The day after my Pichon Lalande dinner a neuroscientist came for lunch. I had soft-pedaled the appointment, not knowing if I would have time to sit down and taste, but when someone calls for a 1:00 reservation with the promise of interesting juice I let them earn credibility.
Considering the winking words of Clive Coates the night before about the “wines of the third world”, it is relevant that this year is the official celebration of 350 years of wine being made in South Africa.
I sat with them after they had had lunch and was introduced to Mark Solms, owner of Solms-Delta, who had left London in 2001 to return to his family farm in Franschoeck in the Western Cape and decided that the climate and soils would be best suited for Rhone varietals. He began by telling me about his study of ancient Greek and Roman techniques and how he had become intrigued by the Roman practice of “strangulation,” whereby the vine was literally twisted and choked to preserve acidity. This has by now become the slightly more modern practice of “dessication,” in which pliers are used to clamp onto the vine, crossing at ninety degree angles to trap acidity while the grapes desiccate on the vine, still ripening but losing over 40% of their liquid content between 2-7 weeks.
As he spoke, I thought of the techniques being used by Josko Gravner and his disciples in Fruili and Slovenia or Sean Thackrey in California, who also studies the ancients for modern direction. But this was the first time I had encountered wines made in this way. Mark enlisted Hilko Hegewisch, who was the winemaker at Boschendal (the oldest winery in Franschoeck), to join him to revive the family farm back into a functioning winery and to explore the process of dessication in the vineyards.
We began to taste. The first wine was Wijn de Caab Solms Amalie 2006, a blend of Viognier and Grenache Blanc. Dessication in the vineyard. Almond, peach, and honeysuckle on the nose flavors of lime meringue and rich butterscotch on the palate with nice acidity and balance.
Lekkerwijn 2006, a Rose made from Viognier, Mouvedre and Grenache grapes that did not undergo dessication in the vineyard. Strawberry and raspberry on the nose along with dusty leather and a bit of chocolate on the palate. A Rose with character and body.
Hiervandaan 2005, a blend of Shiraz, Mouvedre, Grenache, Carignan and Viognier. A small percentage of the Shiraz underwent dessication and the Viognier component is just from the skins of the grapes. Black cherry, tar, licorice, nice spice and great acidity; chocolate and leather with a light earthy edge to the finish.
Those were in the Wijn de Caab range. The next two are in the Hegewisch Range.
Africana Shiraz 2006: 100% Shiraz completely dessicated on the vine and vinified as whole clusters. Gorgeous blueberry, blackberry, sweet bacon fat, dark chocolate, sugar plum, fruitcake, sage, the acidity balances a long finish as the blueberry and fat linger. Africana is a product of Africa.
Kolani 2006 is a blend of 73% Rhine Riesling, 13% Muscat de Frontignan (Muscadel) and 14% Muscat d’Alexandrie all of which saw 100% dessication on the vine. Sweet applesauce, hint of anise, peach kernel, fresh oregano, wet stone and pineapple. Finishes dry but juicy butterscotch and baked apple give it weight in mid palate. Kolani is the Xhosa word for the Cape.
What sets this winery apart – aside from the outstanding wines they produce – is a mission to not only be stewards of the land, but to also acknowledge South Africa’s history in a straightforward way. This is currently being done at Solms-Delta through the creation of the Wijn de Caab trust, whereby the descendants themselves who share the land ancestrally have been given a stake in the winery and vineyards. It is also being done through the creation of the museum at the winery, which tells the story of the farm, beginning with the first human activity on the land, all the way through pre-colonial times, slavery, apartheid and into the present as a democratic state. The museum allows visitors to learn the story of the farm and the people who lived and worked there within the frame of the country’s history.
We went back to the wines and tasted again. We talked about Coetzee’s novel ”Disgrace” (and speculated that an event depicted in the book may have been the impetus for Coetzee leaving South Africa for Adelaide), about Breytenbach’s article in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine “Obamandela”, and finally, about the wines. I was seduced by the passion of the man for his land, for his country, for his vision of what his winery could be.
Marks Solms is not an investment banker or real estate mogul who bought some land with a trendy appellation to throw money at consultants’ grapes yeast and oak to equal out in 100 point vanity scores (though they have had their share of positive press). He has a deeper commitment to the land and it’s history. The wines and the winery are unique- bringing something fresh and new to an ancient place using ancient techniques in the vineyard with modern ideas of healing the past through sharing the land and the wines in the present.