This article first appeared in Wine Spectator on the 20 February 2013.
The road up to David Trafford's place in Stellenbosch is an adventure. The road out to Sijnn, his second project, in Malgas, is something else entirely. It's a 2.5-hour drive from Walker Bay, with over 45 miles of gravel roads. The constant clanging and thumping of rocks underneath, along the side and occasionally off the windshield of the car drown out any music you might have on the radio.
But of course, it's worth it.
Trafford found a property in the Malgas Ward on an alluvial terrace above the Breede River, surrounded by wheat fields and just 9 miles from the coast. A gentle breeze wafts over the modestly sloped site, with variable cloud cover shifting constantly.
"That's what's interesting here," said Trafford. "Sun, then clouds, then sun. Maybe a sprinkle, then sun. It's always changing, so ripening can take a little longer than you might think. With the constant but slight mildew pressure and the wind being the two main problems here, we have to tip a lot and keep the bunches loose."
Trafford bought the 309-acre farm in 2003 and began planting vines in '04. Today, there are 40 acres of Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Cabernet Sauvignon. Grenache and maybe a few other varieties might get a trial as well.
Trafford found the spot while on a weekend holiday with his wife, Rita. A few small vacation houses line the banks of the river below.
"I saw the soils and thought, 'This might be interesting.' And then Rita said, 'Oh no, here we go again,'" said Trafford with a soft laugh. "But seriously, what's interesting to me, is that historically, vineyards have always been planted close to civilization and with ease of access to water. People didn't go out looking for extreme places that are isolated or accidental by nature. That's where the frontier is and I think that's what we should be doing when we're looking for new potential vineyard sites. Areas like Hemel-en-Aarde and Elim, they came up that way, with pioneers and partly by accident. And now look where they are."
All the plantings are on bush vines and from afar the vineyard looks a little unkempt. But up close, each vine is carrying a consistent set of bunches and the vineyard looks healthy and vibrant. The soil transports you to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with large rolled stones covering the surface. Chunks of quartz pop out here and there too.
"We can't be too fussy here. Obviously we have to run a vineyard, but not being on site all the time, you have to learn to be a bit minimalist in your approach," said Trafford, who makes the 4-hour drive out from Stellenbosch every few weeks to check on things.
As for the mixed-bag approach of grape varieties, Trafford takes his usual intellectual approach.
"There are average temperatures similar to Stellenbosch here, but just 13 inches of rain. I wanted classic grapes from warm climate areas such as Spain, Portugal, France and Italy, figuring the drier conditions would benefit them. Plus it's not about more. We already make Syrah in Stellenbosch so we don't need to do just another Syrah. It's about doing what works, so we needed to try different things to see what the site could do."
Currently the grapes are being trucked back to the Keermont winery, next door to Trafford's Stellenbosch estate, but there are plans to build a winery on site. Naturally low-yielding, at just 1.6 tons per acre, the entire vineyard is only producing 2,000 cases annually, though there is a little room to grow. Currently Trafford is the only producer in the area.
"It would be nice to get some neighbors and build some additional interest in the area, so we may grow the vineyard a little bit to augment the grapes that we sell off," he said. (Duncan Savage, winemaker at Cape Point, is one of the few people currently buying some fruit from Sijnn for his own label).
The site has had its hiccups along the way: A bundle of Mourvèdre vines from a nursery turned out to be Sauvignon Blanc, discovered only after they started bearing fruit; the Trincadeira was supposed to be Tempranillo.
"It's susceptible to rot and ripens very quickly, so it's tricky to grow. And it's not much on its own but it does bring a little something to the blend," said Trafford with a combination of resignation and rejuvenated fortitude, adding, "but there's a Japanese philosophy in architecture: You don't correct a mistake. You just work around it and proceed. And then that way you tend to make fewer mistakes down the road. Of course, you have to hope the mistake doesn't mean the whole building might fall down. I still haven't figured that one out yet."
At Sijnn, an alluvial terrace features rocky soils that could be mistaken for Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Made from a blend of Chenin Blanc and Viognier, the white wine sees moderate skin contact, then is drained to barrel for a naturally occurring fermentation. It spends nine months in oak, with just 15 percent new wood. The 2008 Sijnn Swellendam White shows salted butter, fennel, toasted almond and meringue notes. "With Chenin so good in South Africa, we figured the white had to rely heavily on it, but we would try other things with it as well," said Trafford. The 2009 Sijnn Swellendam White (63/37 Chenin and Viognier) is more floral, with white peach, lemon curd and salted butter notes, picking up a lanolin hint on the finish, though there is still cut too.
The 2010 Sijnn Malgas White (57/43 Chenin and Viognier) shows more range, with enticing melon, yellow apple, peach and tangerine fruit flavors laced with heather, quinine and salted butter notes on the very long finish. An echo of bitter almond adds extra spine too.
The 2011 Sijnn Malgas White (73/27 Chenin and Viognier) is intense, with bitter almond, peach pit, salted butter, chamomile and pink grapefruit notes that all race through a long, taut finish. The 2012 Sijnn Malgas White (84/16 Chenin and Viognier) is very fresh, with green almond, honeysuckle, green melon and stony notes that carry through a long, pure talc-tinged finish. It's easily the freshest style vintage for the wine yet, with an echo of fennel adding length.
For the red, Shiraz takes the lead, typically about 40 percent of the blend, with the rest made up of varying amounts of Mourvèdre, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Cabernet Sauvignon. The destemmed grapes are fermented in stainless steel, given a 10-day maceration and then moved to 225-liter barrels (20 percent new) for their malolactic. The blend is put together after 10 months and then the final wine is moved back to 700-liter barrels for an additional eight to 10 months of aging before being bottled.
The 2007 Sijnn Swellendam is beefy and dark now, with plum, fig and roasted alder notes and a rich, smoldering charcoal finish. The 2008 Sijnn Swellendam is fleshy and velvety, but with a bright iron note running through the blackberry coulis, plum and fig notes. A warm charcoal note fills in on the finish, The 2009 Sijnn Swellendam takes a step up in terms of range and depth, with alder and juniper notes lacing up dark plum and blackberry fruit along with extra bay, tobacco and iron notes filling in on the finish. Despite the Southern Rhone-like feel and dark smoky notes, the tannins are velvety and suave while the acidity is well-embedded on the finish.
The 2010 Sijnn Malgas is a shade brighter, with red currant and linzer fruit notes adding to the typical blackberry core. The charcoal edge is here too, but with even better integration, and the finish is long and polished. The 2011 Sijnn Malgas is the brightest of the vintages produced so far, with a violet note now chiming in along with the red cherry, red currant and blackberry fruit. Singed spice, blood orange, mesquite and a strong iron note all course through the finish. The 2011 is the lowest alcohol of the set, checking in at just 13.7 percent, a function of a cooler year, though the wine doesn't lack for depth or length. A barrel sample of the 2012 Sijnn Malgas is deliciously pure, with blueberry, red cherry and plum coulis fruit flavors augmented with a twinge of red licorice and toasted spice. It has a lovely, sleek, refined feel through the finish, with a buried iron note that should emerge more as it develops in barrel and eventually bottle.
Trafford earned his stripes in Stellenbosch, producing one of the country's top Syrahs, as well as consistently outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc. He could have easily stayed there. Instead, he's taking a chance on an unheard-of place, relying on intuition and feel as he develops Sijnn. In just a few vintages, he's already pulled together a white and red wine with a thoroughly distinct profile and steadily improving quality. There are few wines I would push people to seek out--I like to point to quality and then let consumers find what style of wine they enjoy drinking. In this case though, I think it's important for anyone who appreciates the efforts that go into making wine to try and track down a few bottles of Sijnn. There are few projects that epitomize such a soulful, pioneering approach to winemaking.