Adi Badenhorst had literally just finished picking the 2021 vintage, when he sat down to chat with us via Zoom, and he’s smiling from ear to ear as he says how much he’s looking forward to the annual end of harvest party.
It was a pretty unusual one, even by non-pandemic standards, it started slow, had a cool growing season and rain just when it was needed most. The Swartland is normally sun soaked and dry - the joke is that usually during harvest, you wash in grape juice, water is reserved for winery cleaning only! Covid restrictions made it a hard vintage, but mother nature gave Adi and his team a break.
Adi was born on a farm in Constantia, where winemaking in South Africa essentially started. Groot Constantia, where his grandfather worked as the farm manager, is the oldest wine estate in the country. From childhood Adi had an interest in farming but particularly the history and tradition of grape growing. By his own admission he scraped through school, always more interested in the vineyards than his textbooks. After school he travelled the world, vintage hopping from France to New Zealand, before ending up back in South Africa making the wines at Stellenbosch winery Rustenberg.
In 2007 he visited a dilapidated old winery on the northern side of the Paardeberg Mountain in the Swartland. It was rough around the edges but had bags of potential, with magnificent old vineyards that just needed a bit of love. Along with his cousin and his wife, Adi left Stellenbosch, fixed up the old winery and started making his own wines.
“What drew us to the Swartland, why we put our roots down here, are planting trees and vineyards, and investing in the people and the infrastructure here, is because it’s a very very special place. When you drive into the Paardeberg area, it’s got a sense of humility and expanse, but the mountain has texture and slopes, you know those grapes can make interesting wines”.
The Badenhorst winery has over 76 hectares of vines, or ‘a shit load of vineyards to farm’ as Adi puts it. Alongside the traditional Swartland varieties like Chenin, Shiraz, Cinsault and Grenache, he has also started to experiment with others; 25 different grapes ‘most of them I can’t pronounce’. It will be six years before they make wine from these new plantings, but Adi is excited to discover a new generation of grapes that could perfectly suit the Swartland climate. His plan is to also sell some fruit to young, up and coming winemakers who are equally excited by this potential, but lack resources to plant their own farms.
Adi is lucky to have several amazing, old vineyards to work with on the farm. One that we have always particularly enjoyed is Raaigras - which Adi cheekily tells us is pronounced 'like ‘Rye Grass’, which I suppose rhymes with ‘Rayas’. Raaigras is the oldest single vineyard Grenache in South Africa, planted in the early 1950’s.
“It was one of those vineyards where, when we bought the farm, we just looked at these amazing vines and thought ‘shit these things are old’. We came through in winter when all the leaves were off and saw these massive trunks. I didn’t realise how old they were then.
“There’s something about the chemistry of this juice. When you taste these grapes on the vine it’s so different to the newer stuff”.
More than any other site Adi has, this is the one that he feels is the best at telling you who it is and where it’s from. Aside from age, the key factor in this is the grape variety.
A common sense approach
Adi has been farming these picturesque vineyards for fourteen years, and with each year he gets to understand the vines more. His ethos is simple: The better you know your vines the less work is needed to get the best from them.
“We just look after the things. It’s common sense. We plant really good cover crops, we try and keep the under-row free of weeds, we do a lot of mulching. We try not to spray any systemic fungicides, if there is a problem vineyard with a lot of powdery mildew we might have to spray a section of it, we don’t want to lose the crop. And when it comes to harvesting we just taste, have a look at the conditions of the vines, and then fuck we try not to pick too much on a Friday. Because that means you’ve got to work over the weekend”!
The ‘spraying’ question is a thorny topic in the world of low-intervention and natural wine. People tend to associate any kind of chemical intervention with the ‘big bad wolf’; industrial sized wineries who care very little about their environmental impact. Yet the reality is more nuanced than that. A lot is said about sustainability, particularly in relation to the environment, but what about social and economic sustainability? A winery is much more than a place to make wine, it’s also part of society.
“South Africa is an amazing place to live and to work, but we do have a very complex society. We employ a lot of people and our first priority above everything else is to be financially sustainable. If we are financially sustainable then we can be socially sustainable; we can employ people. Once that’s all in place, then we can also be environmentally sustainable. So, if we need to spray something then we will spray, because we need to pick those grapes and we need to make the wine from that vineyard”.
We have been fans of Adi’s wines for many years now. Not just because they’re delicious, but also because of how integral Adi has become to the fabric of the Swartland and its society. Alongside fellow, likeminded growers and producers, he has formed a group called the Swartland Independent Producers. People who are dedicated to encouraging the production of wines that are truly reflective of the area. A group which also includes City on a Hill and Testalonga.
“It’s amazing to sit with these guys, taste through these wines, and really feel a connection with them. There are so many similarities in our approaches to winemaking and farming, and yet our wines are so different. That for me is a really beautiful part about it. There’s a genuine friendship”.
Just as there is more than one way to paint a picture, there is also more than one way to make wines that represent the Swartland. Adi Badenhorst is the epitome of what makes the Swartland one of South Africa’s most exciting wine regions. From the farming, to the people and the wines, he cares about it all and wants to continue to see it thrive.