In 1997 one of South Africa’s most entrepreneurial winegrowers took a punt on a region not known for quality wine production. Charles Back saw the potential of the Swartland and hired a young winemaker – Eben Sadie – to head up his new Spice Route winery.
Making the Spice Route wines, Sadie also saw the potential here, and bought some grapes and produced his own wine in 2000. There were just 14 barrels of the debut vintage of Columella, but it was an instant success, and in 2002 Sadie left his day job to concentrate on his own project. His model of sourcing well farmed grapes from old vineyards and then making wines without too much intervention was taken up by others. 2000 was the first vintage of Tom Lubbe’s Observatory wine, which is no longer made but which also demonstrated the potential of the region.
Inspired by Sadie and Lubbe, other young winemakers started making their own Swartland wines, assisted by the ready availability of high quality, old-vine grapes from farmers who were previously selling at rock-bottom prices to co-operatives.
The Swartland Revolution
South African wine was about to enter a really exciting phase. The focal point of this was an annual festival, the Swartland Revolution, held each November. Suddenly there were dozens of producers making wines with very little manipulation, looking to express the quality of fruit that they had access to.The barrier to entry was low: there was no capital cost involved beyond renting some winery space (or squatting in a friend’s cellar), buying a few used barrels, and paying for the grapes.
As well as Eben Sadie, other stars emerged: Testalonga, Mullineux, Adi Badenhorst, David & Nadia, Rall, Terracura, Smiley, Silwervis, JH Meyer, Intellego and Porseleinberg.
As the region matures and evolves, there is increasing competition for grapes, and some of the big players are coming in and swooping up vineyards; also making a bit of homebrew in rented winery space is cool when you are 25, but when you are 35 with two kids you need a more solid income stream.
The pioneers are looking to the future. They have, to some degree, been the victims of their own success. Their work has opened a market for those in other regions who are also able to access old vineyards, such as in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Darling.
The Swartland was the ground zero of cool wine in South Africa; now we have the emergence of bright winemaking talent who are sourcing grapes from talented vineyards across the Western Cape.
What next for the revolution?
Some of the Swartland stars are shifting their business models from buying grapes to owning vineyards. Sadie now has his own; Badenhorst has always had his own farm; Mullineux have purchased the vineyards they used to rent. But the most exciting progression has been the planting of new vineyards by two of the most interesting of the Swartland producers: Testalonga and Mother Rock.
Johan Meyer, known by everyone as Stompie, is making lovely wines under his JH Meyer label, and also produces the Mother Rock wines with his partner, UK importer Ben Henshaw. Stompie started making his own wines back in 2008.
‘I think it’s more challenging now for a young guy to start and try and get into the market,’ he says. It is becoming harder to source good grapes. ‘This is the reason we brought a property: to get something sustainable.’
His new property, Platteklip, is spectacular, and at altitude it’s a cooler site than is typical of the Swartland.
‘I was lucky to buy this land. I was looking for this for two years,’ he says. Stompie has done everything with cash, without any loans. ‘I owe nothing. It’s a nice feeling, but it’s difficult. We build ourselves; we plant ourselves. We did everything with a lot of blood, sweat and tears.’ It will take several years for the newly planted vineyards to come online, but it will be worth the wait.
Craig and Carla Hawkins of Testalonga were the first of the Swartland Revolution crew to start their own vineyard project in 2015. The farm is nestled into the Olifantsberg mountain. ‘When the new owners came in at Lammershoek, we knew it was a good time to go out on our own.’ When they visited Banditskloof the property was derelict and had no electricity, but Craig saw the potential. ‘When I got here, I phoned Carla and said, I think we’ve got the spot.’
The Swartland boundary is at the top of the Olifantsberg mountain their property runs up against. It’s a warm climate still, but there are nice breezes.
‘The reason we bought this place is that it’s away from everything, so we can just live our lives and be who we are,’ says Craig, ‘but also there is good soil for planting vineyards, and there is water.’
Initially, Craig and Carla have planted four hectares including Mourvèdre, Carignan, Maccabeu, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Noir, to be grown as bush vines. 2021 will be the first harvest from this new farm.
Testalonga will continue buying grapes, but this vineyard was planted in part because of concerns about the future. ‘The more new producers, the more grape security becomes an issue,’ says Craig. ‘I don’t have contracts with anyone, but I have very firm handshakes, and I know them really well. Our businesses are interlocked, which is important.’
The second wave
And post-revolution, there is a second wave of new producers, following the model of the first: find some good grapes, and make some interesting low-intervention wines on a small scale. A great example of this would be Jasper Wickens and his Swerwer wines: he has an advantage because his wife’s family has one of the best farms in the Swartland. And Paul Jordaan, Eben Sadie’s winemaker has started his own brand. Tremayne Smith of Fable in Tulbagh has a Swartland brand of his own called Blacksmith, and City on a Hill is the label of André Bruyns who makes wine for David and Nadia Sadie. These are just a few of the new names worth following.
Text by Jamie Goode
Photography by Jamie Goode