I can confidently say that the Swartland Revolution was by far the most enjoyable wine event I have been to. It was run with Germanic efficiency but full of South African gees. There was a balance between formal tastings and lounging on the grass sipping Bollinger. We ate till we were fit to burst, and drank till we were dancing (read: falling off) hay bales, we chatted & laughed, sipped and smiled; this was a revolution against boring wines, against boring events; this was a revolt against the plain and the sad, the straight and the narrow; it was simply a benchmarking of joie de vivre.
OK. I’ve gushed enough now I can get on with my story.
On Friday (a week and a bit ago – I never said I was into current affairs) I packed my bag with essentials (extra tobacco, bottle opener, hat, waistcoat, rizla, headache pills, pen and notebook) and headed out in what would also turn out to be my accommodation: The four star Chez Citi Golf*
I arrived early and popped in at the Royal Hotel for a quick glass at the bar. Soon the other attendees began to arrive and register. Bottles were bought and consumed in the sun as we waited for things to get under way. I spotted one of my partners in crime Jörg Pfützner and we headed out for a crafty G&T and a sneak preview of the following day’s lunch at Bar Bar Black Sheep.
“Cancel all my appointments, I’m revolting” The deep fried baby marrow flowers were orgasmic
Ready to revolt we made our way back to the Royal Hotel for the first tasting: Quality First eight wines from Michael & Stephane Ogier of the Northern Rhone.
We started with the Saint Joseph Blanc 2008 made from 100% Marsanne. I found it quite grapey with pineapple and spice, nutmeg perhaps. A very satisfying wine, although I found the palate to be boxy, structured around the sides but not much weight in the middle. The decidedly mineral finish was very tasty.
The 100% Viognier Condrieu "La combe de Malleval" 2009 was not quite as good for me and seemed a touch clingy on the palate. But I enjoyed the richness with dollops of white fig. What can I say, I battle with 100% Viogniers.
Then there was a series of Syrah’s from Côte-Rôtie starting with the L’Ame Sœur 2007 from vineyards in Seyssuel that provide schist soils. I thought this an excellent wine, with tomato leaf, black cherries and cedar dominating for me. The tannins were fine and the wine was quite accessible.
My favourite was the Côte-Rôtie "Belle Hélène" 2007 which was gritty with serious weight. Muscle weight, not weigh-watchers weight. And although quite powerful, showed excellent balance. Very young and tight, this will be a brilliant wine.
The ‘99, and I have to agree with Mr. Pendock here, was quite stinky, but I kinda liked it. Just like your own farts smell like roses, here the stink was charming rather than nasty.
I loved the 2005 Roussanne, so rich and textured with touch of veggies, but also some spice. There was some debate as to whether more than a glass would be too much. I finished all my absent neighbours’ glasses to find out. I can confidently report that two are fine, but a bottle without food could become a little tiring.
After the tasting we all trooped up the hill for a braai at The Ou Pastorie prepared by Rueben Riffel. Oh what joyous delights were presented to my mouth. Slabs of pork belly, chops, steaks, hamburgers and sausages, salads and potatoes and more that I have forgotten were liberally piled onto plates, and glasses were filled with mystery Swartland Wines. I wandered about video camera in one hand, glass in the other. I found this snapshot from late in the evening.
Gulping and lurching from one bottle to the next we left the braai and headed into town. A bar was found. One G&T later and I did a bit of a runner. When I saw springboks lining the bar being made with Patrón Tequlia, I decided I would preserve myself. A tad too revolting for me.
Hazily I made my way to my accommodation. I was staying by the Royal Hotel; well, to be a little more precise just outside the Hotel, in my car. I realised the next morning that I should perhaps have parked a little further away when people I had never met before started asking how I slept and if my neck was stiff. You see, as the early risers left the hotel they all stopped to peer in at this wino nestled in his sleeping bag.
Stepping from my car I was promptly handed a crate of ice and set to work – always happy to help I joined in with gusto assisting the revolutionaries polish glasses and pour the wines for the next session. But before that started it was Babelaas Breakfast Burgers for everyone. Adi Badenhorst, wine-maker, parrot breeder and mutton-chop grower, was of the opinion that the whole weekend was setup around these burgers. Quite possible, as without the revolution there would be no Babelaas, and who wants plain old breakfast burgers anyway?
Burgers in our bellies we all filed into the tasting venue for the Eben & Adi Show moderated by Dr. Tim James. Dr. James lamented that he always has to get stuck with a Dr. in front of his name when another wine writer also has a Doctorate in an irrelevant subject. Is it perhaps the striking resemblance he bears to another Doctor of Journalism?
The tasting was kicked off in true showman-like fashion by Eben Sadie doing a cartwheel in front of the crowd as a result of a lost bet. Eben’s tasting was focused around the importance of having an in-depth knowledge of the soils vines are planted in. He spoke of how in the Côte de Nuits and the Mosel they know their land intimately. They’ve spent years mapping their soils and it is something we’ve got to start doing. He said there are two ways to map the soil: one is by drilling holes and testing the soil, and the other is by tasting the soil in the glass. It is when these two maps start to correlate that you have the truth. But the most important thing is to start.
To illustrate he poured four wines from the 2010 vintage. The first three were Syrahs from single vineyards and the third a blend of the three. They were from some of the vineyards that go into making the Columella. Eben described how he had intended to make three Syrahs from three different vineyards but found that the blend was always a better wine than any of the individual ones. Also, he quipped, it is cheaper to produce a single label.
All the wines came from 3 year old casks. What is the point, Eben argued, of spending a year trying to get wines to taste of the soil and then putting it in new wood to taste like a tree from France. An interesting point here was that in his earlier Columella’s Eben admitted to using more new wood, and it is from these wines that he scored higher points from the yanks.
The first wine was from granite soils, which according to Eben have a great affinity with Syrah. It offered loads of spice and bright purple fruits, with some serious intensity. There was a weighty feel to the mid palate, but still a linear wine. I found it stern, but not without attraction, like a sexy librarian.
Wine number two was made from vineyards planted in schist or slate soil. He explained how there are not many wine growing areas with slate soils but wherever they are they produce “some of the most extraordinary wines in the world.” For example Cote Rotie, the Mosel, and Priorat. If we were to take a scale of red wines with Gamay on the one side and Cabernet on the other, Eben says that the Syrah coming from slate leans more to the Gamay side. It is leaner, “like having two safety belts on”, and provides the element in the Columella that makes it approachable younger.
I found it offered floral notes instead of spice, a violet wine. There was an interesting combination of creaminess and leanness. I could drink this on its own easily.
The third wine was from clay rich soil. In Malmsbury there are slivers of clay ridges, and Eben claimed that everyone who makes wine in the Swartland has at least one parcel of vines in this soil. The reason is that it provides such remarkable structure. “Clay soils make big big wines.” This one was no different. It was the one wine of the tasting that I would not want to drink by itself. Or at least not for the next ten years. It was bold, with massive body and mouth rape-ish tannins. A swashbuckling, hide your daughters wine, a wine that doesn’t beat around the bush, it simply beats the bush into mulch.
Finally there was the blend of the three in equal parts. Eben was right, I thought this was the better wine, although for me the granite one was a very close second. Eben said to be a serious blender you have to start blending with the vineyards. For example he has vineyards he includes just for acidity, some for purity etc.; he says he blends what he gets given from the vineyards. And I think this is a point central to the revolution. If your acidity is poked, adding something from a bag on a shelf is counterrevolutionary. The revolution is about purity.
Following Eben was Adi Badenhorst who started off in his usual self-depreciating manner by saying that “Eben’s wines are linear well made wines, mine are anything but that.” Nonsense. But that’s why we love Adi, he makes winemaking sound as easy as making mud-pies, gooi something there, chuck some of that, wait for 8 months and you have a wine. We all know he is bullshitting.
He presented seven interesting white wines from younger vineyards. He described how he wanted substance in wines, not just showy wines with nothing behind them. “It’s like when you have Meryl Streep in a movie,” he explained “you know you will get substance, maybe not sexy but you will get substance.” And substance can come from originality, which he admits is a challenge: “It is very difficult to come up with original stuff. You have to stand back.” This seems almost counterintuitive, but his point seems to be that we have incredible vineyards that are able to produce wonderful original wines, if we simply don’t fuck up the process.
Adi beautifully compared terroir to bees: you have thousands of bees that go out to collect pollen from many many different flowers, and the result is exquisite honey. Terroir is a combination of a multiplicity of elements that go into wine. Another revolutionary point I took away from this (and I am saying this not Adi) is that man is not terroir, by standing back and letting nature do her thing you are able to express the terroir through interesting, original wines of substance.
I enjoyed all of Adi’s whites; the Chenin was round and fresh with mineral chunks and stone fruit flavours. The Grenache Gris was weird (well to me a grenache gris virgin) but wonderful, lots of litchi skin on the nose that followed to the palate, quite oxidative but still fresh and a long finish with a little tannin grip. An exciting interesting wine that makes you think. 10 points (not wine scoring points mind you, more like a high five).
The colombard was funky, fighting fresh and rad. The Verdelho had lovely lines, a very pretty wine that I have dreamt of since. Racy, almost salty with some oily limeyness. “Fan-bloody-tastic” to quote Jörg. There was also the blend which I would have bought a case of given half a chance. I really hope we start to see some of these single varieties being bottled and adding a bit of spice to the local offerings at wine shops.
All happy and bouncy we left the tasting venue and collected a complimentary Riedel flute at the exit. Flutes in hand everyone’s eyes darted this way and that looking for what was going to fill them. Happily the revolutionaries appeared, Bollinger in hand, to fill everyone’s glasses.
Revolutionary Chris Mulineux getting in on the action
Mr. Bubbles himself
I spotted one revolutionary who seemed to be enjoying the Bolly as much as me, wine maker Callie Louw. This proved biblically positive as my cup did runneth over.
Michael Fridjon was up next after an introduction by Marc Kent. The speech he gave served two purposes, one was to launch Swartland Independent, the central committee if you will, to the revolution which aims to carry on the good fight and promote the Swartland’s interests; the second was the launching of South African Sommelier of the Year. I found the speech level headed and necessary, although when the ANC was mentioned (as how not to carry through with a revolution) I cringed as bolly, sunshine and lounging on the grass seemed to be the antithesis of politics. But the points were important and well made, to read the speech see here.
Bolly finished and stomachs grumbling the revolutionary mob made their way to the best restaurant in the known universe** Bar Bar Black Sheep. I, as usual, followed the wine and, also as usual, Jörg Pfützner with his travelling Riesling cellar provided.
The Bucket ‘O Riesling
After drinking and eating steadily for an hour or so an auction was held where amongst other items a Nomblot concrete egg fermenter was sold for R40 000. But that’s not all, thrown in at no extra cost was 600 litres of Chenin donated by Eben and Adi. But more on that later, all I will say for now is watch out for the Silwer Vis.
From this point things got a little wild and woolly. The Real men Wild Ferment walk around tasting began, although there was no word from the host Neil Pendock. Apparently the sound system had disappeared, a bit of a poor excuse I thought, but it did give him something to blog about.
I loped merrily from one stand to the next gulping wines with what some may have considered reckless abandon, but I just thumbed my nose at them and called them counterrevolutionary. A stand out was from a buddy of mine Bryan MacRobert (thus I am obviously biased) the Tobias Chenin. It stood out for its ludicrously mineral finish that made me think immediately of all the Rieslings I had just had. Another style of Chenin which I hope we will see more of.
The day wore on as comfortably as a silk pair of drawers. Before I knew it the sun had disappeared along with the majority of attendees and I found myself performing interpretive dance to Florence and the Machine on top of hay-bales with Tessa Miles. This ended when I managed to fall arse-over-kettle-over-pot and landed rather heavily on the pavement; though I must add not a drop of wine was spilt.
The hangers on went for more dinner at Bar Bar Black sheep (this time the best T-bone this side of anywhere***). During dinner a couple sitting in the corner decided this was an appropriate time to get engaged. We all felt this was fitting and we joined in the celebrations loudly and vehemently. I trust we will make a story at their wedding.
Memories now become patchy. Some of us then kidnapped a waitress, a few bottles of Mullineux White and headed for a lookout point. Then a vineyard.
We all awoke in a car with a farmer shouting at us.
“Shir thish ish private property, you musht leave now.”
Groggily, “OK, but we were just having a kip.”
Opening his car door menacingly “Lishen hear, thish ish private property and you must go right now. Pleash sir, go now!”
“Ok but who do you sell your grapes to? Because we’re never buying it again.”
We then sped off back into town for a few breakfast G&T’s.
Being chased off a vineyard seemed the perfect punctuation mark to end the weekend. We revolted, felt revolting and revolted some more. We drank wines of substance, of personality; they were of the soil, from the heart and fresh as daisies. We also made friends, companions in wine, lovers of complexity fine food and a helluva party.
As I made the long trek to Steenberg to pick up some 2005 Sauvignon Blanc for a old white wine tasting that Sunday afternoon, I reflected that this was the way of the future. Outside of the technical aspects of winemaking the Swartland Revolutionaries had made sure their weekend was fun, an aspect of wine drinking that is oft forgotten. They provided style in swathes and I will be back next year. Maybe it will not be a revolution then, but I can promise you one thing, on Sunday morning I’ll be feeling just as revolting.
A fair question Eben
*According to the HRH accommodation when you have no accomodation review.
**according to the HRH Restaurant Review – it is biased, and impossible, but more than likely true.
***According to the HRH T-bone review – Also biased and ridiculous, but probably true as well