves. Not as savory as the previous few vintages. Also the first year Grenache was added.
  • 2005: “Monumental vintage because it hit 95 points and really bridged the gap between South Africa and the wine world.” More perfumed and sweeter than its neighboring vintages.
  • 2009: After the 2008 vintage, Eben made a pronounced change in his winemaking views. He developed an aversion to oak, a renewed passion for freshness, and also began introducing whole bunch fruit. The wine is texturally more tightly woven than any of the previous vintages and much more linear. “I think it has more definition of fruit,” says Eben. “Carignan and Cinsault were also added in 2009.”

“Freshness” might be this season’s “minerality,” but the term really does apply. While the structure and flavor profiles of these wines were big, they were lifted by a purity of fruit.

Eben opened the tasting by saying, “If there ever was a time machine, it’s wine.” And if the past is any indication of what’s to come from this region, it’s going to be special.

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