Spotting the second Snowy Egret ever to have winged into South Africa was supposed to be the highlight of my day. Thys Louw from Diemersdal Estate changed that. I had a rare bird in the hand, indeed, but it was worth two cases of good wine in the boot. Diemersdal, out Durbanville way, is something of a wine industry miracle. Sure, there is the Estate’s charming history going back to 1698, a formidable set of gabled buildings – possibly the most gables you will find on any single Cape farm – and a wonderful rural expansiveness making it hard to believe Cape Town is just over 20km away. The fact that Diemersdal has avoided Durbanville’s disconcerting and irresponsible urban sprawl, has helped in this. But it is on farming and wine-making side that I stand before Diemersdal in wonder. Over 200ha of vines, without a drop of added irrigation. This takes some doing. Coaxing three tons out of a hectare of grapes from a geriatric dryland vineyard whose gnarled age is the resulting wine’s only real redeeming feature, is a piece of putty.
But to farm 200ha dryland commercially and successfully required what Liam Neeson in the Taken movies would refer to as a “special set of skills”. And much to the chagrin of wine industry activist Tim James and the rest of the Pinko Vino crowd, Diemersdal’s grapes are wonderfully efficiently harvested and selected by state-of-the-art machines, the future for the Cape wine industry. Oh, and then there are the wines. The range is extensive, but Diemersdal Sauvignon Blancs have pretty much set the South African standard. The Pinotage is a perennial winner at the Absa Top 10. And the MM Louw Estate Red, a Cabernet Sauvignon-driven Bordeaux-style, has won an Old Mutual Trophy – twice. The range also includes Chardonnay, Shiraz, Grenache and South Africa’s first Grüne Veltliner. “We make wines people like to drink and wines that sell,” says Thys, cellar master and caller of the shots, while dad Tienie still maintains a formidable quick-eyed and humorous presence. Despite his reputation as a craftsman in the cellar – a truly skilled wine maker- Thys is a farmer at heart. “It’s the soils,” he answers to my question about Diemersdal’s ability to produce consistent quality through a wide range of wines. “The soils truly are incredible – deep, rich clay embedded with pebbles and small rock. We get 670mm of rain a year and don’t need or use other irrigation.”
The farming is not, however, limited to wine grapes. Cattle and sheep are always in the picture to sate the Louws prodigious meat appetites. And recently Thys has taken to running a few pigs fed on acorns and sauvignon blanc skins. Prosciutto-style curing is being negotiated, and Tienie hands me pork neck of a beautiful deep pink colour not found among most retailers selling pork. But wine is the focus. “I’ll turn you into a Sauvignon Blanc drinker yet,” Thys says, filling a glass with MM Louw Sauvignon Blanc 2013, an interpretation of this variety that I have always seen as leader of the pack. Wooded, but only for mouth-feel and presence, as well as to inhibit any possible overtly-sharp acids. The MM Louw leads with a smooth, shy entry of white fruit and blossom, before dropping a buxom, bright dollop of wilderness on the mid-palate. Sherbet and flowers compete for attention with ripe quince and green figs, all stuck on a white-water raft of invigorating freshness. The wine is surprisingly broad and multi-dimensional for a clay-soiled wine, surely a result of artistry in the cellar and some judicious use of new French oak. I had not had Diemersdal – or any Durbanville – Chardonnay for a while, so was champing at the bit to get a load on the Estate’s Reserve 2013. It is Meursault all the way, this. Nine months in oak, including a fifth new wood, this wine does a fine, fine balancing act between silky butteriness and the multi-faceted tangy, stone-fruit minerality an excellent Chardonnay offers. It is brilliantly complete on all fronts, and offers the kind of satisfaction that would make the world a better place if more people could experience it. On the red side, I found the Diemersdal Grenache 2013 approachable and down-able. Crunchy red fruit with a touch of spice and leather. Cool, charming and long. Energetic and enticing. A reminder of the intensity the Grenache wave is going to have when it hits the consumer. Durbanville, it must be remembered, is one of South Africa’s premier red wine regions despite the focus on Sauvignon Blanc. This is where Meerendal made those great Pinotages and Shiraz wines; this is where George Spies sourced the grapes for his single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons. So the greatness of Diemersdal’s MM Louw Estate Red 2013 should not come as a surprise, but it does. Some 77% Cabernet Sauvignon anchores the blend. The 17% Merlot makes ways for 2% each of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. 20 months in French barriques, new and 2nd fill. The power is brooding and formidable; the earth has parted and God Cabernet Sauvignon is flinging flaming boulders and lava all over the place. Yet, the sight is beautiful and charmingly visceral. The Merlot component brings choral music and angel-flesh to the wine, which is red and wet and from which deep drinking is required. It is the blood of life, this wine, and a South African classic. The Snowy Egret has gone, riding the southerly ocean breezes back to South America. But we’ll always have Diemersdal. Always.