Grapes with a scorpion’s sting

By philip
23 January 2013

In an unlikely arid part of the Cape, a vineyard with a long witblits tradition is now producing a notable white wine, reports Tim James.

The Cape’s Atlantic coast, inland from where the serious guys surf, is austere. This arid landscape, without magnificence or overt charm, is an acquired taste. It took a walk through a vineyard before I felt it start to grip my imagination.

And what a vineyard! Surely the most remarkable and toughly ­characterful I’ve seen in wandering the Cape winelands.

It took a while to get over feeling that these vines ­simply couldn’t — or at least shouldn’t — exist.

There are two adjacent blocks, in fact, although only one produces grapes for wine — a fine white called Skerpioen (“scorpion”). The other is still, as both once were, sacrosanct to witblits: “white lightning”, the Cape’s “moonshine” spirit, one that is to fine brandy or suave, modern grappa what steel hawser is to silk ribbon.

I was spending the day driving and talking with winemaker Eben Sadie, who was making an early summer check-up tour of the far-flung vineyards that produce grapes for his Old Vineyard Series of wines. That is, Sadie did the driving and much of the talking. (I sometimes recall the narrator’s comment on the entirely less benign character of Mr Kurtz in Heart of Darkness: “Heavens! How that man could talk … He had faith — don’t you see? — he had the faith.”) Talking persuasively, yes, and I swear Sadie’s Afrikaans accent grew thicker as we approached the coast — for these are the parts where he was born and bred, and it all clearly quickens his heart.

EbenSadie

This was our first call, after an early start and a long drive. The blue of St Helena Bay was only imaginable, invisible beneath a bank of fog whose significance I was only later to realise. Then, suddenly, a few kilometres short of the coast, somewhere near the fishing village with the unlikely name of Dwarskersbos, we were there: modest farm buildings and a palm tree or two amid the scrub, Klein Tafelberg (“small Table Mountain”) rising abruptly and not so majestically in the mid-distance, and the edge of the vineyard.

The farmer greeted us. His first name perhaps even he has forgotten, as he’s universally known as either “Vogie” or “MW” — MW Voges — which in the Afrikaans we spoke sounds something like “emveer foorghis”. Sadie, as I’ve suggested, had partly reverted to his youth, and addressed him in the respectful third person, calling him Oom.

In MW’s ancient yellow Land Rover we drove to the vineyards. Wine experts like to talk knowingly about soil. What if there isn’t any? At least, any that answers to the usual description. These vines (mostly chenin blanc and palomino in the wine vineyard, hanepoot in the witblits one) appear to be growing in beach sand. There are parts where the usefully cooling Atlantic wind creates tiny shifting dunes, and places where it carves away the sand to reveal a tangle of vine roots. Rainfall is pathetically low in this area, and that these unirrigated vines could establish themselves is thanks to the rolling fog that every so often shrouds the plants and drips on to the thirsty sand.

The roots plunge half a metre or more into a bank of limestone, of chalk so chalky that you could break off a piece and write on a blackboard with it. This substratum, too, is rare in the Western Cape, adding to the sheer unlikeliness of this unique (radical, Sadie calls it) site.

It’s hard to imagine that any respectable modern viticulturist wouldn’t laugh or shudder at the idea of planting a vineyard in this spot. Yet here it is, having proved, in fact, that it is a superb location.

Full Mail & Guardian story byTim James: Grapes with a scorpion’s sting | Arts and Culture | Food | Mail & Guardian.