Written by Clifford Roberts; Photographs: Johan Viljoen
Sometimes old stories need to be re-told, lest the lessons we’ve learned be forgotten. For the Swartland, this is certainly true when it comes to one of its foundational wine grape varieties.
The story of Swartland and indeed South African wines cannot be told without reference to the region’s association with Portuguese grape cultivars. It was here, in 1939, that the first varieties were planted.
The story is recounted by Danie Malan, fifth generation winemaker at Allesverloren, of how his grandfather after whom he is named, imported Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barocca, Souzao and Tinta Franciska to become the first to plant them in South Africa.
By way of context, those were boom years for the industry. America still recovering from the Prohibition years was not producing much wine, and the South Africans saw an opportunity to pick up the slack in the export markets of Europe.
The Portuguese varieties were initially for the making of port, as was the practice was in Portugal. It was only in the 1990s that Portugal’s Douro region ramped up its use of the cultivars for table wines, and South Africa soon followed suit. This relative youth of the category is possibly one of the reasons we even refer to the varieties by their country. Remember, wine grape vines weren’t native to the Cape.
But once they’d arrived, they highlighted the similarities in soils and climate to home territories and this became true in the case of Portuguese varieties too. It is an interesting note that the Douro region is the largest mountainous wine region in the world.
Farmers in other areas saw the potential too and started their own plantings, making Swartland the progenitor of the varieties in South Africa.
Calitzdorp farmers, who have built a reputation on Portuguese varieties, got young vines from the Swartland in the 1970s believing them to be Shiraz. They turned out to be Tinta Barocca, the biggest representative of the Portuguese category in South Africa.
It was only in the 1990s that Portugal’s Douro region started to produce red table wines in a big way, using the varieties that had long gone into its famous ports.
Swartland has by far the biggest plantings of Portuguese varieties in South Africa. The industry’s official statistician, SA Wine Industry & Systems (SAWIS) on its 2021 status of red wine vineyards in SA, has Swartland with just over 87ha for Tinta Barocca – the biggest cultivar in the Portuguese category. It is followed by Touriga Nacional at 38ha.
Many out-of-town wineries source the varieties for their own labels, of course. Local examples abound, however
For one, Tinta Barocca occurs in ranges produced by Hofstraat Cellar’s Renosterbos label; City on a Hill; Mullineux & Leeux; Swartland Winery; Swerwer; Allesverloren, of course; and, AA Badenhorst.
One of the oldest expressions also comes from the Swartland, in the form of Sadie Family Wines’ Treinspoor, which is made from a Tinta Barocca vineyard planted in 1974. It is not the oldest vineyard of its kind and the Old Vine Project lists among its wines a vineyard of the Paardeberg dating from 1971.
For visitors exploring the Swartland, following the thread of Portuguese variety wines provides not only an excellent thread but also a fascinating one that ties the pioneering history of the region to its exciting future.