Introducing the next chapter in assyrtiko

Jordan owner, Gary Jordan, and Lauren Phillips of Vititec, discussing the soils in the new assyrtiko vineyard, which was planted on Tuesday August 12, on the Stelleboschkloof estate.

The final email said “dress warmly” and “wear boots”, and as the Land Rover grinds up the steep slope in the biting wind, I thank my lucky stars I took the advice.

We arrive at the crest of the hill, overlooking False Bay 14km to the south, and to the north west, I catch a glimmer of Table Bay, which Gary Jordan tells me, is some 24km distant.

It is already late morning, and the sky is a birds-egg blue, but the nasty little north west wind pushes down the temperature to not more, I surmise, than 3ºC or 4ºC.

The hillside is abuzz with activity, and the vineyard workers are bundled up against the biting cold, as they set about planting the first block of assyrtiko vines on Jordan wine estate, marking the commencement of the second chapter in the remarkable story that started some 36 years before, when Gary and Kathy Jordan visited the Aegean island of Santorini, the indigenous home of assyrtiko.

They were much taken with the wines they tasted made from the ancient assyrtiko vines, planted in the volcanic-ash-rich soils of this Aegean island, and resolved to plant the varietal on Jordan.

Fast forward those 36 years, and the dream is about to become a reality, as I had discovered at a tasting of assyrtiko at Jordan (“Assyrtiko finds home at Jordan”, Bolander, March 13), during which Gary recounted the tale of his and Kathy’s love of assyrtiko.

“Hy’s reg so,” says Gary. “Sit hom neer,” as he checks the alignment of the cord which demarcates the next row of vines to be planted.

The row interval is 2.5m and the vines in each row are planted 1.5m apart, and the entire vineyard has been laid out with thin steel rods. It is no guess work. Rather, in pursuit of an as near as possible east-west row orientation, and geometric symmetry of the vineyard, a theodolite used to ensure arrow straight rows, stands off to the one side.

“Supervising the planting personally, I see,” I remark to Gary, to which he responds “as I’ve supervised almost every of vines planted on Jordan since 1985.” Ted, Gary’s dad, who bought the farm in 1982, standing nearby, smiles and nods in affirmation.

This initial planting of 2 347 vines, constitutes just under a hectare, the first of probably five hectares that Gary plans to plant, as soon as the “stokkies” are available.

Lauren Phillips and Renier Louw from Vititec, the vine improvement nursery at southern Paarl, are present for the occasion, and their excitement is palpable. “We seldom get out into the field like this to see the fruits of our labours,” says Lauren, for it was she and Renier who acquired the original assyrtiko vine material from Bakasietas Vine Nursery and Vineyards in Korinthos, Nemea, the brainchild of Kostas Bakasietas, an agronomist who trained in Montpellier and Bordeaux.

The vine material first went to ENTAV-INRA in France, the equivalent of Vititec in South Africa, for DNA fingerprinting to ensure that it was, in fact, assyrtiko, all this happening in 2011.

Once the vine material was certified virus-free and it came out of quarantine, Lauren and Renier supervised the planting of the foundation block in 2015, and over the next four years, the stokkies were propagated.

Gary tells the story of contacting the precursor of Vititec, the KWV vine nursery, after his initial return from Santorini all those years ago, to be told “Jammer meneer, dit is nie op die lys nie”, the same answer he got over the years whenever he inquired.

Now, of course, assyrtiko “is op die lys, meneer”.

Lauren takes up the story again. “This is the first mother block that Gary is planting,” she says. “When he prunes each year, we will come and collect what is cut off in the pruning process (for which Gary gets paid), and demand dependent, graft onto suitable rootstock and propagate more vine material .”

The new vineyard is planted in deep, decomposed granite soils, as closely approximating its native land as possible, and the mesoclimate also closely approximates that of Santorini – windswept and with a significant day-night temperature differential – so the portents are good.

But there are no guarantees, and it will probably take between four and five years for the vineyard to produce a harvestable crop with which to make the first wine, from only the second commercial scale assyrtiko vineyard outside of Santorini.

But Gary’s focus is elsewhere, as the cord is moved once more, to the next sequence of thin metal droppers that marks the next row of vines.

As we board the Land Rover and bump slowly down the hill to the tasting centre and a cup of hot coffee to take the chill off our bones, I look back at Gary, energetically living his dream, and clearly looking forward to the next chapter in this story, the first assyrtiko grown in South Africa.