How winemaker Donovan Rall conquered the schistous soils of Swartland

Donovan Rall is one of a handful of small-scale producers helping to put this top-class South African wine region on the map

Words by Jim Clarke

Donovan Rall – Swartland
Donovan Rall examines the schistous soil in his vineyards. Schistous soil is made up of dense rocks layered with minerals, helping to create bold, complex wines with precision

Swartland, on the map, seems like it might be the largest wine region in South Africa, but much of the area is actually devoted to wheat growing; the vineyards are scattered on mountain slopes that proved insufficiently fertile to the area’s early Dutch settlers. With its 12,000 hectares of vines scattered over such a large expanse, a visitor might be forgiven for not realising they are passing by some of South Africa’s most famous vineyards.

It’s these vineyards that inspired a new generation of South African winemakers, including the blond giant Donovan Rall. His very first wine, a Chenin Blanc-based blend from the 2008 vintage, garnered a five-star rating from South Africa’s review of record, Platter’s Wine Guide, placing him among the country’s elite winemakers at the very start of his career. He hasn’t let up since.

Rall discovered Swartland during his studies. “I didn’t know that much about Swartland back then,” Rall says. “There were only a few small guys up there, but I loved the wines that came from up there – mainly Chenin Blanc and Syrah, which were the best options for the style of wine I wanted to make.”

Swartland is regarded as one of the finest wine regions in South Africa

Like many of his peers, Rall took to the road after college in Stellenbosch, working the 2007 vintage at Cloudy Bay in New Zealand and then at Cave de Tain in the Rhône Valley the following year. When he returned to South Africa he worked with Eben Sadie, the face of boutique Swartland wine, whom Rall had met during his studies. His experience at Sadie’s then brand-new cellar gave him a chance to get to know a lot of different vineyards in diverse corners of this expansive region. As the 2008 vintage approached, Rall decided to act on that experience.

“I realised I could take the little bit of cash I had left from travelling and make a couple of barrels of wine. I hadn’t given a thought to doing anything else after that. It was liberating to be making your own wine, doing your own thing, even if it was only a couple of barrels, even if after a couple of vintages it didn’t work.” That decision put Rall in great company, as the easy-going, self-deprecating Adi Badenhorst, the Mullineux husband-and-wife team, and natural wine leader Testalonga were all making their first Swartland wines at the same time.

In that first vintage, Rall made two wines; five tons of grapes yielded six barrels of a white blend and 10 barrels of red. Those two blends, built around Chenin Blanc and Syrah, remain the core of his portfolio, but production has grown since then. These days, Rall is making about 50,000 bottles of wine each year – still a boutique operation, but big enough to add some range to the portfolio.

Rall says the 2019 white blend is the wine with the highest acidity he’s ever made: it’s definitely racy, and leaner than previous vintages, with a mix of pear, spice, and floral notes. Rall bottles the red blend at about the same time as his other wines, but holds it back an additional year before release, so the 2018 is the current release – it’s focused, firm and structured, with a mix of red and darker fruit and a supporting mineral note.

Among a number of varietal wines, the discovery of a pair of new and exciting vineyard sources coincided with the birth of his first daughter, and the resulting wines are bottled separately under her name, Ava. Both vineyards are in schistous soils. Rall says it gives the white – a Chenin Blanc – a broad mouthfeel without sacrificing freshness; the 2019 shows a strong yellow plum and mineral character. The 2019 Syrah is medium-bodied and rounded on the palate, packed with savoury white pepper and gamey notes.

Rall is exploring other varieties as well. At the same time, the search for interesting vineyards has taken him well beyond the borders of Swartland. “South Africa has hidden gems everywhere,” he says, “vineyards that people have driven past for years and not given any thought to. There are lots of little parcels that haven’t been treated the way they should.”

In each case, Rall seeks out something special

That could mean heading west to Darling for Cinsault, north to Piekenierskloof for Grenache, or even into Stellenbosch for Verdelho. In each case, Rall seeks out something special. He experimented with five different Grenache Blanc vineyards, but says only a high-elevation, ungrafted vineyard of the Piekenierskloof provided the freshness he wanted for a varietal wine.

The 2019 has a focus rarely found in Grenache Blanc wines, with vibrant acidity supporting citrus, flint, and a subtle waxy note. Similarly, only Darling Cinsault had the soft tannins and spice he was looking for. This comes through clearly in the 2019 Cinsault, a blend of Darling and Swartland fruit, which shows an elegant, lively character and a mix of floral and red-fruit notes.

Schistous soil
Rall says that schistous soils help his white wines retain freshness and character

The search for these special sites led to what may be the world’s only varietal Cinsault Blanc. Viticulturist Rosa Kruger told Rall about the rare Cinsault mutation which she had stumbled across in a vineyard in Wellington, and when Rall started working with it in 2017, the variety wasn’t even on the South African Wine and Spirits Board list of recognised grapes.

It’s a tiny vineyard, yielding about 1,000 bottles in the most generous of vintages. There aren’t many reference points for what a Cinsault Blanc should taste like. “For me it’s somewhere between Colombard and Grenache Blanc,” Rall says. “It never comes in at more than 12% alcohol, so it’s definitely a lighter style, and more aromatic than those varieties, but I think the most interesting thing about it is the texture it develops after a couple of years.”

With so much work going into finding and caring for the right vineyards, Rall is careful to make sure his work in the cellar doesn’t overshadow what each site offers. He’s hands-off in the cellar and prefers fermentation and ageing vessels that leave little imprint on what the fruit offers. “I’ve always shied away from oak, especially anything new,” Rall says. “I’ve started playing around with bigger barrels, clay, concrete; those components are very much what gives my wine the specific style I’m chasing.”

Donovan Rall – Swartland
Donovan Rall: "South Africa has hidden gems everywhere"

Rall says he’s probably worked with about 30 vineyards over the years, and continues to try out new ones. If he finds a great site too big for his own needs, he’ll call in like-minded producers like Duncan Savage, who, like Rall, sources from sites all around the Cape; the similarly minded, Chenin-focused Chris Alheit; or Chenin and Grenache specialist and the rare native Swartlander David Sadie (no relation to Eben) to see if they’re interested in taking some fruit from the vineyard.

Doing so allows them more control over the farming; Rall prefers to work sustainably, at least, and preferably organically – and sometimes that means taking direct control. “I’m farming about 15 hectares myself now, mostly Syrah; mulching it, using mixed cover crops, organic composting. I think that’s the way forward. Either I pay the farmer for all the work regardless of the actual crop size, or I lease the land and farm it myself with teams that specialise in organic farming.”

Two new Rall wines are on the horizon. His second daughter, Noa, was born last July, so he says he would like to introduce a pair named after her to match with the Ava wines. The plan is a Chenin and a Syrah from granitic soils to contrast with the Ava wines from schistous soils. And so, the search for more great vineyards continues.

The wines of Donovan Rall are distributed in the UK by Justerini & Brooks