My only experience of wine supposedly originating from KZN was tasting some red plonk a few years ago that was associated with our local rugby team. It was vile and traumatised my palate enough that I believed, like the rest of the nation, that no good wine grapes can come from KZN soil. Well, the great news is that the awful wine I refer to was never even grown in KZN, and the false claims thereof led to the relevant “wine” estate shutting its doors for good. The bad news is that it was, very unfortunately, around long enough to cause long-term damage to the perception of wine from KZN. But thankfully, Abingdon is repairing that reputation, one glorious and irresistible bottle at a time.
Abingdon was started in 2004 by Ian and Jane Smorthwaite. They bought the picturesque estate in 2000 with the intention of having a relaxed retirement. But with 1100 hectares at their disposal, and not a single good vineyard nearby, they looked into starting their own. The first vines were planted in 2004, and with their meticulous attention to detail, and with what I imagine was a lot of hard graft and research, their first wines were ready. Two years later, a comprehensive guide called Wines of the Southern Hemisphere, authored by world-renowned New York wine writers, Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, reviewed and listed Abingdon’s 2008 Cabernet amongst the long-established nexus of vineyards and vintages from the Cape. The Abingdon Cabernet was described as a ‘Ruby in the glass with the aroma of dark berries, cassis and a pleasant vegetal note.” – excellent going for a wine from a region that has been entirely dismissed by experts and the general wine-drinking global populace.
In 2009 a tasting room and restaurant was opened. This is where a person can enjoy the full complement of tastes that Abingdon has on offer, both on the plate and in the glass. At the bar you can enjoy a sampling of about 6 of their wines (it may be more, but after I had the 6, things got pleasantly fuzzy). Every glass is accompanied by the affable Ian Smorthwaite’s limitless knowledge, which imbues each sip with as much story as there is flavour.
And with a story behind each bottle in mind, the new wine labels convey the fun personality of the owners of the estate. Illustrated by their daughter Laurie, they represent the local fauna that apparently try to eat their grapes.
Notable to me was how welcoming and relaxed the bar and restaurant are. It’s rustic in a warm and homely manner, decorated with a patina of wooden textures, old bottles, corks, and occasionally dotted with mobile footrests, by way of various plump and friendly dogs. It pleasantly strips the tasting experience of any intimidating qualities. You can relax knowing that you will not be judged if all you can determine from your glass is that you either like it or you don’t. In fact, Ian’s approach is a simplified one, that each wine to the individual is either a tick or a cross.
I am not an expert wine taster, although I consider myself an expert wine drinker, due to all the hours tirelessly invested in practising the sport, and I find that a very appealing approach. Identifying flavours and aromas is such a personal experience, there is no wrong answer, but there is sometimes the unspoken implication that if you don’t recognise the same notes and aromas, and in the vocabulary of the supposed connoisseur, your experience of it is somehow less valid. If it truly were less valid, most vineyards would cease to exist as they would only have the experts to supply to. The less professional palate can still determine if wine tastes good or not which supports Ian’s ethos of it either being a tick or a cross.
One wine that stood out for us in the tasting is their new 2013 vioignier (if you are like me and can’t fathom how to say it without it sounding like you’ve pulled a muscle in your jaw, it’s pronounced vee-on-yay). I usually dislike viogniers as they tend to taste like salad dressing to me, but this is one of the best tasting white wines I’ve ever had. When you go there, demand a glass. Their other wines are great too – we didn’t have anything we didn’t enjoy finishing (which is why my photos are much blurrier than they should be), but this one was particularly impressive. It’s not one we often see on the wine rack because apparently its a high-risk varietal to grow, with a very short window to harvest. If the grapes are plucked just a day too early or too late, you end up with what I professionally describe as bleh. It should be called Goldilocks Wine because it needs to be juuuust right. And the Abingdon 2013 Voignier is juuuust right.
Another feather soon to be in KZN’s cap courtesy of Abindgon, is Jane and Ian’s talented daughter, Laurie. She is currently the assistant winemaker at Abingdon and studying to eventually become a Master of Wine. There are only 312 Masters of Wine in the world and only 3 of them are in Africa, with two in South Africa. The future of KZN’s wine looks to be in excellent hands.
Once you are done with the tasting, do some tipsy trudging towards a table and have a seat. Jane runs the restaurant kitchen and makes sure that each plate that comes out of it is a hearty and satisfying meal. The boozy crème brulée is particularly good.
Sit outside if it’s sunny. Take pleasure in the beautiful surroundings, with tables under pagodas that are enveloped by vines, enjoy the nuzzling hounds and the sound of twittering birds, along with the alarmed crowing of a rooster being chased by one of said hounds.
If you want to impress people from out of town, or really impress locals from Durban, take them to KZN’s only wine estate, educate and surprise them with how amazing it is and boast gleefully as to how this Midlands wine-of-origin estate officially produces some of the best wine in the entire Southern Hemisphere.