Donovan Rall is a man of the soil. He speaks about the Swartland soils the same way that some guys would talk about muscle cars or fine cigars – each one is equally appreciated and revered for the unique characteristics it brings to the table. We recently caught up with him to find out more about his Rall and AVA ranges and how the decision to step up to work with Swartland farmers to keep their vines in the ground lead to the creation of some truly exceptional wines.
On finding the place where you can flourish
Donovan’s entry into the Swartland wine brotherhood followed a pattern that he shares with many of the Swartland Independent Producers – he completed a degree in BSc Viticulture & Oenology at Stellenbosch University, did his first Swartland harvest at The Sadie Family Wines in 2007, went and travelled for a bit and then promptly returned to make his own wines from the grapes he had figured out was among the finest in the world. According to Donovan, it’s all about the soil.
“Every soil type will give you a different kind of wine, even if you plant the same cultivar in it. That fascinated me about the Swartland. That and the fact that the varietals that I love to work with, Shiraz, Grenache, Chenin, Carrignan, Cinsault, all flourish here – same as I do,” he explains
According to Donovan, each soil type leaves a distinct imprint on the grapes that grow from it. The three prevailing soil types in the Swartland are shale, granite and iron (also known as ‘koffieklip’). Each of these soil types are represented in this Rall Red and Rall White.
“Chenin is an amazing translator of soil, for instance. If you have the three blocks of Chenin of the same age, grown in the same way (trellised or bush vine), with one in shale, one in iron, and one in granite soil, you will get three completely different wines. In granite you will always have a finer, more elegant wine that is more mineral driven, with a hint of saltiness and a greener profile. From shale, you will get a more texture-driven wine – much fuller and richer, with more yellow flavours like stone fruit. Iron gives you lots of structure and lots of concentration in white wine; in red it will result in more aggressive tannins,” he enthuses.
“In my opinion, one of the best places in the world to plant these cultivars that inspire me is the Swartland. This is also why I bought into the Swartland Independent movement right from the start, because these people that feel the same way I do about these varietals and realised that we would need guidelines to make quality wines with a sense of place.”
Seeking out balance above all else
Rall Wines’ first vintage in 2008 consisted of a blended red and a blended white, succinctly called Rall Red and Rall White. According to Donovan, his main goal was to find the beautiful balance he was seeking among his favourite varietals.
“The thing about the Swartland is that you need to blend pretty wisely to get balance. In my experience, it’s very seldom that you’ll encounter a vineyard that can stand on its own. So for the first 8 years I only produced two blends. That’s how long it took me to get the hang of finding that balance,” he explains.
The most recent Rall White consists of Chenin Blanc, Verdelho and Viognier; while the Rall Red has been crafted from Shiraz, Carignan, Grenache, and Cinsault. Donovan only started producing single-varietal wines in 2016, when he finally found vineyards which, in his opinion, could stand alone. These happened to be two vineyards near Riebeek, planted in schist. This is when he launched this AVA range, named for his daughter.
“Today, I also make the AVA Chenin Blanc and AVA Shiraz,” Donovan says proudly. “It was this move that initially led to me taking over the maintenance of some of the vineyards I use, which was a first for me. Up until 2016, I had brought in my grapes without having a hand in tending the vines.”
Protecting vulnerable vineyards by working alongside Swartland growers
For Donovan, and many members of the Swartland Independent Producers, the decision to take over management of certain vineyards was not only a choice that would allow them closer control of how the grapes were produced, but also a way to support the growers to keep their old vines in the ground.
“It’s been really tough for winemakers and farmers during the drought. The thing is, when you are purely farming, and you cannot add value by making your own wine; you have to farm for volume if you want to stay ahead. When it’s dry, this is basically impossible because there is no water, which naturally means smaller yields while your up-front costs remain the same. Many farmers simply cannot do it by themselves anymore,” Donovan explains.
“There are a few ways of bridging this divide – you either pay a lot more for the grapes to give the guys a break, or you pay the farmer for the block and he keeps doing what he’s always done, and regardless of the tonnage, you stick to a certain predetermined price. That shifts the risk to the winemaker, but that’s the only way we can help the farmers and keep the vineyards in the soil.
“Alternatively, you can step in to take over a vineyard; you have a rental agreement with the farmer and the maintenance becomes your responsibility. So you’ll pay for the pruning, any treatment that may be required, mulching, and planting cover crops to help the soil retain moisture, etc. This is much more than the farmers themselves would have been able to do without adding an even heavier financial burden.”
According to Donovan, the upshot of this added effort is that when you put in this extra care and attention and everything goes to plan, the winemaker gets to make premium quality wine, and they have the ability to price it accordingly to ensure feasibility for all. “I think many of the smaller producers try to come to this kind of agreement with the farmers from whom they source their favourite grapes,” says Donovan.
“In some cases the farmer may still do the physical farming, but you are able to give your input and pay for any extra measures you want them to take. This is the best way we’ve found to make high-quality wines and keep these vines in the soil.”
How to buy and taste Rall wine
If you’re making your way to the Swartland and you have some lead time, you can contact Donovan directly on email@example.com to book a tasting. Alternatively, you can stop over at Bill & Co. Swartland Street Market in Malmesbury, or The Wine Kollective in Riebeek Kasteel if you want easy access and the input of some local purveyors. Alternatively, there are online stores that stock it as well that will deliver to your door. This includes Wine Cellar Fine Wine Merchants and Great Domaines.
QUICK LINKS >> Website: www.rallwines.co.za| Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Telephone number: +27 72 182 7517