SA Wine Trailblazer: Martin Smith

“The name Paserene comes from the Latin word Passeriformes, which means the order of ‘traveling and free birds’,” says winemaker Martin Smith from his winery in Franschhoek, on which he bestowed that title. The definition couldn’t be more apt for this highflying winemaker who works with three different terroirs: Elgin, Franschhoek and Tulbagh. One of the newest cellars in the historic Franschhoek, Paserene, with its ultra-modern winemaking facilities and artfully designed tasting room is a result of a partnership with good friend and investor Ndabe Mareda. Paserene’s first vintage was released circa 2013.

The farm’s tasting lounge, The Paserene Nest, was opened five years later: its curved design inspired by a swallow’s nest, complete with a sun-splashed terrace overlooking the farm’s dam, which is meant to imbue the feeling of a swallow swooping over water.

Smith has just released the Dark 2018 Syrah, in the ‘Elements’ range, styled as the ‘fun side’ of the portfolio to complement the more high-end Paserene wines. A combination of two regions, the syrah was crafted from grapes grown in clay in Tulbagh as well as from Franschhoek’s sandy soils. The combination of which has the effect of blending light and dark: the wine is opulent, inky in the glass, but also perfumed and lifted, silky and spicy with juicy, ripe tannins and a sensation of sugar and cinnamon on the finish. All the hallmarks of Smith’s accomplished winemaking are there, a talent he has honed working at some of the world’s finest red wine estates.

Born in Ashton he grew up in a winemaking family. His grandfather was a wine farmer in Paarl, his dad a winemaker as well as a proprietor of a bottling plant. “I was greatly influenced by my dad and his friends who used to gather around the kitchen table opening bottles of wine and having discussions. I always wanted to be one of them.”

In these formative years he was not only exposed to the art side of wine, but also the business aspects and it’s this combination that has seen Smith sculpt his unique career and aesthetic.

“I've been a businessman for forever,” says Smith. “When I was a teenager I had a little business that used to sell compost. My best friend and I would dress in suits and go selling these buckets of compost from door-to-door,” he recalls laughing.

After high school it was first to Portugal for a stint at Amorim Cork; and on returning home with a deep understanding of closures and an appreciation for all things delicioso, Martin alighted in Stellenbosch and studied viticulture and winemaking at Elsenburg Agricultural College. His practical year was at Vriesenhof Vineyards under the auspices of South African winemaking legend, Jan Boland Coetzee.

Passionate about fine red wine from the get-go, but with a distinct New World luxury take, Smith further honed his skills by working in the States at Cosentino Winery in California’s Napa Valley for five years, following this with a tenure at Caldwell Winery as well as Newton Winery in Saint Helena, along the way gaining mentorship from some of the world’s most skilled palates, Tim Mondavi and Phillipe Melka included. Then, another five years passed and it seemed that Smith’s story would remain rooted Stateside if he didn’t soon make a move. In his heart he knew he wanted to return to South Africa, it was a feeling he couldn’t shake.

As luck would have it, his friend Phil Freese was the director of Vilafonté (then an American-South African partnership based in the Cape). Smith asked him if he was aware of any opportunities back home. The timing was perfect, after being abroad for over a decade, Smith found himself winging his way back home to take up the position of winemaker at Vilafonté, one of South Africa’s top luxury red wine brands.

After seven years, the inherent restlessness in his nature kicked in and he left the premium winery to pursue his own label, explains Smith: “I needed absolute freedom to ensure the success of Paserene.”

Since then the wines have been consistently acclaimed. The majority of the red grapes hail from a farm in Tulbagh, a sprawling wine and olive estate. Though he is proving his adeptness with syrah, Smith is a self-confessed cabernet sauvignon acolyte and he is a champion of the fine, yet full expression the grape can achieve in the beautiful valley with its icy cold winters and high diurnal swings.

Along with planting programmes at the Tulbagh farm and in the other wards, Smith is working on a number of other projects. On-going is the unique Shiner saga, a vintage-specific wine made from grapes grown in the home vineyard in Franschhoek, which is released in ‘chapters’ written on the label. Famed South African author, Deon Meyer, has composed the latest instalment. Added to this he consults for a number of exciting vineyard projects, among them one in the upper reaches of the Cederberg.

He and his wife Welma, also run boutique winery Atlas Swift, which is based in Franschhoek and focuses on chardonnay.

Calling the region home, the couple have two young children, so-called Irish twins as they were born so close together, and are just two and three-years-old, respectively – and when not as Smith puts it ‘watching babies’ the pair enjoy art, music and nature, particularly mountain biking, ‘we have every baby carrying device you can think of,’ he laughs. Smith is also a bit of a petrolhead and in his quiet moments devotes himself to his car restoration project.

A poet at heart, Smith says another passion is tasting older wines. “I wonder about the hands that make that wine, where are they now, are they still alive? Did it rain a lot that year, was it warm. What cars people drove then? The politics, what were their fears, aspirations were there still a lot of fish in the oceans; was life easier then? Wine is like a time capsule, a liquid photograph. I hope people can taste my wines when I am no longer here”.

- Blog by Malu Lambert