Big Wave Surfing in South Africa

Far from the safe shores of large scale production to sate the thirst of drinkers who neither know nor care what slips down their throats, are a growing and vociferous band of adventurers. Looking for pure adrenaline in vinous form. Forget New Wave South Africa – these guys have been honing their skills for some time and know what they’re doing, it’s just the momentum of the rest of us catching up to this underground movement which is rocking the London wine scene.

Producers are chasing the thrill of terroir from 3 types of granite in the upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, vertical shale in the Witzenberg Mountains, slate and rolled stones in the Breede River, etc etc. Most common phrases heard at the tasting were minimal sulphur, pure expression, meticulous viticulture, dry farmed, low yield bush vines and most of all terroir-focused.

The wines were far from repetitive though with neighbouring tables having very different approaches – Adi Badenhorst (pictured) picking ultra ripe grapes while Jeanine and Mick Craven pick super early compared to others – both estates producing wines full of the minerality (conceptual rather than rational as a tasting note) associated with ‘natural’ winemaking.

The Swartland Revolution is a showcase for the new philosophy seen across the Cape. The first one was in 2010,  and in 2015 the 450 tickets sold out in minutes. Not quite Glastonbury in the early days when tickets were £1 and included milk from the farm but with the same sort of underground thrill and hippy community feel.

One of the more experienced of this vanguard, Callie Louw, is a large, smiley, bearded man who determinedly defines himself as ‘just’ a farmer. He is responsible for the grapes for Boekenhootskloof and makes one wine himself, Porseleinberg. He uses concrete eggs, whole bunch ferment, prints his labels by hand on a 1940 Heidelberg platen letterpress, has a mixed farming model with hens, cattle and various vegetables. And his extraordinary pure delicious 100% Syrah sells for £75 a bottle. Renaissance farmer, I’d say.

These wines capture the essence of wine and are not bound by their inherent Old World sensibility of respecting and conveying the terroir to the exclusion of the intense fruit concentration they are able to capture with their extravagant sunshine hours. Their very poised balance between the two makes them capable of true greatness.

But I also feel that there’s still a long experimental road ahead before they truly find their zen – winemaking is always an evolution, of course, and right now in the fervour of stripped back intervention some wines show an austerity that belies the generosity of the ideology behind it. This is not a criticism, more noting that this is an exciting time in the development of some legends in the making.

There is a bay in South Africa known as ‘Dungeons’ to the surfing community consisting of a series of reefs. One of these is reputed to be able to hold a 100 foot high wave – should one ever come. Surfers would have to brave these waters by paddling through a deep, dark channel through to where the waves break. Now jet skis can drop you off there but it still takes one assured surfer and one board to ride that perfect 100 ft wave. Who dares?

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