Wines from the edge

This article originally appeared in the August issue of Decanter

Agulhas Wine Triangle: South Africa’s southernmost wines Home to a forceful, ever-present wind, this remarkable region feeds off the elements, allowing them to cool and shape the environment – something winemakers use to their advantage when making South Africa’s southernmost wines. Malu Lambert discovers this unique, extreme region and picks her 12 must-try wines.

There are many places on earth defined by wind. It shapes the landscape – from dunes in deserts to bent trees along the coast, battering all into submission. It also informs viticulture, such as in the Rhône Valley, where vines are trained straight to avoid damage from the dogged Mistral.

Likewise, on the southwest edge of Africa is the Agulhas Wine Triangle, which lies between the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans at the point where the two giant masses meet, and is stalked by ocean gales and the strong wind and rain phenomenon known as the Black Southeaster.

Here, the vines clinging to the edge of the continent are under perpetual assault from sea winds that whip along the Strandveld coastline – the resting place, unsurprisingly, of more than 130 shipwrecks.

This daily bombardment naturally limits vine growth, so vineyards here generally produce small yields, suited for quality production. The cooling effects help with acid retention in the grapes and lengthen the ripening period, resulting in more concentrated aroma and flavour development.

The wind dries moisture in the vine canopy, too, lowering disease pressure and allowing more sustainable farming methods.

At the Triangle’s core, the speciality is saline, site-expressive Sauvignon Blanc. Syrah fares well too, manifesting as fine and elegant.

Set within an obtuse triangle taking in Elim and Napier on the western side, Malgas and Swellendam to the east, and Cape Agulhas at the southernmost point, are the 10 members of the Agulhas Wine Triangle – a winemakers’ group established in 2019.

In Elim, this incorporates Black Oystercatcher, Strandveld Vineyards and The Giant Periwinkle as well as producers who source from the area: Trizanne Signature Wines, Ghost Corner and Land’s End. Then there’s Sijnn from Malgas, Olivedale from Swellendam, Lomond from Cape Agulhas and Bruce Jack’s The Drift Estate in Napier.
Trizanne Barnard, winemaker and owner of Trizanne Signature Wines, was drawn both to the cool-climate elegance of Elim’s grapes and to the pioneering spirit of the area.

‘It has this energy I find nowhere else,’ she says. ‘Every time I enter the Agulhas Plains there’s this incredible light intensity. I’m always struck by it. And you can feel this bright tension in the wines too.’

Losing yourself

Like other famous triangles, Agulhas is easy to disappear in. I discover this for myself on a two-day road trip, following the lines of the Triangle, beginning at its sharpest point, in Swellendam.

The route is punctuated by characters, such as the eccentric Carl van Wijck of Olivedale, who greets us at his cellar door with bare feet (it was not a warm day), declaring: ‘Welcome to the palace of no pretensions!’ His winery is decked out with antiques, paintings and Persian carpets, and classical music is piped through the air. The wines are correspondingly eclectic.
The range includes a bottling of that teinturier (red-fleshed) South African oddity, Roobernet, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet created in the 1960s by Professor Christiaan Johannes Orffer of the University of Stellenbosch. A skin-macerated white, Wild Melody, was particularly appealing.

The trip continues over rolling dirt roads, sucking us ever closer to the coast. To get to Sijnn we have to park on a yellow steel pontoon that chugs across the serpentine Breede river. Sijnn is in Malgas, near the river’s mouth, its terrain characterised by river stones reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s famous galets.

The vineyards share space with orange-tipped aloes and other fynbos; grape-loving birds are a perennial hazard. Owner David Trafford (of De Trafford Wines in Stellenbosch) has handed day-to-day responsibility for viticulture and winemaking to young rising star Charla Bosman. Here, the focus is simply on a red and a white blend, both excellent.

More gravel roads swell beneath us as we make our way west to our home for the night at Black Oystercatcher. Proprietor and winemaker Dirk Human’s family have been farming this land for generations. Built like a rugby player, Human feels as immutable as the landscape, though there’s a finesse and gentle intelligence to his winemaking.

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