December 5th 2014

The Cape is embarking on an era of great viticultural exploration. Following decades of sanctions, stifling regulations and export demand largely based on the so-called international varieties in more recent years, Cape growers and nurseries are starting to behave like the proverbial kid in the candy store – and there is much to choose from and contemplate considering the Cape’s diverse terroirs and the number of varieties either currently or imminently available.

Vititec’s contract with French nursery Entav-Inra, Distell’s sale earlier this year of in-house plant improvement facility Ernita to private nursery Bosman Adama (Pty) Ltd, and the likes of leading winemaker Eben Sadie and viticulturist Rosa Kruger, ensure that Cape viticulture is entering a very exciting age.

“We have suffered from Bordeaux envy for too long,” says Kruger, one of the main instigators of cataloguing the Cape’s old (35+ years) vineyards and the importing of new varietal material from Europe. “We need varieties better equipped to withstand our drought and heat while retaining acids until they reach ripeness,” says Kruger.

Sadie is at the “embryonic stage” of what appears to be a life’s work – and commitment – of trial and error plantings of new and exotic varieties. “I started eight years ago and it’s been a complex task of soil mapping and terroir assessment, plus the frustration of dealing with vested interests, politics and bureaucracy.”

Following their contract with France’s Entav-Entra, private plant improvement business Vititec are importing 10 new varieties and/or clones every year. New varieties available from 2013 include Macabeau/Viura, Marsanne, Roussane, Petit Manseng, Piquepoul Blanc, Terret Noir and Vermentino; from 2014, Counoise and Marselan; from 2016, Cinsaut Blanc, Grenache Gris and LLedoner Pelut; from 2017, Agiorgitiko, Arriloba, Asyrtiko, Caladoc, Ekigaina and Sauvignon Gris.

From 2016 Sadie will be planting exotic varieties, new selections and new clones every year for five years up until 2020, with the new varieties – many of them Mediterranean – being tested in up to three different sites. “Once they are planted we will quickly be able to make viticultural notes but notes from experimental wines will take a little longer,” says Sadie.

Kruger has had similar battles in her mammoth project of cataloguing old vineyards but early next year she will launch a website detailing all of the Cape’s old vineyards. Besides locating the vineyards, of course, she was, for example, required by the authorities to contact every single grower to get their permission to publish the details.

Sadie has produced critically acclaimed wines from some of these vineyards known as Die Ouwingerdreeks (The Old Vineyard Series), which sell out on release each year, but is more famous internationally for his red and white blends Columella and Palladius.

Last month Michela and Attilio Dalpiaz, the Italian owners of Ayama Wines of Voor Paardeberg, after working with Italian viticulturist Augusto Fabbro and Johan Wiese of Voor Groenberg Nurseries, planted South Africa’s first commercial block of Vermentino. They believe it to be a good match with Sardinia’s terroir, which includes its tolerance of wind and warm summers, and compatibility with decomposed granite soils. Voor Paardeberg also recently saw the planting of over four hectares of Marsanne. Three years ago Albariño/Alvarinho was established by the Newton Johnson family in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley outside coastal town Hermanus.

Varieties available from Lelienfontein (Bosman Adama) include Nero d’Avola,

Irsai Oliver, Marsanne, Folle Blanche, Prosecco (varieties) and Aubun. There are other varieties that are either planted or in quarantine that are subject to confidentially clauses between the grower and nursery until they are released commercially.

Regardless of the outcome, there is no question that Sadie and Kruger are doing pioneering work, not least because nobody else is doing anything like their scale of experimentation. “Given the Loire’s climate, who would have thought Chenin Blanc would be so suited to the Cape? We have never been in a better position to experiment and we can find varieties that are far better suited to our terroirs than what we currently have. I will be very happy in 20 years time even if only 10% of the plantings prove a success. Too many of our varieties are out of spec. We need varieties that better retain their fruit and acids.’ says Sadie.

– Jonathan Snashall