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Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Agriculturally, KwaZulu-Natal is best known for bananas and sugar cane, but it has one wine estate, and I visited it for the first time a few days ago.

This is Abingdon, at Lions River in the Natal Midlands, an area that is very different climatically from the humid heat of the coast. Abingdon is 1,100 metres above sea level. It does get summer rain, not ideal for growing grapes, but not of great enough volume for viticulture to be an impossibility. And, because of the altitude, humidity is not a problem.

The owners/winemakers/viticulturists/managers/restaurateurs of the estate are Ian and Jane Smorthwaite, who bought the farm eleven years ago from an owner who had named it after the small town of Abingdon near Oxford in England, about 75  kilometres west of London.

Ian Smorthwaite comes from England originally, Jane is a Natalian. They retained the name of the farm and this brought an unexpected result. Abingdon, England, was for 50 years the place where MG sports cars, more than a million of them, were made (the assembly line has since moved to China).  South African MG owners learned about Abingdon, Lions River, and now they regularly make sentimental rallies to the farm, up to 30 MG cars at a time.

The Smorthwaites did not have wine-making experience when they came to Abingdon; he was in the business of drilling for oil. But they learned on the job and now produce every year about 12,000 bottles of highly distinctive, high quality wines, and the output is increasing.

Two white wines are outstanding. The Abingdon Sauvignon Blanc 2012 is made from grapes from several different vineyards on the farm. It has a powerful bouquet and a strong mineral flavour, with little of the gooseberry/asparagus character of many sauvignon blancs. Ian Smorthwaite says his wine has been compared favourably with a distinguished Sancerre from the Loire area of central France. In the South African context it is certainly unusual and most attractive.

Even better, I thought, was the Abingdon Viognier/Chardonnay 2012, an 83/17 percent blend. This, too, is a big, powerful and unusual wine. Viognier, a grape that has its origins in the Rhone valley in France, is a rarity in South Africa, occupying only about 1 percent of all the vineyards, and it brings to the Abingdon blend some very interesting and subtle features, a slightly floral aroma and a quite steely undertaste.

Other Abingdon wines are a Blanc de Noir, 66 percent syrah, 34 percent cabernet sauvignon, refreshingly dry with an orange/pink colour;  a 2011 syrah;  a 2010 cabernet/syrah 50/50 blend;  and a big luscious 2011 cabernet sauvignon.

Ian Smorthwaite prefers the term syrah to the more commonly used (in South Africa) shiraz. They are the same grape but he says that his wines are lighter in colour and body than the typically robust South African shiraz. He says that they resemble the French version, which is usually named syrah, hence his use of this term.

My companions and I sampled these reds and found them all good.

We lunched at the Abingdon restaurant and much enjoyed what we ordered, fish in a phyllo pastry and a chicken and prawn curry.

Abingdon is about an hour’s drive from Durban and well worth a visit. They offer meals, wine tastings and wine sales. The wines are not cheap, about R130 a bottle, and because of limited quantities they are not yet available in bottle stores. But, if need be, Abingdon will courier them to you. Abingdon’s phone number is 033 2344 335, e-mail – Michael Green