Tim James: Escape from lockdown to the winelands

By , 26 June 2020

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Wednesday saw for me an eruption of life as I once knew it. For one thing, I had a much-needed haircut – which the hairdresser contrived to do without removing my mask (ok, so not exactly life as before). But at a somewhat more spiritual level, I made my first visit to the Winelands – my first escape from the suburbs – in three months. Clutching my bottle of hand sanitiser and my imaginary licence as a journalist, I got on the motorway, pressed the accelerator hard (my car was also anxious to stretch its legs), and headed for the hills, relishing the speed and the space. It was a gloriously bright day.

Headed for the Paardeberg, to be precise. (Of course. Apologies!) The Swartland is seldom anything like the colour of its name – in summer it is ochreous gold with patches of green vineyard on the lower slopes of the darker (“black” fynbos if you wish) mountains; in winter it is overwhelmingly, vividly green, with the young wheat and the cover crops between the vines. All in sunshine under a huge, pale wintry-blue sky. The relative warmth of the first half of winter has meant that many of the vines were still carrying leaves – mostly yellowed, or red-blackened by virus.

I don’t think I ever take for granted the privilege of having such ready access to some of the loveliest landscapes in the wine world, but I was particularly conscious of it on this trip.

And, as always, I was confident of finding something new and interesting at Rotsvas, the small farm of Eben Sadie and family on the Paardeberg, and wasn’t disappointed when I went to collect some wines (and witblits) that I‘d bought – collecting, but with the firm intention of lingering.

Rotsvas dam.

It’s probably not easy to think of a newly constructed (in fact not quite finished) dam, still raw and almost empty, being beautiful. Perhaps it was the loveliness of the day (and my good mood!) that made this one on Rotsvas so winning.  It’s clearly also been finely designed and engineered, though, which helps. And it will be well integrated into the landscape – both visually and structurally: Eben showed me the online systematics of all its connections to the rest of the farm and switched on for me the pump that brings water to the dam from the sump collecting the subterranean drain-off from the black-grape vineyard called Slangdraai. Eben regaled me with the dam’s impressive statistics (even beyond the price): of the vast quantities of clay brought in to make a 7-metre thick dam wall, and the equally vast quantities of sand removed (to make a huge hole). And I must say he wasn’t nonplussed for more than a few seconds when I remarked on how he must for a time appeared as wicked as the neighbour he fought so implacably against over sand mining, with everlasting truckloads of the earth’s crust invading the quiet rural roads….

Slangdraai vineyard.

Talking of the Slangdraai vineyard, though: 2020 saw the first meaningful crops coming off the various varietal blocks. From various pickings, they were all vinified together in good field-blend manner (though some of the grapes went elsewhere), with counoise as the late ripener that declined to fit into the general timetable. Eventually, Eben hopes, the whole vineyard will feed into Columella. For now, though, he has tanks of wine that he’s not yet sure what to do with. The wine is pretty delicious, I must say, with perfume and balance, though with the relative lightness of young-vine fruit.

But Eben did keep one batch aside, and it is in a barrel in the old, thick-walled little cellar where the infant Columella components have always started their long journey to maturity. Of all things – carignan, not the noblest of varieties, but this sample was looking just fine, with aroma, structure and depth. The quantity is too small to have a great effect on the final blend, but as a symbolic moment its inclusion will be significant: the first grapes off the home farm to go into the 21st vintage of the wine that perhaps really started the Swartland revolution, with all that that implies.

  • 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

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  • Chris27 June 2020

    I spent some time a short while ago and was again blown away by what one can do with a relatively small piece of land. The attention to details is unreal. Every space has a purpose. Everything is as it should be and in its right place. Inspiring stuff.

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