Samantha O’Keefe of Lismore Winery makes unique, nuanced wines from exceptional, South African terroir. Her vineyards are located well off the beaten path in the shadows of the Riviersonderend mountain range outside Greyton. The dry farmed vines are planted on broken shale soils at 300 meter altitude with huge diurnal temperature shifts and a modicum (350mm) of rainfall. Temperatures are moderate, and the growing season is 3-4 weeks longer than that of Stellenbosch. Her wines are terroir driven and unique in their South African character. We visited her last week, toured the vineyard, and tasted her wines.
Samantha grew up in California and was working in television in LA when she traveled to South Africa in 2000 and fell in love with the 300 hectare Riviersonderend ranch, including the mountainside above the winery and a rugged canyon replete with waterfall. She bought the ranch, built her own house, constructed a winery, planted vines, and released her first vintage in 2006. Only 25 hectares of her large farm are suitable for growing grapes, and 14.5 ha are now producing Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, and Syrah, and new plantings of Roussanne and Marsanne will be bearing fruit soon for a white Rhone blend.
The winemaking at Lismore is as unique as the site. The white wines are made oxidatively, all whole bunch pressed, fermented in barrel and concrete and polyurethane eggs, and given extended aging on the lees in barrel. They’re not made in huge quantities, about 6 thousand cases at present with the potential for 10 thousand.
With erratic weather and pests like baboons, birds, and deer, making wine at Lismore is no job for the faint of heart. This year an unusual heat episode curbed the Syrah crop, and two years ago drought did the same to the Viognier. This year the continuing severe drought, interrupted by four days of rainfall just prior to our visit, promises ultra-low yields from the dry-farmed vines. The warm reception the wines have been given in the European marketplace has created more demand than can be met, and Samantha has begun sourcing fruit from Elgin to complement her own, weather-restricted production. Her plan is to continue to purchase grapes for regular bottlings and devote the estate fruit to Lismore’s reserve line.
US Importer: Kysela; UK Importer: Hallgarten Druitt
Lismore 2016 Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc Cape South Coast ($36) 92 Redolent of cape gooseberries, lynches, and passion fruit, the Sauvignon Blanc reveals the Lismore estate terroir with firm minerality, mid-palate creaminess, and a chalky finish. Grown on the water-deprived top of the hill where the dryness creates a natural leaf-pulling, giving the maturing fruit exposure to the sun and rich, ripe flavors. 95% barrel fermented (5% in eggs) and aged 11 months in oak with extended lees contact.
Lismore 2015 Chardonnay Greyton ($36) 91 Honeyed orchard and citrus fruit dominate this beautifully balanced Chardonnay. A floral bouquet gives way to a flavor-rich, suave palate with a mineral-infused finish. The oak provides texture but is otherwise behind the scenes. Made from 5 different clones from 5 different vineyard blocks with 5 different aspects and picked over 2-3 weeks; all barrel fermented (no new oak) with ambient yeast and aged in 300L neutral barrels.
Lismore 2017 Age of Grace Viognier Cape South Coast ($48) 92 Bottled but not yet labeled, the 2017 Age of Grace Viognier is made with Elgin fruit grown on rose quartz soil. Although made oxidatively, it’s very floral in character with notes of jasmine and honeysuckle. Samantha attributes this in part to natural ferment and the partial use of polyurethane egg, which contributes an extreme florality. It’s a lovely wine with bright, dense tropical and stone fruit on a full, creamy palate and showing good minerality on the finish.
Lismore 2016 Chardonnay Reserve Greyton 93 Medium straw. Introduced by scents of flint, green citrus and underripe mango, the estate Chardonnay Reserve is Lismore’s icon wine. It’s mineral rich and focused with an incredibly pure, silky mouth feel and vibrant acidity. A great Chardonnay! Made with natural yeast and matured 11 months in 500L French oak, 40% new.
Lismore 2017 Pinot Noir Cape South Coast 90 Medium red. There still aren’t a lot of South African Pinot Noirs, but this one certainly shows the potential of the grape, especially when sourced from the right places, in this case Elgin and Stanford in the Walker Bay. It reveals fresh red cherry and plum with earth and herbal notes. It shows good concentration with earthy complexity and should evolve nicely in bottle. 30% whole bunch pressed and unfiltered.
Lismore 2016 Syrah Cape South Coast 91 A richly expressive Syrah made of half estate fruit and half purchased fruit from Elgin. Pure plum, black raspberry and a touch of mulberry, it’s full in the mouth with good acidity and firm tannins on the finish. 40% whole bunch fermented and matured in oak vessels of diverse sizes. Samantha also showed us a barrel sample of her 2017 estate Syrah that was quite different—high toned, bright, perfumed, focused and elegant, more in a Northern Rhone style. An amazing Syrah!