A Swartland Renaissance Part 1

  • By Jamie Drummond
  • 23 Sep 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
Made possible by
Swartland vineyards - Credit : Courtesy of Mullineux

Over the past two decades the wines of South Africa’s Swartland region have gone through an irrefutable renaissance, the region now being home to what many consider to be the most dynamic and exciting wines coming out of the country, if not the southern hemisphere, today.

This large region located some 50 miles north of Capetown, with the Paardeberg hills to the south and the Berg river to the north, owes its name to the Renosterbos or Rhinoceros Bush (Elytropappus rhinocerotis), the now-endangered endemic plant that once covered these lands, curiously turning enormous swathes of it black after heavy precipitation due to the fine leaf-hairs adhering to the leaves when wet, very much akin to a muddy black rhino being caught in a rainshower. 

Observing this botanical phenomenon way back in the 17th Century, Dutch navigator and colonial administrator Jan van Riebeeck christened the area "Het Zwarte Land" (the Black Land) and the nomenclature stuck, albeit in the Afrikaans term that we use today, Swartland.

Until the late 90s this rural backwater was better known for being Cape Town’s “bread basket”, and indeed it remains one of the most important wheat growing areas in South Africa. The once-dominant Swartland co-operative system had a reputation for producing robust and brawny (if a little rustic) reds, with a substantial sideline in fortified wines, as dictated by the region’s hot and dry climate; Swartland is often over 5° warmer hotter than Paarl to the south. In recent years the mean February vineyard temperatures have been hovering around the 23.3° C mark. 

Saying all that, Atlantic Ocean breezes from the west ensure a Mediterranean climate with cool nights leading to significant diurnal temperature shifts, and thus aiding and abetting the desired development of flavour, colour intensity, and complexity within the grapes essential for top quality wines.

Across the region topography and elevation can be quite varied, with the mean annual rainfall for Swartland coming in between 300 - 500mm, and around 40% of that falling during the growing season. 

Swartland’s soils have mainly evolved from what are referred to as the dominant Malmesbury group shales/schist (often producing wines with blue fruit and earthy characteristics), with some granite-based soils (often producing wines with purity of fruit, a granitic/flinty mineral edge, a pronounced acidity and salinity) and iron-based gravelly soils (often producing dark and concentrated wines with defined structure and grippy tannins), and are found in many varied combinations of these three basic soil types.

Although the region’s geological structure allows for adequate soil moisture to forfend the need for irrigation, these water sources are often located deep within the soil structure, forcing the vine roots to extend down into the depths in order to survive, and has led to many drought resistant old vines (30+ years). These plots of extremely low-yielding bush vines are often referred to locally as dryland cultivation (read: dry farming), and are for the most part found in the Malmesbury area and along the banks of the Berg river in the south.

 Today the region is home to over 25,000 acres of vineyards, and has witnessed a veritable explosion of what are known locally as private cellars (read: independent producers). which brings us rather neatly to the SIP or the Swartland Independent Producers association.

To be continued in Part 2.

Swartland vineyards - Credit : Courtesy of Mullineux