Tim James: Karibib Vineyards and Wine Craft in the Polkadraai Hills
By Tim James, 11 December 2020
Early this year (remember then – before things unrolled so weirdly?), I wrote suggesting that for South African wine this was to be the decade of Stellenbosch, after ten or fifteen years in which a previously negligible region, the Swartland, had shone with more lustre than what is undoubtedly the Cape’s greatest winegrowing area overall. The year (if not the weirdness) draws to an end with an exciting development in Stellenbosch’s Polkadraai Hills ward – not a shattering one, I suppose, but showing the new dynamism.
Polkadraai Hills is, anyway, arguably at present the most interesting and dynamic part of Stellenbosch, meaning that any new development is that much less surprising than it would be in other regions. A depth of quality terroir has been making itself increasingly known there, and the area is in various ways home to some of the most exciting winemaking in the country. Scarcely anything like a dud is to be seen (though, sadly, venerable Jacobsdal – probably the first modern winery to systematically avoid yeast additions – seems to be having a difficult time). Just think what’s most obviously part of Polkadraai Hills: Long-established Saxenburg lifting itself even higher, vineyard-expanding biodynamic Reyneke, De Toren (now organic), Bein, Nico van der Merwe; the youthful but already celebrated tiny vineyards at Raats; Van Biljon – home to Chris Keet and its own wine; Carinus Family emerging as a very serious producer (most recently, the stupendous Polkadraai Heuwels Chenin Blanc made by Chris Alheit).
Crucially, a collaboration between forward-moving winemakers is happening, as it did in the Swartland. Last year Catherine Marshall moved into the old Amani cellar (the farm now Italian-owned and called Lavinia), and is now sharing the space with Miles Mossop, Jessica Saurwein, and Rianie Strydom (though only Cathy’s own wines are available for tasting).
And now, operational since the 2020 harvest, there’s another communal winery on the Polkadraai Hills. It’s on Karibib Vineyards, called Wine Craft, with eight, mostly very small, producers involved. There’s Solitary (the home label of Karibib – of which more below); also concentrating on Stellenbosch wines are Alexandra McFarlane, the well-established Raats-Slabbert partnership B Vintners, Guillaume Nell’s Lýsa (I bet not everyone will bother to get the accent on that Norwegian y!). Non-Stellenbosch producers involved are Lucinda Heyns’s Illimis; Sam Lambson’s Minimalist, and the rather larger and better known Ian Naudé – though he doesn’t make all of his wines here. A newcomer is Angus Paul.
More immediately relevant to Winelands visitors, there’s a tasting centre at Wine Craft that has opened just in time for what is hoped will be the return of tourists, offering a unique collective experience. Sommelier Barry Scholfield, of Somm & Co in Stellenbosch, manages the tasting room, which also has a restaurant and deli offering tapas-style food – and marvellous views from its hillside position. It seems to me a great idea: each week Barry offers eight individually priced wines, one from each of the participating producers. Each wine is available as a tasting portion (the opening list ranged from R13 for Solitary Sauvignon Blanc to Naudé Langpad at R31), or a glass at a little more than double that price, or by the bottle at retail price. The producers’ whole ranges are, of course, also available by the bottle.
Karibib has emerged over the past five years especially as a name known to those interested in the origins of fine wine. Jozua Joubert inherited the farm from his father in 2010 and, with what seems to have been some initial reluctance, gave up his winemaking job at Warwick to manage it. But he’s done the job on his 55-odd hectares of sloping granitic vineyards with skill and gusto, having “pulled out and planted a lot since 2010”. And with great success.
The farm name was credited on a label for the first time on Adam Mason’s Raised by Wolves Karibib Chardonnay. It’s now there, for example, on Craven’s famously light Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc. Jozua now supplies fruit to 26 different producers – including some other very smart names. Karibib really started impinging on my own consciousness when I realised that two of the Cape syrahs I regard most highly came off its vines: Reenen Borman’s Sons of Sugarland and Van Loggerenberg Graft. Another, newer fine syrah – Damascene – also takes a good portion of its grapes from Karibib. Incidentally, Jozua hopes to be taking forward this great potential for syrah by hosting a mother block of a newly cleaned-up great Syrah clone, 99 – its degenerative weakness resolved, with any luck.
But growing great grapes for (and to an extent with) other producers was not enough for Jozua, who says that he greatly missed making wine, however, interesting viticulture had proved. He began tinkering in 2014 with wines from single vineyards on Karibib and named for those blocks. But it was in 2017 that he made his “first serious vintage”. The Morning Bell Pinot Noir I tasted, however, was from 2016 and seemed pretty serious to me – and good value for R185. Pinot is not Stellenbosch’s strongest suit, but I rather liked this one: Karibib’s granite gives it a clean, fresh tannic focus, and there’s perfumed darker fruit, with a herbal/fynbos character. And I can pay the Owl House Sauvignon Blanc 2019 no greater compliment than saying that it rather reminded me of the magnificent Reyneke White Reserve (coming from a vineyard not far distant) in its rather untypical but satisfying aromas and flavours – a fine white wine more than a sauvignon, perhaps, and with a brightly mineral, subtly fruity freshness. The spicy, grippy Bankrot Chenin Blanc 2019 was pretty reductive and seemed, I thought, subdued – I suspect it’s in a dip and will pull itself together and do even greater justice to its brilliant origins.
If Polkadraai Hills is not a name that you’re familiar with, if you’re a serious winelover it soon will be.
- 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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