ABINGDON CREATES A LEGACY OF FINE WINE
IMAGES: SUPPLIED BY ABINGDON WINE ESTATE
In 2007, Abingdon made history when it produced KZN’s first certified estate wine. 12 years’ later, the estate’s restaurant was voted South Africa’s best kept secret. Shirley le Guern visited the beautiful Midlands farm to learn about this unique success story.
It’s hard to know what to expect when you wind up the hillside between the oaks and vineyards towards Abingdon. This is not your conventional Western Cape wine farm and there’s no commercialised tasting on offer. But, amid the peace and the silence, you get the feeling that there’s something special happening here.
As I perch at the wine bar in the rustic restaurant, I’m not quite sure where to start. Right at the very beginning, say Ian and Jane Smorthwaite whose deep love for Abingdon is infectious.
They bought the farm in 2000 with no intention of transforming it into a wine estate. The room in which we are sitting was supposed to have been the showroom for their décor business that supplied hotels and lodges at the time.
But life had different plans.
Two years later, Ian announced that he was going to plant a vineyard. The more that Jane told him that he had to be joking and put this down to something of a midlife crisis, the more determined he became.
The first vines were planted in 2004 and, by 2007, what became the Abingdon Wine Estate made history when it produced KwaZulu-Natal’s first certified Estate wine.
Over the next 17 years, Abingdon went from strength to strength. In 2010, two American journalists who were writing a book on their favourite wine estates in the southern hemisphere tasted Abingdon’s wines and immediately added the small estate to their list.
“That’s when we realized that we were on to something,” admits Jane. Wines submitted to competitions in London won medals while further awards followed. In 2019, Abingdon was voted South Africa’s Best Kept Secret in the 2019 Amex Dining Awards.
AN UNLIKELY WINEMAKER
But, Ian started out as a beer drinker.
“I grew up in Asia and the Middle East and we never had wine. We had beer – and ale in England. It was only on coming to South Africa 31 years ago that I actually started drinking wine. I don’t drink spirits, beer was probably getting boring so I just developed this real interest in wine. I was intrigued that you could have different sauvignons and they were all different,” he explains.
He also had no interest in agriculture. “I’m not a farmer and never had been. My background was drilling oil wells. But I wanted to do something with the land. I’m not good with cattle or sheep as I don’t like sending them to market and I certainly couldn’t see myself growing cabbages or mealies. I suppose that, at the time, wine seemed somewhat romantic.”
He also admits that he almost instinctively knew that this would work.
He picked up his fist book in 2002 to find out more about wine that grew in climates similar to the continental one in which his family found itself. It was unlike any wine growing regions in South Africa which were more Mediterranean. Instead, his small Lion’s River farm was much closer to the Loire Valley in France and parts of Northern Italy.
“What I was interested in was anywhere with the same climate, typography and geology. But, the more that I read and researched, the more I realized that this part of the Midlands is completely and utterly unique. The reason for this is that we have two big oceans, a massive continent and a large mountain range and completely different weather,” he explains.
Unlike most local winemakers who work in a low altitude winter rainfall region which is similar to that around the Mediterranean, Abingdon is situated at an 1 140 m altitude with summer rainfall and extremely unpredictable weather that can go from blazing hot to thunder storms and even the odd snowfall.
But it is this altitude that has proved to be Abingdon’s saving grace. A little further down the hill and closer to Pietermaritzburg and planting grapes for winemaking would have been out of the question. Nearer to Nottingham Road and Ian would have had to be very careful about what he planted.
“So we are right in the cradle. Assuming that you get the right varieties and clones and the right root stock, there is no reason why you should not to be successful,” he says.
Ian points out that producing good wine is 10 percent wine making and 90 percent viticulture and centres on understanding the science behind the process.
He did a lot of research, reading up about the chemistry, the technology and the micro biology of wine.
But, what he didn’t realise at the outset was just how much hard work it would be.
“You get up in the morning wanting to go to work which is a great thing. But you have to be prepared to get on your hands and knees. Don’t expect to get up in the morning and stand around with your coffee in your hand telling someone else what to do,” he observes.
I’m also a great believer that gardening is the secret to longevity. That’s why the Japanese live so long. This is gardening at the end of the day. I just happen to have 1000 vines. I average around 15 km a day in the vineyard. If there’s lightening or torrential rain, I’ll come in but anything else …”
Jane believes that it is this strong work ethic that has set Abingdon apart and is the reason why, out of around 40 growers who set out to grow wine in the Midlands initially, Abingdon is one of the very few that survived.
“I can honestly say that we are one of the only vineyards left that is still producing – but it is because of Ian’s tenacity and his hard work,” she says.
CHALLENGES ALONG THE WAY
Jane recalls ploughing every cent into Abingdon and waiting out that difficult nine to 10 years that it usually takes for an operation such as this to break even.
“I had no idea how we were going to eat at one point but Ian kept saying trust me, trust me,” she recalls.
Another major bump in the road was the arrival of an outspoken competitor that claimed to be producing wines from an estate in the Midlands only to be exposed as a fraud who was surreptitiously buying up wine made in the Western Cape and relabelling it as their own.
When the Smorthwaites questioned what was happening, they were slapped with a law suit which they ultimately won.
However, a huge amount of damage was done to the credibility of the fledgling wine industry in KZN and Jane believes it has taken 10 years to recover and begin to rebuild its reputation.
Even when people were hinting at skulduggery and saying wine would not be grown in the Midlands, Ian and Jane never faltered from their intention of producing a 100 % certified estate wine. In the process, they garnered a huge support base among South Africa’s top wine makers, earned international respect and made many friends in the industry.
“The main thing is that no wine that Abingdon has ever made contains anything from anywhere else. Sometimes people still suggest that, during the early days, I probably bought in grapes and I reply absolutely never,” says Ian.
He’s the man who prunes the vines and tends the soil.
The grapes grown on the farm are hand-picked and pressed using a traditional wooden basket press. From there, they are aged in stainless steel and French oak barrels before being hand bottled and hand labelled.
The first wine to leave the Abingdon cellar was a Cabernet Sauvignon/ Shiraz blend. “That was the first and the last time that I used the name Shiraz. It was KZN’s first certified estate wine and I used the name shiraz because I thought that a lot of people in this province may not be that familiar with the French Northern Rhone’s Syrah. But, from then on, we have named it Syrah,” says Ian.
In 2008, Abingdon produced a single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. The whites followed with a Sauvignon Blanc in 2009 and a Viognier in 2009.
You keep it small and you work the land. You know your vines. You understand them and every day you learn more. So the learning curve keeps going.”
Their Chardonnay would have been made in the same year but the local monkey troop ate the grapes and delayed that by a year.
More and more and more varietals were added and different wines were produced, including the Nebbiolo for which the estate is now known.
Each year, Abingdon produces at least 10 wines that reflect the unique terroir and climate in which they are grown. This gives the wines a distinct old worlde style with crisp natural acidity, delicate cool fruit flavours and moderate alcohol levels.
KEEPING WINE IN THE FAMILY
The Smorthwaites believe that Abingdon’s success is what has brought their daughter, Laurie Cooper, home. A highly qualified and internationally respected wine educator, she, too, plays an integral part in turning out quality wines at Abingdon.
Laurie both runs the KZN School of Wine and helps create distinctive wines at Abingdon. She is not only the queen of Abingdon’s bubblies but also one of South Africa’s top sommeliers, having won the Moët & Chandon Best Young Sommelier 2019.
But, her father says, her true love is making quality wines and helping build the very young wine culture in KZN.
“Its lovely having her on board. It just solidified what we started. It will now continue which is fantastic. Laurie has said that she starts to get tired by the time the reds start to happen. That’s my passion, so by the time reds are coming, I’m ready to kick in and she can get some rest,” Ian jokes.
The reality is that the whole family shares a passion for wine making. Their daughter and son live just a few kilometres from the estate and have helped create what Jane calls a family wine lifestyle.
When needed, everyone pitches in to help and, during the Covid lockdown, it was all hands on deck to harvest the grapes.
“We got up every morning at dawn and harvested as much we could. The next morning, we got up and did it again and we brought in that whole harvest ourselves. It was quite nice in a way. As a family we did it. I’m very proud of us and of Ian. I’m very proud of Laurie and of Abingdon. I know what has gone into what we did. We are in a good space now. We’re happy,” says Jane.
Their reward is that they sell everything they make every year.
Both agree that they have no intention of hunting for accolades despite the awards they have won or the fact that they recently added one of the country’s best chefs to their repertoire to serve up tapas style dishes and gastronomic experiences for guests at their restaurant to accompany their wines.
We don’t look for attention when it comes to either the food or the wine. We don’t advertise. We just let the people that love us tell others about us. We don’t want to be a fine dining restaurant. We are a wine estate that sells extremely good food,” she says.
RAISING A GLASS TO THE FUTURE
Looking to the future, Abingdon will certainly create an important wine legacy, not only for future generations within the Smorthwaite family but also for the province and even South Africa.
This comes as the family continues its journey as a trailblazer when it comes to sustainability.
Already, global warming is a reality and wine makers are looking for colder climates such as the one in the Midlands.
“What we started 17 years ago is what the world is now looking at doing – growing vines at higher altitudes. Stellenbosch, Franschoek, Tulbagh and the Swartland are already feeling the effects of climate change.
Everything they do – including picking dates – is changing. But, at least we have 17 years of dealing with what the Cape is only now starting to experience – rain at this time of the year,” says Ian.
Surprisingly, Ian also has no intention of planting another vine.
“We have still got land. We could still plant. A lot of people say that, because we sell out so quickly, we should be planting. But I can’t seem to get through to them there are only so many hours of daylight in a day. I don’t want to be out there at midnight with a light on still working.
“What I’m interested in is spending time and picking grapes from early February through to the end of April, looking at what the weather has done through the year and therefore what style of wine we’ll end up making based on the vines’ growth. We are hunting perfection and nothing more,” says Ian.
Rather than expanding or even exporting, they agree that their future is about creating an incredible wine in KZN. “That’s our goal and we’re getting there,” agrees Jane.