The Swartland Evolves

By Jamie Goode | 14th May 2020

The Swartland has been one of the success stories of South African wine over recent years.

In the past, its vineyards were mostly devoted to brandy production, and as a consequence were largely dominated by white grapes. It’s also a dry region with a warm climate, and almost all of the wines that were produced came from large cooperatives.

The Swartland Evolves

Enter the entrepreneurial Charles Back. He started a brand, Spice Route, which focused on the Swartland, and put the young Eben Sadie in charge. The wines were a success. Eben then decided to make his own wine, starting with just 14 barrels in 2000. He started turning out Swartland wines that made the world sit up and take notice. Eben’s model of sourcing grapes from well farmed old vineyards and then making wines without too much intervention was taken up by others. Many young winemakers started making their own wines, encouraged by the ready availability of high quality, old-vine grapes from farmers who were previously selling at rock-bottom prices to the coops.

So the Swartland Independent, an association of like-minded wine producers, was launched. And with it came the Swartland Revolution, an annual festival held each. These were exciting times. Suddenly there were dozens of producers making amazing wines with little manipulation. The barrier to entry was low: there was no capital cost beyond renting some winery space (or squatting in a friend’s cellar), buying a few used barrels, and paying for the grapes. As well as Eben Sadie, other stars emerged: Testalonga, Mullineux, Adi Badenhorst, David & Nadia, Rall, Terracura/Smiley/Silwevis, JH Meyer, Intellego and Porseleinberg.

But things continue to evolve, and the Swartland has changed, too. Gone has some of that pioneering, slightly reckless initial excitement. The young winemakers are a little older now, and many have family responsibilities. New players are emerging. One of the changes is that the pioneers are now looking to the future. They have, to some degree, been the victims of their own success. The Swartland was the ground zero of cool wine in South Africa; now we have the emergence of bright winemaking talent sourcing grapes from top vineyards across the Western Cape. And Rosa Kruger’s Old Vine initiative has put the spotlight not on any one region, but on all old vine vineyards.

But the biggest change has been the increased competition for the best vineyards. Anyone buying grapes is vulnerable. As a result, some of the winegrowers who were previously renting vineyards have started buying their own land and planting vineyards. I visited three of them to see what they are doing.

Johann Meyer, known by everyone as Stompie, is making lovely wines under the JH Meyer brand, and also produces the Mother Rock wines with his UK importer Indigo. He recently bought a vineyard rather than rely solely on contracts. Stompie began making his own wines 2008, which he thinks was a good time to start in the Swartland ‘I think it’s more challenging now for a young guy to start and try and get into the market,’ he says, adding that it is becoming harder to source good grapes. ‘This is the reason we brought a property: to get something sustainable. I have all these brands, but I’ve lost about four vineyards in the last two years.’ He lost a Grenache vineyard because the farmer needed a commitment to a higher price and bigger volume. ‘It’s a pity, but what can you do about it? The only thing you can do is buy land and plant yourself.’ His new property, Platteklip, is spectacular, and at altitude it’s a cooler site that’s not typical of the Swartland.

But it’s not easy to do this. ‘There are people looking, but to buy land is super difficult,’ says Stompie. ‘I was lucky to buy this land. I was looking for this for two years, then it came onto the market and I was onto it quite quickly. I bought it as a cash deal. There is not a lot of property available.’

Another of the pioneers planting vines is Testalonga. They were the first of the Swartland Revolution crew to start their own vineyard project, back in 2015. Craig and Carla Hawkins initially started their wine venture at the Lammershoek farm, owned by Carla’s parents. But her parents sold up, and Craig and Carla have found an amazing farm at the northern edge of the Swartland called Banditskloof nestled into the Olifantsberg mountain.

‘We came here in 2014,’ says Craig. ‘The property had no electricity; there was nothing. This put a lot of people off. When I got here, I phoned Carla and said, I think we’ve got the spot. We paid 2.9 million rand for 135 hectares, which is dirt cheap.’ They have planted 4 hectares to begin with, but they will plant more. As well as white and red Grenache, they have Maccabeu, Mourvèdre and Carignan, all grown as bush vines. ‘The reason we bought this place is that it’s away from everything, so we can just live our lives and be who we are,’ says Craig, ‘but also there is good soil for planting vineyards, and there is water. There are two springs coming out of the mountain.’

Getting finance for vineyard projects is difficult in South Africa, and the interest rates are very high, so borrowing from banks isn’t an option. They raised some funds from family, and are paying them back gradually. And they are doing a lot of the work by themselves, to save money. Stompie has also raised his own money. ‘Unfortunately, in our country when it comes to wine the banks are not really open to it,’ he says. Stompie has done everything with cash, without any loans. ‘I owe nothing. It’s a nice feeling, but it’s difficult. We build ourselves, we plant ourselves. We did everything with a lot of blood, sweat and tears.’

And then there is Eben Sadie, the master. For the last three years, he has been a vineyard owner. He’s always been interested in viticulture and has farmed all but one of the vineyards he buys from, but this has been a new step. He is planting the vineyards completely square, in a sort of grid, so there are no fixed rows. The vines are bush vines at low density. ‘The beauty of planting square is that you can cultivate in different directions,’ says Eben. This means that if he needs to put a tractor in the vineyard, it isn’t always going down the same row, compacting the soil.

He’s also moved away from pesticides and herbicides, but he says that stopping using herbicides is the most difficult step. ‘How do you control the competition from other plants in a dry climate? A weed is a desirable plant in an undesirable place. The best way to keep weeds out of the vineyard is to grow things you want in the vineyard.’ So he plants cover crops to compete with the weeds. This year Eben planted triticale, barley, wheat, white and yellow mustard, lupins and fava beans.

We look at some of the vines. There’s some Garnacha Tintorea (Alicante Bouschet), strains of Cinsault, three strains of Grenache, two strains of Carignan and at the bottom he has Counoise and Terret Noir. ‘I have another vineyard that I have just planted,’ he says ‘It’s a white vineyard with Vermentino, Picpoul, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Cinsault Blanc, Grillo, Catarrato, Chenin and Assyrtiko. We have also planted Fiano, Aglianico and Agiogorgitiko, and Xinomavro. We are planting a lot of new varieties with the hope that they can also help.’

It's interesting to be in the region and see how it is changing. It’s still a great place with many exciting wines, but it’s as if some growing up is taking place. The initial wave of small projects is beginning to evolve into something more sustainable: new wine farms that will have the great old vineyards of the future, farmed by a different generation. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to see the first wines emerge from these new sites.


Listen to a podcast on the Swartland with Jim Clarke, from Wines of South Africa