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Winemaker profile: Samantha O'Keefe, Lismore Estate Vineyards, South Africa

08 August 2016
Winemaker profile: Samantha O'Keefe, Lismore Estate Vineyards, South Africa

Samantha O'Keefe is a one-woman pioneer in the South African wine world. Roger Jones meets her

I've had the privilege to visit hundreds of vineyards all over the world, but rarely has a story touched me as much as that of Samantha O'Keefe's and the work she has done against all the odds at Lismore Estate Vineyards, a beautiful winery far from civilisation.

She arrived in South Africa seeking the ‘Californian dream', and bought a former dairy farm in Greyton on the Western Cape. With her nearest wine neighbours over two hours away, the local shop 30 minutes away, and a daily school run with her two toddlers taking an hour, she had little time to feel sorry for herself and so embarked on a 13-year journey that has resulted in the wine world clamouring for her wines.

When O'Keefe was starting her wine career and considering which vines to grow in the then-untried Greyton area, she took advice from Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson, who said: "If you succeed, you will be considered a pioneer; if you fail, no-one will care".

The pioneer soon found that the barren mountain-top shale soils produced exceptional wines, not least the Syrah, which has gained recognition from Robert Parker in his list of the 50 Best New Releases from 2015, and was highly praised by Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate with 94 points.

On our trip, the three-hour journey from Cape Town was broken by a pit-stop at Gabrielskloof Wine Estate in Bot River, which is a hideout for numerous winemakers, including Peter-Allan Finlayson of Crystallum Wines and son of Peter Finlayson, Marelise Niemann of Momento Wines, Julien Schaal, who also makes great Riesling in his native Alsace, and John Seccombe of Thorne & Daughters fame. South Africa has a growing number of young, exciting winemakers who are bringing a blast of fresh air to the wine industry and want to put their stamp on it.

O'Keefe is inspired by Côte Rôtie and Condrieu producers from the Rhône in France -Christine Vernay in particular and, of course, her pioneering father, Georges Vernay. So it seems right that importer Hallgarten Druitt, the company that stocks Vernay's wines, now represents O'Keefe in the UK.

Lismore Estate Vineyards wines

Lismore Estate Vineyards Viognier 2014

Viognier is a grape variety grown all over the world in small quantities to make a white wine, although it can also be added in small percentages to Syrah and Shiraz to soften the wine.

The Condrieu appellation in France is the spiritual home of Viognier. The appellation was created in 1940 and today includes over 40 growers who make wine from just 100 hectares of vines, mostly on steep slopes. The conditions and concentration combine to encourage a rather large market price.

Its flavour profile is a floral nose - think ProvenÁ§al markets with juicy white peaches, luscious apricots and aromatic herbs. Viogner is quite a full wine, best enjoyed young.

I've loved top Condrieu for many years but found it hard to find exceptional New World Viognier. That said, the Lismore Estate Viognier 2014 is something that can happily sit with the very best offerings, such as the Virgilius from Yalumba in South Australia (made by another brilliant woman, Louisa Rose). But more importantly here, O'Keefe has achieved star quality with her Viognier, which is very much in-keeping with her inspiration from Condrieu and at a bargain price.

It features luscious apricots, honeysuckle and white peaches, with lean, very fine and delicate aromas. The wine's perfect acidity levels out the bright fruits to give a fabulous controlled, elegant Viognier. It is all about balance.

Lismore Estate Vineyards Syrah 2014

This has a light, delicate perfume of wild English strawberries with hints of cedar, soft leather and tobacco leaves. It offers luscious cherries and chilled blackberries on the mid-palate. It's outstanding. This wine will age, but it's drinking pretty amazingly well already.

Lismore Estate Vineyards Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2014

Beautifully structured with bright yellow fruit, floral notes of sweet passion fruit and delicate gooseberries. This is a serious Sauvignon Blanc that is flinty and evolving. It is barrel-fermented in aged 300-litre barrels with extended lees contact. Despite this, it is fresh and bright and the overwhelming taste structure is of the beautiful, clean mountain flavours.

Lismore Estate Chardonnay 2013

Silky, delicate, herbaceous, intense bright citrus flavours cleanse the palate along with honey and vanilla. There is a lovely minerality and fantastic depth, but combined with the acidity it produces a world-class wine. As a mark of quality, Peter-Allan Finlayson of Crystallum Wines sources his Chardonnay grapes here. This is all about restrained elegance, typical of the cool climate conditions, and it will age well.

Wine news

Brexit will affect wine imports

The fallout of the Brexit vote is likely to have critical implications for the wine industry, according to Dutch firm Rabobank.

In an industry note, the bank predicted that the knock-on effects will be felt in all wine-producing regions.

It said: "The prospect of the largest wine-importing country in the world leaving its free trade agreement with the largest wine-producing region in the world will have an obvious impact on trade flows in the long term, but the marked devaluation of the British pound will begin to drive some of these changes immediately."

Rabobank added that since France, Italy and Spain supplied 60% of British imports in 2015, the wines will need to find new markets if the pound remains soft and domestic demand reduces.

Chapel Down named Downing Street supplier

In a move that was announced before the Brexit vote, Tenterden-based winery Chapel Down has been chosen to be an official supplier for Downing Street receptions.

As part of the Government's commitment to supporting the UK drinks industry, representatives from the winery attended the Food is GREAT launch event at No 10 Downing Street in May, where chef Tom Kerridge created a menu for guests which showcased and celebrated the best food and drink Britain has to offer.

Chapel Down, along with Ridgeview and Camel Valley in Cornwall, were three of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' '50 Food Stars' championed last year.

Mark Harvey, managing director of wines at Chapel Down, said: "We are thrilled that Chapel Down will now be served at UK Government functions. This valuable support from Number 10 comes at an incredibly exciting time for a dynamic and ambitious English wine industry."

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