The Swartland is a large agricultural district north of Cape Town, in the Coastal Region of the Western Cape of South Africa’s Wine of Origin system. Far less popular for the tourist crowd that flows steadily through Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Hermanus. The heart of the Swartland is centered between the small towns of Malmesbury, Riebeek-Kasteel, and Riebeek West. The Paardeberg Mountains frame the southern edge of the area and separate Swartland from Paarl. Wheat production has been the long time focus in the area, with the Swartland being a major contributor to the almost 650,000 tons of wheat grown in the Western Cape. The climate is characterized as Mediterranean. This means that the Summers are warm and dry and the Winters are cool and wet. This also means that the area is suitable for vine growth.
Historically, Swartland is more well known for its bulk wine production and its co-ops rather than fine wine production by a single estate. That couldn’t be less accurate today. Young winemakers look at the affordable price of land, and the wealth of unirrigated old vines at their disposal to craft some of the most interesting wines that are coming out of South Africa. In the mid 20th century, the region was more focused on growing grapes for distillate and sweet styles of white wine (mostly made from Chenin Blanc) rather than wine of high quality. The area was planted with varietals suited to higher yields and eventually overproduction occurred. Producers left with too much supply and too little demand began replanting their vineyards with other money making agricultural products. Today a few of these vineyards are still intact, and the Swartland finds itself as the home to some of the oldest vines in South Africa.
Winemaker Charles Louis Back of Fairview is believed to be one of the driving forces behind the “rediscovery” of The Swartland. His discovery of an old block of Sauvignon Blanc (planted in 1965) inspired him to purchase a vineyard and begin producing wine using Swartland fruit from low yielding bush vines. In turn, this has brought a huge influx of young winemakers to the area looking to make wine that is both interesting and modern yet steeped in history and tradition. In 2011 a group of producers from the Swartland established an organization that is focused on “producing wines that are truly reflective of Swartland.” This 26 member organization is known as the Swartland Independent Producers. Members who follow the guidelines established by the organization are easily identifiable, as their wine bottles (only Burgundian in shape) all bear the “Swartland Independent” label. The logo of the organization, an old gnarly bush vine surrounded by 2 hands holding stalks of wheat, is only found on the bottles of producers who are dedicated to promoting a sense of terroir and individuality that is only present in Swartland. Natural production with a hands off approach in the cellar is a core value for the organization. No acidification, no tannin management, no manipulating the final alcohol content by utilizing reverse osmosis, and no commercial yeast may be used in vinification. Only specific grape varietals are permitted, and no more than 25% of the wine may come into contact with new oak barrels. Donovan Rall, Johan Meyer, Eben Sadie, Craig Hawkins, and Adi Badenhorst are just a few of the winemakers that are truly focused on promoting the terroir of the region and employing the honorable “Swartland Independent” approach in the cellar.
While South Africa has been producing wine since 1659, the current wine scene is relatively young. The introduction of modern winemaking techniques and the passion being demonstrated by the next generation of winemakers makes South Africa, and more specifically Swartland, an exciting area to watch for affordable fine wine. I look forward to watching the evolution of the region and I look forward to seeing what innovations these young winemakers will bring to the international stage in 2016.