Back in time for wine of the future

Sam Venter
Johan Simons exercises his passion for natural wine-making at Fynbos Estate in the Swartland, home of Dragonridge Wines

Wine-makers all have their own story to tell about how and why they make wine the way they do.

For Johan Simons of Dragonridge Wines, it’s a philosophy of reflecting the unique conditions of the farm in the wine, by travelling back to the natural wine-making methods of the early 1900s.

A molecular biologist by training, Simons says he finds “both delight and challenge in translating the exact vineyard conditions” into each of the 10000 bottles he makes yearly at Fynbos Estate in the Swartland, where a dragon-shaped hill inspired the naming of the wine.

He recalls tasting a 1961 Chateau Palmer in the 1970s which transformed the way he thought about wine.

“The Palmer smelled and tasted of the entire year with all the seasons clearly identifiable,” he says, describing the moment that sparked an interest in making wine, although it was more than 20 years before he finally acquired a vineyard.

Johan and wife Diana bought Fynbos Estate near Malmesbury in 1997, initially supplying grapes to Swartland Cellars as well as undertaking new plantings. They started making their own wine garagiste-style in 2006 and turned to full-time wine-making in 2011 when they renovated the 1850s cellar on the farm.

“I chose 1900 as a winemaking year to emulate because by then copper and sulphur as fungicides were available, there were no commercial yeasts (indeed none until the 1980s) and machinery was simple. Winemaking was to a large extent non-interventionist. Natural wines and natural winemaking appealed to me then and still does,” said Simons.

The small range of Dragonridge wines come from 16 hectares of non-irrigated, organically grown bush vines, hand-harvested, minimally handled and naturally fermented with only the slightest pressing, low in sulphur and non-filtered.

So natural are the wine-making methods, that when Simons decided to introduce a bubbly, he went back to the Méthode Ancestrale used in France 200 years ago.

Unlike the controllable process of making Méthode Cap Classique by adding specific quantities of yeast and sugar to spark the second fermentation in the bottle, here nothing is added and only the wine’s own sugars and wild yeasts make the second fermentation happen.

More natural yes, but also more risky and unpredictable – 10% of the first vintage of the aptly-named Supernova was lost to an explosion in the cellar!

Dragonridge concentrates on the grapes that do so well in the Swartland’s dry Mediterranean climate reminiscent of the Rhone and Italy – making Shiraz, Mourvedre, Sangiovese, as well as Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon, and wooded and unwooded Chenin Blanc.

The Pinotage 2015 is really lovely – none of the characteristics that put people off Pinotage, only the good parts.
Dark and rich, intense, inky and savoury with concentrated fruit, it has that iron-fist- in-velvet-glove feel – structure and tannin wrapped up in smoothly textured style.

The wooded Cygnus Chenin 2015 is a deep golden, and made to sip and savour.

A little rest after opening and it settled into mellow honeyed tones, rich ripe dried fruit and nuttiness, a tiny hint of warm zingy spice, offset by a touch of minerality to balance it all out.

Both wines live up to the promise of intriguing, characterful wines, really unusual, delicious and definitely ageworthy.

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