‘Agulhas Wine Triangle’. Trust me, the words were as foreign to me as they are to you right now.
I first heard the phrase uttered when attending a Rhône wine tasting at De Trafford Wine farm in May. As a journalist with a natural heightened sense of curiosity, my ears perked up. The unheard term had come from Andre Morgenthal, Project Manager behind the particularly successful Old Vines Project.
Interestingly enough, I first met Andre during my studies in Burgundy, at which time in 2015, he came to speak in Dijon as acting Communications Manager of WOSA, advocating for the value of wine tourism. Four years later, it should come as little surprise that Andre has gone on to follow his passion for wine tourism - in a very real way.
“It’s exciting to talk about Agulhas because I have been trying to get this job for 2 years,” laughs Andre when we meet one Tuesday afternoon in rainy Stellenbosch. In an uncharacteristic setup for an interview, with no pre-existing information on the topic, I began with the first of the classic Five W’s of interview questions: What is the Agulhas Wine Triangle?
“It’s a wine route, but more than that - it’s a collective grouping of wineries that fall within the geographic location that we’ve demarcated as the ‘Agulhas Wine Triangle’. The route includes Elim (the Southern boundary), Lomond (the Western boundary) to the Swellendam region (Eastern Boundary),” explains Andre.
Queue my next question: Why?
“I’ve got a long history with the Agulhas guys. I went fishing with them and I was the first to take an international journalist, Tim Atkin, to Elim. I also love the area, the edginess, the amazing seafood (think crayfish and tuna and yellowtail) and I love the way everyone there is looking after the environment in the region,” says Andre.
As it turns out, besides being on a first name basis with every Dirkie, Jackie and Bruce from here to the coast, Andre’s wish to have a foothold in the wine tourism scene has been a long-term one. During his time at WOSA, he held a seat on the SA Wine Route Forum, giving him access every 2 - 3 months to see what the wine routes were doing individually and to get good practice feedback.
“Elim has always been on the back of my mind, in one shape or another,” states Andre. But as it turns out, it wasn’t until power dynamo and entrepreneur behind The Drift, Bruce Jack, got involved that things really kicked into gear.
“Initially I had Elim in mind as a route. The problem was that there are only 3 - 4 wine producers in the area, so that wasn’t enough to count as a fully-fledged route which left me a bit stuck. Then at the start of this year, Bruce Jack came on the scene and made contact with me and said ‘let’s get something going’,” reflects Andre.
Seeing the bigger picture for the potential of the Agulhas Wine Route, and in typical engaging fashion, Bruce went out and rallied fellow wineries from the region. One of the first to jump on board was Jackie Rabe, Sales and Marketing Director at Strandveld Wines, who has been active in pushing the concept with the Agulhas Municipality before Andre got involved.
During his studies, Bruce Jack had done a lot of research into Moravian settlements. What’s interesting is that he discovered that the Moravian missionary’s needed wine for communion, and so wherever they ended up settling was often a good wine growing area. One of the Moravian settlement areas was Elim.
Today, the vineyards in Elim are the Southernmost vineyards in Africa - they get battered by strong winds, moisture and saltiness from the ocean and a cool climate. As David Trafford of Sijnn Wines puts it, “Elim is the windswept plains of Agulhas. It’s out of the way and requires effort to get there.”
But if you do put in the effort, you will get rewarded with a raw and honest region that offers tranquility through nature. Beyond the attractive maritime lifestyle and proximity of the ocean ideal for wine and tourism, there is an intrinsic respect for the land. It’s visible through conservation efforts like the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area - a group of 25 landowners, and the town of Elim, working together over 46,000 hectares in the Plain, to protect the water systems and biodiversity-rich landscapes all around them. There’s also so much history - with approximately 150 shipwrecks that dot our South African coastline, the majority of these are found around the Agulhas region.
“Our strapline for the Agulhas Wine Triangle is ‘Wines for the Explorer’. This harks back to the explorers who found the Cape and landed at Agulhas as well as wine adventurers who want to explore more with wine,” describes Andre.
As any decent journalist, the next fact to cover after the What, is the Why. In this case, the answer echoes the current chime of the wine industry as a whole: the goal is to sell more wine at higher prices and higher quality. As with the Old Vines Project, the aim is to collaborate on opportunities as a group in order to generate a positive halo effect that can prove beneficial for the entire collective. Strength in numbers, right?
After all, if you consider the recent restructuring of Stellenbosch Wine Routes, which is now being managed by Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick and Vilafonté Wine Estates and encompasses the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, there is an industry-wide drive to up the quality and perception of South African wine - especially to international buyers and customers. In addition, Andre notes that there is a more obvious goal of developing the destination of Agulhas.
“My skill set is communication. What’s great is that my Old Vine Project and the Agulhas Wine Triangle are non-conflicting, with totally separate narratives. My next challenge is to get the Agulhas Wine Triangle on the map.”
While the Agulhas Wine Triangle officially started in May 2019, the inaugural members meeting was held more recently on the 10th June at Bruce Jack’s farm, The Drift, in Napier. It was on this auspicious occasion that the first official 8 members congregated, which include:
Bruce Jack Wines
Trizanne Signature Wines
In order to be a member, terroir is key. Certain wine farms can’t be members if they source their grapes from outside of the Agulhas Wine Triangle. Furthermore, there is a monthly membership fee which is used to fund the running of the non-profit company.
“Nadia Hefer and I are running the Old Vine Project and the Agulhas Wine Triangle together. Nadia has great ideas and we work very well together. At the moment, myself and Nadia are the Executive Managers, and then the day-to-day managers are Bruce Jack and Catherine Searle from the Drift, and Jackie from Strandveld. It’s just a small group that runs the route, and then of course there are our members,” explains Andre.
As it stands, the key selling point for any qualifying winery is exposure. At a minimum cost, the Agulhas Wine Route offers the opportunity to participate and have facetime with the people that need to see your wine - be it the media, trade or customers.
David Trafford, a member of the Agulhas Wine Triangle with his winery Sijnn based in Malgas, reflects: “It’s quite significant to have Andre driving this project. We’re hoping he can put us forward as a collective and as a region that’s been a bit forgotten about on the map. From Sijnn’s point of view, while it’s cool to be doing your own thing in the middle of nowhere, from a marketing point of view, there are lots of advantages to being part of a collective showcase. We want to show the wines to the right people and I’m excited to see what’s next,” he adds.
In the face of the wine industry's current challenges, which include climate change, drought, economic instability, vineyard removal, and an unsophisticated market, developing a new wine region seems like a mammoth task. Yet, somehow, through talking to Andre and hearing the determination and sincerity in his voice, I am convinced that he and Bruce have unearthed the wine industry’s ‘next big thing’.
Following the success that the Swartland Revolution built up over a period of two decades, it just goes to show that there is still so much potential for new stories to be told. In a global sense, we’re a young New World country, with our industry only really beginning to flourish following the end of sanctions in the early 90s. There is still so much we have to show for ourselves.
“One of the elements of the Agulhas Wine Triangle story is the very deep farming experience of the people we are dealing with. The people in Agulhas and the surrounding areas have made a choice to be there. Agulhas is about extreme viticulture and a keen knowledge of farming principles. These are the people of the land, and that for me is very important. They have been there for generations and they want to be there and they know how to handle their environment and manage it. I want to share this story with the world,” adds Andre, his eyes lost in thought and staring somewhere beyond me.
You know, it’s rare as a writer in an industry that is over 300 years old that you get the chance to say this, so I am going to take this opportunity and relish it a little by saying:
Introducing the Agulhas Wine Triangle: Wine For The Explorers.
You heard it here first, folks.