Tim James: Two decades and more of the revolutionary Paardeberg

By , 16 October 2023

Paardeberg, Swartland.

Driving up the gravel road into the Aprilskloof to visit Lammershoek just the other week, I was struck by the thought that it must be at least 20 years since I made my first visit to the Paardeberg – and that was probably also my first wine-stop in any part of the Swartland other than one at Spice Route. Since then I’ve negotiated that road so often; sometimes it has been badly ridged, sometimes smoothly graded, just occasionally rainwater lingered in the ruts, but travelled always with a sense of pleasure and expectation. To a real extent, the Paardeberg has been at the centre of my own adventure in chronicling the Cape wine revolution, which has had, surely, its most dynamic and epitomising centre here.

From the turn-off from the speedy R45 outside Malmesbury onto this ten kilometres or so of rough road it all looks much the same as it did – until you approach the low slopes of the kloof itself. In fact there are few parts of the Cape winelands that have seen such concentrated, significant change in these two decades as the Paardeberg. Perhaps, on a larger scale, Hemel-en Aarde and Egin; but neither of those two (though nowhere can compare with Hemel-en-Aarde for average quality and average bottle price, I reckon) quite so eloquently expresses through visible changes the transformation of the Cape fine wine industry.

I have looked back, to remind myself, on stuff that I wrote … so long ago. I can’t recall what I did locally, but in 2006 The World of Fine Wine, to the imaginative credit of its editor, Neil Beckett, published what was surely the first international report on the revolutionary rise of Swartland wines – embedded a touch insecurely (if understandably) in an article called Adventures in Cape terroir, which included some description of the Wine of Origin system, as I suspected that would be news (and worth explaining) to most foreign readers, as well as a wider claim about the growing importance of terroir in South African wine.

The following year, the same journal published my story about the crucial emergence of fine white blends in the Cape. It looked at Vergelegen’s pioneering (2001) wines modelled on the great Bordeaux semillon-sauvignon blends, and at the wholly original response to local terroir embodied in the chenin-based blends that Sadie’s Palladius had (2002) – effortlessly, and to modern eyes and tastes so obviously – created. Interestingly (I’d forgotten this), the early Palladius vintages were entirely from Paardeberg grapes, unlike Columella, which was already designed as a Swartland-wide blend expressing the whole area (the Old Vineyard Series was yet to be conceived, let alone introduced).

You look at those dates and examples and extrapolate to wonder at how much has been achieved – and how much we have come to take for granted – in the not many years since then. And of course that remarkable tale could be extended to just about the whole of the Cape

To return to the Paardeberg: back then, in 2006­–07 there were remarkably few Swartland producers to cite in an article about the start of the Swartland revolution, in addition to a few outsiders that were already buying grapes from there. There was, of course, Charles Back’s pioneering Spice Route; Sadie, which had its base in a shed on Lammershoek to produce Columella and Palladius; Lammershoek itself; and the now defunct Observatory, Tom Lubbe’s radical label based on the Paardeberg’s Boschgarsfontein farm. I also discussed Scali, on the other side of the Paardeberg, actually just outside the Swartland.

Amongst names now famous, Adi Badenhorst was still making very ripe cab for Rustenberg; the Mullineux were poised to leave Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards where they had been getting increasingly interested in Swartalnd grapes and set up a counter-weight to the Paardeberg, in Riebeek-Kasteel; David Sadie was soon to get involved from his place at Lemberg; Donovan Rall was just about there, with Jurgen Gouws of Intellego not far behind, with Bryan MacRobert’s Tobias – another shortlived label, like Observatory, from a winemaker shortly to leave for love and winemaking in southern Europe.

And now on the Paardeberg, well, there are even a few small empires, testament to the international success of top-end, new-wave Swartland. Lammershoek is hopefully resurgent (and also hosting André Bruyns’s City on a Hill); David & Nadia are firmly established on the Paardebosch farm (I’m not sure about the complexities of their interest in the farm itself); Adi Badenhorst has greatly extended his property as well as control over other Paardeberg vineyards; on a much smaller scale there’s JC Wickens Wines – with Jasper and Franziska Wickens making their small and excellent range off the latter’s family farm; Andrew Wightman has the small, emphatically new-wave, Wightman & Sons brand – but is arguably most important for the grapes his Môrelig farm provides to a number of smart producers. And on a high ridge looking down over the Sadie spread, Chris and Suzaan Alheit have a small farm with some fine vineyards.

So then there’s Sadie Family Wines, of course, that I’m leaving to the end and its own paragraph, given the crucial significance Eben Sadie has played in the making of Paardeberg into one of the internationally best known wine-growing areas of the modern Cape. (I suspect if you asked many serious non-Cape lovers of South Africa wine to name the mountain most famous for wine here, the answer would be Paardeberg even before Helderberg.) The development of Sadie’s Rotsvas farm – centred on the little whitewashed shed where the whole grand venture started, and which still nurtures the maturing barrels of Columella – has been breathtaking in its speed and extent. From virtually nothing two decades ago, to this.

The new Sadie Family Wines cellar nears completion.

I had a tour of the latest addition, the three-quarter-finished, multi-level building that will host offices, tasting space, and much of the vinification and maturation of the wines. Etc. Complementing the two other substantial new edifices, it will physically complete the “werf” that has grown here on the Paardeberg (roads and gardens are part of the project). It is altogether a most remarkable and sizeable building, intensively and extensively thought-through and managed by Eben, whose vigilance over all aspects (is that pipe a little off-angle? Redo it! We want natural light on the central staircase…) has consumed much of his life for a great many months. I suspect that when it is finished, it will be amongst the most amazing and brilliant wine buildings not just in South Africa, but probably in the southern hemisphere. I can’t begin to describe it all, but one aspect has lodged in my mind – two really, as there’s also the vastly spacious height of the room that will hold the cement fermentation tanks. But there’s a cellar devoted to housing the Sadie Family Wines wine-library. A few metres wide, lined with bins for the wines, and 40 metres long – the light rising and falling as, tripping sensors, one moves down it. I can’t wait to see the whole thing finished, earlyish next year perhaps.

Two decades is, of course, a blink of an eye in the story of a mountain. How many, many decades even since the slaughter of the last of the zebra-like animals that prompted the settlers to give this sprawling mountain its name? But there are surely no 25 years in its history that can compare to these last.

  • 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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