It was a sign on a somewhat dilapidated fence that caught my eye. Kalk Bay Vineyards. Cabernet franc. Contact Karena, and a phone number.
That’s how I discovered this wine and met the lovely Karena du Plessis, who lives in Kalk Bay, a quaint harbour village on the False Bay coastline, some 30 km from the centre of Cape Town. Karena is a writer turned viticulturist who has transformed the plot that lies beyond that dilapidated fence into a thriving vineyard.
The vineyard is something of a secret in Kalk Bay. It is tucked behind the building that houses the legendary Olympia Café restaurant, which was once a traditional corner café selling ice cream, cold drinks and cigarettes. Karena’s in-laws owned the historic building, the cafe and the vacant land behind it. They were distressed by a group of rough sleepers living there and whose litter and heavy drinking were a problem.
Karena had read about urban vineyards and in 2003 suggested planting vines as a solution. Her Greek father-in-law loved the idea, recalling the family vineyards of his home country. Urban vineyard expert, Jean Vincent Ridon, was called in and recommended planting Cabernet Franc. Karena, helped by advice from the winemaker at Constantia Uitsig, took on the job of tending to the vines. Picking is a community affair, with friends and patrons of the Olympia Café, now owned by Kenneth McClarty, joining in and once the work is done, enjoying a communal breakfast.
The vineyard is small, the size of a tennis court, with about 700 vines. The vines all but dip their roots into the sea and 10 metres away, fishing boats are at anchor in Kalk Bay Harbour. The soils are a mixture of limestone and decomposed granite, covered in a layer of sea sand. Because the vineyard is isolated, there is little disease, and so minimal, if any, spraying is needed. Cool breezes ensure slow ripening. There are however, also loads of challenges including frequent gale force South Easters and marauding starlings who not only eat the grapes but feed them to their chicks nesting in the nearby Norfolk pines.
It’s a small production- 3 to 4 barrels a year- and since 2014, James Mackenzie has made the wine. James is the genial owner of beautiful Nabygelegen in Wellington and at the time he met Karena, he was looking to launch a range of small production handcrafted special wines, and a Kalk Bay Cabernet Franc immediately appealed to him. It is now part of his Artisan Collection under the Snow Mountain label, and he sells the wine to some local restaurants, banker friends, Kastel Engelenberg in Holland and the Corinthia hotel in London.
Platter awarded a 4-star rating to the 2015 vintage and when I tasted it with James, I am sure I picked up the sea air amongst the herbaceous notes. Cabernet Franc from Kalk Bay- probably the vineyard closest to the sea anywhere in South Africa.