“I got into wine because you liked wine! I was drinking real crap before we started dating,” laughed Samantha Suddons to her husband Ryan Mostert, when I asked them how a woman with a difficult-to-place accent and a Zim farm boy a) found each other and b) got into making some of the most exciting wines coming out of the Swartland.
As Samantha explains, it’s quite the story. “We met in high school in the Netherlands. I was living there and Ryan’s mother’s side of the family is Dutch. He was visiting his family over the school holidays and we were all hanging out. In the beginning we didn’t get along at all because we were really different – I’d moved from America so I had a very different upbringing to Ryan who had been growing up in Zimbabwe. But over time we became such good friends as we had a lot of overlapping interests, such as music and writing.”
Largely through a shared enthusiasm for heavy metal and rock (Tool, Marilyn Manson and Placebo being top-of-mind favourites), a friendship was formed. After years of chatting online and over the phone, the two reconnected when Ryan landed a spot in a polytechnic course in Northwestern Italy’s celebrated winegrowing region of Piedmont. The connection came through a wine merchant and family friend who introduced Ryan to the world of wine when he was starting his career in agriculture. At the time, Ryan had been working in a tobacco company, and while he enjoyed it, he longed to bring more depth and meaning to an agricultural role. The merchant friend so happened to specialise in Piedmont and introduced Ryan’s fledgling palate to some of the region’s top wines. It was at this point that Ryan realised that he’d found something that ticked the right boxes – an agricultural product that had an identity and a soul, linked to a specific place, with a life of its own.
LA DOLCE VITA
Moving to Italy was a transformative experience for Ryan: “While I was in Piedmont, I saw another dimension to the world of wine that I had never thought of or seen before – from thinking of it as purely soil grows this; you taste this, to learning the whole culture around wine. You see guys who are just old farmers who maybe grow stuff mostly for the cooperative, but they’ve got one nice vineyard on the farm that they use to make wine for themselves. When you visit them, they open their homes and show you these wines. So you see the extra level of richness and depth that a wine culture brings. I think that’s very important, because you can’t just reduce wine to any other sort of manufacturing.”
Samantha, who at the time was studying Art History in York, would visit Ryan in Piedmont during the holidays, and too became acquainted with the region’s wines and the pervasive dolce vita. However, while they enjoyed Italy, Africa was calling.
SCATTERLINGS OF AFRICA
At the end of 2008, the couple came out to the Cape for a vacation. Ryan saw the forest for the trees: “I loved Italy, but it has a lot of its own complications and difficulties. We could also see how open-ended it is in South Africa. You look at the very restrictive bureaucracy of Italy – I knew that it would be difficult to ever have access to some of the GREAT sites. It’s either generational, or you have to have a lot of cash! And obviously being an African kid, there’s always something in Africa that speaks to you.”
BACK TO BASICS
The seed was planted. While Samantha completed her studies in the UK, Ryan made the first move down to SA and enrolled at the University of Stellenbosch. However, after about a year he found that he was raring to stop studying and start doing. Coming across a Winemag article about Johan Reyneke was a pivotal moment. “There was this long article on Johan Reyneke and he was talking about farming with respect to the land and bottling a sense of place. It was everything that I was yearning for and completely resonated with us. Back in 2010, that kind of view was rare.”
Ryan managed to secure a holiday job at Reyneke, which quickly evolved into a full-time role. He can’t speak more glowingly of his time there. “They were the perfect people to work with and learn from. I could have stayed there for a long time… but every time Sam and I came out to the Swartland… I mean the minute you drive onto the Paardeberg you can see there’s something really special going on in this space.”
Ryan will wax lyrical about the Swartland if you let him – but it’s not in the least bit boring. His enthusiasm is contagious, conjuring up visceral images of raw, windswept landscapes of exposed rock and scrubby bush vines. “There’s an energy behind really great wine regions. You can tell, you can see it, you can feel it. The land itself is compelling. It’s so wide open and feels wild. It feels like the land is up against natural forces, as opposed to, perhaps, more sterile wine regions… And then the people were just so incredible, so inspiring, so generous. So from when we first started coming to the Swartland, I think we just knew that this is where we’ve got to be.”
BORN IN A REVOLUTION
It was at the 2013 Swartland Revolution event that Roland Peens of Wine Cellar introduced Ryan and Samantha to investor and wine lover Michael Roets, who shared their vision and had a small project going in the Swartland called Silwervis, which had been started when Michael purchased a concrete egg at the 2010 Revolution’s auction – with the agreement that Swartland winemakers would fill it. With a tongue-in-cheek name, alluding to the notorious metallic ‘papsak’, there was clearly room to play.
Michael approached Ryan and Samantha about taking the project further. They met the following Tuesday to hash out a framework, and by the following week a winery had been incorporated. In 2014, they picked their first grapes.
Ryan and Samantha view the Silwervis wines as an homage to the Swartland Revolution and the visible shift that took place at this moment in time. “It was a turning point. It’s just crazy that it came from what used to be regarded as one of the junk grape regions of South Africa. That’s kind of where the devil and the mermaid [on the label] come in, because there are so many dichotomies and paradoxes that exist side by side here. The ‘junk grape’ region of South Africa gave birth to some of the country’s most inspiring wines, and now a whole inspiring movement. Take old vine Chenin… before the Swartland Revolution. it was generally seen as a lesser grape. What was the devil became the mermaid, in a way.”
The idea with the two Silwervis wines – a Chenin Blanc and a Cinsault – is to create authentic terroir wines expressing the Paardeberg. Ryan describes the Paardeberg character as always bright, fresh and direct, counterbalanced with an unbridled wildness. “It’s all about the land. We are sitting on what I really see as world-class terroir… and we have access to it. We can’t take that for granted.”
IT’S THE REMIX
The two Smiley wines – also a white and a red, are the yin to Silwervis’s yang. With a label depicting a grinning sheep’s head and a name referring to the part of the animal that is often seen as an inferior cut, yet widely eaten in townships and rural areas, the wines refer back to when the Silwervis was first made and there were bits and pieces left over that went into a ‘blind blend.’ However, over time, Ryan and Samantha realized that the Smiley could be a vehicle for them to push the envelope and use experimental methods to express the Paardeberg terroir in different ways. Think skin contact, oxidative winemaking and blending different vintages. You could say it’s the Swartland remixed (the heavy metal version, of course).
Ryan likens the Smiley’s philosophy to that of non vintage Champagne, describing the ‘house style’ as “a very tight, almost brittle balance between the reserve wines and the fresh wines. The reserve wines are where you have all these layers of really savoury, oxidative, funky complexity, tied together with this mineral, fresh tension that comes from the young vines. Our ideal is to bottle something where people feel this exciting tension when they drink it, and that it becomes something that’s really engaging to drink. It’s neither simple, nor completely whacked out. You must feel that dynamic between deliciousness and thought provoking complexity. And then when it comes to food, my God, this wine will do it all!”
CAN’T STOP, WON’T STOP
Like Ryan and Samantha, and all of their wines, the best things evidently come in pairs. The third (but surely not to be the last) project from this extraordinary couple is that of Terracura – a Syrah and Chenin Blanc duo, which are already thrilling wine critics the world over, proving that the Swartland has abundantly more stories and secrets to share – and that the Revolution has developed into a promising new order.
According to Ryan, it takes a tremendous amount of vulnerability and honesty to make wine the way that they do. “That’s where it gets hard. What we do is a juxtaposition between two extremes. We have this incredible drive and respect for purity, and at the same time we realize that we’re in this completely open-ended space and that we must push the boundaries. We live a life where we try to wear both hats. As much as you’re handling terroir, you have to put your own values into what you’re doing when you’re making wine. You have an extreme sense of vulnerability, but at the same time you’re one hundred percent committed to what you’re doing. And that is something that we do. It’s who we are.”