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.
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.”
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.
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: Read the rest of this entry »