Bloemendal is proving troublesome. The satnav and the iPad both tell us it’s right next door to Durbanville Racecourse, but the roads are closed for tree feeling and we find ourselves lapping the perimeter of the track over and over. But by following the line of the Kanonberg Mountain we eventually find our way there. We walk through the mountain bike trails that traverse the vineyards and meet Francois Haasbrek and Lombard Loubser. They are an engaging couple. Consultant Francois is urbane and poetical, a natural born marketer, whereas winemaker Lombard is a down-to-earth farmer who raises an occasional quizzical eyebrow as Francois gives us a potted history.
We are here for one main reason: this site may produce the best Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa. The estate came to worldwide prominence in 1987 when it first bottled the varietal from the legendary Suider-Terras vineyard. We jump on to the back of the pick-up and Lombard drives us up the Kanonberg Mountain to show us the Suider-Terras. Everything is dry farmed, low yields, much from bush vines. From the top of the mountain you get a jaw-dropping oh-my-god view of Table Bay, Table Mountain, False Bay, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Swartland. We stand in awe, gazing at the scene through the haze of a heatwave. It has the edge on Luton.
Back at the winery, you realise what a small, hands-on operation this is. Although they produce 1,000 tonnes of grapes, they only use around 10 per cent for the Bloemendal ranges. The winery is little more than, well, a suburban garage. You have to clamber over barrels to get into the tank room. At times like these I am always in awe of the magic they can produce in an environment such as this.
We work our way through a small but select range of wines. We try a range of Sauvignons and Chenins- “pretty little conjuring wines…” according to Francois – before we come to the superstar Suider-Terras Sauvignon. “As sinewy as a Kenyan long-distance runner,” he announces. This is preceded by a beautiful Semillon, redolent of orange blossom and rose petal. “Trouble is, no-one wants to buy it, so I drink most of it myself,” he says. Maybe we can convince him to sell us a few bottles…
Although it is the whites which made the estate famous, Francois’ heart lies with the Rhone varietals, especially Syrah (rather than Shiraz). His ambition is to challenge Hermitage and Cornas, both of which he places above Cote Rotie, which he regards as being too often mocha and coffee-dominated. All of the Syrahs show a beautiful complex and herby character with a wonderful softness of touch (he ferments in 500 litre barrels, not the more traditional 250 litres). “Pinotage makes interesting wines, but Syrah is the king!”
There is a problem ahead. We are approaching the Huguenot Tunnel which will take us through the Drakenstein Mountains – and the road seems to be on fire. Exiting Paarl, we had seen what looked like a huge dust cloud ahead of us. Or was it smog? Low clouds? But as we approached the mountains it became obvious this was a fire. And a bloody big one. Would they close the road? But no, we passed through the toll and the only sign of concern is the site of the orange-coated road safety crews casually waving their orange flags at intervals along the road. Steve and I are open mouthed as we approach a huge bush fire which is literally lapping at the road side. In the UK health & safety would have closed off the road, surely. “Just move to the middle of the road and put your foot down,” I shout (I am in the passenger seat nearest the flames!)
It takes us another hour of driving on the “wrong side of the mountain” before we reach Breedekloof, and the newest winery on our list, the ultra boutique-y 17-hectare Olifantsberg. As we sit down to a tasting of the wines, owner Paul Leeuwerik explains that “Our estate vineyards are mostly dedicated to varieties that we think thrive best under the very harsh conditions we have here.” And, boy, are conditions harsh. Winemaker Jacques du Plessis (a Sadie disciple) explains that the last rain they had was in November and the dust gets in your hair, your eyes, everywhere.
All wines are wild yeast fermented, giving a slow fermentation, as Jacques tries to avoid malo. He also whole bunch ferments which helps give an extremely herbal feel to the wine, a kind of garrigue flavour that is exactly what he is looking for. He is waiting for two large vineyards containing Roussanne and Grenache to come into production – he drives us out to show us the Roussanne vineyard. “This will be spictacular, really spictacular,” he says proudly.
We are overwhelmed by the wines. A white blend is absolutely gorgeous, rich, handsome, very moreish. A Chenin shows great complexity and elegance. A Roussanne-Grenache-Chardonnayblend wold knock most white Chateauneuf-du-Pap Blancs into a cocked hat. A Syrah has an effervescent quality, all raspberry and black plums, and a red blend of Syrah and Carignan has a magnificent Black Forest Gateaux quality.
Jacques has a feminine type of touch with his wines, which is just as well, as he is soon to leave to take up a position in Constantia. “It’s great working here, but it’s a bit isolated and I need a girlfriend!” But Paul has a number of candidates lined up and he is confident that Jacques legacy will be a successful one. We wish him well.
With or without Jacques, this is going to be a superstar winery.
“I had a farm in Africa…” The opening line of Karen Blixen’s classic memoir Out Of Africa comes to mind when you hear Samantha O’Keefe’s amazing story. A native Californian, Berkeley educated, she and her husband realised their dream and bought a mountain in Africa. But then her husband upped sticks and Sam was left to bring up two young boys on her own, 300 metres up a mountain, surrounded by wilderness. “Gorillas in the Mist”? More like baboons in the mist.
But nothing seems to faze this remarkable woman. She sold the bottom half of the mountain to finance her dreams and set about planting vineyards on the higher part of the slopes, determined to make some of the best wine to come out of Africa.
Steve and I rocked up on Thursday evening (we were late – it takes ages to get there; the winery is a good 80 minutes east of Worcester). No worries; she flings her arms around us and quickly pours out three glasses of Chardonnay and we race to the veranda to catch a majestic sunset. While dashing to prepare supper before the regulated power cut, sorting out her three huge dogs as they try to lick us to death, and supervising her boys’ homework, she refills our glasses with liquid gold. And then refills again. And again. And we chat until three in the morning in her sprawling, art-filled living room and eight hours pass as if in the blink of an eye.
After a night listening to the distant baboons, we tour the vineyards in the early morning mist and as you look out over the Riviersonderend, some of the previous night’s conversation is recalled. She recently hosted 14 of South Africa’s top winemakers, plus Tim Atkin and Christian Eedes, in a massive tasting of 37 World Class Syrahs: 26 South African, with 11 from the Rhone, California, Washington, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. “An incredible experience. Tim referred to it jokingly as The Judgment of Greyton!”
Meanwhile, her latest scores from Wine Advocate are:
92 Points – 2011 Chardonnay
92 Points – 2011 Viognier
89 Points – 2011 Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc
The granite soil, the unique microclimate, the subtle contours of the mountain slope we are standing on – all these help to produce world class wines. But none of that would mean anything without the determination of this remarkable woman.