Research pays off. It’s what brought us to visit the Swartland wine region in South Africa. In addition to visiting the better known region of Stellenbosch and the very scenic Franschhoek, we wanted to visit an out of the way wine region. I discovered several articles about a group of winemakers in the Swartland making wine using minimal intervention in the winery, from specific cultivars with the goal of producing wines reflective of the Swartland terroir.
Names like Eben Sadie, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Adi Badenhorst and Callie Louw kept popping up. I discovered they are all members of Swartland Independent Producers (SIP), who according to their website are “a group of like-minded wine-growers in the Swartland region of the Western Cape.” All winemakers in this group have agreed to a strict winemaking protocol including the use of only indigenous yeast for fermentation, no acidification and no addition of tannins.
In order to produce “wines that are truly reflective of the Swartland” new wood aging is limited (only European wood is allowed with less than 25% new wood) and only certain grape varieties may be used (they must be at least 90% of the blend).
The Swartland covers a large region to the north, west and southwest of Tulbagh stretching to the Atlantic coast. This large, relatively open area is warmer and planted to wheat, vineyards and olive trees. Very tall mountain ranges do not dominate the landscape as is Franschhoek and Tulbagh, though there is a change in elevation due to rolling hills and lower mountains.
Expansive is how I would describe the region; it seems wide open, as if you could see forever. To put this into perspective, winemaker Adi Badenhorst told us the Swartland region is so large you could drive for one and and a half hours north of his farm in the Paardeberg area and still be in the Swartland.
We were told two stories as to how the Swartland was named. The first has to do with indigenous vegetation, called Renosterbos or rhino bush, that turns black during the summer months. Thus, the early Dutch settlers called the area “Het Zwarte Land”, the black land. The second story derives from a more recent time and involves the extensive wheat fields that, after harvest, are burned leaving the land blackened. Not a happy thought.
Soil types are varied in the region and are derived from Malmsbury shales, Bokkeveld shale and Cape granite.
Decomposed granite soils are associated with Paardeberg mountain and the shale and schist soils with Kasteelberg mountain. Deep, well-drained reddish-brown soils near Malmsbury are also highly regarded.
Chenin blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the major white wine grape varieties planted in the Swartland. The most-planted red varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinotage. Red wine varieties represent about 60% of plantings.
These more common cultivars are not the focus of SIP members however. It’s the Rhone varieties plus Chenin Blanc and of course Pinotage that are of most interest to these producers. Also, interesting varieties like Tinta Barocca and Palomino are used. These are the varieties that this group feels best reflect the Swartland terroir.
Our wine tasting experience in the Swartland took on a very different feel from that of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and even Tulbagh which all felt very fancy compared to the Swartland. There was no formal tasting room in either of the wineries we visited. We stood beside stacked barrels, wandered among the fermenters and even talked wine with the winemakers. It was such a memorable visit.
If you read our post about wine tasting in Tulbagh, you know this post is a continuation of that day of tasting. We contacted Luhambo Tours, who specializes in wine tasting tours, prior to our travel to South Africa. Our first day of wine tasting took us to Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. Graham drove us on that first day of wine tasting and Cedric, the owner of Luhambo Tours, drove us on the second day to Tulbagh and the Swartland. We had a great experience with Luhambo Tours. Both Graham and Cedric are wine lovers themselves and shared with us their detailed knowledge of South African history and its wine regions.
Mullineux Family Wines
Our first stop was Mullineux Family Wines located in Riebeek Kasteel, a charming little town at the foot of Kasteelberg (castle mountain). The wine cellar is located right in town, very close to the historic Royal Hotel, and if you look the correct direction down Main Street you will see Kasteelberg smack in front of you.
The tasting area is located in a corner of the small, working wine cellar which is filled with wine barrels of varying size (including a couple of egg-shaped fermenters). Space not occupied with wine barrels is filled with cases of wine. Office space is carved out of another corner.
We wound our way through the barrels to the tasting area and a beautiful wooden bar where we tasted a selection of the Mullineux Family Wines and their Kloof Street range of wines.
Winemakers Chris and Andrea Mullineux don’t own any vineyards, but have long term leases on select vineyards in the Swartland. They’re big into dirt and coaxing out of the variable soil types every unique quality and flavor they can. Grapes from schist, shale, decomposed granite and the red, iron-rich soil near Malmsbury are all represented in their wines.
We began the tasting with 2013 Kloof Street Old Vine Chenin Blanc, 2012 Mullineux White Blend, 2012 Kloof Street Swartland Rouge, 2012 Mullineux Syrah and finished with the 2013 Mullineux Straw Wine. Quite a selection.
The Kloof Street Old Vine Chenin Blanc was clean and crisp with citrusy flavors and a hint of citrus blossom. The Mullineux White Blend is a combo of 76% Chenin Blanc, 16% Clairette Blanche, 8% Viognier, is barrel fermented and goes through malolactic fermentation. Flavors are honeyed, rich and complex.
The Kloof Street Swartland Rouge is a blend of Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan planted in a variety of soil types. Juicy dark fruit, nice acidity and a light body. 2012 Mullineux Syrah is harvested from six vineyards planted on variable soil types. Only a bit of new French oak used in aging. Just pure dark fruit, earth and a touch of cedar in a medium-bodied wine. Both red wines have great tannin structure, depth of flavor, nice acidity without being heavy bodied.
We finished this delightful tasting with the 2013 Mullineux Straw Wine which was dark yellow in the glass, viscous, full of apricot aromas and flavors, intensely sweet but with a clean finish. The Chenin Blanc is harvested at usual ripeness (23º Brix) and then set out to dry. The drying process concentrates flavor and sugar, but because the grapes were harvested with good acidity, that is preserved as well. This is a very special wine.
On our way out of the wine cellar we visited with Nicola, sales and marketing manager for the winery and briefly met Andrea. We learned she is originally from California and attended UC Davis. What a small world.
After a quick lunch in Riebeek Kasteel we set out for our final wine tasting stop of the day.
A. A. Badenhorst Family Wines
This wine farm visit was quite an adventure, as was finding it. Cedric had never been to Badenhorst before, so somehow we took the scenic route (read the long way around). It was a bit bumpy and dusty, some of the roads were unpaved, but Cedric asked directions from a local man who said to just follow him. We made it just fine. It was actually really fun bouncing along on dirt roads through farmland and vineyards.
Our tasting at A. A. Badenhorst was even more informal than at Mullineaux. We were greeted by an enormous Great Dane (one of two large black dogs that wandered the property, later we met the Bouvier des Flandres) and a collection of chickens. Eventually owner and winemaker Adi Badenhorst realized we had arrived and greeted us. By that time we had wandered through the crush pad and into the very informal tasting area, but wait, what’s that espresso machine doing there? All I can say is this is the most unique and fun wine tasting I have ever experienced.
Unconventional. Eclectic. Understated. Brilliant. All of these descriptions fit the wine tasting experience at A. A. Badenhorst, as well as the wines. Adi Badenhorst comes from a farming background. His grandfather was farm manager at Groot Constantia, (the wine farm’s history dates back to 1685 with the original land grant to Simon van der Stel, the first Governor of the Cape) and his father managed a neighboring wine farm. Adi was winemaker at Rustenberg in Stellenbosch (which he modestly described as working for a guy in Stellenbosch) for nearly 10 years before purchasing Kalmoesfontein farm in Swartland.
When Adi and his cousin purchased Kalmoesfontein in 2007 the 60-hectare property was in disrepair. That included the wine cellar which hadn’t been used in years. But the Paardeberg-area property is home to gnarly, dry-farmed bush vine vineyards. Among the varieties are Shiraz, Cinsault, Grenache and Chenin Blanc. In fact, Adi told us the oldest Grenache vines in South Africa are planted on the property. He estimated they were planted in about 1948.
The home, wine cellar and farm buildings have all be renovated. The wine cellar is filled with barrels and tanks. He told us a story of purchasing second-hand stainless steel tanks. I suspect he got a very good deal, but discovered they leaked. No worries, all of the leaks were patched and the tanks are working just fine.
Adi told us he seeks to take as many decisions with regard to when to pick and what to blend together out of the winemaking process as possible. He picks on freshness (oh, and the vineyards must look happy) co-ferments almost everything and then sees what the vineyard has produced. Producing wine according to numbers, using a formula for a predictable, constant outcome does not appear to interest him. Freshness is important to him, and authenticity.
When not co-fermented, all lots are blended together, “even if they’re a bit dodgy”, as Badenhorst puts it. He went on to add, “It’s more about the imperfections than making a perfect wine.” Then he told us they keep the best wine for themselves anyway, and sell everything else. I half believe him.
He’s a fan of very large-format wooden and concrete fermentation vessels; particularly concrete as it provides temperature stabilization during fermentation. All fermentations rely on natural yeast, with no additions except for small amounts of sulfur.
And the dirt is about as complex and varied as the grape varieties in his blends: a mixture of three distinct types of granite along with underlying clay, weathered granite and shale. Badenhorst uses primarily estate fruit in the production of his wines with the addition of grapes from two nearby farms.
Adi talked and joked as he gave us a tour of the wine cellar and poured wine. We started with the 2013 Secateurs Chenin Blanc. As we walked through the cellar, Adi stopped to draw a 2013 White Blend from the tank that was bright, textured and mineral-laden; a blend of Chenin Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and countless others he told us.
A. A. Badenhorst Funky White was next; it has nutty aromas, but very crisp and bright flavors. It’s unlike anything I’ve tasted. Adi told us this limited-production wine is made in the style of Jura’s vin jaune, spending 7 years in cask. As with vin jaune, it is not fortified but develops underneath a layer of flor-like yeast. Did I mention how unique this wine is? Adi told us somms are crazy for this wine.
In addition we tasted an unlabeled white blend of Marsanne and Grenache Blanc from the 2013 vintage made for the Cape Winemakers Guild auction in 2015. Next up 2014 Secateurs Rosé of Cinsault, Shiraz and Grenache which had delightful berry and spice flavors, confirming that rosé made from a blend of grape varieties is hard to beat. We finished the tasting with the 2010 Badenhorst Red Blend (Shiraz, Grenache, Cinsault and Tinta Barocca) which was juicy and delicious.
Though many of these wines tasted like they have brilliant acidity, Adi noted most have fairly low acidity, rather it’s the granite soils that impart a characteristic minerality that makes them taste so.
Wine is not the only libation that has caught Badenhorst’s attention. Also being made at Kalmoesfontein farm are gin, tonic and Caperitif – a uniquely South African vermouth that has been unavailable for many years. He also makes a bit of “proper” Sherry and fortified Muscat d’Alexandrie too.
The expansive landscape drew Badenhorst to the Swartland, certainly the ancient bush vines played a part, but he clearly loves the farm and its old buildings. In one of the few serious conversations we had with him Adi talked about the humility reflected in the old buildings. He seems to have no need for fancy new things. He does however need to have fun, which is exactly what he is doing with A. A. Badenhorst Family Wines.
This day of wine tasting left all of us with big smiles on our faces. We couldn’t have asked for a better experience. There is much more to explore in the wine world of the Swartland, and this introduction left us wanting to do a further exploration. Something for our next visit.
We had one final wine adventure before leaving South Africa though. The following day we traveled out along False Bay to Somerset West for a tour of a very special wine farm. We will share that visit with you in our next post.
In the meantime, please enjoy the slideshow of our wine tasting in the Swartland.