The sweetest grapes in South Africa, wrote Afrikaans short-story maestro Abraham de Vries, are found in Vermaaklikheid. And as a former resident of this rural community on the banks of the Duiwenhoks River some 300km east of Cape Town, the recent vinous ambitions shown here are being watched with interest.
Baleia Wines made Vermaaklikheid a part of the Cape wine scene in 2011 with its first vintage, but grapes and its alcohol derivatives have been part of this community for centuries. That sweet fruit De Vries wrote about was mainly Hanepoot (Muscat d’Alexandrie), and although Oom Abraham and his buddies might have preferred eating them, the locals were keen distillers of an illegal fire-water known as witblits. This word is translated as “white lightning” and anyone who has had a shot of Vermaaklikheid’s heady contraband will know that a more apt name for it there is not.
The Vermaaklikheid landscape is still dotted with the craters those bootleggers used to hide their pot-stills from the authorities, part of a treasure trove of local culture and history that is as colourful and quaint as it is unique and unyielding to those from the outside.
One would have to be an ignoramus to note that Vermaaklikheid’s geography is not conducive to viticulture, albeit of the extreme kind. The sea is some six kilometres to the south, there where the Duiwenhoks River flows into the Indian Ocean at the village of Puntjie. A constant breeze fans the area, blowing from the south in summer and north in winter, and from all over in between. It is harsh country, the fynbos is glorious and the soil rocky, dry and chock-full of chalk.
If I were to plant vines and enter the gladiatorial arena of modern South African wine making, this is the kind of extreme, far-flung and unique “site” I’d go for.
Arco Laarman, former wine maker at Glen Carlou, has done just that as part of a new solo project termed Focal Point. The focus is on two wines: a Chardonnay 2017 from Vermaaklikheid and then a Cinsault, same year, from another relatively removed wine pocket which we know as Bottelary Hills. Focal Point’s aim is absolute expression of place, earth and air, which makes the Chardonnay something special to me due to its Vermaaklikheid origin.
Ripening is end-February and beginning March, just as the southerly wind starts to back-off and the kabeljou in the Duiwenhoks begin to bite, if I recall correctly. Yields are six to eight tons a hectare, grapes trucked down to Paarl. Of course, the focal point Arco embraces is not limited to the precision and extremity of the vineyards. Glen Carlou, his former paymaster, does have a reputation for Chardonnay, and Arco approaches the wine-making with the exactness of a sashimi chef preparing omasake for a gang of yakuza out for the kill.
The grapes were whole-bunch pressed with a spurt of juice going directly into barrel while the rest was given two days to catch its breath before seeing wood. Fermentation was done in four batches over three weeks and incorporated natural yeasts as well as cultivated critters. And then it was into the barrel: 10 months, combination of 48% new French and 52% barrels Arco terms as “neutral”, probably meaning of negligible influence.
This detailed approach to the Focal Point Chardonnay 2017 shows upon tasting the wine, which is another welcome addition to the top tier of great Chardonnays South Africa is becoming noticed for. Is there another wine in the country even slightly related to it in terms of aroma, flavour and structure? Perhaps De Wetshof The Site, which like the Focal Point eschews the sumptuous sweet core many of our Chardonnays show.
Being a young wine, this was decanted for thirty minutes which is recommended as it is still as tight as a just-strung Stradivarius violin. Given a bit of air, the Chardonnay opens up slowly, inviting one to pass through the creaking door into a world of beauty and splendour you can smell and taste.
The wine has a noticeable hint of dry fynbos on the nose, a smell the Cape South Coast is known for due to its natural, untamed ruggedness. This is complemented by a note of crushed quince, an indication of the juiciness to come.
It attacks the palate like a platoon of Naval Seals who come dripping and splashing from dark blue, deep oceans. A sharp line of broken oyster and limpet shell makes its presence known, followed by elements of Meyer lemon, green almond powder, Cretian oregano and just the slightest edge of a sage leaf which has been added to a plate of burnt full-cream butter.
Once it has settled into the warmness of the human mouth, the Naval Seals turn into a trio of midnight jazz dudes lead by Chet Baker. There is a riff of apple blossoms blowing in a storm; a dank, moody strum of fresh moss growing next to a sparkling mountain stream; the beat of pick-axes piling into blocks of chalky rock.
But of course, it is all very tasty. The texture is brisk and joyful. The wine perks you up with its invigorating lust for life and that call to partake in this journey along a path filled with natural beauty, an experience to awaken all the senses and just live that one moment on which the wine focusses. Which can last forever.
Just as one is not going to miss the taste of the Focal Point, visually the wines make a statement, too. Check out the cork bungs over the bottle-neck which replaces those environmentally unfriendly, sea turtle-gagging sleeves of plastic and lead. Not only does this cork feature make the presentation aesthetically unique, but it furthers the message of the necessity for sustainability in packaging, something all consumer products are going to be forced to show in future.
As we locals know, there’s forever something magical from Vermaaklikheid. Always has, always will.
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