The importance of visiting vineyards

Friday, November 29th, 2013

What with wineries today offering all manner of attractions to lure you into their tasting rooms, sometimes I think we, the consumers, forget about the simplest pleasure of a winery visit: the vineyards.
If you taste a wine that excites you, and you have the opportunity, you really should walk down its vineyard rows, look at the shoots, the bunches, the soil; breathe the air, swat the flies, feel the sun hot on your neck as it ripens the grapes; just take it all in. It’s not always possible and, in the end, only a small percentage of a wine’s drinkers will get to visit its birthplace, but the joy of such a pilgrimage is not to be underestimated.

Compared with many other products that are afforded so many words in their description – books, sculptures, paintings, films, plates of Michelin-starred food – the source is not always helpful. Where there is a creator – a chef, painter or writer – the creativity comes from the inside. From her mind, from his imagination. We can look at the tools, we can watch them work, but we will always be othered from their creative spark. Not so with wine.

Of course the creative centre of winemakers is just as out of reach as those other artists but their real palette is the vineyard.

Look, let’s stop for a second before you think I am making too much of this. A trip to a vineyard is not going to open some secret winetasting magic power. Looking at the orderly lines of a trellised vineyard or a hodge-podge of gnarled bush vines is not necessarily going to give you any insight into the wines produced from them. But sometimes it does. Sometimes there is a connection between you, the vines and the wine. It’s happened to me quite a bit, twice recently. When I taste these wines, I am taken back to the vineyard. I smell the air, feel the heat, see the view, and the atmosphere of the place rushes back with each sip. It is a part of winetasting that is as far from competitions, blind tastings, stars and politics as Wall Street is from a group of hippies meditating on Noordhoek beach.

Recently I visited Fable Mountain Vineyards in Tulbagh. It’s run biodynamically by winegrowers Rebecca Tanner and Paul Nicholls, and owned by Charles Banks’ Terroir Capital. It’s a place that exists within nature, rather than on top of it. Walking along dusty tracks between the newly planted vines a donkey passes, baboons bark in the distance and the Witzenberg Mountains rear up and look down on you like a heard of stony elephants. After a long walk around the farm I drank a bottle of Fables’ Night Sky, a blend of Shiraz, Mouvèdre and Grenache. I had had it before but this time its warm richness corresponded somehow to what I seen walking among the vines. The size of the sky, the heat, the buzz of the flies, the dust, and everything in balance.

Then only last week I joined Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards at his single old bush vine Chenin vineyard, Radio Lazarus, on the second highest of the Bottelary Hills. It’s named after the radio tower atop the hill and after Lazarus who, like the vineyard, was raised from the dead.

The view from up top is dramatic. Table Bay, Table Mountain, False Bay, the mountains around Stellenbosch and the distant Swartland all fall under Lazarus’ gaze. Despite the buildings, townships, and smoky industry in full view, the twisted vines planted in 1978 give the place a sense of remoteness. Like an island stuck in time while everything around it storms and changes. The wine itself offers a depth and purity unmatched – in my opinion – by most other Chenins in South Africa. When I taste it, I can feel the slate rocks under my feet. I can see out across the Cape. I can taste a little of our vinous history.

You may be thinking ‘dear lord, what a load of poppycock’. But it is this sort of poppycock that makes wine incredible. That link between product and place, inherent in the idea of wine but so seldom experienced by drinkers of the stuff. It’s not just the taste of terroir that’s important but the feeling of it too.

A wine farm visit can too quickly become about designer tasting rooms, ornamental restaurants, music festivals, biltong pairings, chocolate pairings or art pairings; it’s about trying to get you to buy a branded keyring, bottle opener or apron. Eat all the biltong you like, buy all the openers you want, but don’t forget the vineyards. The next time you are at a farm and you taste a wine that makes your toes curl in delight, see if you can go for a walk in its vineyard. Take your glass with you. Stand among the vines. Sip the wine. Take it all in.

– Harry Haddon