Listening to the landscape

Thursday, 7 March, 2019
Malu Lambert
Greek, Italian, Spanish? No, not what’s for dinner—but rather what’s happening in our national vineyard. Already this year I’ve been to the launch of Springfield’s Albariño as well as an exploration of the assyrtiko grape at Jordan, which they will be planting in 2020. South Africa will then join Australia as the only other country outside of Greece to produce it.

Italian varietals have long had a stronghold in South Africa too. The percentages are small in comparison to plantings such as chenin blanc, cabernet, shiraz, sauvignon blanc, pinotage, merlot and chardonnay, which dominate here. But the Italians are slowly, and literally, gaining ground with varieties such as sangiovese and nebbiolo. These more common grapes are also being joined by niche blocks of vermentino, a Sardinian variety planted on Ayama Farm in the Voor-Paardeberg as well as the Nero d’Avola from Bosman Family Vineyards (planted for its ability to thrive in dry, warm conditions).

According to a Forbes trend forecast, wine drinkers are seeking out interesting, lesser-known varietals. But it’s less about changes in taste, and more about changes in climate. Mother Nature is setting the trends, as our regions grow incrementally warmer paving the way for vines accustomed to dry, sunny conditions.

“We’re taking global warming seriously,” says Gary Jordan on his plans to plant assyrtiko. “Assyrtiko should thrive in these dry, minerally soils, while being cooled by the strong winds blowing in from False Bay.” The soils he’s referring to are high up on a stony outcrop on the Jordan farm—a dry and windy hilltop site that trained geologist Gary has determined the Santorini of Stellenbosch. As the vines grow they will be trained in the traditional Santorinikoulara, a basket-weaved style which minimises wind damage to the grapes.

Once you dig into Gary’s story a bit, it’s not all rocks. In a bid to woo his now wife Kathy (who has Greek heritage), he took her on a trip to Santorini when she was just 18-years-old, there they discovered a love for assyrtiko together.

At Jordan we tasted some leading examples of grape, all of which were from Greece with the exception of one from Australia. The wine can be made in a number of ways—with varying amounts of oaking or none at all, with lees contact or just fermented fresh in a steel tank, or matured in amphora. On the whole assyrtiko produces an aromatic, mineral wine much like a cross between sauvignon blanc and riesling. Generally, the fresher styles were favoured while the oaked versions came across as slightly clumsy. It will be interesting to see what direction the Jordans go in—his winemaker Sjaak Nelson has already installed amphorae in the estate’s cellar, so that’s a clue.

Another wine that talks to all things sea is albariño. Springfield launched theirs recently at Chapman’s Peak hotel against the backdrop of the Atlantic and the scent of grilling prawns.

Abrie Bruwer in Springfield's Albariño vineyard

Traditionally a Spanish variety (it is a bit more well travelled than assyrtiko), it’s also grown in Portugal as well as Uruguay—which is where the Bruwer clan discovered the wine in the first place. They were inspired by their travels to plant their own vineyard. Luckily for them, Newton Johnson in the Hemel-en-Aarde had an already established vineyard, and graciously shared some cuttings.

Winemaker and director of Newton Johnson, Gordon Newton Johnson was also initially inspired on his travels to plant the variety.

“The idea sprang out of some family banter about 10 years ago, reminiscing over drinking cheap Vinho Verde with fresh prawns on the Mozambique coast. I decided to research a bit further, homing in on alvarinho as one of the main constituent varieties of Vinho Verde, that led me to some premium producers of the grape in the sub-region of Monção and Melgaço on the northern border with Spain, and over the Miño River in to Spain’s Galicia region. The wines ranged from fresh and simple, with clean energetic acidity; to more textural and complex premium styles.”

It wasn’t too much of a leap for him to realise his Hemel-en-Aarde property could be well suited to the variety too.

He explains: “The penny dropped when we looked at the conditions in which the best albariño examples were grown in the Rias Baixas part of Galicia. It is very much dependent on the cooling and humidity effects of the cold North Atlantic Ocean on their doorstep. The soil is formed from granite, which manifests in the crystalline flavour and bracing acidity of the wine. Albariño seemed an ideal fit for the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The whole project was well thought through. We didn’t choose albariño on the basis of fashion or novelty, rather it convinced us of possessing the characteristics of a noble grape and would find a home specifically in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in which to thrive.”

When it comes to the vinification Gordon says it has the ‘energy and zest of sauvignon blanc, though delivers more in terms of texture and complex flavour’.

“It is packed with natural acidity in the grape and you are never required to add it to the juice, even through our drought years, avoiding any sourness or acid burn that can spoil some white wines.

“It rarely does well when aged in oak, and over the last few years I’ve found that it ferments and matures best in our egg-shaped concrete tanks, retaining its freshness and floral aromatics while intensifying the texture in the mouth.”

Meanwhile in the much drier Swartland, Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines is leading the charge in experimenting with drought resistant varieties, such as macabeo, assyrtiko and mencia. While many of his neighbours are following suit and also planting various Mediterranean varieties, such as grenache noir, carignan, roussanne and grenache blanc.

If we’re listening to the landscape, I don’t think it’s important what the language is, but rather what it’s saying to us—whether the rocks on Jordan inspire Gary to plant Greek assyrtiko; or the maritime conditions of the Hemel-en-Aarde played a hand in Galician albariño springing up at Newton Johnson.

Kathy and Gary Jordan
Kathy and Gary Jordan

Assyrtiko vines, Santorini
Assyrtiko vines, Santorini

more news