“I’ll never forget it”, says Ian Naudé, “but a few years ago I was battling to sell one of my more obscure wines, and Eben Sadie said: ‘Ian, if you keep trying to push a truck uphill, eventually it will run you over.’”
What a time it is for South African wine. The last decade has seen the emergence of so many talented, young winemakers: winemakers with the distaste for convention. And while the conventional sit and deliberate over the future, this new generation is busy writing it.
Or so the story goes. But there are a few local winemakers who were challenging the status quo before clay amphoras, skin contact Chenin or the Swartland Revolution.
Ian Naudé is one of those.
Naudé is an enigma. He’ll tell you that he’s a dog person (he is) – that he’s terrible with people (he isn’t) – then you’ll see him with an audience of wine buyers hanging on to his every word. He’ll be talking about dogs.
He’ll blend a single Sauvignon Blanc from five different regions because he thought it would make a fascinating wine (it did).
He’ll say yes or no before he’s heard the question, and if you tell him to go left, he’ll go right.
A bona fide contrarian, it’s fair to say that Ian’s winemaking decisions aren’t usually based on commercial viability. They are curious, instinctive and informed by the whims of an artist rather than a businessman. To illustrate this, below is a paraphrased excerpt from our conversation:
Ian: “I don’t care about what’s popular or on trend. It’s all about the quality of the grapes. Whether that’s Pinot or Palomino, if it’s amazing fruit, it can produce an amazing wine.”
Me: “You’re doing a Pinot, aren’t you?”
Ian: “No, a Palomino. We’re actually bottling today.”
Me: “But nobody drinks Palomino unless it’s Sherry. Actually, nobody drinks Sherry either.”
Ian: “Well they’re all idiots because it’s delicious. Beautiful fruit picked nice and early, it’s so fresh and dry and… Anyway, forget Palomino, we’re calling it Malvasia Rei.”
Me: “Malwhosia What? When? Why?”
Ian: “Malvasia Rei. It’s the original name of the grape.”
Me: “Aaaah, well, in that case, it’ll fly off the shelves.”
He does have one saving grace, does Ian. Whether it’s Malvasia Rei, Mawhosia What, his mythical 2014 Grenache, the aforementioned 5-region Sauvignon Blanc or a 10-year bottle-aged white blend, his wines are fresh, complex, idiosyncratic and quite brilliant.
And this is what’s so intriguing. It seems logical that, over time, a winemaker might master one or two varietals. That with a few harvests, enough time in the cellar and some experimentation, one might figure a grape out. Surely you can’t just pick up a new varietal and get it right straight away?
“Well that’s a good point”, Ian says encouragingly, “except that it’s bullshit.”
“When you think you know what you’re doing, that’s when you trip up. I don’t believe that you master a grape as such. My belief is that, to make a great wine, you need to master the vintage. You have to understand the terroir, know the conditions, the soil, the weather, the vineyard. You have to understand the factors that have produced that grape, and then pick it at the right time. At that point, the wine is basically made. At least that’s how I feel now. I might change my mind tomorrow.”
There’s a lot to like about this philosophy, and while it will no doubt differ from a large producer making big, blockbuster reds, his is an attitude that shows respect and deference to the elements. And it strikes me that it might be this humility that makes him so good at what he does. Quite simply, he doesn’t believe his own legend. He doesn’t buy into the bullshit.
He’s big on making great wine, not so much on self-promotion.
Nevertheless, these wines are now receiving a lot of international attention. London-based South African Master of Wine, Greg Sherwood, has been singing their praises for years. His 2013 Old Vine Chenin Blanc and 2015 Old Vine Cinsault appearing in Sherwood’s top 10 wine discoveries, while his 2014 Grenache is routinely taking out Cornas in blind tastings. Other influential critics have caught on too, so there’s a genuine buzz about what he’s doing. Unique, intriguing and bursting with life, these wines demand your attention, but for the time being, there’s another one demanding mine:
Ian recalls another conversation with Eben Sadie. About 20 years ago they spoke about South Africa’s wine identity and what the future held. The upshot was a focus on our diversity of terroir – effectively growing conditions – and not trying to emulate what’s done elsewhere. For Sadie, the rest is history. For Naudé, that history resulted in his white blend; a quite singular expression of Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. He describes it as his new world, lean, Chablis-style, lunchtime wine.
And it’s an absolute triumph. Bursting with bright citrus, stone fruit, flintiness, and minerality, it drinks beautifully on its own, pairs well with almost anything and remains impossibly fresh, even after 10 years in the bottle. But again, there’s a catch. If ordinary white blends are hard to sell, aged white blends are even harder. It doesn’t matter how great the wine is, most wine drinkers don’t understand the proposition.
So I put it to Ian, why doesn’t he just make a more “typical” wine? A R120.00 Shiraz, a 1-region Sauvignon Blanc or a Normal Vine Fruit Bomb?
You can probably guess his answer. That’s not Ian Naudé.
“What can I say?” he says, “I like pushing the truck uphill."