Tim James: On Palomino
By Christian Eedes, 3 October 2016
Having enthused recently about one unfashionable white grape, clairette blanche, showing small signs of a Cape comeback at an ambitious level (see here), I’m repeating the exercise with palomino. Though again, unfortunately, there’s no immediate prospect of encouraging people to go out and buy some: there’s extremely little around in bottle – as a declared component, anyway, though I daresay it lurks unassumingly in some cheap white blends from Olifants River and Swartland producer cellars. Those are the areas in which palomino is most planted these days, especially Olifants River, which has more than half the country’s plantings of some 155 hectares – a minuscule 0.15% of the total Cape vineyard.
Finding palomino in more ambitious white blends is also possible: it’s there, for example, in Badenhorst Family’s White in a small way, in Sadie Family’s ‘T Voetpad, from the marvellous old mixed vineyard in the north of the Swartland, and in their Skerpioen – where it plays an equal role with chenin, from chalky soils just inland from St Helena Bay, up the West Coast.
MV Voges’s farm that grows Skerpioen also gave the fruit for a thoroughly pleasant 2015 varietal palomino from Adi Badenhorst, called Sout van die Aarde – “salt of the earth”, alluding to its maritime origins, I suppose. It does, too, have a salty hint on the taste, as well as a mildly floral nuttiness; and I can imagine discerning an aromatic echo of fino sherry – unsurprisingly so, perhaps, as palomino is the great sherry grape. There’s nothing assertive in aroma or flavour, but there’s subtle characterfulness, enough acidity, and the wine is silky-textured, fresh and delightfully dry, with a little phenolic grip.
I do hope Sout van die Aarde isn’t going to be one of Adi’s once-offs – it’s too attractive and interesting to abandon. But there are anyway a few other palomino wines coming up. Francois Haasbroek has made a varietal 2016 version from a 1927 vineyard near Ashton for his Blackwater label. He tells me that’s he’s pleased enough with that wine to continue with it next year – and in fact has had the block he works with registered as a single vineyard. It’s the oldest block in a larger vineyard that the Alheits, and Franco Lourens who works with them in the cellar, also became interested in. With Francois’s blessing they’re planning on taking some grapes in 2017. Franco, I hope, will make a varietal version for his own Lourens Family Vineyards label. Chris Alheit isn’t sure what they’ll do with his allocation. With any luck it’ll be good enough to go into the multi-regional, multi-varietal blend Cartology. It would fit in there particularly well, as an historic variety in the Cape.
In the past known here primarily as white French (or fransdruif or vaalblaar), palomino seems to have been of the earliest varieties brought to the Cape. When Perold wrote his great Treatise on Viticulture in 1926, he was clearly not totally confident of the identification with palomino. By the time of Orffer’s little book on Wine Grape Cultivars in South Africa in 1979, there was no doubt.
But by then palomino was already set on its precipitous decline, though still making up 18% of total plantings. As a potentially heavy cropper, producing rather neutral wine, it had been the mainstay of the brandy industry, used also for local sherry-style wines and for light whites. But chenin was taking over those roles, and palomino was on its way out.
It’s a marvellous reflection of the current vitality of the wine industry, with its respect for tradition and history, that some of our finest winemakers are reminding us of palomino’s role in Cape wine culture, in the best possible way. It’s not a great grape, perhaps, but crafted by hands like theirs it’s good enough for me.
- Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes 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.