In 1997 Charles Back bought a farm called Klein Amoskuil near Malmesbury in the Swartland region north-west of Paarl, then rather better known for its wheat than its wine.
In just two years he transformed the place. Under performing vines were grubbed up, though select blocks of 40-year-old Chenin and Pinotage, which promised – and subsequently delivered – distinctive wines, were retained. Warm-climate reds, many new to the Cape and historically at home in the Rhône, South of France and Italy, were established, all in all: some 140 hectares.
Back bucked viticultural trends of the time, adopting practices dictated by the immediate environment: dryland (un-irrigated) bushvines, with just four to five fruiting spurs per vine. He chose to be satisfied with the resultant low production levels of around three to four tons per hectare.
Hot, dry summers are balanced by deep, moisture-retentive soils which remain cool. And night temperatures are also surprisingly temperate, effectively slowing the ripening process – especially important for the late-ripening varieties – to close the gap between high sugars and phenolic ripeness.
In 2005 Spice Route Winery acquired vineyards in the cool hills outside the town on Darling near the Cape’s west coast. Sauvignon Blanc has found its home in these hills, with their deep red oakleaf soils. In addition, the Spice Route team has Semillon, Chenin Blanc and Shiraz vines here as well.
The Vineyards. At Malmesbury, red varietals such as Syrah, Pinotage, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, Carignan and Grenache have been selected. White wine varieties Viognier and Chenin Blanc are also planted, producing exceptional, richly flavoured wines. The Malmesbury vineyards are all dry land farmed and are predominantly untrellised bushvines, (only our Pinotage vineyards on the Rheeboksfontein site are trellised). The soils at these vineyards are a combination of Malmesbury shale the descriptively named Koffieklip (coffee stone) soils. Red clay subsoils retain the moisture required for dryland (unirrigated) farming.
Darling is increasingly regarded as a prime Sauvignon Blanc growing area in the Western Cape. Spice Route’s vineyards on the rolling hills are less than 8km from the Atlantic Ocean and its cooling breezes. The deep red Oakleaf soils here are perfectly suited to producing Sauvignon Blanc grapes of intense flavour and intriguing minerality. These vines are trellised and with strong vigour require constant attention to ensure that yields are carefully managed. In addition to 60 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc, Charles Back and Charl du Plessis have bushvine Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Shiraz vines comprising the remainder of the 100 hectares of vineyard
The Cellar handles some 1000 tons of fruit each vintage, it is equipped predominantly with 12- and 18-ton stainless steel fermentation tanks, as well as five-ton open concrete and French oak fermenters. Maturation is in 225l barrels, primarily French but also some American oak. Between 40 and 60 per cent of the 1 000-odd barriques are renewed each year, depending on the requirements of the vintage, style of wine and quality of fruit.
The flagship of the winery, Malabar, is produced in a separate, dedicated cellar. Here fruit is hand sorted over sorting tables, and only the finest berries are selected. These grape varieties are fermented and matured individually, and only the top quality is retained within the Malabar cellar. The wines are handcrafted and receive carefully considered oaking. Winemaker Charl du Plessis, along with a team of tasters, taste the wines regularly and when the quality is of an acceptable level a blend is developed. Malabar is produced with no regard to quantity, and volumes are governed by the quality of the blend’s constituents. The final blend is returned to barrels to mature and knit together, until it is considered worthy of its title and leaves the Malabar cellar.