“In South Africa, we’re redefining ourselves socially, politically, vinously,” Mark Solms says, pouring vibrant reds and whites in the garden dining room of a friend’s Upper East Side townhouse on a recent New York visit.
A decade ago, the South African brain researcher and psychoanalyst left London for home, and took over a derelict wine farm belonging to his family in idyllic Franschhoek Valley. Now he’s producing some of the Western Cape’s most cutting-edge blends at Solms-Delta winery, an ambitious land-reform project that makes you even more gratified to drink them.
As I sip and spit, he leans forward, brushing back longish gray-white hair, telling a tale of new grapes, the past’s legacy and a vineyard technique called strangulation. Vines arrived in South Africa about 350 years ago with Dutch, then French Huguenot settlers, who planted grapes based on nostalgia, not suitability for Franschhoek’s rocky soil and hot, windy climate.
The 50-year-old Solms, like many contemporary winegrowers, believes Rhone varietals such as shiraz and Portuguese touriga nacional do better.
The winery’s top Solms-Delta line includes a velvety all- shiraz 2010 Africana ($33) with the depth and power you find in Italian Amarone. The secret to its concentration is nipping the stems with pliers so the grapes desiccate on the vine, an idea borrowed from ancient Greece.
Lemony 2010 Amalie ($28), a white named for a Solms ancestor painted by Rembrandt, is a rich blend of viognier, roussanne and vine-desiccated grenache blanc.
The good value $20 Solms-Astor labels are new takes on traditional South African grapes.
Easy-drinking 2010 Vastrap is a bright, fruity mix of chenin blanc, semillon and riesling. The 2007 Langarm pinotage- based red blend is smoky, spicy, exuberant. NV Cape Jazz Shiraz is festive, sweetly fruity, Italian Lambrusco-like.
As with all South African wine stories, there are deep political and social dimensions to the wines and the land from which they come. Solms left South Africa during the apartheid era and spent 14 years in London, becoming internationally known for his work in the field of neuro-psychoanalysis.
Drawn back post-apartheid “out of homesickness and guilt,” he envisaged making partners of the farm’s black workers, whose seven families had lived on the land in a feudal- type relationship for generations. At first they were unresponsive and Solms found himself falling into the traditional role of the Afrikaans “baas.”
His psychoanalytic training kicked in. For the workers to feel they had a stake in the farm, he realized, they needed to understand its true history. Solms brought in archaeologists and oral historians to help.
“The wine industry was built on slavery,” he says. “We had to tell our stories so we could learn what went wrong and how to put it all right.” A museum on the estate displays the findings, a constant reminder.
Giving workers training in the skills they needed to run things was another step. Fifty percent of the managerial positions at Solms-Delta, which also operates a successful restaurant, are now held by blacks.
“My own privilege was tied to their poverty,” says Solms. “It’s the right thing to do, and it results in better wines.” Enter Solms’ friend and, since 2007, business partner, British philanthropist Richard Astor, whom Solms persuaded to buy an adjacent wine farm. They used the two farms as collateral for a third, now owned by a farm workers’ trust. Of the combined Solms-Delta estate, Solms, Astor and the trust each own a third.
Over lunch, Astor, the quiet side of the duo, downplays his role to “investor and enthusiastic supporter.” His father David, who was editor of “The Observer” newspaper, championed the anti-apartheid movement. Astor met Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in London as a child.
Unlike his ancestor Nancy, a famous teetotaler, Astor enjoys wine. “But the art form I most relate to,” he says, “is music.” (Cape Jazz Shiraz was his idea.) That passion partly inspired a project to rediscover the tradition of Cape music among the farm workers which, in turn, spawned a performance-filled annual harvest festival that attracts 3,500 visitors. The farm has three bands and a CD.
What’s happening at Solms-Delta contrasts sharply with the appalling labor conditions described in Human Rights Watch’s recent report, “Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries.”
While acknowledging that some abuse exists, the nonprofit industry group Wines of South Africa said the report was biased and misleadingly suggested these practices were commonplace. Naturally, they’re worried about the effect on exports.
Solms says the industry faces challenges in owning up to the past and charting a progressive path to the future, but believes they can be met, winery by winery.
On the Solms-Delta Africana label is a drawing of a 7,000- year-old Bushman stone tool found 20 feet from Solms’s front door by farm worker Benny Pietersen, who told him, “You see, professor, my people were here before yours.”
That history and the people who’ve lived on the land for generations, Solms says, are South Africa’s cultural terroir. Without doing right by them, “you can’t make honest wine, much less great wine.”
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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