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Swartland Wines

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Dried autumn vineyards in the Swartland wine region of South Africa. (Courtesy photo)

South African wines have garnered recognition worldwide for decades, mostly produced in the designated Coastal Region near Capetown. While most production comes from known districts like Stellenbosch and Paarl, the wines from Swartland, which have remained below the radar, have seen an emergence and the establishment of a clear identity.

North of Cape Town, Swartland is the fourth-largest district yet represents only 11 percent of the total vineyards behind Stellenbosch, Paarl and Robertson. While much of the valley lowlands are planted in wheat, the diverse terroir in the outlying areas include 13,000 hectares with approximately 34 million vines. Compared to other districts, Swartland, which translates to “black land” after the natural grasses that turn black when they dry out, is remote and hot. Still, beginning in 2007, young winemakers took the experience gained in the larger districts to Swartland and began creating a unique style of wine.

Chris Mullineux and his wife Andrea were early pioneers who were attracted to Swartland in 2007. Since then, the winery has produced some of the most acclaimed releases in all of South Africa.

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Chenin blanc is the prevalent white varietal in South Africa, where most of the terroir enhances its fresh, well-structured qualities. The chenin blanc-dominant Mullineux Old Vine White 2016 adds grenache blanc, viognier, clairette blanche and semillon to the blend. The crisp citrus and spice aromatics open to stone fruits on the palate and a soft but intense spice finish.

Mullineux focuses on syrah, the presiding red varietal in Swartland, and his 50 percent whole-cluster pressed Mullineux Syrah 2015 from seven vineyards reveals a perfumed bouquet with a rich mouthfeel, balanced acidity and soft, healthy tannins throughout.

While chenin blanc, at 19 percent, is the most abundant white varietal, the supporting cast is a profile of others from many parts of Europe. One example is the Badenhorst White 2015 that blends chenin blanc, roussanne, marsanne, grenache blanc, viognier, clairette blanche, verdelho, grenache gris, semillon and palomino to create a much softer wine with nutty, fruit flavors. Another example, the moderately priced, highly rated Terre Brûlée Chenin Blanc 2017 from 40-year-old vines grown in decomposed granite soil is aged in both stainless and wooden tanks. The layered flavor profile combines the typical crisp qualities with a rich mouthfeel.

Sixty percent of Swartland wines are red varietals, including syrah, cabernet sauvignon, pinotage, merlot, cinsault, pinot noir, cabernet franc, carignane and mourvedre.

Painted Wolf Guillermo Pinotage 2014. (Courtesy photo)

With the growth of South African wines, there seems to be new bias against pinotage, once an abundantly produced varietal. However, Jeremy Borg’s Painted Wolf Guillermo Pinotage 2014 has changed that, and a percentage of all profits support preservation of the endangered “Lycaon Pictus,” commonly known as the South African painted wolf. This organically certified wine has an earthy bouquet with deep plum and red fruit flavors.

Some uncommon Swartland red wines include the Three Foxes Mourvedre 2016 from select low-yield, shale soil vineyards in the Malmesbury ward that expresses perfumed, earthy aromatics and a meaty quality to the red fruit flavors. Another release, the Memento Grenache 2014, with some carignane added, originates from bush vines grown in deep sandy soil. Aromas of dried flowers and spice are followed by deep red fruit flavors and a crisp acidity.

With numerous ratings in the mid-90s, the highly concentrated Savage Red 2016, a blend consisting of syrah (81 percent), grenache (11 percent) and cinsault (8 percent), has perfumed aromas and rich fruit and spice along the finish, flavors that will continue to mature in the bottle.

To ensure sustainable quality and increased recognition to the region, winegrowers have formed the Swartland Independent Producers, setting standards intended to preserve the identity of local wines. They have required that wines be created naturally with no nutrients added, that new wood barrels be limited to 25 percent, that 80 percent of production be under the winemakers’ own label and that only Burgundy bottles be used.

Those seeking to expand their repertoire at reasonable prices should seek out releases from Swartland that incorporate familiar European varietals that pair well with their dry, warmer climate and diverse soil-types. They are easy to find and worth the effort.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at sfewine@gmail.com.

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