A Berry’s throw from the sea; Kalk Bay Vineyards

Thursday, 7 February, 2019
Dave March CWM
Tucked behind the historic Olympia Café facing the harbour in Kalk Bay lies possibly the closest vineyard to the sea in South Africa. At least, joint owner Karena du Plessis thinks so.

It’s not old, but somehow, its proximity to the Olympia buildings gives it a charming, slightly patinated feel. The building has much to do with it; once a fisherman’s haven, a bioscope cinema, nightclub, brothel, offices, art gallery, bakery and chic café, there is a vibe of casual bohemian warmth matching the passing surfer dudes and Woodstock apparel.

The 0.2 hectare patch was a waste dumping ground and shelter for the homeless until Karena looked for an alternative use. Having read of Jean-Vincent Ridon’s work uncovering lost vineyard plots around Cape Town, Karena invited him to look. Jean-Vincent thought a vineyard would work and suggested planting Cabernet Franc as it would need to be hardy to withstand the elements.

Jean-Vincent was right, today windbreak nets cross rows of vines, deflecting what otherwise would burn leaves and wither berries, after all, in 50 paces you might fall off the jetty.

‘While we were digging I found lots of old blue and white VOC porcelain pieces. They speak to the historic nature of the plot. The plates would have come in from the East in crates packed with sawdust, I have a whole collection of beautiful fragments which I have displayed in a glass bowl at home. I love the historic connection with early settlers, trade routes and the promise that the sea and exploration held for early travellers.

Some 550 vines survive the 2004 planting, making some 400 bottles a year; when seasons allow. The first vintage ‘had salty undertones which we decided to leave in as it really spoke of the sea. Karena won’t take a harvest this year, the weather has won, and rubbing leaves curled, salty and damaged by mildew and nearby tree deposits, she clearly is saddened. Not that this is a commercial venture, yes, Jean-Vincent has triumphed the wine overseas, and tiny amounts go to Europe, but most will go to the café and local food outlets – this is obviously a labour of love.

Berries are hand-picked by volunteers (Karena gives a shout to friends and neighbours and they all help), then the boxes are driven away. Vineyard work is managed by Karena with expert advice from viticulturist Nicolas Plato, ‘I couldn’t do it without his help, and Max Matiza, our gardener, is also very invested in the vineyard and loves it when we have a healthy crop’.

The vineyard is nearly organic but Karena doesn’t follow rules, facing the ocean and experiencing what it can throw at you keeps her approach flexible. Bird nets are vital, though, as shown by the constant screech of the Goldwings enjoying the un-netted crop withering on the vine. Karena will leave them the bunches this year, then wonders if she should and you see the personal connection she has with her vines. “I just like growing stuff”, she says.

The vines are now more than fifteen years old, cordon trained and parallel to the ocean with the mountain range at their back, they look tended and healthy and despite Karena’s unfussy approach to viticulture it is clear that “learning as she goes” has done no harm at all. Unfussy indeed; ‘Before we spray we pick the lovely green leaves while they are young and tender and make dolmades – a nod to my husband’s Greek heritage and roots. I’ve held a couple of dolmades making events at local restaurants and that has been fun and very successful. I take the leaves, we taste some wine, make dolmades, have a light lunch and the dolmades cook while we are eating and tasting and are ready for us to take home at the end of the afternoon’.

The wine is now made by James McKenzie at his Nabygelegen winery after years of Jean-Vincent as winemaker and form part of ‘The Artisan Collection’ of his wines. James has worked hard to coax the best out of the grapes and has taken the wine to a Platter’s four star category, “I trust James to make the wine”, says Karena, “he deserves the accolades”.

The 2017 Cabernet Franc shows deep colour from the very small berries produced, a light and stylish body with supple dark fruits and no hint of greenness, the cool sea breezes mean a long hang time on the vine to develop elegant intensity and complexity. It must go very well with light meals in the Café.

It takes just minutes to walk through the vineyard, you can take a photo of the whole plot from one place, so, as Karena says, “every bottle counts”.