Out to Lunch with Martin Smith
It’s one of those perfect afternoons in the Constantia Winelands. The air is charged with the freshness of the season. Winter has eased into a spring washed clean; with vineyards sprouting young green leaves and shoots. Just the place to take all this in – The new La Parada at Constantia Nek; the recently revamped century-old barn overlooks the undulating valley, stretching all the way to the sea. Inside the modern all-white interior I’m meeting winemaker Martin Smith for lunch, who’s about to embark on new beginnings of his own.
Martin has been the winemaker of the much-lauded Vilafonté for the last seven years. This tenure will be coming to a close this November so that he can put all his focus into his own wines, which includes the Paserene range as well as wines exclusive to the Wade Bales Wine Society, The Simpler Things and Series V
“Winemaking in its purest form is still an art,” says Martin explaining his departure. “I need absolute freedom, in both time and volume of wine, to ensure the success of Paserene.
Art underscores everything Martin does; from the actual making of the wine to the vision behind it, and to the labels. “I work with different artists for each label.” He holds up the Paserene Marathon. The label symbolises Martin’s story as a travelling winemaker, and the richly textured paper was squeezed through an old Heidelberg press and then hand-applied.
The art extends to writing and music; on the back of each bottle are three words that sum up what’s inside, sometimes inspired by music Martin listens to, such as on the back of this wine: ‘Mine is Yours’, which is a title of an album by the Cold War Kids. For all his intensity, Martin is also laid back—that’s the surfer in him—with quick jokes and a genuine warmth that makes him easy to talk to.
Martin eases the cork out of a bottle of Paserene Chardonnay. On the label is a simple line drawing of a girl. “I wanted a beautiful girl on the label to express the beauty of Elgin,” explains Martin. He coins Elgin ‘the holy grail of chardonnay’, and sources a block of Chardonnay from one of the notable growers.
Martin has an enviable history of premium winemaking, before digging his hands into the soils of Vilafonté he spent a decade in America honing his craft.
After high-school—and an educational jaunt in Portugal at Amorim Cork—Martin studied Viticulture and Winemaking at Elsenburg Agricultural College, which was swiftly followed by his practical at Vriesenhof Estate. Then it was time to spread his wings.
Alighting in Napa Valley, Martin spent five years at Cosentino Winery. Then in 2006, his journey took him to Caldwell Winery, where he worked with many high profile winemakers, such as Tim Mondavi and Phillipe Melka. Another five years rolled past and Martin had to make the decision to stay in the States, or go.
“The truth is I never truly left South Africa,” says Martin. “I needed to be here.”
Luckily there was a compelling reason to return. Martin had asked his friend Phil Freese (Director of Vilafonté) if there were any opportunities for him back home. Fast-forward four months, and Freese called him back. There was a winemaking job at Vilafonté; all he had to do was ace the interviews with the other Director, Zelma Long
“I had five one-hour interviews and a wine tasting over Skype with Zelma.” He got the job. “I was still blending wine in America the Friday afternoon and on the Monday morning I started at Vilafonté.”
This is a winemaker who has traversed the globe in pursuit of his passion, but it hasn’t all been high flying; the root of his devotion to the grape begins with a simple South African childhood.
Martin grew up in Worcester and says it was: ‘an innocent and gentle upbringing’. “We were a horde of kids—going up the mountain, horse-riding, biking.”
True to his Boland roots, Martin is a third generation winegrower. His grandfather had a wine farm in Paarl, and his dad was also a winemaker. Martin says he was greatly influenced by his dad and his winemaker friends who he used to watch chatting around the kitchen table. “I always wanted to be one of them.”
He got his wish, and then some, with the kind of winemaking career people dream about, from the States to South Africa, Martin continues to soar.
A self-confessed ‘cab person’ he has now set his sights on Tulbagh, he says he actually went there to go find Syrah, but found that ‘the cab was insanely beautiful’. “I finally found a terroir where I don’t have to worry about pyrazines!
“Cabernet is my soul. I’m into the business of making wines so dark you can’t see through them. My main focus going forward will be reds from Tulbagh and whites from Elgin. I feel like a kid in a toy room, playing with all these wines.”