Why The Agulhas Triangle is Special in the World of Wine
Geology, Climate and Happenstance
Geology and Climate
Around 330 million years ago various continents found themselves in God’s mosh pit of geology. The headbanging band raging on heaven’s stage was called “Plate Tectonics” (Previously known as “Continental Drift”) and was renowned for throwing up massive mountains and magically creating a treasure trove of minerals – most prosaic of which (gold and diamonds) would end up helping to build European cities like Edinburgh and London, etc…
It was a gig to remember. By the time South America, Australia, India, Madagascar and Antarctica stopped smashing into each other and slunk off to nurse post-moshing hangovers, Southern Africa was changed forever. From a wine perspective this was for the good.
The Western Cape took the brunt of the collisions, ending up with 14km high mountains folded out of bedrock, an hitherto unseen heady mixture of soils and an embarrassment of mineral wealth. Exciting stuff – like waking up with a very sore head and a smile, in a badly crumpled cosmic bed – clear signs of huge scale Saturnalia. You notice a tattoo of Diego Maradona on your inner thigh, reaching illegally heavenward. And you somehow feel OK about it. That’s never actually happened to me, in case you are wondering, but it more or less sums up what the Western Cape felt like after the Gondwana Mosh-pit Party.
Over the next 300 million years those sky-piercing Cape Fold mountains were gradually eroded down to their current height – that’s why Table Mountain and the Akkedisberg (rising above the village of Napier 150km away) are almost exactly the same height – they were once the same mountain and a common band of hard granite at the same altitude has slowed the degradation of time.
The deposits of this action became the ground around the mountains we now grow grapes in. As a result, nowhere on earth do you find anything approaching the kaleidoscopic diversity of our soils. This is one of the reasons we are blessed with such incredible biodiversity of flora in the Western Cape. And what influences fynbos (our endemic flora, similarly influences vineyards. The diversity of soil results directly in the mind-blowing complexity of South African wine.
More influential, perhaps, is the climate of the Agulhas Wine Triangle. ‘Mediterranean’ is a hackneyed broad catchall, but describes the wet, cold winters and the warm, dry summers. Beyond this Eurocentric generalisation are the specifics of our cooling winds off the cold oceans. These daily winds, predominantly from the south-east and south-west are beneficial for natural acid retention in grapes, aroma and flavour development, but also dry out moisture in the canopy, meaning fewer chemical sprays are required to keep grapes and vines healthy.
Wind dominates the climate and plays a further crucial role in devigorating vineyard growth, forcing the plant to focus on producing delicious gapes rather than vegetation.
The culmination of these different soils, the wind, the cold winters and moderated summers results in a thread of elegance running through all wines made in the Agulhas Wine Triangle area. And because of these factors, yields will never be high, so wines are naturally better balanced and of premium quality.
For almost a century, the South African wine industry was controlled by the KWV. While initially required to curtail over production and to some extent oversee quality, the system became unreasonably restrictive, and it has been argued, abused for financial and political reasons.
As a small example, one was not allowed to plant grapes unless the area was approved by the regulators. As you can imagine, these and other laws were written to serve certain interests, while ignoring others. Some of those prejudiced by parochial self-interest were many industry pioneers, including Tim Hamilton-Russell, who ran into a world of trouble when he planted and produced wine in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley. The authorities at the time were determined to keep the Overberg off-limits for grape growing. Tim persevered and the rest is Pinot Noir mythology.
Eventually the Cluver family, perhaps more acceptable in those dark days, hooked up with what is now Distell to plant grapes in Elgin. Dr Cluver is not a man easily swayed or ignored and the rest is a formidable family legacy.
This meant the crumbling bastille of bureaucratic idiocy was breached and with the demise of the Nationalist government in 1994 came relief, much needed sanity and the relaxing of stifling rules.
Some of the very first to take advantage of this enlightened moment were a bold triumvirate of wheat farmers in Elim who hooked up with a brilliant winemaker, Charles Hopkins (now with De Grendel), a celebrated viticulturalist, Johan Wiese, a hot-shot accountant, Pieter Ferreira, and wine businessman Hein Koegelenberg (now the Chief Executive Officer of La Motte, etc…). In winemaking circles, they were referred to as the ‘A team’. It is unlikely a more capable and connected team of wine people had ever been assembled in South Africa. The brand they started was Lands End and is now owned by Du Toitskloof cellars who are new members of the Agulhas Wine Triangle project.
Without their audacious vision or planning rigour, Elim would never have established itself as one of the most emblematic terroirs in the world. The three pioneering farmers were Johan de Kock, Francis Pratt and Dirk Human. Alongside the Hamilton-Russells and the Newton-Johnsons of Hemel-en-Aarde, and the Cluvers of Elgin, etc… they placed South African wine on a new, energizing trajectory. It is impossible to underplay their collective prescience, courage and influence in driving quality wine to the next level in South Africa.
Within a few years Distell clambered on board the Agulhas Wine train with the Lomond vineyard JV. Then one of South Africa’s most canny wine marketers, Nick Diemont, put a consortium together and established Strandveld Vineyards and the First Sighting brand. Things started moving quickly now the area was being communicated with professionalism, worldly-wise style and vigour.
The region came of age in many ways when independent winemaking rock stars like David Niewoudt, David Trafford and Trizanne Barnard fell for the intriguing elegance that seems scarce elsewhere, but so effortless in the Agulhas Wine Triangle.
Despite all the international journalistic interest, the region is removed from South African wine industry action. Suppliers are far away, both practically and to some extent, philosophically. What works in Rawsonville or Paarl vineyards doesn’t work in Malgas or Elim. A great deal of school fees were paid over the last 30 years, and growers still have to be self-reliant and innovative. That’s just a given in this part of the world. This makes for a very different environment – farmers share ideas and rely on each other.
Similarly, customers are not on one’s doorstep, like in Constantia or Stellenbosch, so brands need to box clever to be noticed. That’s why you will find one of the most engaging winery cellar-door experiences anywhere in the world at Dirk Human’s Black Oystercatcher.
Luckily, the Overberg is crammed full of self-starters and resilience. Farmers here, partly due to their isolation, are often very open, friendly and good to be around. There’s a different vibe and it benefits the wine.
But let’s go back even further – about 80 000 years, long before homo sapiens ventured north out of Africa. The first archaeological evidence of cognitive thought comes from the Agulhas Wine Triangle – the Blombos cave near David Trafford’s Sijnn winery to be exact. It was in this region that humans first started to think like modern humans. We find the first evidence of recording thoughts outside of the head, like on a wall. Ochre was being mixed with ground bone and charcoal, or used separately to adorn faces and bodies. And art was being made. The cultural birthplace of humanity. It’s a big deal.
When the Dutch East India marauders started exploring the area in the late 1600s they encountered the Hessequas people, with an ancient farming tradition (probably extending further back before anything was happening in the fertile crescent). They found a settled, organised collection of established communities living in harmony with each other and the environment. They were amazed and beguiled by the area, as Hieronymus Cruse’s 1669 dairies reveal. They were amazed to discover the Hessequas kept bees and farmed with sheep despite the threat of lions and leopards. They had bred a huge, fearsome type of dog to guard their flocks by night. Intriguingly it had a ridge of hair that ran against the grain up its back – the original Ridgeback breed, now renamed the Ari Ridgeback. It is generally accepted in dog breading circles that it was a Scottish missionary from Zuurbraak in the north of the Agulhas Triangle that took the first pair of Ari Ridgebacks to Zimbabwe.
Within a century after Hieronymus Cruze was traipsing around the Overberg, the Moravian missionaries arrived to passionately espouse the Christian doctrine.
They brought a fervent dedication to their work. Comparatively enlightened, they believed in teaching literacy and a skill. The mission of Elim benefitted from thatching, the mission of Wuppertal from shoemaking, etc…
And lest we cast aspersions on those idealistic missionaries, we should remember that South Africa’s first black novelist (perhaps first Pan Africanist and intellectual revolutionist) Sol’ Plaatjie, was also a beneficiary of German missionary inclusive education and influence.
One of the oldest Protestant denominations in the world, the Moravians were ecumenical in their approach, with an open-minded inclusivity. They prized personal piety and abstinence, but sacramental wine, music and education were all part of the non-sectarian spiritual journey. And, of course, for “nagmal wyn” you must grow grapes and be able to make wine. So, grapes are not at all new to the Agulhas Wine Triangle. They were first planted at Genadendal and Elim in the 1700’s.
A few years ago, we arranged a lunch with some of the Agulhas Wine Triangle partners with the idea that everything we ate or drank should come from the area. We enjoyed a cornucopia of delights – fresh wild oysters, Yellowtail ceviche, fallow deer tartar, braaied Springbok loin, roast rack of lamb, farm-baked bread milled locally from local wheat, organic garden vegetables (including famous Napier sweet potato and onions) and of course a wine line up that started with bottle-fermented pink bubbly, included lively 10 year old Sauvignon Blancs, intense, juicy reds and ended with a brandy from Black Oystercatcher. I am not sure it would be possible to eat and drink that eclectically, broadly and well from many other small, isolated corners of the world.
I’ve travelled through most of the well-known wine regions of the world, some very beautiful, others very prosperous, but none as intriguing or as generous of spirit as the Agulhas Wine Triangle. I am very privileged to call it home.