In part I of this report from a tour of South Africa’s winelands in 2019 we looked at the roving winemakers of the Cape. Masters of their own destiny, they often own neither vineyards nor wineries, but source fruit from far and wide and share cellar facilities to make their often tiny productions. Some of the vagabonds have become so established – though certainly not establishment – that they have developed into substantial businesses with global distribution and reputations to match. In part II we look at many of these, the Vagabonds+.
I ended part I of this report by asking the question, “When is a vagabond not a vagabond?” and of course it is a notional distinction in many ways. There are no rules, no parameters, but the winemakers below tend to share certain characteristics: working for themselves, often under their own name rather than a brand, still sourcing interesting parcels of fruit from the far reaches of the Cape’s winelands (even if they now have their own home vineyards), and still restlessly experimenting. They tend to follow a ‘hands-off’ philosophy with their winemaking and, above all, are focused on the vineyard and old vines in particular, which are usually at the heart of the philosophy.
A visit to Pieter Walser’s cellar on the outskirts of Somerset West, in the middle harvest, is fun if a little chaotic. Grapes were arriving continually, but we clambered between the barrels to reach a tasting table crammed with bottles and surrounded by ‘dead soldiers’ – great bottles drunk in the past.
Pieter started making his own wine when he left Stellenbosch university, literally from a garage. That was 15 years ago, “for a bit of fun.” He had previously worked vintages in France and the USA whilst travelling, which is presumably where he got the wine bug. He sold his wines without labels for two and a half years, highly illegal (as he claims not to have known) and remembers the day a police raid closed him down. So he re-started properly this time, cheekily branding his fully-labelled bottles as BLANKBottle – though that also ackowledges his refusal to name the varieties in the blend on the labels so that people don’t “judge the book by its cover.”
It’s a bewildering operation of epic vagabond proportions, using 40 different varietals sourced from around 60 vineyards, and releasing around 35 – 40 different labels each year, about half of those new or one-off wines each vintage. In terms of winemaking, all fermentations are spontaneous and there are no additives. “That’s just practicality,” he says. “The wines would begin to ferment on their own, so I decided it was a waste of my time to interfere.” Managing logistics is a priority, but Pieter splits juice and newly made wines between all the vessels (steel tanks, concrete eggs, clay pots, big and small barrels) with no clear plan at that stage of what he’ll do with them. “It’s like Lego,” he says, as he constructs each wine, sans recipe, year by year. Just don’t get him started on the stories behind the wine names. BLANKBottle is imported by Swig.
(2019) Chenin and Viognier is the blend. Lovely, racy, mineral and fruit-skin and chalky aromas, and a touch of tobacco and light spice. In the mouth it has spicy, very fresh lemon and crunchy apple fruit, it is also long with a tangy grapefruit and salt finish that is hugely appealing.
(2019) Funky pea-pod character; not a bright pea-shoot character, but something a little more deep and vegetal from Sauvignon and Semillon. A touch of earthiness and tobacco again. The palate has a really dry, pithy lemon dryness and agility. No stockists of this listed at time of review.
(2019) From Swartland fruit, the funkiest, toasty nose, a touch of marmalade in this old Chenin, just a beautiful fruit sweetness and precision on the palate, but flooded with flavour but that precision of salts and minerals and the wild ferment touch of funkiness and tobacco. Again, no retail availabilty at time of reveiw.
(2019) Stellenbosch fruit for this release - Verdelho, Roussanne, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. Lots of fruit sweetness and ripeness, seemingly a little more traditional, but has that element of funk.
(2019) Clairette, Chenin, Verdeho, Palamino. Named after a professor who wired Pieter up to brain and skin sensors to measure sub-conscious reactions as he tasted scores of barrel samples. They came back with his ‘ideal’ wine based on the readings. Seeds and nuts and loads of zesty lemon and apple, but dry and salty too, that saline character, a sour tanginess that is mouth-watering. Just lovely.
(2019) 100% Riesling from Elgin, trained up a single pole as is common in Mosel and other parts of Germany. Beautifully clear and expressively Riesling, the florals and crunchy apple, the palate dry and mineral, but a lovely refinement. Sweet and concentrated fruit, that streaking pithy lemon acidity. Lovely wine.
(2019) Named in memory of the famously cheap and cheerful 'Tassenberg' red wine, one of Pieter's earliest wine memories. It is made from Cinsault grown in Breedekloof, very pale in colour, with a fine, slightly nutty, but crunchy fresh fruit, a little bit of a Beaujolais character, that Beaujolais like quality of bright, super-pure fruit again. Deliciously easy to drink.
(2019) Cinsault and Shiraz. A smokiness and savoury cherryish character: a compote of tea and cherry. A ripe, beautifully sweet and creamy style, open and relatively opulent, but feather-light too and delicious.
(2019) Grenache, Pinot Noir and Cinsault mainly sourced from Swartland and Elgin. Aromatic with savoury leather and a touch of truffle and morel mushroom, lovely dark fruit and succulence, a touch of chocolate in the finish. Yes, the name means 'family murder', from a case of seriously mistaken scenario that made headlines in the local press, when Pieter 'buried' his young son in a freshly dug sandpit, but neighbouring children spotted and reported a 'crime scene' leading to a massive police response.
(2019) Sourced from old vines in Paardeberg, Paarl, close to the Swartland border, this is organic Shiraz, 80% whole bunch-pressed. This has juiciness and jammy ripe fruit character to loads of chocolate richness and ripeness. So bold and full flavoured, smooth tannins and acidity, and another cracking wine.
(2019) This is Cabernet Franc from Stellenbosch. It shows a touch of higher, aromatic floral notes and meatiness, a little olive and a touch of funkiness. Fine, savoury palate, lots of dry tannic character.
(2019) From six vineyards spread from sea level to 800-metre altitude up at Ceres in Swartland. Much more solid fruit ripeness with glossy black berries it seems, compared to the Home Truth Cab Franc certainly. A lovely mouth-filling elegance, lots of cherry and blueberry tartness and acidity giving it loads of cut and energy.
Close tasting notes
Trizanne Signature Wines
Trizanne Barnard was one of the first women winemakers in the Cape to stamp her own name on her business, launching TSW in 2008. Confidence to do so was perhaps inspired by the success of the wines she had been making at Anwilka, though also from global winemaking stints from Margaret River, to Alsace, to the Douro Valley.
The same vineyards in the ultra-cool Elim have been the source of her fruit since the beginning, truly maritime and the most southerly point of South Africa, ferrecrete soils (iron-rich granite) give the minerality that is so evident in her Semillon and Sauvignon-based whites.
In search of diversity, Trizanne also sources fruit for her red wines from Swartland and Darling. Here diverse soils of granite, shale, clay, and slate and warmer temperatures give a whole new palette with which to work. Trizanne’s wines are imported by Alliance Wines.
Read tasting notes on 6 wines from Trizanne Signature Wines
(2019) From Elim fruit, there's a very crunchy apple and Asian pear firmness to the aromas, barely a hint of herbaceous character. The palate has a rosy red apple crunch and juiciness. Loads of mineral saltiness and yes there is a little green streak. Beautifully clear and mouthfilling, but super fresh.
(2019) Barrel-fermented and aged for 10 months in bigger, older oak. Lovely Brazil nut and buttery touches here, the fruit is citrussy with a bit of that melon skin and lime peel, almost waxy character. The palate is taut and juicy, nothing showy here, but that taut, intense character extends to the finish.
(2019) Whole bunches are pressed into barrel for fermentation, followed by 16 months in oak. There's a lovely wild yeast light earth and toast to this, a very dry slightly nutty and herby but not herbaceous character. The bracing, saline character of the palate is delightfully mouth-watering, and though the fruit is fat and lemony, the whole picture is tensioned by that acidity and hint of greenness. Imported by Alliance Wines, but I cannot see a retail stockist at time of review.
(2019) Little bit of Grenache in the blend here, the wine fermenting with wild yeasts in old barrels. Lovely bacon fat note, a touch of game and liquorice, peppery bold red and black fruit beneath. The palate has a powerful concentration, but there is real freshness here, loads of sweet fruit but marinated in a savoury broth. Finishes with plenty of fruit and really precise acidity.
(2019) Elim fruit is the source for this bottling. Very cool climate aromatics with a lovely perfume flitting between game and a floral, violet notes, peppery and herby, but there's a sense of the fruit being ripe and juicy beneath. No new oak. Such a taut, lean profile, pure and ripe fruit, a really lovely cool climate Syrah.
(2019) From sandy soils in a very hot area, picked when ripe, but only 12.5%, so an oxymoron. There's a little bit of reduction, but a minute of swirling opens it up to reveal a savoury tapenade character, lots of super savoury olive and such a salty lick in the acidity of the finish. Brisk tannins and an altogether delightful wine, served nicely cool.
Close tasting notes
Badenhorst Family Wines
One of the original vagabonds, Adi Badenhorst may have his own winery in Swartland, plenty of fruit from his own vineyards, and some fairly large volume wines, but in terms of spirit and ethos, this free-wheeling force of nature still has vagabond running through his veins. A visit to his seemingly chaotic cellar might take in everything from his popular ‘Secateurs’ range to, on this occasion, a Mescal, for which he made a round-trip of 750 miles to harvest just the right blue agave, mashed and cooked in a fire pit, buried just outside the winery.
Badenhorst retains all the original ‘Swartland Revolution’ spirit OK, but it is fair to say he has become one of the father figures of the new South Africa. Since my last visit here, a new cool room has been added to handle incoming fruit, the ability to chill grapes until required meaning “We’re now basically co-fermenting everything,” rather than fermenting and blending different varieties. The cerebral dwarf (honest – it’s a description of himself that he loves) likes to make it all seem like a game: “We know our vineyards really well, but beyond that we don’t really know what we’re f******g doing,” he says. “Old Vines look the same on analysis, but there’s something in the juice. To be honest I don’t know what.”
Still working with lots of small, experimental volumes of 1000 or 1500 bottles, believe the naïf act if you will, but Adi Badenhorst’s wines deliver in spades. Imported by Swig.
Read tasting notes on 4 wines from Badenhorst Family Wines
(2019) From the Klipkop vineyard, planted in 1966, this fermented for 16 months on the lees. It has a nose of melon and lightly waxy citrus skins. The palate burst with juicy, ripe, pear and melon, recently bottled and will settle, but just thrilling orange acidity that is vital and full of energy. Stockist at time of review is for an earlier vintage.
(2019) Steen is the old name for Chenin Blanc in South Africa. A lot more funkiness than the Klipkop, with melon skins, apple cores and a dry character. Absolutely sparkling fruit sweetness and clarity, a great texture and grip here, a bitter almond oil touch to the finish, smooth and long, though concentrated fruit and pith acids balance out in the finish.
(2019) A blend of Shiraz, Grenache, Cinsault and Tinta Barocca from a 1962 vineyard. Beautiful liquorice-rich, dense but bright cherry fruitiness, touches of crimson brightness and then super-silky and smooth onto the palate, slick wth dark blue and red fruit; the dark bittersweet tang of damson and blueberry edged with cherry. A raft of dry tannin, the acid adding extra tension into a long, very pure finish, a touch of rhubarb and beetroot to add a grounding earthiness. Stockist quoted at time of review is for an earlier vintage.
(2019) Just a touch of reduction that blows off really quickly, smooth and elegant, filled wth glossy and bright red fruit, but just that edge of leafiness or earthiness. Sweet, ripe, again a cherry freshness, but a darker core that gives the concentration on the mid-palate and again typical Badenhorst dryness and lithe energy to the finish. Great value at its modest price.
Close tasting notes
David & Nadia
David and Nadia Sadie are the husband and wife viticultrual and winemaking team whose first release under their own name was but a single barrel of wine in 2010, at a time when they still held down day-jobs making wine elsewhere. By 2013 David was devoting all of his time to their eponymous project, joined by Nadia three years later. Today they own vineyards in Swartland, but still source around 50% of their fruit from small plots, mostly of old, dry-farmed bush vines, indeed their Topography range is partly a vehicle to save old vines from being lost.
David describes his vineyards – and those of the growers he works with – as being “Biologically farmed,” going on to explain they are not necessarily organic, but farming is focused on the biological health of the soil. Winemaking follows natural wine philosophies, most whites are fermented on skins, whole-bunch pressed, with minimal sulphur and spontaneous fermentation. Reds again use proportions of whole-bunch fruit, open fermenters and minimal sulphur for fermentation with ambient yeast. Again this is a terrifically impressive portfolio of wines that have complexity and freshness, modest alcohol, and great elegance. Imported by Justerini & Brooks.
(2019) From seven vineyards across the Swartland, all older than 35 years, mostly grown on the granitic Paardeberg mountain. Whole-bunch pressed, matured on the lees in neutral 300-litre barrels, without stirring. There’s some lemon peel and a red apple, juicy character. On the palate, racing with lemon and orange oil bitterness, beautifully off-setting the sweetness of the fruit.
(2019) Chenin blanc (58%), Viognier (14%), Clairette blanche (13%), Sémillon(7%), Roussanne (5%) and Marsanne (3%). Close to a natural wine, though using a bit of sulphur, this saw spontaneous fermentation and ageing in neutral 300-litre barrels, with some skin contact. There’s a real curry-leaf quality, apples and soft almond. The fruit is dry like apricot and a touch of juicier ripe pear. The palate is dry, with thrilling acidity, salty and like apple cores, driving an umami-fresh finish.
(2019) Like all of David & Nadia's wines, this is 'biologically farmed' - not organic but focused ion the biological health of the soil - though in this case half the fruit does come from an organically certified vineyard. Stays on the skins for four weeks, mostly whole bunches, with some natural carbonic fermentation. A year in old oak barriques. Lovely pale colour, cherry ripe with a touch of tobacco and spice. Nice fruit here, dry, nutty and juicy and lithe.
(2019) Carignan(34%), Syrah (33%), Pinotage (14%), Cinsaut (14%) and Grenache (5%). Quite a bold note, with some rhubarb and roibos notes, but the red fruit dances on the aroma. The palate really bright and clear, dry and with a meatiness, but fine tannins and very good acid balance into a long, savoury finish.
Close tasting notes
Lismore Estate Vineyards
The clue’s in the name as to why Sam O’Keefe falls into the post-vagabond category, as her business is firmly centred around her own vineyard estate which she established in 2003, though she has since begun to source fruit from other areas for some cuvées, such is the demand for her wines. Originally from California, Sam chose a very unlikely spot to plant, an area called Greyton over an hour’s drive from the nearest vineyard neighbours, but one which had the perfect terroir for her: a barren site at altitude, with shale soils. She is still a lone voice in this wilderness, where she manages the business whilst bringing up her two young sons.
These are dry-farmed vineyards in the Overberg region, and although there is Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, the Rhône is the main source of inspiration here. Wines are generally made in steel or in large conical oak vats – foudres – though there is a little use of concrete ‘eggs’ for fermentation too. Among all cool-climate wine styles, the northern Rhône’s Condrieu and Côte-Rotie are particular passions, so there is Viognier and Syrah from Greyton naturally, plus younger plantings of Marsanne and Roussanne. Estate-grown wines appear under the ‘Reserve’ label.
(2019) All new oak for this vintage, but larger 500-litre barrels, gives toast and delicate orange blossom, natural ferment adding a little savoury umami grip. The palate floods with fruit and flavour, tangy and vivid, fine mealy texture and a long, delicious finish that is poised and cool.
(2019) A delicate oak treatment, whole bunch pressed prior to a barrel fermentation, then aged 11 months in barriques. No malolactic fermentation. At first not hugely expressive of Viognier, but more floral perfume begins to emerge with swirling, notes of peach and apricot. Very sweet fruit mid-palate, but it retains such lovely peach juice and lime acidity and is delicate and long. Note, stockist quoted at time of review is for an earlier vintage.
(2019) Around 40% whole clusters her, aged in 500-litre barrels, 40% new. Lovely spice and blackberry infusion, a little tobacco and smoke, spicy pepper, cherry and liquorice, some firm damson fruit. The palate has a cool fruit precision, lots of shimmering acid and taut, fine tannins support a big raft of black fruit. Long and pure, such tang and citrus-bright acidity.
Close tasting notes
Richard Hilton Vineyards
Richard Hilton is an unlikely vagabond candidate. Neatly dressed and business-like for our lunch meeting he has neither the beard, shorts, or wine-stained tee-shirt that are the required uniform. Englishman Richard established his business in 2003, focused on Syrah and Viognier. The production is small, Richard rents blocks of vines across the Cape and his philosophy is to harness the complexities of both varietal expression and terroir. As such, the vagabond credentials are sealed.
Richard’s path into wine began when he studied French in Grenoble, where he was apprenticed at Louis Latour, followed by experience at other estates in Burgundy where he also studied wine business. On moving to South Africa in 1996 a career in wine was cemented, working for various wineries before going it alone.
That first vintage in 2003 was Syrah, made from two tons of grapes sourced from Darling on the west coast, where the climate and high composition of decomposed granite in the soils suit this variety. Viognier was added to the range in 2007 (a variety only introduced to the Cape in 1989), and today fruit is still sourced from Darling and from growers in Stellenbosch and Elgin. The wines are made in rented cellar space in Stellenbosch.
Read tasting notes on 4 wines from Richard Hilton Vineyards
(2019) Sourced from the Elgin Valley, this wine is aged in old oak barrels for seven months. Lovely Viognier perfume here, peach, apricot and gently smoky. Full palate, lowish acidity, excellent spice, a lovely clarity here on the white peach spectrum. Not in the UK at time of review.
(2019) Named in honour of the Roman emperor responsible for introducing Viognier to the Rhône Vally apparently, this is a golden-coloured wine, fermented and aged in small barrels (a proportion new). It has biscuit-touched aromas, a slightly bigger style than the Rose Quartz, but not without elegance, smoky and spicy, but a lovely full and succulent mid-palate, loads of sweet fruit and creaminess. Not in the UK at time of review.
(2019) This spends 18 months in older barrels. Good quality, pepper and spice, and a gamy edge to the black fruit. Definitely cool climate in style, lovely roses, touches of black forest fruit and though substantial and full, there's a pleasing edge of freshness running through this.
(2019) Introduced to the range in 2010, and named because of the touch of white Viognier grapes co-fermented with black Syrah grapes, this was aged in French oak for 22 months, around half of the barrels new. The aromas are chocolaty and dark, slicked with vanilla but with light and shade too, a little raspberry, red fruited lift and pepper in the mix. Substantial on the palate again, the intensity is notched up, and it's a wine with good length. Not in the UK at time of writing.