|If anyone is living proof that small can be beautiful when it comes to wine, it's David Trafford. The De Trafford farm comprises only five hectares, with about half the grapes bought in, and the tiny production of about 3 500 cases usually sells out rapidly.
Since giving up his day job as an architect to concentrate on his 'hobby' a decade ago, the self-taught winemaker has become one of SA's top boutique producers. His syrah, chenin blanc, straw wine and red blend regularly win scores of 90-plus from the likes of Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate.
I was interested to find out how Trafford, who has quietly been getting on with the job of creating a world-class vineyard since his family bought the farm in the 70's, has put himself in the enviable position of being able to charge up to R400 a bottle. Strolling through the steeply sloping vineyards, which are hidden away at the top of the beautiful Blaauwklippen Valley at 350 to 400m above sea level, it becomes clear he lives by the maxim that a great wine is made in the vineyard.
"I don't have a qualification but in my view that's just three years of messing around at college", he says. "I have learned by reading, being helped by other winemakers and by trial and error. Each vintage is a learning curve and I really believe that each site is unique."
Over a tasting of soon-to-be released De Trafford and Sijnn wines, his new venture in the Breede River, (see below), I lured out some truisms from David about producing a top-notch boutique wine in South Africa.
Tasting of De Trafford and Sijnn wines:
- You can't use a formula to produce a great wine: "We make do with a half ton press and do everything as naturally as possible. Our aim is to make the best wine regardless of style, and it is the vineyard that dicates the style. I'd prefer a few people to love my wine than most people to think it's ok, and you can't produce a formula for that."
- Manage your vineyard delicately: "The most important and hardest aspect is that each site is unique. What you really want is the perfect balance of crop and growth. In my opinion, if you are aiming for top quality you don't want to produce more than 5 to 6 tons per hectare. But you don't achieve that by chopping down half the crop, you shouldn't have to manage a vineyard too much. The best vineyards just grow and stop growing without too much manipulation."
- Science can't replace know-how: "There is a disparity between the scientific side of the industry and what happens on the ground. We are leaders in wine science in SA, but the raw data has to be useful. Of course, we need science as a back-up, but there's this mindset that all you have to do is apply an equation to produce a good wine."
- A lot of what is said about wine is hype: "A lot of what is taken as fact in the wine industry is marketing. For example, everyone has been told for a hundred years that French wines are the best. It's a self-perpetuating thing, like a religion."
- South Africa has more in common with Burgundy than Argentina: "With us it all comes down to different regions, sites and winemakers. That's not an easy message to sell and requires some work, as we don't have one 'silver bullet'. We also don't have vast plains like Argentina, but our advantage is we have the labour and expertise to farm our vineyards like a grand cru vineyard. Handcrafted, family-produced wines are a great part of our story."
Elevation 2008 (R400, available end of year)
The next vintage of Elevation, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz and cabernet franc, is in a difficult position between the much-hyped 07 and 09. It's not hugely concentrated but has refreshing notes of juicy raspberries and violets and a light texture.
Elevation 2007 (R400, available now)
This has a much deeper, more complex nose of cedar, aniseed and in the mouth peppery plums, blackberries, raisins, nutmeg and incense. The aromatic side of the cab franc really shines.
Blueprint Syrah 2010 (R150, release in September)
Initially, quite closed on the nose with a whiff of old shed. But opens out to reveal attractive, lively fruit and a hint of port (the abv is over 16%!). Quite blousy but falls away.
De Trafford Syrah 2010 (R300, September)
Concentrated aromas of ripe dark fruit, violets, lavendar, Arabica coffee. A big wine with a robust tannic structure.
Sijnn 2008 (R160, available)
An intriguing blend of syrah, mourvèdre, touriga nacional and trincadeira which takes its cues from the wines of southern Europe. A rustic, savoury wine brimming with personality that's crying out for a winter stew.
Sijnn 2009 (R180, available)
An altogether deeper, more elegant wine with concentrated flavours of blackberry, plum and spice.