Malu Lambert: South Africans prospecting international terroirs

By , 3 May 2024

The distillery and winery at Mousehall, East Sussex.

A couple of weeks ago while visiting the UK, I found myself in East Sussex. Being early spring, yellow daffodils punctuated mossy woodland at the edges of the narrow, sunken roads. Gary and Kathy Jordan collected me from the train station to take me to their English winery and distillery, Mousehall, which they run with daughter Christy. The property dates back to 1086.

Gary is a trained geologist, which has served him well at their Stellenbosch property, Jordan – which they remain wholly committed to. It was this same soil-savvy that led them to Sussex, the terrain a mix of Tunbridge Wells, sandstone, clay, chalk and iron deposits. The soils are so iron-rich that in the 1500s the area was the centre for iron mining and consequently cannon production.

We have a stop to make, the Jordans need to rack some barrels at Hidden Spring Vineyard. In addition to Mousehall, Kathy explains, they rented the cellar and made wine there the previous vintage. The vineyard also happens to be owned by fellow South Africans, Richard and Sara Asman. Before we head to the cellar, Richard takes us through a tasting, the range of English sparkling being particularly good.

The light starts to bend towards dusk as we bump up the track to Mousehall. It’s every bit as magical as expected. The main house is the original brickwork propped up with oak beams. Scratched into the wood are circles and symbols, witch marks to deter evil spirits.

“We bought it knowing it was going to be a lot of work,” says Kathy. “It was neglected and overgrown, but we knew how to turn it around, after all we did the same with Jordan.”

Since purchasing the property in 2017, they have done just that. On its 12-acres find the restored Oast House, with the emblematic mouse on its cowl, which now offers accommodation. Add to this 18 Dorper sheep employed for vineyard work, nine beehives, ducks, and two very energetic dogs. In the vineyard they have planted chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier. The maiden release of Tidebrook Wines is this May, named for a stream running through the farm. For both the wines and spirits everything is done with an emphasis on sustainability, from the farming to the packaging

Before heading inside for dinner, Gary shows me the distillery, winery and tasting area. A converted barn, the most modern bit of the whole enterprise. “We knew the gin would pay for the vineyard,” laughs Gary.

The next day before hopping on a plane home, they took me to visit another estate where we discussed the many challenges of viticulture in this marginal, damp climate. Although soil, they’ve got. This was further illustrated by the white chalk hills of the South Downs racing past our windows as we traversed the countryside.

Back in the Cape I heard stories of more South Africans investing in the European wine industry. Intrigued, as it’s a flipside to the article I wrote last year on foreign investment in the winelands I did some investigating.

Nearby to the Jordans in Kent is a nascent project by a South African investor, Wayne Pitout. Pitout acquired Glen Carlou in 2016. Consulting with Mike Ratcliffe and his Wine Business Advisors they are rebranding the Simonsberg property. Ratcliffe is also working with Pitout on the Kent project, which is located in Chilham near Canterbury.

“We have just completed the planting process,” shared Pitout from his home in Surrey. “30 acres planted in 2023 and 41 last week so a total of 71 acres. Our focus is on chardonnay and pinot noir. It will be a while before we are ready to make wine but at the appropriate time, we will of course involve Johnny Calitz, winemaker at Glen Carlou.”

When asked why Kent, Pitout says: “The key attractions were free draining, lime-rich soils sitting on a chalk bed and similar growing degree days to Champagne and Burgundy. There is a gentle south-facing slope across the whole site with low cold air accumulation and a low risk of frost. The fact that Taittinger’s English vineyard Domaine Evremond is only one mile away also lends credence to the decision.”

Chateau Pas De Loup, Loire.

Over the chalk hills and into France

Ratcliffe is working on a few projects across the pond. Namely, Château Pas de Loup with Christopher Bettany. The pair are longtime friends, in fact it was work experience at Warwick where the flame for cabernet franc was initially lit for Bettany, something his Loire concern specialises in.

Going full circle, Bettany’s mother is descended from the original Huguenots who were displaced from the Loire and settled in the Cape. Bettany laughs when he recalls how when they bought Pas de Loup in 1996, his ‘staunchly Afrikaans’ mother stood on the terrace and proclaimed ‘I’m back now!’.  He has named the château’s flagship crémant for her, Renée Fouché.

With his various business interests Bettany splits his time between France, Johannesburg and Mozambique, the latter for his hotel group Azura Boutique Retreats. Not surprisingly then he tells me, Pas de Loup is the largest exporter of French wine to the country.

While Pas de Loup has been under the family’s ownership for around 30 years, Ratcliffe has come on-board to assist in restructuring the offering. Going forward they will produce just rosé, a still and sparkling. A focus that imminently suits the brand, considering its nickname, ‘The Pink Château’ so-called for its bright façade. Former Cavalli winemaker, Malie McGregor made the previous vintage.

Also a travelling winemaker, Riandri Visser of Cape Point Vineyards, splits her time between Noordhoek and Sancerre. For the latter she works alongside her fiancé Clement Jolivet at Pascal Jolivet. The pair have recently embarked on their own project, Domaine Les Ormousseaux.

Les Ormousseaux is in Saint-Père, a village in Coteaux du Giennois. Jolivet officially took over the estate in April 2021. The focus is on sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and gamay.

“We’re in the southern part of the appellation, close to the border of Pouilly-Fumé,” explains Riandri Visser.

2021 was their first vintage. “It was particularly challenging because we lost 80 per cent of our production due to frost,” says Visser. “In 2022, hail destroyed one third of our production only three days before our planned harvest date. The evening the storm broke out, we were having dinner at the winery and suddenly we realised we were in trouble.”

“In 2023, we were spared sleepless nights and produced wines with great depth, character, and sufficient volume to overcome our initial struggles.”

For now, the project is small but growing. The plan is for Visser to focus fully on Les Ormousseaux while she is in France, while still being committed to Cape Point Vineyards.

“In 2024 we will be ready to receive our grapes at our own small cellar at Les Ormousseaux. This will be our first certified organic vintage, and we plan to become fully biodynamic.”

And of course, there’s Domaine Grier in the South of France. Owned by the Grier family since 2006. Their Stellenbosch property Villiera was acquired by French company, Grands Chais de France last year.

Stateside Hamilton Russell is also making its mark. Hamilton Russell Oregon, a pair of single-vineyard Willamette Valley pinot noir and chardonnay is run by Olive Hamilton Russell. In use here is an endemic vineyard yeast identified from the Hemel-en-Aarde in 1994, combined with an organic yeast, to create what is known as ‘Sauvage’. The yeast is commercially available in the States and is said to have become quite popular.

Winemaking is a global sport. These South Africans brave enough to play in foreign terroirs not only raise the profile of the industry abroad, but also broaden the pool of expertise to bring back home to our national vineyard too. Game on.

  • Malu Lambert is freelance wine journalist and wine judge who has written for numerous local and international titles. She is a WSET Diploma student and won the title of Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2019. She sits on various tasting panels and has judged in competitions abroad. Follow her on Twitter: @MaluLambert

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