Trevor Strydom is really pumped about the merlot he’s just poured. He’s clearly eager for us to try it, but as if to slow himself down, he says it needs a couple moments to breathe. Sure. We don’t have the heart to tell him that, as twentysomethings, we don’t drink good enough wine to know whether this one has aired out long enough.
The winery we’ve come to is in Stellenbosch, a town in the mountains outside Cape Town, a world-famous wine-growing region. More than 150 wineries in Stellenbosch offer tastings to tourists—the kind of grape-drinkers who tend to let their wine breathe.
No other winery in Stellenbosch makes a wine like the 2013 merlot Strydom has just poured—nor do any other wineries in the world. We’ve come to the 32-hectare Audacia winery, of which Strydom is partner and managing director, to try the world’s first rooibos wooded wine.
As South Africans and tea drinkers worldwide know, rooibos holds a somewhat mythical status among its proponents. Most often prepared as rooibos tea, the plant is said to reduce stress, boost the immune system, and even protect against some types of cancers.
Rooibos, which is native to this part of South Africa, also plays a unique role in the fermentation process. It turns out that putting wine in contact with rooibos wood has a strong preservative effect, letting Audacia leave out extra sulfites and other additives. That’s a distinction that matters to health-conscious consumers, Strydom says, particularly ones who have an allergy to sulfites.
“You’re not allowed to promote any alcoholic product as being healthy, in terms of the law,” says Strydom, as we sit on barstools in Audacia’s tasting room. “But I know that because this wine hasn’t got any [traditional] preservatives in it, there are certain effects it doesn’t have on you.”
Such effects extend to hangovers, he claims, saying personal experience has left him encouragingly headache-free.
Just last month, Strydom and his business partners announced they’d filed patents in more than 80 countries that relate to rooibos use during fermentation. The patents also cover rooibos beer and rooibos cider, both of which are being brewed by separate companies located not far from Audacia.
Today, though, our focus is wine. Save for an embarrassing spill on our part— “It’s good luck,” Strydom tells us—the tasting goes well. The wine has a crisp earthiness to it we weren’t expecting. It tastes sophisticated. Before bringing us out to the vineyards, Strydom rattles off several tasting awards that Audacia’s 2013 merlot has won, not entirely unlike a parent describing their kid’s school accomplishments.
Strydom leads us through the property to the vineyards, where someone is spraying rows of grape plants from a tractor. Looking ahead of us on a packed-dirt road, Strdyom calls out to a man driving a four-wheeler, who he soon introduces as winemaker Michael van Niekerk.
It was with van Niekerk, Strydom says, that he first started adding rooibos to wine.
Many winemakers use wood chips (usually oak) to add flavor. Several years ago, Strydom, who left a career in finance when he opened Audacia, began experimenting with other types of wood. In a country with such an established wine industry, he wanted a distinctive ingredient to set his brand apart.
The search was tough, he says, and it started to take a toll on him. One day in 2010, he came home looking so concerned that his daughter asked him what was wrong.
Instinctively, she offered to make him a cup of rooibos tea. For Strydom, it was as if a lightbulb had gone off, and he took the box of the tea to van Niekerk.
“I said, ‘Michael, get some wine,’” Strydom recalls. “And we got literally five bottles and we put teabags in—one teabag, two teabags, three teabags—in the wine, just to see how it would taste.”
They left the teabags in for about a month, and when they tried the wine, Strydom and van Niekerk liked what they tasted. They started using wood from rooibos and honeybush, another local plant, to add flavor to their wine during production. Soon, they’d started collaborating with a team from nearby Stellenbosch University to study the effects of using rooibos and honeybush, and the patent filings followed.
South Africans can now buy the 2013 merlot, made using rooibos and honeybush wood, on supermarket shelves, and Audacia will soon start bottling three 2014 rooibos wooded wines: a shiraz, a cabernet sauvignon, and another merlot. The company is not currently exporting its rooibos wine to other countries, but Strydom hopes to in the future.
Our tour finishes with a drive to a scenic overlook at a corner of the sloped vineyard, from where we can see all of Audacia, much of the surrounding valley and an impressive mountain ridge in the distance.
With just a single tasting under our belts, we’re not able to determine whether a night of Strydom’s wine really leaves one hangover-free. But a drive back to Cape Town awaits, and we decide to leave that test for another day.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2014.