The Drift – getting the best out of the Overberg
01 January 1970
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Welcome to this edition of Old Mutual Live. I am Brad Brown. It’s good to be with you. Someone who has been on the podcast before, we spoke to him a little bit about the wine industry in South Africa, as a whole but also a little bit around Cape Wine 2015, and that’s come and gone.
We said, at the time, we ‘d get him onto chat a little bit about a couple of the wineries that he’s involved in and I wanted to chat about one in particular today. It’s a great pleasure to welcome back onto Old Mutual Live, Bruce Jack. Bruce, welcome it’s nice to chat once again.
Bruce Jack: Thank you, Brad. Thanks very much for having me.
BB: Bruce, before we get into your involvement with this. Let’s take a step back and let’s just find out a little bit more about you, and where your journey in wine began? Where did it all start for you?
How Bruce Jack got into wine
BJ: I think, with many people in the Western Cape, the privilege of living here. It’s sort of all around you and I was very fortunate to grow up in a family where my father was an architect, my mother was a musician and wine was, sort of a daily part of life.
I became intrigued by the whole industry very early on, I think. I actually wanted to be a writer, of all things, and realised pretty soon, when I started trying to do that that I wasn’t very good. I was putting myself through university, working in bottle stores and realised that, in fact, that’s where my interest and passion lay, and I think that’s often the case.
You’ve got to find your way in life and make a little bit of mistakes, a little bit of character building needs to happen before the penny eventually drops. I was involved in a couple of businesses. I landed up in the U.K., working for a South African wine import business. This was many years ago now, and the company was sold.
I happened to have some interest in the business and with the money that I made and that, I was able to send myself to a wine college. It’s part of the University of Adelaide, it’s called Roseworthy in South Australia.
The reason I did that was because unfortunately, my Afrikaans was not really up to the technical requirements and the only course that we had then, in South Africa, was at the University of Stellenbosch. It was taught in Afrikaans. I did try it but my Afrikaans just wasn’t technically up to it.
I went to the next best thing, which was an English speaking university in South Australia. I was very fortunate to be able to have worked and made a little bit of money, so I could afford it, and yes, I’ve never looked back.
BB: I always find it fascinating how people get started and where they begin, and your journey is no different. I don’t think I’ve come across two that are exactly the same. Let’s talk about the Drift now and your involvement there and how that all came about in the Overberg.
How The Drift came about
BJ: My father grew up on a farm in place called Henley on Klip, which is in the old Transvaal, in Gauteng. It was an apple farm actually, a cider apple farm, and although he was an architect, I think his idea was always to retire back on a farm. I think just after the first democratic election, there were a lot of farms on the market. A lot of people heading for Perth and he picked up a farm in the Overberg, near a little village called Napier, right up against the mountains called Akkedis Berg. It was in 1995.
We’ve farmed it since then. We’re actually the largest producers of organic onions in the Western Cape, and we also do a lot of organic garlic. On the mountain slopes, we’ve planted vineyards and olives, so it’s been a long process, sort of a 20-year process. For the first time, in 2012, I felt confident enough to bottle wines under the label.
The farm is called Apples Drift but we’ve called the brand ‘The Drift’. It’s names after this beautiful drift that is on the farm and it connects the old road that runs from Hermanus, all the way to Bredasdorp, and it goes through the farm and it’s a beautiful, it’s a magical part of the world, the Overberg.
It’s traditionally a wheat and sheep farm. It has an incredible history. Some of the disappointments I have when I look at South African films is that we’re not telling the really intriguing South African stories, except for Afrikaans films. I think we get it right there a lot of the times but in the Overberg.
I mean it was 50 years after the Dutch arrived – that they first eventually, so that’s like two generations. They eventually traipsed over the Hottentots Holland, which is now Sir Lowry’s Pass. They discovered this valley of huge abundance. The indigenous or people that lived there were called the Hessequa. They were very sophisticated, from a social perspective. They had a whole lot of enclaves, they lived in peace and harmony, for all intents and purposes.
The guy that originally went over was a guy called Hieronymus Cruz. He was actually, what a beautiful name. He was an Irish soldier of fortune, who worked for the Dutch East Indian Company, and he took a couple of soldiers and they went on an exploration. They discovered these people. They discovered some, he wrote. He was literate, so he wrote a diary, and he recorded incredible things.
For example, on the mountain, on our mountain where we farm, on our next-door neighbour’s farm, there’s a wall, a dry-stone wall. It’s about 2.5kms long, which he actually mentioned in his diary, so we know that it was there then, and it’s been dated between 10 – 12 thousand years old, which is older than Stonehenge, so we’ve got incredible things. It’s a beautiful valley, from that perspective and it just happens, luckily, also to be wonderful for growing incredibly good grapes, which make incredibly good wine.
BB: Bruce, I love that and I think so often, you’re so right. We forget about the stories that got us to where we are across various aspects of life here in South Africa. But one of the stories, I think, is that decision to feel confident enough to bottle the wine.
Talk to me about what it takes. I mean, winemaking is a long journey and it does take time. As a winemaker, are you tempted to go, “You know what, and this is good enough but…” How do you work through that decision, in your mind, where you go, and “You know what? This is the wine and we’re going with it.”
How the wine industry operates in South Africa
BJ: I think the wine industry is fascinating because it operates on two very, distinct different levels. So you’ve got FMCG, like ‘fast moving consumer goods’ – entry level wines, so you’re talking South African white wines under R25 a bottle. Red wines under R35 a bottle and those wines live and die by the rules of FMCG business. They live and die by the same rules as toothpaste, for example.
Then you get premium wines. Wines that are made to be very special wines, so they’re crafted in a different hands-on way and not only because of how they’re grown but also of how they’re made, are very expensive. They live and die by the rules of fashion, so you might as well be selling trendy bags or something. You’re selling expensive wines, so you’ve got an industry that operates on two very, different levels.
The entry-level wines – the quality is important but it’s not as important as things like distribution or retail shelf space. Whereas at the top level it’s all about quality and you’ve sort of got a curve of diminishing returns. The more, to get that little, extra five percent quality, you’ve got to put in 500 percent more effort and 500 percent more expense, to get there but that’s what it’s all about, for me.
It’s about chasing what is a reflection of the land. What is a reflection of the seasons, but also something that I can hold my head up high and say, “This is as good an example of the variety and of winemaking, as you will find anywhere in the world.” It is a long process, when you look at that level, so when you ask is it a long process?
It’s not really such a long process to make an entry-level brand, get it into the right supermarkets, and sell it for a small profit. That you can do overnight but to make a wine that is world class. That when people taste it, they’re knocked back by the brilliance thereof, is a generational thing and there’s a wonderful story in the wine industry, which goes, “The wine industry isn’t that tough. It’s only the first 100 years.”
BB: I love that. Bruce, tell me a little bit about the wines that you guys specialise in, at ‘The Drift’?
What we specialise in at The Drift
BJ: The Drift is, as I said. It’s a mountain farm. We’re about 500 metres above sea level but we’re only 40 kilometres north of the Southern tip of Africa, so we have altitude and we’re very close to the sea. It’s a windy farm. The soils are basically, decomposed granite. It’s very rocky.
This struggle to grow there, even vines, which can pretty much grow anywhere, so we’ve really, we’re farming on the absolute extremes of what’s possible. But when you do that, when you are on that edge of possibility, when you are able to ripen grapes, they do so in the most incredible and magnificent manner, and give you the raw material to make incredible wines.
We have chosen to plant unusual varieties. Varieties, which I thought would suit the climate and suit the soil and, of course when you make a decision like that you really only have the proof of it 20 years later, which is like a generation later.
Some have worked. Some have been complete and embarrassing failures, but we’ve stuck on two varieties, Shiraz and Malbec that form the base of or the majority of our plantings. Then we planted some wonderful varieties. Some of which your listeners would never have heard of. Things like Tannat, which is from the South of France. It’s a very tannic black variety and makes incredibly dark wine. It’s the wine that the Romans valued above all else, and it came from an area called the Cahors region, in the South of France.
It was called the ‘black wine’ of Cahors. The reason why they valued it so much was because it was able to age and it was able to age because it was full of tannin, which is nature’s natural preservative. We planted that to give our wine structure and to give the wines age ability.
We’ve got a variety called Barbera, which is from the North of Italy, around an area or a little village called Alba, which gives incredible herby-spice, or something. Then in the Overberg, it reacts with this… It almost smells like pugu, which is one of the fynbos varieties, which has a blackcurrant character.
Then we’ve got some Portuguese varieties – Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, tinted Berocca and those are all kind of used a little bit like you would use spices when you cook. You put them in the blend to add the little nuances, to lift the wine, and make it even more complex and more intriguing.
BB: Brilliant. Bruce, what I’m going to do is I’m going to put the link to your website, in the show notes of this episode of Old Mutual Live. It is thedrift.co.za – if you want to find out more about the farm, and the wines, and the other produce as well, as you’ve mentioned that comes off that farm as well, you can.
Bruce thank you so much for your time on this edition of Old Mutual Live. I think we’ll get you on again, to chat a little bit about the other winery that you are involved in as well. To find out a little bit more about Flagstone Wines and how that came about, and the history of that farm as well. It is always great to chat and I look forward to doing it again.
BJ: Brad, thank you very much.