The Fortified Kings of the Karoo

As wine legends go, the pioneering farmers who carved out agricultural land in the Klein Karoo must have been among the bravest and most intrepid. A somewhat unforgiving landscape defined by desert and soaring mountain peaks, dinosaur fossils slumbering some substrata down below, with the sun always hot and relentless. Though in this Mad Max like territory there are oases of green, where crystalline rivers flow, supporting life through the centuries; and ultimately sprouted the crops and homesteads of the early mavericks who first broke this rocky ground.

The history of cultivation dates back to the late 1800s, and some of those original farms not only still stand but are flourishing under generational custodianship, producing still dry wines as well as a range of fortifieds from port-style wines to muscadels.

The vanguard, Carel Nel of Boplaas
Carel Nel is currently working his 42’nd vintage. That’s just how the Nel family operates; they’re all in it for the long haul. Their legacy dates back to 1880, when Nel’s great-great grandfather, Daniel Nel, exported his first consignment of Boplaas Brandy to England. Distilled through the decades this commitment to fine spirits was picked up by Carel: he was the first South African winemaker to craft a certified estate brandy. This was neatly followed by producing high quality port-style wines; a passion that led him to conceive the Cape Port Producers Association, with the aim of maintaining a strict quality level for the category.

The first Boplaas Estate wines were released in 1982 and the SA Champion Port was made in 1986 – straight out of the gate being awarded the title at the National Young Wine Show, one that they have consistently won through the years.

A Cape Wine Master, Carel is also the first and only winemaker from the Southern Cape to become a member of the Cape Winemaker’s Guild, and has been since 1988.

When not racking up the accolades, his focus is on his family. They all work alongside one-another. Carel’s wife Jeanne is the brains, managing the finances and operations. Daughters Margaux and Rozanne work respectively in the winemaking and marketing departments. While son Daniel is the distiller.

It’s clear the Nel family has always been about the long game – to this end, they want to ensure the future of their legacy as well as of the rich biodiversity of their Klein Karoo home, and so have pledged to plant a million carbon-busting spekboom by end of 2025.

 Left: Nel Family

The innovators, Boets Nel & Stroebel Nel of De Krans

The Nels of De Krans Wine Estate in Calitzdorp have been custodians of their land since 1890; it has always been family run.

The current cellar was built in 1964 by Chris Nel and his brother Danie – who by chance planted the first Portuguese grape variety in Calitzdorp in 1973, mistakenly thinking tinta barocca was shiraz. What a happy accident it turned out to be, the estate has gone on to win a multitude of awards for their Cape Ports (and wines), including the recent global honour when Tim Atkin MW scored the 2015 De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve 96 points in his 2017 South African Report.

The many accolades (over 700!) have ensured their position as fine Cape Port producers, giving them room to innovate and play. The brothers started talking about making a port suited to South Africa’s warm climate. Looking to the popularity of rosé wines worldwide, they had a light bulb moment. The idea was to create something similar to a White Port but more fruit-forward. In 2007 they made their first Pink Port, which has been widely well received. They also made the first Moscato Perlé wine in South Africa in 2012.

The success of this estate lies in its commitment to people, both to the generational family ties as well as to the long-time permanent employees. During lockdown when the farm’s bistro and tasting room were both closed that ever-present light bulb sparked again. As a way to keep their team gainfully employed they started the Blossom Project, whereby the staff makes all kinds of products to sell from old barrels, wine bottles and grapevine stumps, material that was readily available.

 Left: Boets & Stroebel

The new guard, Peter Bayly of Peter Bayly Wines
Along the curve of Nel’s River, deep into the verdant heart of the Groenfontein, you’ll find the Bayly homestead enclosed by towering cliffs, echoing with the whoops of baboons. This dramatic moutainscape circles the vineyards planted to Touriga Naçional, Tinta Barocca and Souzão.

Considering their first harvest was 2004 Peter Bayly may not have the centuries behind him, but he’s got the terroir. He commented: “The soil and climate are virtually identical to parts of the Douro. The grapes here are different to Calitzdorp, it’s has its own microclimate, plus we have more than double the rainfall.”

He also knows how to make world-class port style wines. In his small cellar Peter produces Cape Vintage Port as well as Late Bottled, Cape White Port and a Cape Pink Port. The grapes undergo natural fermentation in “lagares”, which are traditional Portuguese open-fermentation vessels; and are then treaded by foot, followed by manual pigeage, minimal pumping and then maturation in seasoned large volume French oak barrels. The wines are produced in limited volumes and can already rival some of the best in the world.

To the past, the present – and looking ahead into the future; long live the Fortified Kings of the Karoo.

 Left: Peter Bayly


- Blog by Malu Lambert