“Wine has to bring you pleasure”says Cape Town’s Clos d’Oranje J.Vincent Ridon
There is always something intriguing about a wine you don’t know yet, but whose reputation is a forebode of things to come. On a chilly December night I entered the door of Emperor Wine in Amsterdam to find our host for the evening was none other than Jean-Vincent Ridon, the French winemaker and viticulturist, who started producing wines in South Africa in 1997. One of his first official sentences was: “wine first and foremost has to give you pleasure.” Not a bad way to start a vertical tasting of one of South African’s most sought after red wines.
A vertical tasting of Signall Hill’s wines
We tasted Signall Hill’s maiden vintage 2005, the amazing, perfectly balanced 2006, the rich, smooth 2007, the structured 2008 and still developing 2009 and the rough, still young 2010, which didn’t meet Ridon’s quality standard and probably won’t come on the market. In 2010 he made only 1 barrel (normally 2). The bad 2010 harvest had a lot of rot and 2011 was even worse. As an extra bonus we tasted Signal Hill Grenache Noir 2013 as well and the surprising Signal Hill Crème de Tête 2003, made of the Noble Late Harvest Muscat d’Alexandrie, also known as Hanepoot in South Africa. With its 260 gr/l residual sugar Crème de Tête was lusciously sweet, but not clogging, with a good acidity and zesty mandarin and dried apricot flavours. Ridon made only 2 barrels in 2003.
Cape town’s only city vineyard Clos d’Oranje
But the star of the evening was Clos d’Oranje. To create Cape Town’s only urban vineyard was a real dream come true for Jean Vincent Ridon. It was not Jean Vincent’s first turn at the helm of a city vineyard tough. He worked before at Clos Montmartre, the unique Paris city vineyard, where on special appointment by the Mayor of Paris he was in charge of the 2001 vintage. It made him thinking about inner city vineyards and he wanted to replicate the experience in Cape Town, South Africa.
A short history
Ridon had no clue where to find land for this urban vineyard so he decided to call in help from a local radio station with brief on-air message. His call for land was answered by the Andrag family who owned 2 vegetable garden plots in Oranjezicht, in the middle of Cape Town at the bottom of Table Mountain. After some deliberations Clos d’Oranje was established in partnership with the Andrag-family. The Andrags and Ridon decided on a lease for 10 years, which was a bit of a risk, considering the fact that the land needs at least 4 years to harvest the first crop and Ridon at the time wasn’t sure if the Andrag family would renew the lease. “The vineyard was the first step in our vision of regenerating what was. Cape Town in the past used to be a city of full of vineyards.”
Jan van Riebeeck and the Cape town vineyards
Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch governor of the Cape, planted vines on the slopes of Table Mountain in 1655, along the Liesbeeck River. “In that year year Mr. Van Riebeek planted twelve hundred vines that had been allocated to him to cultivate for his private benefit. This place was about an hour on foot to the other side of Rondebosch, and was called therefore Wynberg.” The first 9 Free Burghers (free citizens) planted even more vines in 1657. Barely two years later on 2 February 1659, Jan van Riebeeck harvested the first vintage from three vines. In the next 170 years the area remained mainly agricultural. The estates produced grain and grapes, and some farmers made wine. Before Phylloxera wiped out the Cape Town vineyards (after it arrived in 1886) Church Street was blessed with 3 wineries, and the nearby wine estates Leeuwenhof, (12 ha) and Welgemeend. Cape Town vineyards never recovered from the Phylloxera blow. Nowadays the lower slopes of Table Mountain are covered with prime real estate rather than vineyards, except for one small walled vineyard -Clos d’Oranje- on Lincoln road, the only urban vineyard that still bears witness to Cape Town’s long wine history.
How to recreate a pre Phylloxera wine experience?
The deep, red soil of Clos d’Oranje with its north-facing aspect seemed ideal for Syrah. Jean Vincent Ridon chose to do something radical. He once tasted an old wine from the pre Phylloxera era and found the taste and texture different than wines made from vines grafted on American rootstocks.”The old wine had something different I did not find in grafted wines.” He gave himself the challenging task to recreate this pre Phylloxera wine experience and decided not to use American root-stocks. To push the envelope to see where it goes, he planted ungrafted Syrah, smuggling cuttings from France in his suitcase.
The fact that the vines are grown on their own root-stocks is a risky strategy, it implies the danger of the vines falling prey to Phylloxera, the louse that decimated South Africa’s and Europe’s vineyards in the 19Th century. But it seemed all worth it. Jean Vincent Ridon claims that the ungrafted Syrah vines produce wines with a more zesty acidity; they are fresher, more complex, better-balanced wines. Looking through papers in the archive of Cape Town, he furthermore discovered that pre Phylloxera a high density of planting -12.000 vines per hectare- was common, to reduce the burning influence from the sun.
Organic farming practices
The vines are grown according to organic farming practices and picked at a perfect ripeness to protect their unique flavours. Jean Vincent adapts his vineyard practices to the vintage and climate conditions, which sometimes necessitates earlier picking. The Syrah grapes are harvested by hand and also hand sorted, a change Ridon introduced from 2008 on. “There’s no machine that can do this as well as human fingers.” Ridon relies on friend and volunteers to help with the picking.
The juice is extracted in a manual press or by art of foot treading, stomping the grapes with your feet. Jean Vincent likes to feel the physical temperature in the tank.” It gives precious information for wine making. I know it’s difficult to apply in big, big tanks. If you take wine from the tap it doesn’t always indicate the temperature in the full tank. The temperature can differentiate in particular areas of the tank; your feet make you aware of these differences.” In a space hardly bigger than a living room 3 stainless steel tanks, a corking machine and a few barrels make up the winery. Perhaps not surprisingly the yield and the production are low, an average of 580-600 bottles per year.
Winemakers cannot always deliver to everybody
“Wine is not a standardised product. As winemakers we cannot always deliver to everybody. I do make mistakes in my quest to protect the identity of my “block” and wines. The thing is I am not afraid to make mistakes. My wines also need time. The texture on the palate and the length – the minerality and the persistence- are important to me. I want to make wine that is an expression of the place where it is grown and in my vision wine has to be enjoyed with food. Wine is a base of our culture, wine is my culture, it must be drunk and shared. ” I could not agree more.
6, Lincoln Rd., Oranjezicht, Western Cape, South Africa
Signal Hill Winery and Wine Embasssy
Heritage Square, 100 Shortmarket Street Cape Town