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An Italian renaissance brought to you by vermentino

Looking at the Cape Winelands from above, it’s clear that the stats on Italian varietal plantings are pretty miniscule. Sangiovese comes out tops with 0,07% of the total vineyard area, while nebbiolo clocks in at a mere 0,02% (vermentino is the latest Italian varietal to take up root in the national vineyard, but more about that later).  Zoom in however, and you’ll find that these numbers are as insignificant as their totals. The part Italy plays in the story of South Africa’s winemaking is much more manifold and complex than something we can tot up on our calculators. 

Not in the least the Italian prisoners of war (POW), many of who were responsible for carving through mountains to give us the likes of Chapman’s Peak and Bainskloof Pass. Their imprint is also in the vineyards and wine farms across South Africa, where many POWs were scattered after World War II—and they’ve left various clues along the path of the past, as if to say, ‘ciao!’ Famous examples are the murals at Wederom winery in Robertson by POW Giovanni Salvadori who worked on the farm in the 1940s.

These days Italian families run some of the South Africa’s most lauded estates. Take the Bottega family of Idiom Vineyards, who are committed to making Italian varietal wines within their range; or another Somerset West farm, Morgenster Wine & Olive Estate, under the stewardship of the legendary Giulio Bertrand they also produce Italian wines grown on SA soil. Then of course there are the pioneering Dalla Cias. Giorgio Dalla Cia moved to South Africa in 1974, and since then the SA wine industry has felt the family’s influence, from the important work done with Bordeaux blends at Meerlust wine estate to grappa distilleries, and to their eponymous wine and spirit brand. 

There are many more to mention, including the vermentino trail-blazing folks from Ayama in the Voor-Paardeberg. Run by Italian husband and wife team Attilio and Michela Dalpiaz, Ayama is responsible for planting the first vermentino vines ever to touch South Africa soil. For the uninitiated vermentino is a light-skinned white wine grape that makes for a medium to full-bodied wine with a minerality that borders on salinity. 

Getting permission to plant the Sardinian clone was no easy task.  They endured six years of import permissions, quarantine approvals and propagation before the vermentino vines could be planted at Ayama in 2014, with the first harvest taking place in 2016.

And then Attilio and Michela had another bright idea.  They decided they’d auction off the maiden vermentino vintage in aid of the Perdjie School: a crèche for disadvantaged children in the Paardeberg (the school is a join initiative between Ayama Wines and neighbours, Scali Wines).

The auction took place in a beautiful old church in Woodstock, Cape Town. A red carpet spilled down the steps ushering in the guests.  The Italian wine community was out in full force, among them: Giorgio and George Dalla Cia, Roberto and Alberto Bottega (Idiom Vineyards), Marco Ventrella (who is a viticulturist at KWV) and Henry Koetzee (winemaker at Morgenster). 

The hammer rang out bid after bid, the thwack echoing into the curved ceiling of the church. Auctioned off in 225 lots comprising of bottles and cases in various sizes, the entire inaugural vermentino harvest was sold.  The combined digital and real-time auction raised R128 750.00 and the funds will go towards a school bus for the Perdjie School.

“The auction was emotional,” says Michela. “It far exceeded our expectations, in the middle of it my husband and I were almost in tears.”

The next vintage of Ayama’s vermentino will be released around October 2017.  This time though with no hammers—just corkscrews at the ready. 

-Malu Lambert