Dive into South Africa’s Most Exciting Wine Region
Swartland offers old-vine treasures with barely a pinotage in sight.
Imagine you’re a winemaker. Feels good, right? Now imagine you happened upon a region of beautiful slate soils, near-perfect warm climate, and an abundance of 60-year-old vines that look like something out of Burgundy. That feels really good.
Well, about a decade ago, a group of South African winemakers found exactly that just up the coast from the more famous vineyards of Stellenbosch and Paarl. The region is called Swartland and what was once known for producing “workhorse” grapes for brandy has become the new darling of South African wine.
Swartland—Afrikaans for black-land—gets its name from the black slate soils that run through the region. Slate is one of those words that drives terroir maniacs nuts. The hard sheet-like pieces of rock actually reflect sunlight back up onto the grapes, helping them ripen. Combine that with the dense schist soils in the region and you get a fair dose of the illusive ‘minerality’ running through these wines.
Swartland’s new status is due, in large part, to two winemakers: Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst. Both iconoclastic and experimental types, Sadie happened upon Swartland and Badenhorst grew up there. Both of them found an abundance of very old bush vines of chenin blanc that had been lazily farmed for brandy. They saw potential.
Farming these vines organically, they started seeing the rich, complex fruit that older vines can achieve. Plantings of syrah/shiraz, as well as cinsault, grenache, and mourvedre filled in the need for reds. Sadie and Badenhorst have been followed by a whole new generation of even crazier winemakers, like Craig and Carla Hawkins of Testalonga and Jugen Gouws of Intellego, experimenting with natural and skin-contact wines unlike anything that’s been seen in South Africa before.
The results of so many different winemakers have been spectacular. Below are my three picks for an introduction to Swartland wines.
2015 A.A. Badenhorst ‘Secateurs’ Chenin Blanc
From the family farm at Kalmoesfontein, this wine is made from totally unirrigated chenin blanc vines planted in the ‘60s. A quarter of the wine gets extended lees contact and the Chenin is blended with a splash of Palomino and a grape that Badenhorst keeps secret. An herbaceous, savoury, powerful wine in the way good Chenin can be. – $31.99 from Marquis Wine Cellars, Vancouver
2016 Boutinot ‘Wandering Beeste’ Syrah
A Swartland outing from international wine conglomerate Boutinot. The Wandering Beeste is wild, fermented syrah from 15 to 25-year-old vines grown over Swartland shale. The inspiration, and the label, draw from the famously skinny Nguni cattle in South Africa’s Western Province. This is not a big, jammy syrah. Instead it’s taut, mineral, and balanced with a good acidic backbone. – $34.99 from Kitsilano Wine Cellar, Vancouver
2017 Testalonga El Bandito ‘Skin’ Chenin Blanc
Among the most daring wines from a region of iconoclasts, this 100 percent chenin blanc from Craig and Carla Hawkins gets 10 days of skin contact at ambient temperature to extract some rich tannins. This is the shortest period of skin contact they’ve ever done on this wine, which they’ve been making since 2008. Spice and rich earth on the nose, with a fair bit of body for a wine at only 11.5% abv. – $47.90 from Vine Arts, Calgary (Side note, being Vancouver-based I am unfathomably jealous of Albertans for the number of Testalonga wines available there. You lucky ducks.)