The Maverick Winemakers of South Africa's Swartland
In the post-apartheid era, South Africa’s Swartland wine region was overlooked for more fashionable areas like Stellenbosch. Now that’s changed.
It's being called the Swartland Revolution. In an area of fertile plains and rolling hills an hour north of Cape Town, pioneering viticulturalists are producing some of South Africa’s most sought-after wines.
Their secret ingredient? Grapes from decades-old vines abandoned in the post-apartheid era—when farmers in more developed wine-making regions, like Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, tore out old plants and replaced them with popular varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Left to fend for themselves in the Swartland’s often inhospitable climate, these scruffy, untrellised varietals—which include lesser-known grapes like Palomino, Semillon Gris, Cinsaut, and Tinta Barocca—are yielding wines industry insiders describe as exciting, experimental, and region-specific.
It’s worth visiting the Swartland to witness the winemakers’ unconventional, purist methods firsthand—and to experience their uniquely flavorful wines at the source.
Sadie Family Wines
Like most wine producers in the Swartland, Eben Sadie likes a challenge. After nearly two decades working at vineyards around the world, he decided to settle in the region 15 years ago because of its tough growing conditions—namely, very dry summers, winters with torrential rain, and rock-strewn soil. “The vine is a survivor,” he said. “The best grapes have to work hard to survive, and develop character.” His winery reflects this hard-line philosophy. Hidden away on a road that winds deep into the undulating landscape, the white farm building is spare, even monastic.
Here, Sadie spent his first 10 years developing two wines he calls “regional signatures”: Columella (a Syrah-based red blend) and Palladius (incorporating 11 white grapes including Chenin Blanc, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc). Between them, they represent every varietal grown in the region and have helped put it in the global spotlight.
His current obsession is his Old Vine Series. Each of these eight wines derives from a single vineyard, some of which are more than 100 years old. Intense and singular in flavor, they are collector’s items in the making. Ever self-effacing, Sadie said: “It all starts in the vineyard, with the grapes.” Tastings by appointment.
A. A. Badenhorst Family Wines
The scene at Kalmoesfontein—the home of A. A. Badenhorst Wines since 2008—is a happy jumble of wine boxes, vintage sofas, and stuffed birds. But down in Adi Badenhorst’s restored cellar, all is calm. Dogs drowse on the stone floor, Bob Dylan croons from an old turntable, and church-pew seating and a well-used espresso machine create an informal “office” between the barrels.
Badenhorst grew up in wine country. His grandfather and father both worked in vineyards in the Constantia Valley, and Badenhorst made his first wine when he was still in school. When he found the farm at Kalmoesfontein, it was totally run down, with derelict buildings and bush vines running wild. Slowly, he resurrected the place, patching up the old winery and routing invasive species. The plants, Badenhorst pointed out, are worth caring for: “We’ve inherited vines that are between 50 and 70 years old. They have a humility and authenticity that I love.”
To an outsider, his approach to the science of wine making may seem haphazard (some is made in cement tanks, some in ancient oak vats). But the unshowy, balanced red and white blends that are his trademark have earned some of the highest accolades in the industry. Tastings by appointment.
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines
When winemakers Chris and Andrea Mullineux (from Johannesburg and San Francisco, respectively) got married in 2007, they decided to set up their fledgling brand, Mullineux Wines, in the town of Riebeek-Kasteel. “When we first came, there were only a handful of wineries; today there are 35 or more,” Chris said. Like many of the region’s pioneers, they started small, doing everything themselves. From the outset, preserving old vines was a priority. “To stop farmers from ripping out old vineyards, we pay them rent and farm the land ourselves,” he explained.
That strategy has paid off. In 2013, the estate was renamed Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines after a major investment by India-based businessman Analjit Singh. Then, last year, Andrea and Chris moved to Roundstone, an idyllic farm with African Nguni cows grazing in lush meadowlands, where the rocky soil produces deep reds and subtly textured whites. Their impressive portfolio now includes soil-specific Syrahs, Chenin Blancs, and a prized Semillon Gris made from 65-year-old vines. Tastings currently on Fridays only (a full-time tasting center is set to open in 2016).
Since Marc Kent, co-owner of the Boekenhoutskloof Winery in Franschhoek, took over a swath of neglected land on the Porseleinberg (Porcelain Mountain) in 2009, he and his viticulturist, Callie Louw, have restored 70 acres of neglected vineyard on its remote, windswept slopes. Amid this rugged, inhospitable terrain, Louw and his family live in perfect isolation, surrounded by 360-degree views of the Swartland plain below.
The growing conditions here—very little topsoil, minimal rain, extreme temperatures, and high winds—have produced a tenacious Syrah with deep roots. Grapes from the oldest plants are used to make wine bearing the Porseleinberg label.
Though his wine is prized by the industry, Louw described it as honest, stripped bare of any conceits or tricks. “It’s all about what the grapes are able to extract from the soil,” he said. “The thing I like most is farming. Wine making is merely an opportunity to see how well you have farmed.”
In line with this back-to-basics approach, Louw makes each Porseleinberg wine label by hand, using an antique Heidelberg printing press he reconditioned himself. Tastings by appointment.
For our list of bucket-list wine destinations, head this way.