Fryer’s Cove: the Wild Wine West

Reaching South Africa’s most uniquely situated winery is no walk in the park. From Cape Town, one goes north for 300km, hanging west off the N7 at the hamlet of Klawer, through the Olifantsrivier Valley at Vredendal, and onto the West Coast town of Strandfontein. The drive is through fertile irrigated alluvial soils farmed with vines and vegetables and olives, although the country maintains a degree of the desolate and the untamed.

The nearer the coast, the more vivid the wilderness with low shrubland replacing the vineyards and the veld gaining a stony bleakness. Scented ocean air announces the entrance to Strandfontein, but you are going south for seven kilometres to Doringbaai. Once home to a thriving community centred around the crayfish factory, which was annually exporting hundreds of tons of the crustaceans to the glittering white-clothed tables of France, the town is now still and desolate. Yet the factory located on the bay’s southerly point remains Doringbaai’s focus, now being the home of Fryer’s Cove. And to repeat, the most uniquely positioned winery in South Africa and one of the most distinctive in the world.

I pull over at the entrance to Doringbaai, for it makes for good view. To the left is a row of houses, including an accommodation unit and a coffee-shop and eatery. On the right, the endless Atlantic Ocean is moodier than usual, a restless, groaning expanse of blue-grey water upon which clipped waves break with throaty roars. Brutal strips of rocks intersect the dramatic ocean, and the heads of kelp sway and sing and prod through the agitated surface.

Here and there lonely sea-gulls struggle on the edgy breeze, the coldness of which stings the skin, making eyes water and noses run. This is the Cape West Coast at its most dramatic, a stark bleakness off-set by the spectacularly visceral show of nature at its untamed best.

Hardly anybody’s idea of wine country, but there it is over the bay: Fryer’s Cove, a winery that began as an idea between a local Vredendal farmer Jan Ponk van Zyl and his wine-making brother-in-law Wynand Hamman.

The first wines were made in 2001 from vines Van Zyl and Hamman had planted two years earlier between Strandfontein and Doringbaai on a patch a few hundred metres from the ocean’s edge. Fruit was vinified in Stellenbosch, after which the resulting wines – Sauvignon Blanc, initially – captured the imagination with their complexity and maritime-influenced palate presence.

Fryer’s Cove vineyards, red Hutton on the ocean edge.

As the legend of Fryer’s Cove grew, the two gents began to look at the town’s old crayfish factory. The planning of Doringbaai’s fishery began back in 1925 due to the dense crayfish population, the European market for this delectable creature and the bay’s natural ability to permit the safe-launching of fishing boats and off-loading their catch in calmer waters.

The factory was built, and for over five decades it formed the lifeblood of the Doringbaai community, providing hundreds of employment opportunities and sustaining people of various creeds that had made the way up west to ply their trades.

In the 1990s, the South African fishing industry became a victim of a new political attitude towards ocean resources and those permitted to access them, which saw Doringbaai’s crayfish business no longer viable. The factory went out of business, standing as an empty, desolate monument to what once was an integral part of this coastal community.

In 2010 Jan Ponk and Wynand decided to move the winery into the former crayfish factory, from then making their wines there as well as establishing a tasting venue and restaurant in this location right on the edge of the ocean. Despite being a far-flung destination for a wine-taster, the unique setting and the charming West Coast hospitality made Fryer’s Cove a place worth discovering, with visitors preparing to drive a few hundred kilometres to get there. Those who understand the pleasures held by a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and a plate of fish and chips enjoyed on the water’s edge of a faraway isolated setting will understand.

In 2020 Fryer’s Cove was bought by DGB, heralding a new era. The authenticity of the setting and the former fish factory has remained, but investments in winery equipment and the hospitality-offering have resulted in Fryer’s Cove now being a world-class wine destination which, to my mind, needs a greater introduction to the international wine community as further evidence of the truly captivatingly individual offerings South Africa holds.

During my recent visit during this famous 2023 winter of storms, Doringbaai showed the rugged, inhospitable character of the West Coast’s far-flung regions in all its formidable glory. The rain pelted down in the blackness of night, and as day dawned the ocean was furious with waves crashing and sea spray covering the town. This made al fresco enjoyment of Fryer’s Cove’s offerings impossible, but inside the tasting-venue, it was warm and light with the ominous grey sea visible through large windows.

Lodgings for crayfish factory-workers, now empty.

Here one looks down into the winery where once crayfish were being cooked for export, but now rows of uniform ceramic wine vessels and tanks hold the latest vintage of wines made from the nearby vineyards. And with one half of the factory now housing an abalone farm where these desirable molluscs are cultivated for the oriental markets, Fryer’s Cove’s integrity as a processor of the fruits of the ocean remains intact.

Despite the varied elements lying in the back-story and the evocative nature of this place, I am here for the wine. The Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc, whose reputation lies at the heart of the matter and without which this whole Fryer’s Cove story would not have been here to tell.

Next to a plate of abalone risotto, a determined ray of sun having broken through the clouds leaving an incandescent azure streak on the ocean, I am poured a glass of Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2022. The wine is of deep colour, its intensity drawn from those low-yielding sea-fronting vineyards. It is pure, no wood, all its traits originating from this place – the only wine that can call that parcel of vines and red Hutton soil its home of birth.

The wine’s golden hue, off-set by a stroke of emerald leads to a nose of kelp and bright Cape thick-skin lemon with a slight hint of freshly unearthed white asparagus. Another morsel of abalone, cloaked in creamy arborio rice, prepares the senses of what is to come.

As I taste, I am not thinking of a one-of-a-kind strip of Doringbaai terroir on the remote West Coast, nor of the variety of Sauvignon Blanc from which the elixir is made. All I experience is a great white wine, and this is all that matters.

There is such confidence in the way it announces itself onto the palate, easily finding lay in the sensory-detecting expanse of one’s mouth. Initially cool, the wine warms, sending rafts of flavour to enhance the pleasure of its liquid presence.

A note of late-winter arum lily creates a gardenesque rural charm, with the alert runs of lemon warming to a tropical fruit frame speaking persimmon and Cape gooseberry. Also, now, a slight and polite rustle of those wild sour figs that grow in coastal shrubs. And on the finish, that hint of asparagus gives the exciting brightness and layered deftness a touch of the rural, of the earth, of that which is rooted and growing, the life through ancient soil.

The blessing is more than in the class of Fryer’s Cove wine. For it is through the gift of wine and the attracting of those who fall under its spell that this magical place of Doringbaai has been given a new lease on life, proving that wine is pleasure and culture, joy and warmth. But also holds the lifeblood to change the fortunes of places and its people.

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One thought on “Fryer’s Cove: the Wild Wine West

  1. It is the most amazing sauvignon Blanc in South Africa. But it is not understood by anyone of the Sauvignon Blanc Guild or even the wine drinking public at large. Saying it’s too wild , too many perosines, too similar to New Zealand’s South Island ie not really South African . The only person that understands this wine is Jan Ponk van Zyl. The man who planted the vineyard . What a treat when he presents the wine in a tasting !

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