It’s not exactly a happy story.
According to the Bible’s Book of Revelation, four horsemen ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses when The Lamb of God opens the first four of the seven seals. As you can imagine, from here on in, interpretations vary - vastly. Some Christians interpret the Horsemen as a prophecy of a future Tribulation, during which time many on Earth will die as a result of multiple catastrophes (I hope you’ve had your morning coffee already?). Be it historicists, preterists, capitalists or literalists, everyone seems to have had their take on the story. Yet, it wasn’t until Tremayne Smith and Jaco Engelbrecht came along that the story got vinified.
Each sporting long beards, black-rimmed glasses and plenty of enthusiasm, this is not the first time Tremayne and Jaco have worked together on a collaboration.
“We met at Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute as students. I was walking past the dorm rooms one day, when I heard metal music blasting from one particular room. So I poked my head in to see who it was, and there was Jaco,” explains Tremayne.
Their love for alternative culture soon comfortably seeped into their viticultural and winemaking methods. After graduating, viticulturist Jaco worked for co-ops before consulting more widely, including for Eben Sadie and the Old Vines Project. Meanwhile, following a stint at Mullineux and Sadie Wines, Tremayne moved onto the role of winemaker at Fable Mountain Vineyards. In 2014, he began his own range of strictly minimal-intervention wines under the Blacksmith label. Working closely with Jaco to help source the perfect fruit, the two decided to make their first wine together in 2017. This came to be known as the Basilisk, a Durif (otherwise known as Petite Sirah) single variety wine named after the shape of the growth point of the vine which had mutated, split and looked like a forked tongue.
“We were quite amazed by the feedback after the Basilisk was released, especially as there aren’t a lot of single variety Durifs on the market. So we were pleasantly surprised and decided to do something different and unique, which ended up being the Horsemen range,” shares Jaco.
With the labels taking inspiration from flash-stencil style tattoos and graphic novels, these wines are enjoyable – and serious. Tremayne and Jaco’s take on the story of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ is that, despite the chaos incurred, the horsemen established balance in the world. Relating this back to wine, Jaco explains that the Horsemen Range focuses on sustainability, especially with regards to efficient water utilisation and working with suitable dryland varieties in the face of climate change.
“We were seeing a lot of vineyards struggling. So we started looking at varietals that can take the punch of extreme heat and no irrigation. We started working with Grenache Noir, Carignan and Chenin Blanc, as we want to plant varieties that we can farm sustainably for the coming 20 - 30 years without just pumping water out of the ground. And so we thought about how the Four Horsemen came to bring balance in spite of the destruction and we feel the same about what these varieties are going to do,” says Jaco.
He has a point. Beyond the fact that Cape Town almost reached a Day Zero water crisis last year (a true modern day catastrophe), 2019 was the warmest recorded summer in 80 years.
“What we are seeing with the vineyards we are working with, is that despite this radical shift in climate, varieties like Grenache and Carignan are just cruising and producing amazing fruit,” adds Tremayne.
The Horsemen Range has 4 new wines, which fall under the broader Blacksmith umbrella. The wines are aptly named The White, Black, Red and Pale Rider. “We weren’t going to name our wines after the riders which were called Death, Famine, War, and Conquest - that wouldn’t be good for marketing,” laughs Tremayne. “So we opted to name the wines after the horses themselves”.
The equestrian theme works. The wines are made using varieties like Chenin Blanc and Grenache Noir - typical workhorses of the vineyard. All the maiden releases are from 2018, natural and whole-bunch fermented, made without additives, and matured in old oak.
100% Chenin Blanc, W.O. Philadelphia
Made using 100% Chenin Blanc, Tremayne and Jaco wanted to achieve a stronger stone fruit, flinty bouquet for this variety, and so they headed to an unusual territory: Philadelphia. Located 33 km south-west of Malmesbury (somewhere between Durbanville and Swartland), the story behind the planting of this vineyard is equally unusual.
“We found this young site on a ridge and were told by the farmer that there was no way we would be able to plant vines in the rock hard slate. However, a week later we were called back to find big shards of shale broken up on the site, ready for vineyards. When I asked the farmer what he’d done, he answered: ‘dynamite!’” laughs Jaco.
100% Chenin Blanc, W.O. Paarl
Since the 90s, this Chenin Blanc vineyard was abandoned, just waiting to be discovered. But it wasn’t until 2014 when Jaco happened upon this particularly steep piece of land in his bakkie (‘I almost rolled into the valley twice!’). He called the farmer to ask whether he was aware of these forgotten vines, overgrown and surrounded by Black Wattle trees. “Yes, they were planted sometime between 1991 - 1994, but what’s more impressive is that you even found them. I can’t even get to them with my quad-bike!” he exclaimed.
It took a lot of work to revive this vineyard back to its former glory, with the removal of the surrounding alien trees and a lot of back-breaking work due to the vineyard’s uncomfortable location. Yet, the vine has given back with thanks. While the first harvest in 2018 was 2.3 tonnes per hectare, this year’s harvest was 6 tonnes per hectare, further entrenching Jaco and Tremayne’s steadfast belief in the long-term endurance of varietals like Chenin Blanc.
100% Grenache Noir, W.O. Darling
“Typically, Grenache yields a lot of fruit which dilutes the flavour, so we specifically wanted older vineyards which tend to regulate themselves better and have more developed character,” explains Jaco.
“I worked with this Grenache vineyard about 8 or 9 years ago - it’s 17 years old. What makes it so special within the South African context is that there is less than 2% leafroll virus, and there’s not a lot of red varieties that are that old that are still leafroll virus free - especially in this stressful, hot environment.”
Both Tremayne and Jaco fell in love with Grenache in Spain. Indeed, it was here where Tremayne first learnt about cold fermenting Grenache at 18 degrees. “It ferments much slower and produces a much more elegant Grenache without harsh tannins. The result is a wine with pure, bright red fruit and only two 500 litre barriques produced.
100% Carignan, W.O. Darling
The Carignan is from an area called Soutdam (meaning ‘salt dam’ in Afrikaans), located about 15kms away from Yzerfontein. The story goes that during the drought, a lot of the salt came up into the soil as the water evaporated, which has resulted in an interesting salinity in the wine.
“There’s not a lot of bushvine Carignan currently available in South Africa. The main reason I chose the Soutdam site is because I know Carignan as ‘spice’, and in order to achieve that spice, it needs a diurnal shift between hot day and cool night temperatures," explains Jaco. "As the site is near Yzerfontein, this vineyard is quite close to the ocean, and it almost feels like an aircon gets switched on every afternoon around 2pm, which is perfect to cool the vines down,” he ends.
This Carignan was 100% whole bunch fermented with only two 500l barriques produced.
While the initial prophecy of the Four Horsemen may seem all doom and gloom at first, when it comes to Jaco and Tremayne, these two are out for conquest. Above all else, the message Tremayne and Jaco want everyone to walk away with is that they are planting vineyards for the future. In fact, so far, they have saved two vineyards themselves. Tremayne ends: “It’s always difficult to say no to Jaco when he shows me awesome vineyards.”
Well gentlemen: here’s to being Yes Men.