Narrow Gate is a small, family owned and operated boutique winery located just outside of Placerville in California’s Pleasant Valley in El Dorado County, run by husband-and-wife team Frank (the viticulturist and winemaker) and Teena Hildebrand (co-owner and winery chef). Not only are the duo hands-on winemakers, practice biodynamic farming, and love food and wine pairing (almost) as much as I do — but for these two, running a winery is a work of faith and passion. Teena and Frank both left a lucrative careers in the fashion industry to pursue, what they believe, is a much higher calling.
“It was our newfound faith in Christ that drove us to pursue His plan for our life instead of the world’s – that, in a nut shell, is the Narrow Gate: choosing God’s plan instead of the world’s.” –Teena Hildebrand
When I first connected with Lubanzi, this is the wine that most intrigued me. With a vast array of Rhône wines available to me here in California (and, it seems, that number is increasing based on this year’s Rhône Ranger event), I was quite eager to taste what a South African expression of this French tradition would taste like. Unlike where California’s Rhône grape varieties are planted, there’s not much similar between the soil and the climate between South Africa’s Western Cape and the French Rhône Valley. Though most texts will tell you that this western pocket of Africa does “enjoy a Mediterranean climate,” I would go ahead and edit that to “a Mediterranean-like” climate, as the combination of ocean, dessert, and mountainscape, creates quite a unique terroir situation and, thus, interesting Rhône interpretations.
About the Wine: The Lubanzi 2016 Chenin Blanc is made from 100% Chenin Blanc grapes harvested from the Swartland W.O. in South Africa.
Swartland, located just 40 miles north of Cape Town in the Western Cape WO, was originally a wheat-production region. Today, it is one of the WO’s main grape-growing regions, the most important grapes being Shiraz and Chenin Blanc. Topography here includes varying degrees of elevation, as it sits between the Paardeberg mountain in the south, the Piketberg plains in the north, and the Kasteelberg Moutnain to the east. The dominant soil type here is Malmesbury shale (named after Swartland’s central town of Malmesbury) — a good soil for natural drainage improved even further by the area’s elevation. Because it is somewhat separated from the Atlantic Ocean, Swartland’s climate is actually a hot and dry one, which is a benefit to Chenin Blanc, a tightly clustered grape variety susceptible to mildew and fungal disease when exposed to wet environments.
And, so it is here that Lubanzi sources their Chenin Blanc grapes.
According to Kevin Zraley’s Windows on the World, South Africa has the world’s oldest wine-growing geology, dating back to 1652 when the Dutch settlers planted their first vineyards. But until the mid 1990s, South African wines didn’t travel much — certainly not to America. This was largely due to the massive amount of boycotts around the world on South African products in conjunction with the country’s apartheid system. Once apartheid ended, South Africa’s export trade opened up and wine production received somewhat of a renaissance. Today, the country has just over 600 wineries.
Most of South Africa’s wine regions are located near the coasts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The climate is traditionally Mediterranean with sunny, dry summers, and cold, wet winters that often include snowfall at the higher elevations.
The theme is international wine this week — if you’ve been hanging out reading about Languedoc and New Zealand, then you know what I’m talking about. I have one wine that doesn’t quite fall into any of the designated “regional” themes, so this one-off review is just a celebration of my first Muscadet.