There are not many good things to have come out of the pandemic, but Radford Dale’s venture into cool-climate Elgin is one of them.
The company already had a winery in coastal Stellenbosch when Covid-19 struck and everything changed practically overnight.
‘The ground was shifting,’ recalls Jaques de Klerk, Radford Dale’s co-owner and head of viticulture and winemaking. ‘There was a ban on wine sales in South Africa and a lot of people wanted to get out. Buying the vineyard in Elgin was an opportunity that might not have existed were it not for the pandemic.’
The Elgin estate is a small one – just 20 hectares, of which only six were under vine at the time of purchase. Radford Dale have since increased this to 11 hectares, having planted more Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as the first Gamay in the region’s history. But, unusually, the estate has been farmed organically since it was first planted in 2007, meaning that the soil is teeming with life. ‘Chemicals nuke everything, the good and the bad,’ says de Klerk. ‘With organic vineyards there’s a balance. And there’s a natural vivacity to the vines. It’s like they are supercharged!’
As well as being hands-off in the winery and minimum intervention in the vineyard for a decade, Radford Dale are also champions of unusual varieties. Grenache is one. Most of this variety’s plantings are currently in Swartland, but the team at Radford Dale feel it has real potential in Stellenbosch, too, and is better suited to the climate than, say, Merlot.
Gamay is another. They were the first to plant it in the Cape for 20 years, in Stellenbosch, and own or manage 3.5 of the approximately 8ha currently in existence, so it’s clearly something they believe in. The combination of granite soils (as in Beaujolais) and Gamay’s ability to withstand heat make it able to produce good mid-weight or chillable wines even in higher temperatures.
But their championing of the underdog is perhaps most clearly seen in their Frankenstein Pinotage – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the not always stellar reputation that the variety has enjoyed. The team at Radford Dale, however, believe Pinotage is a grape more sinned against than sinning.
‘The creature [in Frankenstein] was ostracised and beaten, so it became a monster,’ says de Klerk. ‘When treated with compassion, its softer side reveals itself.’
They have learned from the mistakes of the way that the variety used to be treated – picked too ripe, extracted for a long time and heavily oaked to try to create big, powerful, Cabernet-like wines, to which it was exceptionally ill-suited. Or as de Klerk pithily puts it, ‘If its mother was Pinot and its father was Cinsault, why would you make it try and do Cabernet work? We like to appeal to Pinotage’s wonderful innate qualities and try to avoid provoking its mean side!’
Radford Dale – Four wines to try:
Radford Dale Organic Estate, Touchstone Chardonnay, Elgin, 2022
If you like a sweeter, riper style of Chardonnay, this isn’t for you. It’s taut, linear and restrained; not introverted exactly – it’s drinking nicely now – but certainly self-possessed. The fruit is white and edgy for the Cape – think cool pears and apples, not peaches – with a gleaming, pure needle-point of acidity shining through its flinty heart.
Drink 2023-2033 | Alcohol 13.5%
Renaissance Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, 2020
The RD team are big fans of Chenin on granite, and this wine – from 50-year-old vines on the dolomitic Polkadraai Hills – shows why. It’s a multi-layered offering of fresh Mirabelle plums, quince and apple compote, beautifully balanced by Chenin’s natural broad-mouth acidity. Texturally, it’s oily and waxy, with a taut saltiness – almost smokiness – in behind.
Drink 2023-2033 | Alcohol 13%
The Antidote Gamay Noir, Stellenbosch, 2021
This wine is so-called because it’s the antithesis of big, heavily-fruited wines. Certainly, there’s an attractive brambly mid-weight fruit character to this – baskets of red fruit with gentle tannins and a natural salivating acidity. If Gamay loves granite in Beaujolais, then why not in the Cape, too? On this evidence we’ll see more of it.
Drink 2023-2025 | Alcohol 12.5%
Frankenstein Pinotage, Stellenbosch, 2020
Winemaker Jacques de Klerk says that to get good Pinotage you need to treat it gently. This is whole-berry fermented at cooler temperatures and barely oaked in old 500-litre barrels. The result is a joyful, pure, juicy explosion of summer: black strawberries and currant bushes with zest and vibrancy. Bright, crunchy and chillable for late summer or early autumn.
Drink 2023-2026 | Alcohol 12%