5 Revolutionary Winemakers of Swartland
It’s not easy to start a revolution. When it comes to a winemaking region with hundreds of years of history—and corresponding traditions—it’s especially difficult to challenge conventional wisdom.
There always seem to be visionaries, however, who see beyond the status quo.
Located about an hour’s drive northeast of Cape Town, the Swartland is home to vast wheat fields that cover most of its landscape. As the Cape’s traditional breadbasket, the region’s wine quality was often overshadowed by areas like Franschhoek, Paarl and Stellenbosch.
It wasn’t until 1997 that the region started to garner buzz, when Fairview’s Charles Back purchased vineyards in the Swartland and opened a new project called Spice Route. Back’s arrival sparked a surge of private estates investing in the region.
It also signaled greater quality potential for the wines. Spice Route’s inaugural releases from young winemaker Eben Sadie eschewed the region’s then-common styles of big, high-alcohol reds and off-dry whites.
In 2010, The Swartland Revolution—a weekend celebration of the region’s wines, with ticketed tastings, seminars and meals—was born, brainchild of the new Swartland Independent Producers association.
The mission: To improve quality standards and educate consumers about the unique “Swartlandness”—what traditionalists might call terroir—found within the region’s wines.
Now in its fifth year, the key players behind The Swartland Revolution have been integral to the region’s development. They produce must-try wines that convey a sense of place, putting South Africa more firmly on the global wine map.
Photos Maree Louw
Eben Sadie – The Sadie Family Wines
Eben Sadie worked in many of the world’s winemaking regions before returning to South Africa in 1998 to join Charles Back at Spice Route. Young and spirited, his talents were quickly apparent, as the wines were well received, and Back himself noted that, “Within a vintage, it was obvious that this guy was destined for great things.”
Sadie founded his solo venture, The Sadie Family, in 1999, and the first vintage of his Syrah-based blend, Columella, was released in 2000. The two vintages were produced at Spice Route, but Sadie left in 2001 to establish his own winery, with only 14 barrels and 9,000 rand (approximately $1,100) to his name.
The Swartland, with its affordable land and diverse growing conditions, appealed to the progressive vintner.
“Swartland is the biggest appellation in size, not planting, but that distills into many great diversities of the terroir,” Sadie says. “The various mountains have great 360-degree slopes with diverse formations… add to that old vines, no irrigation, the biggest day-night temperature differential and low productions per hectare, and it doesn’t take rocket science to work out it is the place to be.”
Today, Sadie’s flagship wines are Columella and Palladius, a white blend that’s based on Chenin Blanc, but includes Rhône varieties like Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier. After 10 successful vintages of each, Sadie launched a new project: a single-vineyard series of wines made from old vines.
There are currently eight selections, four from the Swartland, including Skerpioen, a Chenin Blanc-Palomino blend from 66-year-old vines, and Pofadder, a Cinsault.
“The future is in planting even more obscure grape varieties to try and define the little microclimates within the region,” says Sadie.
Outspoken and collaborative, Sadie has become a leader in the region.
“The biggest challenge is we should, amongst producers, never lose the open dialogue that currently exists,” he says.
As long as Sadie’s around, such a communication breakdown isn’t likely.
Callie Louw – Porseleinberg
A joint venture between Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent and winemaker Callie Louw, Porseleinberg is relatively new.
The project began in 2009, when Kent purchased a 173-acre wine farm where he previously sourced Syrah for his own Cape Winemakers Guild Auction wine (the fruit was also used in the first two vintages of Sadie’s Columella).
The region’s potential clinched the purchase, says Louw, but it wasn’t without risk.
“[Swartland was] largely overlooked in terms of quality wine production… vineyards got older without being excessively farmed, and then one day, someone has a glass of wine and thinks, ‘This is good, where does it come from?’ ” says Louw.
Louw’s pioneering nature—prevalent among the Swartland contingent and evident in his Wild West allusions—prevailed.
“Then a movement starts, like a gold strike,” he says. “Luckily, here it was a slow movement, with very few dodgy prospectors and not many of them here to just to pick up the surface gold, but prepared to dig deeper and improve in their claims.”
Dig deeper, he did. A farmer—he cringes at other titles—Louw immediately began work on the mountainside site, breaking through the tough boulders and blue slate to plant more Syrah and Grenache, all farmed organically.
Porseleinberg’s highly anticipated first release was the 2010, a Syrah more reminiscent of an elegant, mineral red from the Northern Rhône than a decadently lush and bold New World selection.
The 2011 and 2012 follow suit, with ample blackberry and raspberry fruit, acidic tension and minerality, all framed by firm, structured tannins. The harmony and balance suggest they will age extremely well.
“To me, Swartland wines are honest wines,” says Louw. “They’re unpolished soil- and vineyard-driven wines that go against commercialism.”
A farmer wouldn’t have it any other way.
Chris and Andrea Mullineux – Mullineux Family Wines
Husband and wife Chris and Andrea Mullineux aren’t known for missteps. In seven years, the two have built Mullineux Family Wines into a benchmark producer, earning critical acclaim and mass appeal.
The two first worked together at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards (now Fable) before opening Mullineux Family Wines in 2007. While at Tulbagh, they worked with several Swartland winegrowers and saw the region’s tremendous potential.
“The place has an amazing ability to produce wines with incredible intensity and pureness,” says Chris. “The region is warm and dry, but when working with the right varieties, the vines are able to show this intensity in a balanced and naturally fresh way.
“There is also the soils, the old vines and the lack of monoculture, but it is essentially the primal nature of the place, and the realness of the people, that make it a great place to be.”
Today, the winery boasts an impressive array of wines, from the entry-level Kloof Street selections to the core Mullineux lineup, which has recently expanded into more soil-specific selections, like the Granite, Schist and Iron Syrahs and the Quartz and Schist Chenin Blancs. The Chenin Blanc-based Straw Wine is annually one of the country’s highest-rated sweet wines.
“The red wines seem to have a tannin structure unique to the Swartland,” says Andrea. “The tannins are firm, for sure, but they are also refined and almost chalky… there is also a sort of fynbos [the Cape’s natural vegetation] aroma typical to the wines of the region.”
Regarding the Revolution, Andrea says that consumer education was the inspiration behind the event.
“It was clear to us that most people still considered the region one for bulk-wine production, and we wanted those people to come out and see for themselves,” she says.
“The wines are made by real people, with honesty and integrity,” says Chris. “They’re serious wines, with a true sense of place. Hopefully, our wines always retain a sense of place.”
Adi Badenhorst – A.A. Badenhorst Wines
Adi Badenhorst has wine in his blood. His grandfather was the general manager at Groot Constantia for 46 years. His father was born there and farmed neighboring Buitenverwachting and Constantia Uitsig for many years.
Badenhorst grew up in the vineyards. He long knew that his own destiny would be forged among the vines.
Utterly personable, there’s a calm confidence about Badenhorst. Expletive-laced musings just roll off his tongue, always coupled with a smile and a glimmer in his eye.
“I’m just a man making wines that I enjoy, using the fruit from this area,” he says.
Badenhorst worked at wineries across the globe, including Château Angelus in Saint-Emilion, Alain Graillot in Crozes-Hermitage and Wither Hills in New Zealand, before returning to South Africa. For nine years, he was the winemaker at Rustenberg, in Stellenbosch.
In 2008, he bought a Swartland wine farm with his cousin, Hein.
“The Swartland’s landscape is open and vast,” he says. “I like this openness because it speaks of humility and honesty. The vines found here seem to be relics of the past, rediscovered, coerced back to life in a way.
“We need to understand that terroir is a relationship between the climate, soils, man, wine style and the stories that link them.”
The Badenhorst Family range of wines favors balance, featuring modest alcohol levels, previously used oak and minimal intervention. The top wines include a Syrah-based blended red and a white blend that’s made from roughly a dozen Swartland-approved varieties. The Secateurs range offers similarly styled but more accessible, value-driven selections.
“My first winemaking job was in the Swartland in 1999,” says Badenhorst. “Since then, it’s undergone a tremendous transformation. Yet, the area still seems in its infancy.
“The new generation, if you like, really seems to know what they are doing, and have, and will continue, to take the region to new heights.”
- 2The Virtuoso
- 3The Farmer
- 4The Dynamic Duo
- 5The Personality