Tim James: Authentic Swartland revolutionary wines from Nativo
By Tim James, 7 October 2019
Billy Hughes – an engineer born in Argentina, settled in South Africa in 1990 – made a cleverer choice than he realised when he and his late wife Penny in 2000 bought an old wheat farm near Malmesbury, with an eye to converting it to winegrape-growing. The Swartland would soon start to become famous (Spice Route was starting to get noticed and this was the year that Sadie Columella was born), and there would be plenty of winemakers keen to buy Billy’s holistically farmed, unirrigated grapes – full organic accreditation was achieved in 2012, supplemented by some biodynamic practices.
Hughes Family Wines (Billy and his daughter Kiki are now the wine-business-relevant figures in the Hughes family) has some 27 hectares of vines: Grenache Noir and Blanc, Mourvèdre, Pinotage, Tempranillo, Shiraz, Chenin, Roussanne and Viognier. And there’s now a creatively designed cellar (Billy’s an engineer, remember): it was made, according to the website, “using retired shipping containers, stones and other natural materials from our area. The idea is to create an environment for winemaking that is stable in temperature without using man-made energy to do it.”
Off the electricity grid, then; there’s a generator, but that’s for emergencies only. Lieze Norval, who’s been making the home-farm’s wines – under the Nativo label – since 2017, doesn’t like using it (“it’s too noisy!”). And she’s happy to work in very “back to basics” conditions – just her and the grapes. There are basically just two wines made, au naturel, from the grapes that don’t get sold off to a bunch of winemakers who are now pretty eminent producers: a red blend and a white, which I recently tasted.
Lieze’s drought-vintage 2017 (the farm suffered badly in the heat and drought) is made from shiraz, grenache, mourvèdre, tempranillo and pinotage, partly wholebunch fermented, and aged in old oak, tank and plastic egg. It’s still very young and tight, with a serious tannic grip as well as rich savoury fruit, quite fresh. A typical, good, pure-fruited Swartland blend and well priced at little more than R200. I actually enjoyed it a bit more than the 2015, which was sweeter-fruited, more softly silky and perfumed, less structured.
Lieze also sent me a bottle of Garnacha 2018 (the spelling some sort of hybrid of Spanish Garnacha and French grenache, I suppose). She’s been making some small bottlings of varieties performing especially well in a given year – 2019 looks like being mourvèdre. (Wines other than the Red and White are available only from the farm, I believe – unfortunately, the otherwise very good website is out of date.) The grenache is indeed attractive; subtly, charmingly perfumed, but also serious and grippy, with a good depth.
The current release White seems to be the 2015 (made by Bryan MacRobert – now, sadly, gone Spainwards). It’s a great bonus to get those few extra years in bottle, when the wine has responded so well to them, making itan especially good value at the same sort of price as the red. It’s 70% viognier, which would be hard to guess, I think, so disciplined are that variety’s sometime aromatic and flavour excesses, so well complemented by chenin, grenache blanc and roussanne. A very individual as well as delicious, long-lingering wine – not over-polished and all the better for it, I think. Very highly recommended, if you can find it.
The variant white I tasted was a 2018 orange wine called Amarillo – quite oxidative and funky, with intense flavours and a firm tannic grip. I suspect the Japanese – and conceivably many others – would love it, but it’s a touch too radical for me.
All the wines bear the Swartland Wine Producers logo and will no doubt be available for tasting at the Street Party in Riebeek-Kasteel on 2 November, an occasion not to be missed, if possible.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.