South Africa: Day One



After a night on the plane we had perforce to hit the ground running. Fortunately, after the Virgin shake we landed into the Cape bake and some nourishing Vit D to perk up the drooping sleep-deprived carcasses.  First stop our guest houses near Stellenbosch to decant suitcases, make goo-goo eyes at the glistening outdoor swimming pools and swiftly shower before reboarding the busses.  Our gaff was called Lyngrove, an English colonial-style country house with dreamy views of the Helderberg.

Unlike so many countries every major wine region in South Africa is within one hour’s drive of the main city, yet within that small radius is a reckonable diversity of topography and microclimate.

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David manages to get his whole head into a glass of Renaissance Chenin

The scenery changed quickly as the bus climbed over the mountain pass and we drove through a rugged rocky-outcropped countryside of fynbos and scrub. Within 20 minutes the garrigue gives way to a more verdant, softer landscape of rolling hills and apple and pear orchards.

This paragraph was brought to you by Appletiser, the success story of the region!

And so to Elgin Ridge where refreshment and a warm welcome awaited.

Brian  and  Marion  Smith  sold  their  I.T. company  in  Kingston-upon-Thames,  settled in South  Africa in 2007,  and found their perfect spot to plant a vineyard in Elgin Valley, a region renowned for orchard fruit and cool climate whites and reds.

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Elgin is environmentally blessed with its unique confluence of microclimates and close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, thus when temperatures rise in spring, the cool coastal breezes ensure vines are constantly refreshed and enjoy a long ripening period. Elgin Ridge estate itself comprises 6.5 hectares of undulating vines on ancient Bokkeveld ¬†shale ¬†with ¬†a ¬†relatively ¬†high ¬†clay ¬†content- ¬†giving ¬†the resultant wines their potential ¬†structure ¬†and ¬†minerality. Sauvignon thrives here ‚Äď as it does elsewhere in the valley, whilst Pinot Noir may have potential when the vines acquire a bit more age.

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Herd and seen

The vines are in cracking nick. Farming is organic ‚Äď the vines have never been sprayed with chemicals, and it was pleasing to witness some full-throttle animal involvement in this project. Brian & Marion recycle the farm vegetation and make cow compost to ensure the vines have a healthy organic diet. The responsibility of pest control is delegated to some smaller but equally important members of the team: ¬†namely a waddling of their beloved ducks, hatched on the farm and trained to eat snails and other mini-beasts daily. A quacking good idea all around.

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Story of the vines

We noshed on the lawn overlooking the vines whilst the cattle and sheep moseyed over to drink from the small pond just below the house. ¬†Lunch was tremendous ‚Äďplates were regularly replenished with hillocks of couscous, mounds of new potato salad, slabs of beautifully cooked rare beef, cold sliced tuna, tart, asparagus, green beans‚Ķ We munched, we wolfed, we gorged. ¬†You must always take your appetite with you in South Africa.

The Elgin Ridge Sauvignon came into its own as a crisp savvy slaker, gingering and reanimating the spirits of jaded travellers.  The wine has some nice angles Рit is full-bodied by the standards of a Loire or Marlborough version of this variety, less herbaceous and also with less of a fruit cocktail character, but surges vivaciously with tangy fresh gooseberries and white crunchy pears. The mid-palate displays hint of green melon with rich natural fruit sweetness and the apple-compote finish is spiced up with some leesy notes. We also drank some bucket-fresh Pinot Noir that smacked of red cherry & baby beet with hint of violets. The oak maturation bequeathed a vanillin sheath that throttled back the delicate perfume of this oh-so-tricky grape.

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Elgin & tonic

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Sales meeting

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The menagerie on manuroeuvres

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Two old dogs

Fed and wined we toddled amongst the vines, patted the tall white horse on the nose, greeted the puddling of pest control merchants and chatted to Marion and the viticulturist about their plans for the vineyard.

The vineyard is happy and healthy, the raw product is good and clean; the shaping of the material is the next stage and here it is about removing first one hand and then the other, allowing the fruit express itself, leaving the ferment to take care of itself, letting the wine move in its own direction.

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I am a foal for your loving

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Pest control

Time was banging its eternal gong and we knew that we should have been at Luddite a couple of hours previously. The drive was a fairly short one, and having just finished lunch we were naturally looking forward to dinner. We arrived late, of course, and were greeted by Niels and Penny with a most refreshing local ale that restored the demob-happy mood.

Niels Verburg and his wife Penny are the eponymous luddites who apply a technology-resistant philosophy to their methods, ‚Äėfarming conscientiously with minimum mechanization‚Äô and aiming to make a wine that‚Äôs ‚Äėas natural as possible, with little or no intervention‚Äô.

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Me lud, Magister Niels Verburg practicing a glove puppet pose. Monsieur Narioo & Mr Clow take notes

Niels met Penny at Elsenburg, the Cape Institute for Agricultural Training, where he was making his first bottle of Shiraz and she was studying animal husbandry. They are now living their dream of making wine on their own family-run farm. While Niels fine-tunes his Shiraz, Penny takes care of the vineyards (and the vegetable patch), bottles her own olive oil and rears happy pigs for bacon, pork sausage and chorizo.

Niels began his South African career as winemaker at Beaumont Wines in 1995, and in 1996 was the first to plant Shiraz vines in the Bot River valley.   Penny remembers planting the first vines in 2001 without any established irrigation, refilling a bucket and watering by hand. Naysayers warned it would never work, but miraculously the rains came.

The Luddite vineyards lie on the eastern slopes of the Houw Hoek Mountains (not to be confused with the Australian wine writer), 30km from the Atlantic Ocean, and fall within the Walker Bay Wine Ward. The morning sun washing over the cool south-eastern slopes encourages long ripening, which in turn creates spicy characteristics in the well-balanced Luddite Shiraz. Six hectares of the 17 hectare property is under vine, planted with Shiraz grapes. There are also Frantioa, Mission and Leccino olive trees and the aforementioned herd of happy pigs. In 2011, Penny planted Luddite’s first block of Chenin grapes.

Vertical tastings of Luddite reveal the search for balance as well as the desire to express the nature of the vintage. 2008 vintage, for example, was a big, bold one due to very warm ripening conditions. The resultant wines have a dark fruit core and lots of structure. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks with four hourly pump overs. The bolder styles tend to have a higher percentage of new wood, in this case 30% new French oak.

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Luddite ‚Äď big wines in big bottles

The wine is now being made with Bot River fruit and there is an undoubted sense it has come home. Whilst the Pyrène palate may favour the pinky perkiness of Jurassic limpidity it can also respect honest meat-without-veg SHIRAZZLE-DAZZLE.

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We love a winery that specialises but Luddite has just added another string to its bow. The Luddite Chenin is a departure for Niels and Penny, a funky attempt to express the nature of Chenin Blanc in the Bot River area. Batches of free run and pressed juice were put in barrel without settling and allowed to ferment naturally. They also did a batch of fermentation on skins with regular punch downs. The wine has hints of honey and spice on the nose with a rich, mouth-filling palate reminiscent of yellow peach, melons, figs and spice.

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Sliwa cogitating over the Shiraz

A swift in-and-out of the winery, then it was brai time for the barbecue as well as some other r & r, including bunting golf balls into a lake, playing a blind tasting game, watching a fabulous moon-rise and getting happily drunk, and in a couple of cases, insensible (although that can be put down to lack of sleep on the plane journey).

The Luddite wines suit their surrounds, being big and bold, but like Niels and Penny they are articulate and reveal hidden depths. The Shirazes age wonderfully well and although our palates prefer less-is-more maximum-minerally ethereal numbers it was not difficult to accept and appreciate that bold, spicy wines have their place in the universe.

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Boardie hurling the furniture

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Signor Canadas shaping to draw into the water hazard

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Barnet givin’ it some stick

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Good moon rising

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