Hands Off in the Cape
A back-to-basics wine revolution is fermenting in
An hour-or-so north of Cape Town,where the hot sun bakes the land to a golden hue and blue skies vault between distant horizons, a bumpy dirt track spills off the back-country road linking the historic towns of Paarl and Malmesbury. It winds through pastures and vine-covered hills, eventually leading to the cellar at Lammershoek, a low-key farm in a faraway land. Among the oldest wine estates in the Swartland, Lammershoek forms part of a gently undulating agricultural region that Dutch settlers called “Het Zwarte Land” — the Black Land.
The name’s nothing sinister, but when it rains, the area’s endemic renosterbos (“rhinoceros bush”) turns dark, giving a bleak, brooding aspect to the land. Rainfall notwithstanding, the Swartland is a bright, hot region of rolling hills and fertile plains, reminiscent of southern Europe. Enfolded by craggy high mountains and stretching west to white sandy beaches lapped by icy Atlantic currents, it’s the Cape’s wheat-growing heartland, interspersed with fruit farms and a clutch of vineyards — several of which are producing some of South Africa’s most interesting wines.
Once inside Lammershoek’s old cellar, the spell of idyllic countryside is suddenly shattered by the roar and rattle of an engine hammering away. It’s barrel-cleaning day, and the infernal noise powers the water pumps. This, insists winemaker Craig Hawkins*, is virtually the only mechanized operation that happens here. Everything else — every step of actual winemaking, starting with handpicking and underfoot-crushing — gets a softer, back-to-basics touch, with virtually no mechanical processes whatsoever.
Hawkins says he hardly interferes at all, in fact, practicing an extreme version of non-intervention winemaking that has placed him at the forefront of South Africa’s tiny “natural wine” movement. Aside from moving the grape must between fermentation tanks and barrels, he says his job is to nurture his wines, tasting and checking on them as they mature, without meddling.
Producing wine under three labels — Lammershoek, Cellar Foot and his personal Testalonga range — Hawkins has focused for some years on wines unadorned by technology or cellar science. They are, in all respects, “naked” — save for the addition of small quantities of sulphur, added as a preservative at the bottling stage. What he does do, though, is experiment widely with fermentation techniques in order to achieve unusual results, such as fermenting white wine on the skins to produce “orange wine,” or fermenting wine under water.
While Hawkins is by all accounts among South Africa’s edgiest winemakers, he’s
certainly not the only one in the Swartland daring to be different. He fits in pretty well here, in fact, as part of a group of mavericks who have consciously decided to dispense with heavy-handed viticulture, focusing instead on creating wines that speak more purely of the place from whence they come.
This movement of like minds has much to do with the influence of Eben Sadie. Revered by many as a winemaking prodigy, and considered anarchic by others, he’s been the key figure in the Swartland’s wine renaissance since the late-1990s, leading a personal crusade to create wines that truly reflect the region.
“I want to make the quintessential African wine,” Sadie says. “Not by imitating French or Spanish wines; I want to make the ultimate Malmesbury wine, and nobody can tell me what it will look or taste like. That, for me, is a fantastic journey.”
Much of Sadie’s quest has been a backlash against mainstream winemaking, which he says in the 1980s grew too enamored with itself; winemakers transformed into celebrities, he says, and focus shifted from the vineyards to the cellar.
When attention moves away from the vines, Sadie argues, winemaking becomes about science and economics. Today’s winemakers have a myriad of chemical and mechanical processes at their fingertips that, he says, enable them to manipulate their wines so that they’re often engineered rather than crafted. Even bad grapes can be chemically “fixed,” and wines are regularly adjusted in the cellar using techniques such as micro-oxygenation and dealcoholization. Chemistry and technology make it possible to correct imbalances, fix flavors, alter textures, remove tannins — just about any imaginable variable can be adjusted (or masked) before bottling. Additionally, over 90 possible additives (from fish derivative and egg proteins to tannin powders and sulphur dioxide) are permitted in commercial winemaking, and consumers are mostly oblivious.
Sadie says that a chain reaction starts when farmers plant varietals in order to satisfy market demand, rather than growing grapes best suited to a particular region. They’re forced to use irrigation and farm with pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers to ensure those grapes grow abundantly. But this has knock-on consequences down the line, making cellar-based intervention unavoidable. And once there’s heavy-handed interference in the cellar, many differences of place, subtleties of terroir, and nuances of grape variety become sacrificed.
“What you get,” says Sadie, “are wines constructed according to pre-determined taste profiles. It means that your wine has no bearing other than as a commodity and fashion statement.”
“In 2000, I realized that whatever greatness there is in wine does not come from the hand of man,” he adds. “It comes from the relationship you need to have with your vineyards, your environment, with the people who live and work around you.”
It was an epiphany that encouraged him to abandon mainstream winemaking and strike out on his own in 2001, with 14 barrels and around US$1,000 to his name. Aiming to craft wine containing grapes and little else, he embarked on a low-tech, low-yield journey in backlash against those years when he says he lost himself to science.
It took just one vintage to prove his mettle: A syrah-based blend called Columella that he produced using grapes sourced from various area vineyards was heralded as one of the best reds in the country. A year later, he produced Palladius, a white Rhône-and-Burgundy–style blend using 10 varietals from 13 different vineyards — and again, it was hailed as a masterstroke by critics and consumers fortunate enough to get their hands on a bottle.
Despite the accolades, Sadie says he’s still learning as he goes 15 years later, gleaning knowledge about soil and grapes from the kinds of wine they produce — something he believes to be very different from trying to force the grapes to produce the types of wines demanded by consumers.
“Over the years we have designed a cellar practice and vinification protocol that’s as basic as it gets,” says Sadie. “It’s very simple: Wine properly made is a representation of a particular place and time. Vineyards are the key, not the cellar.”
Astonishingly, the Swartland has long been thought of as a rural backwater, ill-suited for quality wine production. You won’t find many tourists venturing into its cellars the way they swarm the Huguenot-established Franschhoek valley or arrive en masse for tours of Groot Constantia, situated below Table Mountain in one of the city’s wealthy southern suburbs.
Grapes have been grown near Cape Town since soon after the Dutch dropped anchor. By 1655, vines imported from France, Spain and the Rhineland were successfully planted in the Dutch East India Company’s Garden, today a botanical park in the city center. Cape grapes produced their first vintage in 1659, and Governor Simon van der Stel planted some 10,000 vines in Constantia — giving rise to “Vin de Constance,” among the world’s most adored 18th- and 19th-century dessert wines. Meanwhile, a short hop east of the city, van der Stel’s namesake town, Stellenbosch, has become the heart of the Cape Winelands, with South Africa’s most extensive wine route and scores of historic estates spreading out beneath the serrated peaks of the Jonkershoek Mountains.
The Swartland, though, remained mostly off-radar as a wine-producing region until recently. But Sadie’s success with Rhône varietal blends, combined with the affordability of farmland here compared to glitzier, better-known regions, has made the area a viable proposition for a new generation of winemakers. Consequently, a number of likeminded individuals have ended up here, and together they are transforming the Swartland into one of the Southern Hemisphere’s most dynamic wine regions.
Many have banded together to form the Swartland Independent Producers, an association with a certification program for its 25 members’ wines. To qualify, the wines have to be “naturally produced” (no commercial yeast inoculation, no chemical enhancements, no heavy-handed cellar interference). There are even restrictions on the amount of European oak that can be used for aging; wood, too, the association believes, plays a part in disguising the influence of terroir on wine’s natural flavor. Members are also required to plant and use mostly grape varietals that have adapted to local conditions, and that therefore best express the Swartland’s uniqueness. The idea is to let the land and the soil and the grapes speak for themselves, thus eschewing the influences of industrialized agriculture.
Many among this new breed of winemakers know that it all starts with the way grapes are farmed. They believe that excessive use of chemicals, pesticides and fungicides seriously undermines the wine industry’s own argument that great wine can only come from the natural conditions of soil and climate — “terroir.”
Another of Sadie’s Swartland revolutionaries is Callie Louw, a slightly eccentric farmer who oversees the growth of some of the country’s best syrah grapes at Porseleinberg (literally “Porcelain Mountain”).
“In the vineyard we work hard, but in the cellar we’re lazy,” Louw says. “I basically just stand there and hold the wine’s hand.” He believes treating the land with respect is of the utmost importance, so that it produces the finest possible grapes.
“We try to believe in our grapes and our soil and our site, and not so much in our ability to perform fancy tricks in the cellar,” he says, which is why he passionately extols the virtues of farming organically and sustainably, maintaining the integrity of the land he tends.
“Most commercial farms aren’t really building anything,” he adds. “Every year they have to buy the same chemicals, the same fertilizers … and in most cases they start buying more and more because the soil is becoming increasingly depleted.
“My idea of farming,” Louw says, “is to be a caretaker for the land, building the soil, looking after the farm. I’d like to think that the consumer can taste that there’s more life in the wines we produce from this land.”
That “life” is what Hawkins calls the energy of the wine. “Great wines are alive,” he insists. “They’re lighter, fresher — and they have energy. There’s a real vibrancy in wines that are alive. Any step you do — any addition — is really taking something away from the natural, raw product, so the biggest step with natural winemaking is unlearning a whole lot of processes. You need to unlearn that you have to filter and fine your wine. Unlearn that you have to add sulphur.”
Hawkins says he’s aware that this means working in territory that many modern winemakers consider extremist, not least because working naturally means relinquishing much of the control conventional cellar practice gives them. But whether or not “naturally-made wines” or the Swartland’s revolutionaries are destined to make serious inroads against the juggernaut of conventional winemaking isn’t really the point.
“It’s more difficult to make wine this way,” says Hawkins, “so it’ll never become the Coca-Cola of the wine industry.” The true value of any alternative winemaking culture, he says, lies in the influence it exerts on the mainstream. It may be true that only a small percentage of wine is made the natural way, but as consumers show increasing interest in wines that transcend the norm, even industrial-scale producers tend to sit up and pay attention.
For now, the Swartland remains something of a secret. It’s off the tourist radar enough that visits to most estates are by appointment only; once there, though, visitors are often toured around the farms by the vintners themselves and offered sips of maturing wines straight from the barrel.
“We’re probably the more liberal winemakers,” admits Hawkins. “More guys with beards, a couple with dreadlocks, most of us with mud on our boots. When we get together, there’s definitely a different atmosphere — incredible energy and passion.”
Hawkins certainly brims with passion. Outside his cellar, pump still grinding in the background, he stares across his lovingly-tended vineyards, gives a deep, satisfied sigh, and raises a glass. “At the end of the day, this is what it’s about. It’s fermented grape juice made to be drunk from a tumbler, with some bread, and an incredible view,” he says. “Some people call what we’re doing a trend, but these wines have been around forever. My wines may not age 100 years. But why would you want to keep a wine for 100 years?”
Each November, the Swartland Independent Producers association hosts The Swartland Revolution, a celebration showcasing their wines. It’s held in historic Riebeek-Kasteel, a picturesque town 80 kilometers northeast of Cape Town; Nov. 6–7, 2015.
*Editor’s Note: Craig Hawkins has since left Lammershoek Farms & Winery, devoting his full energies to his own private label, Testalonga. The team at Lammershoek, however, remains committed to organic farming and producing wines that reflect the Swartland’s terroir.