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The Long Way Home

“I’m on my way, I’m on my way, I’m on my way, I’m on my way home.” - ‘Marathon’ by the Heartless Bastards


The Long Way Home

I was born in Ashton. At the time my dad was the winemaker at the Ashton Co-op, a winery now known for concentrate juice, in a town known for canned fruit. Soon after my birth we moved to Worcester, where my dad started a wine bottling plant.

Worcester 

Worcester is a somewhat blue-collar town, I did not see it then, but I see it now. A town characterized by its schools for the deaf and blind, dried fruit and brandy. I don’t visit there much anymore, my family moved to Paarl where my mother’s side of the family is from. My Grandfather used to own the farm next to Laborie. I don’t take serious issue with my background; I had an innocent upbringing. We had horses while I was growing up, mine was called Nimrod. He was an Arabian Stallion, so after school I spent most of my afternoons riding. Being a third generation winegrower, I spent a lot of time with my dad and his friends, who were mostly winemakers themselves. They didn’t know it then, but they were to instill in me a desire to make wine from a very early age. People like Phillip Jordaan, Wilhelm Linde and Dassie Smit. I never wanted to do anything else. At the age of 13 I wanted to make wine and so started my journey.

In my final year of high school our principal asked us what we would like to become and then organized for us to spend a week in that job. I was sent to Nuy Winery, and of course loved it. Scrubbing tartrates from tanks and floors, I could not wait to run my own winery one day.

The Flying Winemaker

After high school I wanted to get out of South Africa for a bit and organized a job in Portugal. I wanted to learn more about corks and found a job at Champcork, part of Amorim. I spent my days doing torsion tests, they all break at the same pressure. The year after that I went to Elsenburg, where I laid the foundation for my winemaking techniques. After Elsenburg I went to America, I found a harvest job at Cosentino Winery in Yountville. It is an Italian winery that makes really elegant Bordeaux and Italian varietal wines. After harvest, the owner Mitch asked me if I would like to stay. So three months became five years. I was put in charge of all their vineyards. At 23 I was totally thrown in the deep end. Sink or swim, I swam as hard as I could.

USA

At the time Cosentino winery bought an old rundown farm in Pope Valley and I was put in charge of restoring it to its former glory. I planted my first vineyard in 2001. It was Cabernet Sauvignon. I still remember that, the dirt, the scent of diesel and how proud I was the first time we picked that vineyard. I remained their Viticulturist until 2005. I had been looking after their vineyard in Rutherford, Carneros, Napa and Pope Valley. We grew it all, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Sangiovese. It was hard work. I would wake up at five only to return at eight, running a number of crews at the same time.

LVMH

It was time for me to return to winemaking and so I managed to secure a job at Newton Winery in Saint Helena. Newton Winery belongs to LVMH, such an exciting place to make wine. The advantages of such a huge, international company were many as we shared a lot of resources. We had huge budgets, if I wanted an optical sorter, I would put it on my budget and by the next vintage it would arrive. Winemakers from Cheval Blanc, Cape Mentelle and Numanthia frequently visited and helped out in the winery.

Vilafonté

After 5 years as winemaker at Newton it had been ten years away from South Africa, it was time to return. There was a time when the States felt more like home than South Africa, but that was never the intention. I met Dr. Phil Freese a couple of times before, so I e-mailed him and asked him for a job. As luck would have it, the winemaker position was vacant, and after five, hour-long Skype calls Zelma Long gave me the job. I made wine at Vilafonté for six years. Working with Zelma, Mike and Phil really took me that one step further and prepared me to start Paserene. Zelma is a remarkable mentor, she taught me to be detail orientated and thorough. Everything is measured, everything recorded. We worked well together, her attention to detail and my intuition. Next time you see a bottle of Vilafonté on the shelf, do not be discouraged by the price, there is so much work going into those wines.

Paserene

The first vintage of Paserene was created in 2013. I wanted to make my favourite red and white, a Chardonnay and a Cab-like wine. The Chardonnay was easy, but Vilafonté would not allow me to make a Cab, Merlot, Malbec or Cab Franc because it would be a direct competitor of their Series C. Fair. However, being as bull-headed as I am, I persisted with the idea of making a Bordeaux Blend. The only two varietals left were Petit Verdot and Carménère. I found the Petit in Stellenbosch, but where on earth would I find Carménère? I phoned SAWIS and they told me there is one block in Philadelphia. Philadelphia, Western Cape. I purchased the grapes, made the wine and blended it. Only to find that I could not sell it, since it had just been brought into the country and was not yet legal, there was the matter of red tape. I sold that first vintage without their knowledge.

Elgin Chardonnay

I said earlier that the Chardonnay was easy, but it really wasn’t. It was easy to find, not easy to make. Four years ago, there was still a lot of Chardonnay for sale in Elgin, now it is rare and pricey. Most of the apple farmers uprooted their vineyards because grapes do not command the same margins as apples. I wanted to make the same style of Chardonnay that I did in the States. Full ripe, golden and big. At Newton we used to pick a vineyard 5 times, only taking the golden bunches. Picking at that ripeness level, will be slanted in SA, but there really is nothing quite like it, think of sautéing ripe banana, butter and brown sugar, you will remember it when you taste it. Soon in the life of my first vintage of Paserene Chardonnay, the wine showed me that it would not conform to my need of ripe fruit flavours. Instead she gave me something much more fragile, pure, linear and restrained. I did not know what to make of it and took it to Michael Fridjhon to taste. He said it was one of the best Chardonnays he had ever tasted from South Africa, he likened it to a Chablis rather than a South African wine. I thought to myself: “Well then okay, if that is what she wants to be, I’ll let her be.”

 I am a strong believer in being authentic. No matter what it takes, do your thing. I saw a documentary about a big American football player, who when he is not bashing peoples’ heads in on the field, knits doilies in his spare time. That is cool to me. I have an artistic brain, but I cannot paint or draw. I needed someone to take what is in my mind and put it on paper, without distorting the message.

The art

I worked with Lorraine Loots, Carmen Ziervogel and Lauren Ann McCarthy. Besides probably being the most attractive creative team in Cape Town, they are also the most gifted. The swallow on the Marathon was created by Lorraine to commemorate my time in the States and travelling between South Africa and there. The colours used refer to the warmth and energy of the wine. Carmen created the girl. I wanted to have an image of a woman on the label because of where the wine is from and because the wine itself was always a woman to me. To me, Elgin is intoxicatingly beautiful. It is a gentle place with its hills and valleys, the way it gets rain and 18 degree days while the rest of the country suffers a heat wave. Once you understand the place, the way she works, the rain, cold and ‘ever-greenness’, you fall in love. The wine is like that too. 100% Chardonnay that is fragile and yet powerful.

Terroir

The scene on the Union takes place in Tulbagh. Here the climate is totally different, warmer and drier than that of Elgin. Both artists worked on this piece. It is here where the two elements come together. They were always drawn to each other. It is supposed to give an indication of what terroir really is, a careful dance between Mother Nature and the winemaker. I am a precision winemaker, although I rarely add anything to my wines and I do not filter them, I spend a lot of time and effort on what exactly goes into the bottle. I want the person who drinks my wine to feel that it is a very special moment. When an architect creates his life’s work, you can marvel at it for a 100 years to come. MY life’s work you will wee out within an hour, so I better make that moment count. 

Published On: 06/07/2017

Martin Smith

Twitter @PasereneWine

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