Image sourced from the Altydgedacht website
It may not be the most glamorous or famous of wine estates, but for
nearly a century Altydgedacht has been bravely leading a quiet
revolution in experimental grape cultivars.
While other farms in Durbanville were ripping out vines to make way for the valley’s ubiquitous sauvignon blanc, Altydgedacht has been dabbling in barbera, gamay noir, gewürztraminer, riesling and muscat among others. And this pioneering spirit is starting to reap the rewards of experience and ageing vines, as the wines win awards and gain increasing recognition.
While family-owned Altydgedacht has always been known for doing things a bit differently, it’s always been a bit of a dark horse. It has a distinctly rustic, working-farm vibe that feels as if it hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years - beyond a restaurant which recently opened. But it’s also one of the few estates nowadays where the winemaker, Etienne Louw, and cellar master Oliver Parker are prepared to sit down with you for three hours at a rickety table and explain their thinking, over an extended tapas lunch.
The farm is synonymous with barbera, which Oliver’s grandfather first planted in 1928, and at one point it owned the only single hectare left in South Africa. It has also bucked the fashions of the day by planting gamay noir, best known for being the grape behind Beaujolais Nouveau, muscat, riesling, gewürztraminer, viognier, semillon and it is currently trying its hand at its first single-varietal pinot noir.
Oliver explains: “My mother used to put the barbera in a blend with shiraz and then in 1992 we did the first single variety barbera. We nearly pulled out the gamay but then we realised that we had something that no one else had, and we decided to use unusual varieties to build our brand.”
Now, in addition to the traditional range that includes shiraz, merlot and sauvignon blanc, the estate produces two white blends that contain eight varieties and four varieties each, the sweet wine Chatelaine which is a blend of riesling, gewürztraminer and muscat of alexandria, a cabernet franc rosé, single variety gewürztraminer and barbera, and the flagship Tintoretto which is a blend of pinotage, barbera, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon and was only revived in 2009.
The gamay is a lighter and fun alternative to heavy reds and quickly sells out, mainly to Southern Sun’s Miguel Chan, while the gewürztraminer 2011 and barbera 2006 won gold medals at the Michelangelo competition.
But is it worthwhile to buck the trend for commercially successful single varietal wines, especially when Bordeaux style reds, shiraz, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay are being identified by many exporters as the best attack strategy to build the SA brand? Etienne, who came to winemaking relatively late in the game after a previous career in chemical engineering, believes there is an increasing market for more unusual wines but the only way to convince consumers is through quality and planting the right varieties for the terroir.
“I saw what we could do here and the quality of the fruit,” he says. “Sauvignon blanc is the cash cow of this valley and it is still 25% of what we produce. With the others, you really have to stand behind these wines. Fashions come and go in the space of a year or two, so you have to believe in what you do and you have to handsell them. But it increasingly looks like consumers are looking for something a bit different, and so are the ‘gatekeepers’ of the wine trade.”
He also believes the trend towards matching food and wine styles plays into his hands, as many of his wines using southern European varieties in particular have the acidity and structure to stand up to even complicated menus. Etienne also says it’s simply more fun as a winemaker to work with 15 varieties: “It keeps you on your toes!”
My favourite five (already written about the Gewurztraminer 2011, a Michelangelo gold winner)
• Blanc de Blanc 2011: uses eight varieties from later pressings, in different proportions each vintage. It’s a fun, fruity and fresh wine perfect for a summer’s alfresco lunch. Well-made for R35 a bottle!
• The Ollo 2011: the flagship white is a blend of chardonnay, semillon, viognier and chenin blanc. There’s an enticingly perfumed nose of savoury and spicy notes. Lashings of lime, cedar and pine nuts.
• Gamay Noir 2010: Lovely fragrant aroma of morello cherries and a hint of herbal cough mixture. Light and zesty. (Current vintage 2011, R45)
• Tintoretto 2010: This is a successful blend, the barbera adding aniseed, spice and acidity, the cabernet sauvignon structure, and the pinotage soft red fruit. Soft tannins. (R125)
• Barbera 2006: Joyous and wonderfully fragrant. Fresh lavender, feinbos, sweet spice. (The current 2010 vintage, R95, is sold out).
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