The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Fynbos needs Fire, South Africa Part 2

A fluffy Chihuahua is sniffing my leg. It may be a native breed, with a fierce Rhodesian-ridgeback type name. But Rhodesian ridgebacks are fierce, and this dog is just bothersome. Cute. A little dirty. It will not bring down an antelope, or even a dik-dik. We are in front of an equally improbable structure, an oasis of colonial refinement and calm, white plaster walls and rose gardens, surrounded by millions of acres of nothing. Vines, arid brown scrub, the occasional invasive tree. Trees are as much transplants here as the Cape Dutch homestead, with its barns and red clay tile floors, at which we’ve arrived. The trees crowd out the fynbos, leaching too much precious water from the earth and threatening the unique flora of the Western Cape. The South Africans I talked to were proud of their fynbos. Justifiably. If North Carolina was a flora kingdom completely distinct from the world’s other (much larger) five flora kingdoms, i.e. every plant of my homeland were a part of an ecosystem contained entirely within my homeland, I’d talk about it incessantly as well. Which they do. Fynbos must be etched onto their identity in primary school; rote enunciation of the thousands of remaining flora names as much a part of the educational routine as ABCs and finger paint. On reflection, finger paint may be a distinctly American educational diversion. Our fynbos.

The family I’m visiting dry farm their vines. It is still surprising to see so much green vineyard land in the dry warm afternoon of this place. Looking out onto huge slightly sloping vineyards backed up by jagged mountains to the north and south I’m surprised to hear Mr. Drier say his farm only suffers ten days over 30 degrees Celsius per year, and two over 40. The Atlantic Ocean also makes sleeping possible in this lucky corner of the Western Cape, with an average temperature at night of 25 Celsius. I think I suffer more at home, away from the large African sun. I swear it’s bigger. I feel it resting right over my shoulder on these vineyard visits, scalding my bald spot as I bend over to sample abandoned Cinsault berries. They call them Hermitage here.

The best wine at Leeuwenkuil farm was the 2006 Chenin, a crisp green apple respite from the dry air outside. I want to drink it with white-flesh fish. Unfortunately, while we did eat meals based on the abundant local seafood (kingclip, or pink cusk-eel etc.) perfect refreshing seafood whites like this were never on hand for those meals. Life is full of near-misses. Here we ate gamey sausages and Cook’s Sisters, crispy doughnuts dialed up to 11. According to our hosts, Malmsbury shale soils contribute to their Chenin’s minerality, a welcome component rarely found in (and particularly rarely found in affordable) “New World” whites. The South Africans I’m riding around the Western Cape with would bristle at the use of the term New World to describe their endeavors, and they have a point. The long cool reed-ceilinged dining room that doubles as a tasting forum for these occasions is the hub of a farm that was established in 1693. And not by a retired Silicon Valley mogul.

Fynbos needs fire, at least every 20 years to germinate and grow. A local ant stores the seeds, grows mold on them, and eats it. A little ant farmer. Fire triggers the germination of these underground seeds. How can we as sentient creatures hazard intentional altering of our surroundings when they’re of full of these tiny perfect systems? Alteration seems to stomp forward with little thought or discussion of these vanishing pieces of original ecology. I know the fiendish among you can argue that other fauna predated these ants. But we are not an ice age, or an asteroid. And they’ve been ant farming for tens of thousands of years. The 200 km band that is the Cape Flora kingdom is the main reason why South Africa contains 10% of all the world’s plant and animal species, making that nation the third most diverse nation in the world behind Brazil and Indonesia. Those nations are way bigger. 1,000 of South Africa’s native species are currently endangered, mostly due to invasive species and the presence of booming and expanding Cape Town.


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