South Africa 2019 – The Vagabonds

This is part I of a multi-part series from South Africa. Link to part II at bottom of page.

The traditional career path for a winemaker has been to progress through the ranks via numerous winemaking roles, often ending up within the corporate structure of a large winery. Some will eventually decide to go it alone, but that means seeking investment to buy vineyards, build a winery, and establish a brand; the winemaker is rarely the money behind the operation, so seldom gets to call all the shots.

Blank BottleThere has been a small but growing trend for winemakers to take a different route, diverting from this pathway to explore something much smaller scale and more personal. Almost invariably these are experienced winemakers who have paid their dues as employees of bigger concerns, but whose passion drives them to do their own thing. How? By not owning vineyards, and not even a winery.

This model depends on them using contacts and knowledge to source the fruit they want from growers they know, then making their wine in borrowed or shared facilities, sometime with little more than a couple of tanks and few barrels in the corner of a larger cellar. For a new wine brand start-up costs are much lower, but risks equally high.

The phenomenon is certainly not unique to South Africa, and such vagabond winemakers now operate across the globe. But the Cape does seem to boast more than its fair share from this tribe, many of whom I caught up with on my February 2019 visit. A lot of them also happened to be young, and female. That’s a huge change since my first trip to this stunningly beautiful country back around the millennium, when the scene consisted entirely of more corporate businesses with wines being made by middle-aged men. Make no mistake: some of South Africa’s best wines and greatest winemakers still fit that latter description, but the change over 20 years has been radical.

It’s all about the vines

South Africa emerged from the apartheid era only 25 years ago. As international trade embargoes came tumbling down, the industry once again found itself operating, and competing, on the world stage. It embraced the opportunity with zeal, and the decades since have seen the Western Cape as one of the most dynamic wine regions in the world. New vineyard areas have sprung up, explorers have delved into little known corners to find patches of old vine material, new wineries have emerged and plenty of young winemakers have entered the scene.

Old VinesIt’s those old vines that have inspired most of the vagabonds. Up in the Swartland, pioneers like Eben Sadie realised that in remote corners, some only accessible by 4×4, ancient unirrigated bush vines survived. This is a hot, dry part of the Cape, and these hardy bush vines yield smaller bunches and berries, meaning there is natural concentration. The Swartlanders inspired winemakers all over the Cape to reconsider how they used fruit from their oldest vineyards, and to seek out old vine plots across the region. Andre Morgenthal of South Africa’s Old Vines Project says there are 2,621 hectares of vineyards that are at least 35-years old in the Cape, but estimates that only around 7% have been identified, separated, and tended specifically to make identifiable wine brands; the rest still disappears off into bigger blends, or even for distillation.

The Vagabond Life

The vagabonds love this potential, utilising, or maybe even discovering for themselves, plots of old vines which they nurture into site-specific, terroir-driven wines. Most are firmly non-interventionist, if not verging on ‘natural wine’ sensibility, with vineyards tended with minimal use of chemical sprays, ferments invariably with wild yeasts, low sulphur regimes and new barrels are anathema. Are all making great wines? Well, clearly there is variation, but overall, following the trail of South Africa’s vagabonds will yield fantastic results and some of the country’s most interesting wines.

Many of these winemakers have now found success beyond the very small niche where they began. Though the tendency is still not to own vineyards, which retains the flexibility to source interesting parcels of fruit wherever they find them, some now have substantial businesses and supplying demand means they have acquired their own cellars, maybe even some vineyards or others leased on longer term contracts which they can manage on the ground. These are the grown-up vagabonds I guess, but as you will see in the portraits below, their philosophy hasn’t changed all that much.

Crystallum and Gabriëlskloof

Finlayson, Niemann, WesselsMy previous visit to Crystallum was to the relatively shambolic farm shed that Peter-Allan Finlayson shared with Chris Alheit, another confirmed vagabond. The pair created something of a shock-wave in the SA industry from this cramped cellar, their low-intervention, low volume wines gaining global fame and high prices, presumably to the bewilderment of more established players. Right: Peter-Allan, Marelise Niemann of Momento and Craig Wessels of Restless River.

I confess to some surprise when I heard a couple of years later that Crystallum had moved lock, stock and barrels to Gabriëlskloof, a large, modern winery in Bot River, where Peter-Allan would also take on the position of winemaker. I had found the Gabriëlskloof wines to be good, if slightly soulless in style, so Peter-Allan’s appointment was clearly intended to change that, but it was also a logical move: Crystallum needed the additional capacity, and Gabriëlskloof is also owned by Peter-Allan’s father-in-law.

Peter-Allan has been bringing more of his personal philosophy to the wines of Gabriëlskloof, including a bit of vagabonding with new wines from vineyards in other areas, but Gabriëlskloof has also become something of vagabond central, with a clutch of other small, family producers making their wines there, including two of the three below. Gabriëlskloof and Crystallum are imported by Liberty Wines.

Read tasting notes on four wines from Crystallum and Gabriëlskloof

(2019) From the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, made in an old Vaselin press with lots of oxygen, fermented in a foudre using wild yeasts. Gorgeous vanillin smoothness and oatmeal and crushed almond, a creamy apple fruit beneath, a touch of flint. The palate overflows with sweet, ripe nectarine, that superb juiciness and ripeness cut by a shimmering acidity into a long, layered finish.
(2019) Again from the Hemel-and-Aarde Ridge, made with 50% whole clusters from a vineyard on heavy clay with iron. Wild fermented. Just fabulous nose, the exotic spices of the oak and the Pinot fragrance of flowers and seasoning, totally inter-twined, the palate flowing and fresh with red fruits and a hint of rhubarb tart and bittersweetness, lots of tension and drive, but in the most elegant way.
(2019) In this bottling 60% whole cluster were used, again wild fermented, and from a vineyard on rocky shale and a warmer site that for the Cuvée Cinema. The extra ‘weight’ seems apparent here, with a richer, slightly more ripe berry fragrance, and there is a lovely spices and plumskin character, lots of chocolate and darker spices, and a long, long finish, a touch of Negroni bitters in the finish.
(2019) Much fuller and more ripe than the Restless River Cab Sauvignon (tasted alongside and which is a bit of a Cab Franc lookalike), 20% whole clusters were used and the wine aged only in larger oak. Creamy and ripe fruit, a certain density to the aroma, lots of spices and elegant tobacco, touched by Cab Franc leafiness. The palate has such juiciness married to dryness, really dry, but not at all over-extracted, with great, tangy fruit-skin bite and energy.

Close tasting notes

Momento

Next up from the Gabriëlskloof collection is Momento, where Marelise Niemann (centre of picture above) crafts her very individual wines with superb precision. “I like a linear, taut style,” she tells me and the proof of that is in each glass. Having made wines at nearby Beaumont, not far from Gabriëlskloof in the Bot River, Marelise may not have moved far, but her passion for making wines from small, old-vine vineyards was ignited by working alongside other key vagabond figures like Donovan Rall in Swartland and Eben Sadie, including a winemaking stint in Priorat which cemented her love for Grenache.

This small range still has an intensely personal feel to it; an honesty and somehow a suggestion that these carefully considered wines have also sprung from Marelise’s soul. There’s no truck with new oak, and the style is for low extraction and modest alcohol, the small range centred on old, dry-farmed vines with Grenache from Swartland and Paadeberg, though she is excited about the potential for Bot River Grenache which is about to come on stream. Momento is imported into the UK by Armit.

Read tasting notes on three wines from Momento

(2019) Around 19% Verdelho, from Swartland, and Chenin from Swartland old vines with a little from Bot River. Natural yeast and very little intervention. Older oak, large barrels. Very little oak influence, just a touch of almondy undertone. Nice spices here, touches of ash and tobacco, touches of clove and wheat beer. Lovely pure, light and fresh lemon and lime fruit. There is lovely sweetness here, like the juiciest orange or lime, into a long, lightly spicy finish.
(2019) From Paarl vineyards on the Swartland border. A more creamy, slightly more plush character, though that is from the vineyard and lees, as there’s no oak influence here. There is such lovely sweet sweet, ripe apple and pear, but like the Chenin/Verdelho, there is such freshness, running mountain stream clarity to the acid and mouthfeel. Plenty of spice, herby characters and a touch of tensioning tannin.
(2019) Made with 30% whole bunches and very little interference to allow the natural extraction without too much force. Marelise thinks this is the best grape in South Africa. Dryland bush vines in Swartland, though there is also Botriver coming on stream, and a little in this blend. Light, elegant perfume, some nuttiness and dry reducurrant fruit. There is terrific crunch here, with spicy orange peel and clove, but that run of dry, small red berries carries through it. A leaner, more taut style, but I really enjoyed this.

Close tasting notes

Restless River

Technically, Restless River does not lie within the ‘vagabond’ category, because this small estate has its own vineyards in Hemel-en-Aarde and its own winery. But my meeting with the vagabonds above was in the home of Craig Wessels (right of picture above) and his wife, Anne, so they obviously see the synergy. Indeed, even the house gave clues to the Wessels’ vagabond souls, with its gallery-like ambience filled with artefacts and mementos that clearly form part of a vagabond mentality.

Restless River has some of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon in the Hemel-en-Aarde, which is perhaps not so surprising as it’s a variety most would not consider in this cool region where Pinot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc dominate. The farm is only 5k from the Atlantic Ocean, and its vineyards at 870ft lower the mean temperature another couple of degrees. But Craig embraces the ‘green’ aspects this fruit gives to his Cab, differentiating it from the chocolaty blockbuster style of many.

Chardonnay is possibly the variety that has got most of the attention thus far, made in an old Vaselin press “and fully oxidised so the juice goes through a stage of being almost black,” says Craig. Whole bunches are pressed, wild yeasts used, and no sulphur is added during winemaking. Restless River wines are imported into the UK by Swig.

Read tasting notes on three wines from Restless River

(2019) Also made in the old Vaselin press, fully oxidised. Several picks through the vineyard on thick clay soils, with a bit of elevation. Whole bunches, no sulphur added during winemaking, and no malolactic. Wild yeast, and only around 5% of the 500-litre oak is new, plus around 7% made in amphora. Such a beautifully subtle, lightly kaolin and earthy character, that oatmeal touch to the orchard fruit, such lovely fragrance. The fruit so opulent and sweet on the palate, but the apple skin tang of the orange and lime.
(2019) Grown on shale in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Only picked the south facing side of each vine for the cool fruit, leaving the rest for the farmer. No punch downs or temperature control. Seven months in old wood. Very pale colour, a very pure perfume here, a super light blackcurrant fruitiness, that pastille character comes from two thirds of the wine being made with carbonic maceration perhaps, the final third natural ferment. Cherry and blackcurrant pastille fruit, so pretty, sweet and light, just great acidity but tannins so chalky and fine, and everything so gentle.
(2019) From the two single vineyards named on the label, just released after four years, two in older barrels and two in bottle. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and a singular wine from an area where this variety is rarely seen. A fascinating nose, with touches of camphor and green, green fig, that austerity and touch of ashy , dry smokiness, but the black fruit is there. Lovely palate, marrying that austerity with a rich, fully ripe and sweet blackcurrant core, a softening underpinning from the barrel and spices, but such fine tannins and cool, clean acidity.

Close tasting notes

Thorne & Daughters

john seccombeVery much a family affair, John and Tasha Seccombe are inveterate vagabonds, sourcing old vine fruit from across the Western Cape, often with the guidance of vineyard guru Rosa Kruger. They have also made their production at a number of cellars since they set up in 2012, including at Alheit and Almenkerk, before settling-in at Gabriëlskloof.

John Seccombe (pictured) studied winemaking at Plumpton College in England during a period living in the UK (which also included a stint as front-of-house at Edinburgh’s Oloroso restaurant), and he says they are “looking to make wines that tell a story, not wines that shout and bang a drum.” As well as helping to look after their eponymous daughters, John also works the harvest in Alsace every year with Julien Schaal. There’s a delightful lightness of touch and intelligent use of oak in these finely-balanced wines. Thorne & Daughters is imported into the UK by Dreyfus Ashby.

Read tasting notes on two wines from Thorne & Daughters

(2019) From the Cape of Good Hope this is old vine Roussanne, Chenin, Semillon, Clairette Blanche and Chardonnay. Beautiful oak treatment here, that creaminess and light toast, the natural ferment character adding a lovely spicy and funky touch.  The palate has a surprisingly fresh and direct lemony fruit. Lovely light touch, shimmering with bold citrus flavours, lovely grip but not phenolic.
(2019) Weighing-in with only 12.5% ABV, this fruit comes from a 1964 vineyard in the Swartland. Really lovely Brazil nut character, but lots of funkiness, the butter and lanolin beneath, some floral elegant hints and although only 12.5%, no sign of greenness, just a terrific acidity that is tangy and salty. Beautifully balanced.

Close tasting notes

Saurwein

Jessica SauerweinJessica Saurwein has been in the wine business for several years, but though qualified as a winemaker, has been on the production side only since her 2015 maiden vintage. Prior to that she was Marketing Manager for wine estates in Stellenbosch, but the call to make her own wines led her to begin this tiny and very personal project – there are only around 2,000 bottles produced of her top ‘Nom’ Pinot Noir. The initial release from the high altitude Kaaimansgaat vineyard near Villiersdorp gained an almost instant cult following. Picture courtesy Charlie Stein.

Since then, the Pinot has been joined by a Riesling, equally delicate and refined, and both bearing gorgeous labels designed by an artist friend. For now, the wines are made in a shared cellar space in Stellenbosch, with a little new French oak for the Pinot, and a very ‘hands-off’ approach in the cellar. Saurwein is imported into the UK by Swig.

Read tasting notes on two wines from Saurwein

(2019) From Elgin fruit on red slate soils, not disimilar to many of the Mosel's great vineyards according to Jessica. This is just - just - off-dry with its 7.5g/l of residual sugar.  Lovely aromatics, perfumed and floral with lots of zippy lemon, the confit lemon and fresher zesty notes set against that almost imperceptible hint of sweetness.
(2019) The vineyard is at 700 metres above sea level in Elandskloof. The vines are 10 years old, and Jessica says it is a very small vineyard. A touch of beetroot earthiness, a nice stalky touch of briar, but a fulsom red fruit beneath. The fruit bursts with sweetness on the palate, beautifully ripe and scented, light spice and cherry compote into a balanced, fresh finish.

Close tasting notes

Natte Valley

Natte ValleyThe historic Natte Valleij farm is situated at the foot of the Simonsberg mountain in Stellenbosch, and though once well-known for its wines and brandies, production ceased in the mid-20th century. In 1969 the former vineyards were eventually replaced by paddocks for a thoroughbred stud business. Today, it operates mainly as a venue for wedding and events, and winelands accommodation, but in 2005 the cellars were revived and winemaking began under the direction of Alex Milner (pictured). Vagabond status is conferred by Alex, who had earlier found success as a professional cyclist, and his obsessive search for old vine Cinsault, the single-minded focus of this operation.

A range of Cinsault and Cinsault blends uses some very old, dry-farmed fruit, doggedly researched and sourced from across the Western Cape including Paarl, Stellenbosch, Swartland and Darling. Winemaking is sensitively tuned to each wine and style, using everything from small French oak barrels, to large foudres, to concrete eggs. Natte Valley is imported into the UK by Indigo Wines.

Read tasting notes on three wines from Natte Valley

(2019) Pronounced 'Natty Falay' according to winemaker Alex, this 12.5% Pinot comes from dryland bush vines planted in 1986. Aged in 2500-litre foudres. Bright and delicate colour. Delightful coffee-touched nose, a beautiful natural sense of concentration to the rounded fruit. The palate has a lovely leafiness to the cherry fruit. Long and delicious.
(2019) The site for this fruit in Darling is not that far from Swartland, but has much more Atlantic influence according to Alex Milner. Aged in concrete eggs, it has a similarly pale colour to the Swartland bottling, raspberry and smokiness, ripe and lithe, a little more weight and texture here, but so lithe and fresh - and equally delicious.

Close tasting notes

Thistle & Weed

This is the personal project of Stephanie Wiid (pictured above with Alex Milner) which she runs along with viticulturist Etienne Terblanche, focused once again on those most interesting parcels of old vines, like the 65-year-old dry-farmed bush vines in Paarl that lie behind the Duwweltjie Chenin Blanc. Paarl is presumably close to Stephanie’s heart, as her day-job is making the wines at Fairview. It’s those old vineyards that have somehow survived the adversity of age, drought and changing fashion that this label is all about – vines that have survived, just like thistles and weeds.

Once again this is a true vagabond story, the well-connected pair behind the label using all the contacts and relationships they have across the Cape to find and secure not only old vine Chenin, but comparative Cape rarities like Tempranillo and Alicante Bouschet, for impressive wines, now only their third vintage since setting out in 2015. Thistle & Weed is imported into the UK by The Wine Society.

Read tasting notes on three wines from Thistle & Weed

(2019) From bush vines planted in 1956, this was whole bunch pressed, only the free run juice was used for natural fermentation in 3rd-fill French oak barrels. Natural style, with that hint of funk and light earthiness, lightly nutty. Lots of sour and juicy apple. Very nice fruit that becomes sweet like Mandarin and even nectarine, fully ripe, but that dry savoury acidity punches through and balances beautifully.
(2019) Stellenbosch fruit from a vineyard planted in 1982, and this has a lovely sense of warmth, a little toffee note, the ripeness here steps up a gear, with nectarine lusciosness as well as that lemon rind grip and plenty of zest. A multi-layered wine of great texture and flavour.
(2019) Coastal Region wine, from 1980s vineyards in Stellenbosch and Pearl. A deeply coloured, powerful wine, plenty of substantial presence, slightly meaty nose, a touch of green-tinged dry and ashy character, with lots of sweet fruit, touched with a leafy, savoury character in the finish. The blend is 30/70 Alicante and Tempranillo.

Close tasting notes

The Garajeest

Garajeest wineYet another example of South Africa’s new wave of younger women controlling their own winemaking destiny, Callan Williams is still in her 20s and runs The Garajeest using rented cellar space in Somerset West. Her bottlings are named in honour of musical heroes, and are highly personal – right down to information labels that are rolled and hand-tied around the neck of each bottle.

A thoroughly modern wine brand, Callan uses social media extensively to market her products, rather than traditional marketing, and everything is pitched around her love of music. ‘Jim’ Semillon is an homage to Jimi Hendrix, while no prizes for guessing the inspiration behind her ‘Bruce’ Cabernet Franc. Those two wines are the extent of the range for now, grapes sourced from the cool Elgin Valley where Callan has experience working for Iona Estate. Two quirky choices of variety (Elgin is the land of Riesling, Sauvignon, Pinot and Chardonnay), but that fits the Garajeest brief perfectly. The Garajeest is imported into the UK by Red Squirrel Wines.

Read tasting notes on two wines from The Garajeest

(2019) Lovely waxy, lemon rind quality, lanolin and hints of butteriness in this cool Elgin Semillon. There is a creamy smokiness too in the background from some French oak. Packed with orange and orange blossom notes, that sheer and dry lemony acidity drives this lovely wine.
(2019) A really fruity and deep Cab Franc from Elgin, aged in older French oak. Silky deep fruit, fabulous black fruit depth with a touch of resinous, almost Porty ripeness and lift, but has lots of umami savoury character, and such a svelte, sweet finish and silky texture.  Also tasted was the 2016, which was perfumed and dark, with a bittersweet cocoa slickness. Possibly one point better.

Close tasting notes

Erika Obermeyer

Erika ObermeyerAfter many years making the wines at Graham Beck (which has since abandoned still wine production), Erika Obermeyer hitched up her wagon and joined the vagabond set. It wasn’t until after our dinner and tasting together that I learned she had also overcome tremendous adversity in that time with corneal transplants in both eyes, a progressive generic condition meaning her sight had diminished to only around 10%. Right: Erika raises a glass as we tuck into superb steaks at Stellenbosch’s Fat Butcher.

Erika’s mantra fits the vagabond ethos: “to create wines which authentically express South Africa’s unique vineyard sites and exceptional diversity,” and she is doing it with style, awarded ‘Newcomer of the Year’ for 2019 by Platter’s guide, and two of her wines achieving the coveted five-star rating. I thought these were terrific, vibrant wines, very detailed but balanced for sheer enjoyment. Not yet available in the UK.

Read tasting notes on five wines from Erika Obermeyer

(2019) Dry farmed vineyards in Darling are the source for this pleasing wine with its herbal note - soft, elegant green leafy herbs rather than vegetal - with a touch of limey fruit. Really nice texture and then a flood of ripe fruit, but loads of zesty lime and terrific acidity not clashing with the fruit, but steely to finish.
(2019) Some oak on this, but otherwise broadly similar in its style - but everything notched up: creamy, intense, luxurious, but dazzling fruit. More delicately oaked than a typical Pessac, which it reminds me of, but more vibrant and vivacious too. Again from Groenkloof in Stellenbosch.
(2019) 25-year-old bush vines here, and the blend is 40% unoaked, the rest was aged in large French barrels. Lovely colour again, aromas slightly meatier, coffee-touched, but that exotic spice and floral perfume does come through. A richer, sweeter, more rounded fruit character than the Naudé Cinsault tasted alongside, but once again the acid is glorious, spices and bright red fruits into the finish.
(2019) This wine spent 12 months in 300 and 500-litre French oak barrels, 10% new. The fruit comes from Stellebosch and Paarl, and the main component is Syrah (53%), the oldest is 25-year-old bush vine Cinsault (19%). It is meaty and has a touch of cool climate herbaceous lift, pepper, spice and a bright overall picture. Lovely texture and ripe succulent damson and berries. The finish is rich with tobacco and spice, but such a solid fruit concentration.
(2019) This wine, made from 17-year-old vines in Stellenbosch, was matured for 22 months in 300 litre French oak (85% new). Silky and ripe Cabernet, such lovely graphite and delicate cedar on the nose edging the deep pool of supple black fruit. Fabulously sweet cassis, polished tannins, great black cherry acidity and such a long, deliciously svelte wine. World class Cabernet Sauvignon.

Close tasting notes

Naudé Wines

Ian NaudeIs Ian Naudé an unlikely vagabond? Well, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying he is one of the tribal elders with over 30 years of winemaking experience behind him, but vagabond? Well, tell me who is better qualified having made wine in the USA, Germany, France, Italy and Israel, to name but a few. Established only in 2017, his own label is all about the vineyards once more, Ian again working with Rosa Kruger of the Old Vines Project.

Sourcing fruit from quite literally across the Western Cape – Elgin, Stellenbosch, Paarl, Darling, Swartland – I loved the finesse and delicacy, the freshness and luminosity, the 12% abv Cinsault from 38-year-old bush vines a great example of how a wealth of experience can, in some ways, be forgotten to let the vines speak for themselves. Naudé’s wines are imported into the UK by Dreyfus Ashby.

Read tasting notes on five wines from Naudé Wines

(2019) Chenin, Semillon, Sauvignon, part of the Chenin Blanc and the Semillon were fermented in new French Oak. Ian says "13 years after bottling, this wine has finally entered its ideal drinking window." Delicious creaminess and the Sauvignon (only 9%) not too green, giving this lovely ripeness and rich texture.
(2019) Durbanville, Stellenbosch and Swartland are the sources for this Chenin, with an average vineyard age 42. Old 500-litre barrels and wild yeasts for fermentation. Dry, lightly nutty and citrussy, the palate super dry with pithy dry acidity, lemon and buttery toffee,  but fresh citrus into a seamless, long finish.
(2019) Durbanville and Stellenbosch fruit, vines aged between 35-55 Years. Eight months in French, older barrels. Creamy and waxy lanolin notes, the palate full textured and leesy, rich, a lovely fat lemon acidity and fine lime leaf and floral notes flitting about as it develops. Lovely.
(2019) From a single 38-year-old vineyard in Darling aged in old French barrels. Fabulous perfume, vanilla and cream yes, but the florals are all there, some violet and rose petal, a slight nuttiness in the background. Pomegranate juice on the palate, cherry and the smokiness and touch of rhubarb and bitters acidity is lovely. Long with good structure even though light and elegant.
(2019) From vneyards in Paardeberg. Bright cherry lips and candy floss, backed up with Grenache dry nuttiness, complex, the oak toasty beneath and a touch of meat. The racy acidity is glorious on the palate, savoury orange, Aperol orangey bitters, peppery spice then excellent red fruit. Lovely freshness and cherry brightness.

Close tasting notes

Intellego Wines

Jurgen, IntellegoWhere would Swartland be without its Vagabonds, and where would the Vagabond ‘movement’ be without Swartland? Jurgen Gouws epitomises the philosophy, farming organically, nodding towards natural wines, a hands-off approach in the winery while being totally focused on the vineyard. And if you think that story is now becoming slightly over-familiar, remember that the flip side of that coin is the more conventional/industrial approach to winemaking that still accounts for the vast majority of the world’s output.

Jurgen buys his fruit from trusted farmers, some where he grows the grapes himself, and all either organically or biodynamically grown. He says he is endlessly seeking small parcels of vines to make often experimental wines, white, red and orange. He currently owns no vineyards and has no cellar of his own, but has been building his brand for a decade now, citing summers spent in his grandfather’s vineyards in the Eastern Cape as the source of his passion for farming and wine. Intellego Wines are imported by Caves de Pyrène.

Read tasting notes on two wines from Intellego Wines

(2019) All sourced from organic or biodynamic farms, a deep pink colour, more light red. Pressed into 500 litre barrels. Interesting meaty perfume, small dry red berries. There is some sweetness on the palate, and a bite of cherry and some wild garrigue notes, finishing with dry acids slicing through the cherry and pretty fruit. A blend of 72% Syrah and 28% Cinsaut in this vintage.
(2019) From two vineyards of dry land Chenin Blanc bush vines, planted in 1980 and 2002. Fermented and aged in small and large oak barrels, this has sweet earth on the nose and sour lemon and lemon rind fruit. The palate is all about orange and clove, the skin-contact giving grip and a real whip of acidity and tannin finishing very briskly and racily.

Close tasting notes

Rall Wines

Donovan RallWinemaker Donovan Rall (left of picture, with David Sadie), is a giant of a man, with an ear-to-ear grin and mop of surf-bleached hair who epitomises the spirit of the Swartland vagabonds. Making tiny productions of just a few barrels of each of his cuvées, fruit sourced from around the region. After graduating with a Viticulture and Oenology degree from Stellenbosch University in 2005, then working harvests around the world over in the next few years, he returned to South Africa in 2007 working for Eben Sadie, before setting up on his own one year later.

A self-confessed lover of Mediterranean varieties, and of schist (slate) soils in particular, the soils and climate of Swartland are perfect, along with old bush vines providing not only Chenin Blanc, but Cinsault, Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Verdelho and more. Winemaking is in a natural mould with long skin contact for whites and fermentation and ageing in older oak and concrete eggs, and constant experimentation. Quantities really are tiny, and the wines fairly difficult to source. Imported by Indigo Wines.

Read tasting notes on four wines from Rall Wines

(2019) A fascinating mutation of Cinsault, not a blanc de noirs, made with skin contact and fermented in amphora, this is lovely with creaminess and a touch of light dusty earth, fine crisp palate, still has weight and texture and a lovely lemon confit finish, long and distinctive.
(2019) Chenin from granite, Verdelho and a touch of Viognier. All fermented in old oak, mostly big barrels, though the Chenin in older 225l barriques. There’s a bittersweet character here, and lots of juicy apple skin and firm pear flesh. Lots of lemony acidity, lemon jelly softness yet good acid bite.
(2019) In the blend 60% comes from a 1992 Swartland vineyard, fermented in concrete, the rest from a 1982 Darling vineyard fermented in barrel. A nice coffee and cream note to the soft, spicy, lightly truffle character, the palate also soft in terms of the creamy berry fruit, but there’s a real firmness to tiny dry berries, but that spice, fine, tannins and a surge of clean lemony acidity. Lovely.
(2019) Syrah is foot-trodden as whole bunches, and spends 11 months in old barrels. very composed, rounded character, with a touch of cool-climate herbaceousness, a touch of meatiness, the palate streaking with firm acidity and the rustic bite of the tannins; not rough, but grippy and tart like plum skins. Long and well balanced, a substantial yet elegant wine. Only 900 bottles made.

Close tasting notes

Life Beyond the Vagabonds?

I guess the question is, when is a Vagabond not a Vagabond? In part two of this feature based on my trip around South Africa in February 2019 I will feature several other hip and happening individual winemakers, like Trizanne Barnard of Trizanne Signature Wines, Sam O’Keefe of Lismore, Pieter Walser of BLANKBottle, and the rest of the Swartland crew. These are winemakers who embody plenty of the vagabond spirit, but who now have wineries, or their own vineyards, or who have a level of production and global distribution that has – arguably – moved them into a category of ‘vagabond+’.


Go to Part II – Beyond the Vagabonds

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  1. Great article Tom. I feel so privileged to have attended tastings with quite a few of these vagabonds, some quite cosy and personal, like a private tasting with Ian Naude. Needless to say purchases were made. The Garajeest is another favourite, as is Thorne and Daughters – all taking up space in my wine rack. Sorry you didn’t include Johan Meyer and the orange wine brigade but maybe that’s a separate post. Glad you enjoyed your visit. Love your writing.

    1. Cheers Ellen, and glad you enjoyed it. Very envious of you having access tonallof that in beautiful South Africa. Didn’t meet Johan this time, but loads more producer profiles and wines to come in parts 2, 3 and 4!

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