Billy Hughes left the country of his birth Argentina in 1990 because it was “a mess” – longstanding economic problems had bought on ruinous hyperinflation. His intention was to travel the world, but arrived in Cape Town and never moved on. Now a SA citizen, he is married to Zimbabwean Penny. How did they meet? “I crashed a friend’s party and she was there”.
Hughes is an engineer by profession, producing underwater equipment for diamond mining, oil and gas but he and his wife also own a farm 12km north of Malmesbury with 27ha under vine. The first vines went in 10 years ago, and the approach has been organic from the outset, although they only started to bother with certification about a year and a half ago. “Farming organically is not difficult and it makes for vines that are happier and more resilient which ultimately means better wines,” says Hughes. Varieties planted are Viognier, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Pinotage, Syrah, Grenache and Tempranillo.
They produce some 220 tons of grapes of which 30 tons are utilised for their own wines, these being a white and a red, both blends under the Nativo label. Hughes says he’s not interested in “a homage to a variety” but wants to reflect the taste of the farm, hence why he blends.
The red goes back longer, maiden vintage having been 2004. At lunch at the always good Savoy Cabbage in Hout Street Cape Town, he showed the 2006, 2007 and the 2008. The 2006 (a blend of Shiraz, Merlot, Mourvèdre and Pinotage) was particularly rustic, broad and earthy and Hughes admits that its lack of refinement was due to inexperience on the part of all those involved in producing it. The 2007 is very much what you might expect from a Swartland red, presenting as rich and chunky, with lots of ripe fruit and firm tannins while the 2008 is definitely the most classy, with good fruit expression but more medium bodied with fresh acidity. This was the first vintage to include Grenache and Hughes reckons it works well to counterbalance the Pinotage. That said, Hughes is adamant that Pinotage can play a role in producing wines of excellence, and wants to prove the naysayers wrong.
The maiden vintage 2009 white meanwhile is a blend of 51% Chenin Blanc, 26% Viognier and 23% Verdelho, the latter two bought from Jeremy Borg, who makes wines under the Painted Wolf label, although own plantings of these will be incorporated in due course. While only the Viognier saw any oaking (fermented and matured in barrel for eight months, some new), the wine has great texture and substance, and is a worthy addition to the clutch of Chenin-driven blends such as Palladius, Sequillo and Scali Blanc coming out of the Swartland. The white has an approximate retail price of R80 and the Red 2006 about R90.
Though not a qualified winemaker, Hughes takes an active interest in the whole production process. “Being a winemaker is not unlike being a pilot – you spend the first 40 hours learning your stuff and the rest of your life preoccupied with safety and getting out of trouble”. All wines have been made off-site to date, but the intention is to build a cellar. “Financially it’s more sensible to make the wine somewhere else, but a cellar on our own property must rub off on the wine’s identity. It becomes impregnated with the place’s energy”. At which point, Penny says, “Rubbish. You’re just an engineer who likes building stuff”.