This is Wild West Country. Arid desert, big skies, small, dusty, one-street towns, tumbleweed, heavy swing doors opening onto darkened bars, the sound of honky-tonk. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the Man With No Name. The contrast with manicured Constantia, oh-so-cool Stellenbosch and the industrial sprawl of Paarl couldn’t be greater. This is frontier country: next stop is Namibia.
But right now this is the most exciting wine region in South Africa. The home of bush vines, of dry-farmed vineyards. Using the natural contours, the unforgiving climate and the tough, dusty, granite soil, a loose confederation of winemakers informally led by Eben Sadie are making ground-breaking wines from Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Cinsault and Viognier.
Driving through Malmesbury, there is an indefinable embodiment of newness and the promise of brilliance.
Pieter Terblanche heads the Swartland Winery. A huge man with a bone-crushing handshake, he leads us into a tasting room which covers the whole of the top floor of the building. Lined up are around 180 different wine samples and winemakers Christo Kock and Marcel van der Walt. The friendliness is genuine, but so is the tension. Steve pauses, drops his bags, walks slowly around each table, eyes always on the samples, looks up and grins. “Let’s get to work.”
We waste no time, quickly nosing the first line of white blends, followed by the Chenins. Then we go back to the white blends. Steve likes two of the samples and asks for a measuring cylinder. Hand steady, he mixes together two of the blends, passes out the samples, and there are nods of approval and grunts of encouragement from the wine men.
And so it continues. Mix a bit here, a drop of that, pass that sample over here, no, no, a touch more. We move from the Chenins to the Chardonnays. Repeat the process. Then we move onto the Viogniers. The final blends are chalked up on a blackboard by Marcel. Then we move to the reds. Dark, black, inky-looking samples. Spitting, slurping, always testing, always pushing back. An extra three per cent of this varietal, no, too hard, too obvious, too bloody brutal, tone it down, take it off the blackboard, try again, back to the percentages. Now, where was that funky little Grenache, ah yes, now, let’s marry that to this Mourvedre, yes, no, a little more, what do you think, and everyone gathers round, odd blend, this, but – wow! – something magic happens once you swirl it round your mouth, and fruit, glorious fruit, explodes and, yes, we’ve cracked it – we must have this wine, add it to the list. Chalk it up on the blackboard. Worry about the accountants later.
But it’s arduous work, straight off an overnight plane from London and working eleven hours flat to get the range in place, mouths coated in tar, furry tongues, exhaustion beginning to set in. Is that funny taste in the wine the blend, the terroir, my own fatigue? Blackened fingernails, eyes stinging from tiredness.
We might have something here.
Numb, we need a break and flop down in ancient leather chairs in Pieter’s cool, book-lined office. Listen to some blues on a radio that has seen better days. Neck a craft beer. But tiredness is insipid, so we pull ourselves out of the chairs, go back to the blends. Hope, hope that your initial enthusiasm wasn’t misplaced. You take another sip. Silence. The winemakers look at each other, faces contorted as they swish the liquid round their mouths. Not easily pleased, these Boks. Everyone spits, looks at each other. And suddenly everyone is grinning. “This is bloody good stuff, man,” someone says. Or make that “marn”. And we’re all patting each other on the back, shaking Steve’s hand. The man from Del Monte, he say yes!
We definitely might have something here.