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 wine regions of South Africa are defined under the “Wines of Origin” (WO) act of 1973 (similar to the French AOC or California’s AVAs). The WO system divides wine regions similarly to our AVA system: Geographical Units (large, general wine-growing region like “Napa” or “Sonoma”), Regions (slightly more specific like “Sonoma Coast”), Districts (like “Dry Creek”) and Wards — the most specific and terroir-driven delineation. The two main South African WOs are the Western Cape and the Northern Cape, with the Western Cape dominating with 97% of the country’s total wine production.
For this close-up look, I will be focusing on South Africa’s Western Cape WO.
Those first South African vineyards planted in the 17th Century were actually located in the Western Cape. And while Simon van der Stel, the second governor of the town is largely responsible for creating the South African winemaking region, setting up the first wine estate, Constantia, it was truly the French immigrants who influenced and propelled the industry. In the late 17th Century, many French Protestants fled to the Western Cape, escaping religious prosecution from the Catholic French government, bringing vines from the motherland to their new home.
For this reason, many of the first wines produced in South Africa had a strong Bordeaux influence. But along with the modern resurgence of the country’s winemaking was the realization that the land is capable of much more.
The Western Cape’s wine regions spans 200 miles, from the southern most top of Cape Town to the Olifants River in the north, with the eastern border at the Mossel Bay. Vineyards are, for the most part, all within 100 mies of the ocean, though there are a few at the most inland stretches of the WO that are influenced by the Great Karoo Desert, a semi-dry atmosphere. But the overall climate is a Mediterranean-like one, and it is with that notion that Rhône grape varieties have become increasingly popular.
And while many earlier critics have called SA Rhône wines “high in alcohol,” “too ripe,” “too sweet,” it seems that there is yet a third renaissance of winemaking taking place at the moment — a new generation of winemakers who are embracing the land, Old World techniques, and modern knowledge.
Lubanzi — Bringing the World Closer Together through Wine
Charlie Brain and Walker Brown have a wine story I couldn’t pass up. So when they approached me about tasting their wines, I was more than honored to taste and share what this amazing duo has achieved — both in the wine industry and as a global movement.
Charlie and Walker connected in 2014 when they were both studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa as exchange students. Though they both had their own reasons for being drawn to the country, they soon found they shared “a strong curiosity for the unknown and appetite for genuine discovery,” as Walker says. At the end of their last semester, they embarked on a week-long backpacking expedition along the Wild Coast, a remote part of the country now famous, as it is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. On the second day, a wandering dog began following their group and journeyed with them for 100 miles over 6 days, mysteriously disappearing the night before their departure. “There’s some poetic justice in that,” says Walker.
The boys undoubtedly fell in love with South Africa, and ultimately realized how vastly mis-understood the modern, internationally-cultured country is by most Americans. Walker and Charlie craved an opportunity to provide a connection between the two seemingly different worlds of Africa and America.”We weren’t looking for wine at the time [of the expedition] — just the next thrill,” says Walker, “but over time the wine kept finding us. Even when we were back in America it felt as though it kept finding a way back into our lives.” In 2015, during Charlie’s final semester at Vanderbilt, was involved in an entrepreneurial in which, based around creating a business plan, refining that idea, and ultimately pitching the potential business as a final assignment and class competition. Charlie’s business model? What he calls a “test-drive” of what would eventually become Lubanzi. “He actually ended up winning the competition,” adds Walker.
The boys traveled back to South Africa, seeking out the best vineyard sources, working closely with local wine producers, and slowly developed their wines as well as their mission statement: “Globally minded, locally run.” Their unique, boutique wine business shares the beautiful bounty of the South African land while also making a difference in the lives of the workers who dedicate themselves to the farm and field work that produces that bounty. Not only do they hire the local community as field hands and winery workers, Charlie and Walker also pledge 50% of their profits to the Pebbles Project, an NGO that works with the low-income families who live and work on South Africa’s wine farms. The organization provides direct health resources to the children of the families who live and work on the farm from which Lubanzi sources their grapes. “These are certainly not ‘our’ field workers,” says Walker, “but we felt it was so important, for the purposes of developing a more full, complete, and equitable supply chain, that the money our business generates […] ends up directly benefitting the hands that tend to the vines that produce our grapes.”
And so, with the assistance of winemakers Trizanne Barnard and Bruce Jack, Charlie and Walker’s dream has become a reality.
They’ve chosen to call their project Lubanzi — it was the name the local people gave to the wandering dog during that epic week-long journey. The name Lubanzi translated to “expansive” or “broad” from the Zulu language. Appropriate, since the boys are bringing this broad world together one bottle at a time.
Lubanzi 2015 Rhône Red Blend
Lubanzi 2016 Chenin Blanc
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