NEW WINE IN THE NEW WORLD
The wine world can be a fussy place. At JAN, debating which region is allowed to grow which grape is an almost daily occurrence – and cause for healthy (if not heated) debate. But in this chef’s “New World” view, wine is so much more exciting than that. Every year, new wine estates join the official ranks of wine grower-dom, and, in the case of Lions River in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands – home to Abingdon Wine Estate – new wine regions are constantly being pioneered. So my questions is: why limit our view of wine when there’s a whole world of wine to explore?
A PLACE OF HISTORY
The last lion in the area was shot in 1856 on the site that became Lions River. Today, the town’s population barely reaches 1000, but over the last century and a half, Lions River has been the backdrop of some major moments in history. Its railway station made headlines in 1893 when Ghandi was thrown off a train headed from Durban to Johannesburg for riding first class. Later, on a Royal tour of South Africa between World Wars, the Queen Mother stopped here for tea with her daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. And while fleeing incarceration for 17 months, Nelson Mandela was captured here in 1952.
More recently, in February of 2018 to be exact, Lions River became an official world wine region. In a country with a history of winemaking that goes back more than three centuries, pioneering is no easy feat. After a lifetime of living and working across the globe, Ian and Jane Smorthwaite arrived in Lions River in 2000. They purchased the farm Abingdon with the radical view of turning this former dairy farm into a winery.
A PLACE OF INSPIRATION
“Lions River has a climate so similar to the Loire Valley in France that I saw no reason not to do it,” says Ian, owner and winemaker at Abingdon Estate. Indeed, at 1140 metres above sea level, this summer-rainfall region defies the Mediterranean climate so prevalent in the Western Cape, which harvests in the vicinity of 1.2 million tonnes of wine-producing grapes per annum. But as virgin vineyard territory, the terroir along this particular slope of the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands is becoming one of South Africa’s most exciting.
“We are about making KZN wine,” says Ian, “We’re not doing it for commercial reasons, so we don’t cut corners by supplementing our wines with wines from the Cape – it just betrays the terroir.” The estate even imports its oak barrels second hand from Klein Constantia. “We don’t use new oak, so you’re tasting the grape, not the barrel,” says Ian. Drinking an Abingdon wine, then, is the truest reflection of the Lion’s River terroir.
Spending a minimum of 14 hours a day amongst the vines, Ian’s philosophy of winemaking centres on the vineyard. “To me, there’s no sense in doing the work in the cellar,” he says, “we do it all out there.”
The Smorthwaites began planting commercially in 2004 and produced KZN’s first ever estate wine – a red blend – in 2007. Today, Abingdon makes about 8-10 wines per year that include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier amongst the whites, Blanc de Noir (which they only produce some years), and Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon amongst the reds.
Ian and Jane were joined by their daughter, Laurie, in 2013, after she had completed her International Diploma in wine at the prestigious Wine and Spirit Education Trust in the UK. Although her journey to becoming Abingdon Wine Estate’s assistant wine maker was far from a done deal (“I got fired three times in the first week!” she reminisces, “but dad and I have learned to work really well together.”), Laurie is in charge of the winery’s sparkling wines, of which even its classification poses an interesting conundrum. Since Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) refers only to the Cape wines made in the Champagne style, a name for KZN Méthode Traditionelle wines is yet to be invented.
Ian is very excited about his passion project, which will come to fruition in 2019. “Nebbiolo is my absolute passion,” he says. “In my view, it’s the king of red wines.” Often called the Pinot Noir of Italy, Nebbiolo – a variety of black wine grape that dates back to the 13th century AD – is notoriously difficult to grow outside its native Piemonte in north-west Italy. The best Nebbiolo wines are heavy, age-worthy reds; tannin rich with perfumes of tar, wood smoke and roses. Like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo boasts the same pale colour and is more “terroir expressive” than most grapes, picking up all earth, soil and climate characteristics.
A PLACE IN THE SUN
For Abingdon, the challenges of pioneering wine in KZN are rather unique. Uninterested in chasing a large-scale, commercial enterprise, the trick is to convince winos that their wines are worth the premium. Added to that, there is a prevailing stigma in the South African wine world that dictates that no wine grown outside the Western Cape need be considered.
“We once arrived at a wine show in Cape Town and heard someone say, ‘Oh, here come the banana boys,’” laughs Laurie. But their most unique challenge is when scores of monkeys descend on the farm in search of top-quality grapes. In retaliation, the Smorthwaites have resorted to netting their vines, an expensive and laborious countermeasure that – though slow to catch on in the aesthetically attuned wine world – is highly effective at protecting the grapes from a variety of elements, such as hail, birdlife and in KZN, opportunistic primates.
More universally, climate change has become an ever-increasing concern. “When we first arrived, the highs in summer were around 32ºC,” says Ian. “but now, they easily reach the 40s, so we have these massive diurnal temperature shifts, like 42ºC to -6ºC in eight hours.”
In the end, being a pioneer goes hand-in-hand with experimentation, which is what Abingdon Wine Estate is all about. They currently produce only 12,500 bottles per year and shy away from entering competitions, as their production is too low and KZN simply does not feature on the world’s wine map. Saying that, Abingdon’s Viognier – one of only three South African Viogniers rated that year – won the UK Decanter Magazine’s bronze medal in 2013. For the discerning wine lover, Abingdon Wine Estate offers one of those rare opportunities to experience a previously unexplored terroir in the hands of a highly gifted winemaker.
ABINGDON WINE ESTATE SIGNATURE VIOGNIER
Abingdon’s Signature Viognier is hand selected from the best barrels of the 2016 and 2017 vintages.
The wine shows subtle violets and honeysuckle on the nose with succulent lychee and ripe peach on the palate.
A full mouthfeel and intense richness is contrasted with notes of spiced seville orange.