The Swartland is a rural farming region in South Africa’s Western Cape province, about an hour northwest of Cape Town. “Swartland” means “black land” in Afrikaans, referring to the endemic renosterbos plant that looks black from a distance at certain times of the year.
The Swartland is known for wheat farming and sheep farming and various other kinds of farming. I went there for the wine farms.
I love visiting South Africa’s wine regions and the Swartland is one of the largest and best. My friend Dee is currently working in the Swartland, so I booked a flight to Cape Town and we spent a few days drinking wine together and doing other fun things.
I visited a bunch of wine farms in the Swartland and had the privilege of spending time with several winemakers. I noticed something: Winemakers are often quirky and weird, in the best possible way.
It makes sense. Making wine is a delicate, finicky business — part science, part business savvy, part art, part insanity. You’ve got to choose which grapes to grow, grow the grapes (praying year after year for the right weather), harvest the grapes and crush the grapes, ferment the grapes in specially chosen, wildly expensive containers, taste the grapes — taste them again, and again, and again and again and again — and fiddle with other ingredients to add to the grapes. You’ve got to age the wine for months or years and hope it comes out just right. You’ve got to choose bottles and corks and labels. You’ve got to sell and do tastings and talks and hire staff and pay bills. I imagine it’s tempting to be drunk all the time.
There’s a lot of hard work, creative inspiration, and heartbreak that goes into making a good bottle of wine. I imagine there’s also a lot of crying and yelling and singing and laughing and smashing wine glasses against the wall. It’s no wonder winemakers can be weird.
Here are just a few of the quirky Swartland winemakers I met.
Johan Mostert of Nieuwedrift Vineyards
Johan is a wheat farmer who also makes wine. Since Afrikaans is Johan’s first language and he doesn’t like telling long stories in English, he handed me a short printed narrative on how he became a winemaker.
“I have always wanted very much to make wine,” Johan writes. “This reached bursting point (literally and figuratively) in 2002. The problem was that I didn’t know how to do it. It is no simple matter to produce wine so that the people who drink it don’t spit it out or pull funny faces!”
Johan goes on to explain how he tried corking the bottles by hand on his first batch of wine, only to discover a few weeks later that the corks were shooting out spontaneously and shattering the other bottles. He eventually figured things out. In addition to making very good wine Johann now makes Méthode Cap Classique (or MCC, the South African version of champagne). On the back page of his wine story are step-by-step instructions for how to enjoy a bottle of Nieuwedrift MCC in the bathtub with your spouse.
Johan and his wife Karin discovered MCC goes very well with fried jalapeño poppers, made with peppers grown in their garden. I concur.
Nieuwedrift Wine Estate is nine kilometers south of Piketberg on the N7 Highway. They have a small restaurant serving tasty pizzas (and jalapeño poppers, of course) on weekends.
Frank Meaker of Org de Rac Organic Wine
Frank is the winemaker at Org de Rac, whose wine is made using a 100% certified organic process. This means no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides, all the grapes are picked by hand, and there are no chemical additives or inorganic products in the wine.
Org de Rac is a much larger wine farm than Nieuwedrift, which is just down the road, and Frank’s personality is the opposite of Johan’s. Frank is cerebral, explaining the challenges and joys of organic wine farming with a sort of matter-of-fact passion.
Inside the winery, Frank pulled back a thick plastic cover to reveal a hidden spiral staircase among the fermentation vats. We wound our way to down the stairs to find a mother lode of fragrant oak barrels.
Org de Rac also makes a tasty MCC, which we enjoyed with a plate of oysters at 10:30 in the morning.
Org de Rac is on the N7, not far from Nieuwedrift.
Adi Badenhorst of A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines
Dee asked me to write a few sentences about my impressions of Adi Badenhorst for a social media post she was composing. Here’s what I gave her:
“The moment I set foot inside Adi’s farmhouse, I’m enchanted. There’s a feeling of organised chaos. Everything — even the taxidermied genet standing over a dead bird in its own glass aquarium — has its place. Dogs lounge on the porch while the humans sip coffee. Everyone gazes out at the hazy peaks beyond the vines.
“The winery, filled with barrels draped in dried herbs, shares the same aura of orderly disorder. Adi stands under a stairwell pasted with boxing posters and pin-up girls, measuring out sips of 2017 Chenin Blanc and regaling us with stories about failing in school while David Kramer croons on the turntable.
“‘I’m an academic bonsai,’ Adi says. ‘A cerebral dwarf. Basically, I’m fu*king stupid.’
“I know better. This wine doesn’t taste stupid at all.”
A.A. Badenhorst is outside Malmesbury, on a gravel road near a place called Jakkalsfontein. Refer to their website for directions. The farm also has beautiful accommodation and I intend to spend a weekend there very soon.
Johan and Diana Simons of Fynbos Estate
Dee and I spent a night at Fynbos Estate, a whacky farm/nature reserve with a barnyard full of rescued donkeys and horses and sheep. I was in heaven.
In addition to their beautiful guest farm and nice little dining room and yoga studio and ridiculously adorable donkeys, Johan and Diana have a wine farm called Dragonridge where Johan makes natural wine.
As I understand it, natural wine goes a step beyond organic in that the grapes are left alone as much as possible, with minimal human interference, throughout the growing and winemaking process.
I really enjoyed the wine, especially the Viognier, and I enjoyed spending the evening with Diana and Johan even more. Both of them were heavily involved in the struggle against apartheid and had many interesting stories to tell.
I could spend a whole week just hanging out with the donkeys.
Fynbos Estate is near Malmesbury. Consult their website for directions because your GPS won’t work.
Callie Louw at Porseleinberg Wines
Porseleinberg was the last Swartland farm I visited and possibly the most interesting. Dee had never been there and we drove forever to reach it, stopping twice for directions. We finally found Porseleinberg perched at the top of a mountain.
Callie Louw, the winemaker, greeted us wearing a trucker cap and shorts. (The howling wind bit right through my jacket and sweater.) Callie is a commercial grape farmer and makes only one wine: a Cape Syrah. We tramped around the farm and winery for a bit then went into Callie’s office, where he served us a sip of Syrah in the most delicately stemmed wine glass I’ve ever held between my fingers.
The wine was superb but I was even more enamoured with the old-school Heidelberg printer Callie uses to make his wine labels. (I have a special passion for letterpress printers.)
I shot a million photos and cell phone videos of the printer. “What’s your social media handle?” I asked Callie as I composed my Instagram story.
Callie looked at me like I had two heads. “I don’t do that,” he answered, as if I’d asked him who his heroine dealer is. “Privacy is going to become very valuable someday.”
I couldn’t argue.
So. You won’t find Porselienberg on Instagram, now or ever, and I totally respect that. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get directions and schedule a tasting.
I visited the Swartland with support from the Swartland Wine and Olive Route. Opinions expressed are mine.