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Wines of Swartland

by Tom Cannavan, 11/13

When South Africa emerged from three decades of isolation in 1991, their re-entry into the world of trade must have seemed as difficult as their re-entry in the world of politics. The removal of the last vestiges of the apartheid system allowed this glorious and beautiful country to once more fully engage with the world. That brought endless opportunities, but challenges too.

white wines In winemaking terms, whilst South Africa has the longest legacy of winemaking in the southern hemisphere, stretching all the way back to the 17th century, much of the apartheid era saw a certain level of stagnation. Large cooperative cellars produced a lot of inauspicious stuff, wine and spirits, that could not, and often therefore did not, aspire to compete at global level. Of course superb historic estates like Kanonkop, Rustenberg and Meerlust continued to make excellent wines, but surely the industry must have lacked drive and direction.

The confidence with which the wine industry took up the challenge in the early 1990s was remarkable. South African wines hit the world's streets once more and the UK was soon lapping up modern, well made wines that offered real value for money. But the pace of change in the Cape's wine industry has rarely let up in the 20 years since; indeed it seems to have gathered huge momentum. New names like Elgin, Hemel-en-Aarde and Swartland have emerged as some of the most interesting and potentially highest quality wine regions, new producers pop up every other week, established both by local investors and some of the world's wealthiest entrepreneurs, and a mind-boggling culinary and luxury tourism scene has been created from the dusty back roads of the winelands.

red wines But for the wine lover it is possibly South Africa's detailed reconsideration of its wines that holds most intrigue. Today it is the understanding of soils, sites and terroir that drives many winemakers. Once, relatively indiscriminate planting in the fertile, established winelands produced whatever the market demanded. But now that is being replaced by more site-specific thinking, concentrating on grape varieties and wine styles, with cool coastal regions being explored, and with patches of wonderful old vine material now being nurtured by passionate winemakers to create some very special South African wines indeed. Most of those old bush vines were once dedicated to brandy or cheap jug wine, but now winemakers in both the newer and more established regions are working with renewed energy to create some intriguing wines.

I will be publishing several tasting reports on the wines of the New South Africa (and delivering masterclasses on this subject at The Wine Gang's Christmas Fairs 2013), beginning with this selection of six from Swartland in the cool East Coast of the Cape, all stocked by The Wine Society. These are pretty much 'entry level and just above' wines from some of the region's top producers like Adi Badenhorst and Chris and Andrea Mullineux. Whilst they don't hit the heights of their premium, £40 bottlings, they do offer a fine and affordable introduction to this emerging region.

white wines

The Curator, White Wine 2012, South Africa
Adi Badenhorst is behind this wine, an approachable blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Semillon. It's the expensive and more profound wines of Swartland that have put the region on the map, but we are now seeing these entry level blends creep into mainstream retailers and I have to say this successful example is right up my street. Filled with ripe, crunchy apple and a softening touch of peach, there's a creaminess here that's inviting. On the palate it is brimming with flavour, cut by lime and orange acidity and is both generously round and sharp as a tack. I could happily have this as my house white wine. 88/100. 6.95

Kloof Street, Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2013, South Africa
Chris and Andrea Mullineux of the eponymous estate are two of Swartland's brightest stars, this Chenin coming from three Swartland vineyards. Whilst the grapes have barely been harvested in Europe, this spanking new 2013 was harvested six months before in the southern hemisphere. Very pale in colour, it is still quite primary and 'tanky' (hints of pear drops), but a delicious suggestion of ripe crunchy apple and of pie pastry comes through, as well as a hint of salty minerals. On the palate there's a lovely rounded, honeyed, almost tobacco like tinge to this, the core of resonant, crisp orchard fruit emerging on the mid palate. Clean, fresh and dazzling in the finish, I'm not sure if it's the tropicality of very ripe fruit alone, or a hint of residual sugar too, but it finishes with a sensation of sweetness against the thrust of cleansing acidity. 89/100. 10.95

The Liberator, 'This Bird has Flown' 2009, South Africa
The latest in the Liberator series made by British MW Richard Kelly in conjunction with top but unnamed winemakers is a blend of Chenin, Viognier, Chardonnay and Clairette. It's a big white with its 14.5% abv, and only 210 cases were made so don't hang around if you fancy it. There's a golden hue to this obviously aged wine and a delicious hint of gentle and controlled nutty oxidation on the nose. fresh, yeasty and bready, the dry nut husk appeal and an apple freshness combine to intrigue. On the palate it has huge power and sweetness (the alcohol no doubt helping) with spices and vanilla marrying to abundantly ripe and sweet fruit of Ogen melon, apple and ripe and juicy pear. Long and focused by its clean acidity, this is nutty, mineral yet honeyed stuff that is delicious and charming. 90-91/100. 11.95

red wines

The Curator, Red Wines 2011, South Africa
Adi Badenhorst, ex-Rustenberg in Stellenbosch, is now one of Swartland's star names. This blend of 82% Shiraz, 16% Mourvèdre and just 1% each of Cinsault and Viognier is finely tuned, with subtle but ripe black fruit aromatics and just a touch of violet and something slatey. Loads of flavour, loads of juicy black berries and bittersweet, tart plum and cherry skin acidity, and a grippy bite of tannin just to add savour to the finish. Another cracking value this. 87/100. 6.95

Kloof Street, Swartland Rouge 2012, South Africa
A Southern Rhône-style red, made with 83% Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan by Chris and Andrea Mullineux, this is made with indigenous yeasts, minimal sulphur and not other additives. The nose is cherry ripe, with a lovely little white pepper lift and a fleeting glimpse of something delicately floral. In the mouth the full, honest, richly fruited wine has a rustic tannin grip that roughens up the smooth texture of the fruit, a lively cherry skin tartness and plenty of spice and warmth. Deliciously done. 89-90/100. 10.95

Spice Route, Chakalaka 2010, South Africa
Spice route was in fact the Swartland pioneer, when Charles Back of Fairview estate in Paarl launched the label in the late 1990s, with a young Eben Sadie as winemaker. This is made from several varieties, but mainly Syrah (36%) and Mourvèdre (26%), a heady 14.5% abv blend, the components aged individually in a mix of American and French oak casks before final assemblage. It has a rich, thick, plum, blackcurrant and spicy nose, little hints of menthol and sweet earth adding complexity. On the palate it delivers a huge flood of sweet, ripe, glossy black fruit, that washes across the tongue before the kick of spice and pepper punches in. With chocolate-rich tannins and a rasp of plum-skin acidity, this is long, robust and satisfying with spices dominating the finish. 89-90/100. 12.95

All wines stocked by The Wine Society at time of writing.