(Published as “From O’Keefe to Lismore and back, in high heels” in Land n Sand magazine: 8 November 2013)
“I’m multi-faceted”, Samantha O’Keefe jokingly responded when I wrote to her, with some trepidation as to what to say, asking for an interview. So much has already been said in the press – of herself, of Lismore, of the story which brought her here, and left her here with her two sons on the most beautiful farm, to make wine. I hadn’t been sure I could add to it meaningfully. Yet I felt compelled that I should.
What drew me back was a memory of a first visit to the farm, more than a year ago. Driving up the bumpy trail with a friend to her home, I was horrified at our wheels crushing hundreds of what I took to be crickets, jumping in the road. Later I saw they were frogs – tiny black ones, in their thousands. What brought me back now, so much later, was as much a sense of these frogs as of the burned but unmoved mountains, of a white dress in a box seen through a basement window as a sentence remembered: “love is supposed to be simple”. But mostly of a wine I’d had, and the person who made it.
The origin of the name Viognier isn’t clear. It’s assumed to derive from either the name of the French city Vienne or the Roman pronunciation of Gehenna, the Judaic valley of death, or hell – the latter, it’s said, because of how difficult Viognier is to grow and to vinify. My original hope was to draw Lismore as some kind of local Château-Grillet, the traditional home of rare, ageworthy Viognier from ancient, low yield vines; a single-estate appellation of only 4 ha, high up in the Rhone valley. Lismore’s Viognier has been compared in the press to the adjacent Condrieu, itself not a small compliment, an area known for producing many of the world’s best Viognier wines – beautifully sculpted, concentrated white wines displaying flavours of peaches and dried fruit, white flowers, spice and melon. Mostly, due to lowish acidity, Condrieu is meant to be drunk young, with notable examples lasting up to eight years. As apt and as flattering as some of these comparisons may be, they also diminish. Lismore’s Viognier is unlike any other I’ve tasted, locally or elsewhere, its charm, richness and complexity, not to mention its almost European cool-growth acidity, far outshining even well-made local examples. And not only those.. A small wonder that Lismore wines are now listed at many top restaurants, in Europe, the UK and locally.
With only 12.5 ha under vines, Lismore isn’t a large estate. One cannot help but wonder how she has done it – how she’s made it work here, as a woman alone. (She was once assured by a critic, who may or may not have worn heels, that she would never succeed. Doesn’t one’s most dire opposition oftentimes come from those on the inside?) Samantha herself keeps referring to how blessed she has been, with the exceptional terroir, with friendships and well-timed advice, with having been supplied with the exact French clones she now grows so well. As someone once remarked, who says luck is not a skill? But what I see is care and perseverance and sensitivity and, most of all perhaps, a natural sense for winemaking. At one point I couldn’t help but ask whether she was sure she wasn’t as part of this terroir she so praises as the slopes and the snow and the broken-up shale, as even the clouds of starlings swooping on her vineyards. Bluntly put, Greyton is a ward because of her vision and efforts, with a terroir so profound that, perversely, it’s difficult to get excited about. There’s merely a sense of surprise that it hasn’t always been that way. And maybe it has. The maps just hadn’t shown it thus, and no-one known had made any wine yet.
As the day drew on and the bottle we’d opened became emptier, the wine kept changing in my glass. By now I’d almost grown used to the penetrating silence and the Great Dane pup chewing on my hand. “It’s opening up,” Samantha said. But there was something more remarkable – not one sip was the same as any other. I’ve experienced this in other wines, but never to such an extent. This Viognier was becoming a wine which made me want to rush out and rent a foodie movie. And in the hush, just before the sun set, as a solitary jackal buzzard started cutting up the sky, I had my last sip. “Look at the colours,” Samantha prompted. But there was something new in my glass now. I almost started – it was as if someone had dropped a single flower into it, and quickly removed it. I struggled to identify the scent – maybe Bletilla, or perhaps Bauhinia. Something light mauve either way. I suddenly wished I had bent down to better smell the orchids I’d photographed earlier, on the way up to the farm. And then, almost as quickly, it vanished, leaving only the faintest redolence of opened earth and lees and old oak barrels, a final hint of young honey as I swallowed it down.
One comes away from the farm Lismore with a sense of awe. There’s little ordinary in the persons and wines one finds here, yet each one somehow opens one’s eyes to the miraculous in the ordinary. Mystery doesn’t lie in what’s shrouded or withheld or in the details we allow to peer through, but in that things are as they are. We have only ourselves to turn expectations and sever clichés – not to prevail, but to remain where others would not, not to succeed or to win but to illuminate fiercely, not to lead but to plant a first vine where otherwise would have been uncharted mountain. Love is essential but simple. What we make of it is life, which frequently isn’t. As I drifted home in my car, through the now invisible wheat fields and greyed-out mountains, my hand throbbing slightly from its brief career as chewy toy, I hazily thought: here still be dragons – tiny amphibious ones, no more than the size of crickets.
What others say:
“… one of the VERY few Viogniers from outside the Rhone that we’ve found to evoke memories of Condrieu!” – SWIG (UK)
“… her 2008 Viognier is the finest SA example I’ve tasted.” – Neil Pendock, Sunday Times
“I had a wine epiphany sitting on Lismore’s verandah taking in the mountainous landscape. Looking out over the newly planted vineyards, I was washed over by the immense amount of labour and passion that it takes to truly benefit from the proper choice of the best vines to thrive in a specific soil, on a completely individual site. The force of one’s will to grow something special on a completely indifferent mountain.” – Brad Hickey’s Wine Odyssey
“… 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, with a portion of barrel fermented fruit and extended lees contact, is one of the most profound Sauvignons you’ll taste.” – SWIG (UK)
“… the Viognier was one of two Lismore wines I lingeringly sampled recently. Its pleasure for me came mostly with the subtlety of its aromas and flavours – this fashionable northern Rhône white variety can too often emerge relentlessly billowing from the glass. This is chewy and dense wine and the flavours persist pleasingly; as good for sipping as it is (La Colombe customers insist, and I won’t argue) with food.” – Tim James, Grape
“Lismore makes finely etched Viognier that could be a new benchmark for SA, …” – Brad Hickey’s Wine Odyssey
“… extreem is het enig juiste woord hier. De boerderij ligt zeer afgelegen en de wijngaarden liggen hoog op de omliggende heuvels, waar sneeuw niet ongebruikelijk is. Hier produceert Samantha een kleine hoeveelheid wijn met kracht en een zuurgraad die de wijnen zeer verfijnd maken.” – 2vin (NL)
“My favourite white was the 2009 Lismore Viognier with its dried apricot flavour and the most amazing lingering citrus aftertaste.” – City Of Sunshine And Storms
“South Africa’s finest expression of Viognier to date, Condrieu like, touch oxidative, perfume, textured mouth feels with racy and vibrant profile, high energy, only 3000 bottles made, seek it out.” – Miguel Chan Wine Journal
“… de bijna legendarische viognier” – Eriks Delicatessen (NL)
“… the cult white of 2007” – Sunday Times
The 2011 Chardonnay comes from 5 blocks and 5 clones that do not go through
malolactic fermentation, raised in 300-liter used barrels. It has a complex,
expressive bouquet with touches of smoke and walnut infusing the citrus
fruit, a hint of toffee just underneath. The palate is lively and ripe on
the entry with apricot, mandarin, orange zest and white peach. It is long in
the mouth with a fine, walnut-inspired finish. Excellent! Drink now-2019.
The 2011 Viognier is made in a more linear style – hints of frangipane,
apricot and honeysuckle on the nose, all very well-defined. The palate is
ripe and spicy on the entry with touches of dried orange peel, shaved ginger
and a touch of dried lychee. There is splendid weight in the mouth and a
long, satisfying finish. Excellent. Drink now-2018.”
– Wine Advocate