Right now is an opportune moment to think about life – as in ‘getting a life’; being alive – like to try defining a wine that is ‘alive’?, and giving a life – read further.

Getting a life is my current focus of attention, after the past nearly eight weeks of Platter tastings and indexing, oh and writing those sometimes pesky introductions. It’s a full day’s work for me for the entire eight weeks; things like writing this blog are fitted in as and when.

I’ve been lucky enough to taste some top-notch wines this year, to the point of nominating more than usual for the five star taste off (happening on 8th September). I find that rather scary, given my usual parsimonious tendencies when it comes to such nominations, but then this year I have gained some of South Africa’s recognised top producers and, as is generally acknowledged, quality is improving all round. So I’ll have to wait and see whether the five star judges agree with my enthusiasm.

This might seem extraordinary to some, but by the time the last wine has been sipped and spat, my whole mouth is humming and wants nothing more than plain water, which I gratified it with for two wine-free days.

If exhaustion is one post-Platter feeling, so is one of being in limbo; with the daily routine a thing of the past, I’m looking around for things to do. Daft, really, as I know in my head not only is there much to catch up with, but I have a commission to write Decanter’s travel feature on Franschhoek; deadline end September. So no rest this year; the brain and mind are immediately required to return to top gear.

Vieux Donjon 2005After those two days on the wagon and with the desire for wine safely returned, it was a bitterly cold Cape evening, one which cried out for Chateauneuf. Below is the bottle that was easiest to reach in a cellar still cluttered with Platter second bottles. Le Vieux Donjon is perhaps not as well known as it should be and won’t be here unless someone imports it. It’s a one red, one white producer, no fancy cuvées. The red is 75% grenache 10% syrah, 10% mourvèdre, 5% cinsault and counoise and white grapes include clairette. Of this 2005, Rhône expert, John Livingstone-Learmonth writes on his website ‘there is a good crackle in the red fruit’; that comment, recorded in 2008, is still very true. But what I find thrilling about this wine is that it’s so alive. It’s nothing to do with any individual component – well, not that I can identify – nor does it seem dependent on masking its size; the 14.5% alcohol is evident, if only for the doziness that came over me after drinking perhaps a little more than my share of the bottle! Of course, all wine is alive as it changes over time, but I often find our red wines lumpen, without spirit, even when there’s noticeable acidity and freshness. So, I battle to define this ‘aliveness’, but it certainly adds a thrill factor to the drinking experience.

I could hardly believe my luck when I enjoyed the same thrill the following evening, when I turned to the local shelves in the cellar, drawing out Eagles’ Nest 2008 Syrah. Like the Chateauneuf, it bears a generous 14.5% alcohol, but has the same spirit – perhaps that is the best term to describe the elusive aliveness. Both wines give much pleasure now but should continue to live a full life for many more years.

CheninBlancTop10The real winners in the resurrected Chenin Blanc Challenge are the workers and their families on the farms. Sponsors, Standard Bank gave R20 000 to each of the top ten, with the proviso that the money must be used to reinforce the economic and social benefits in the workplace to the workforce.

In alphabetical order, Bellingham will provide a travel learning centre servicing nine schools and 1400 children; Kleine Zalze worker’s committee will use it for their home grown projects; Pebbles will benefit from KWV’s R20 000 via educational needs; Crèches on Perdeberg members’ farms will be upgraded with the money; Remhoogte will donate the money to Pebbles for a geyser for the farm crèche, a jungle gym and development of vegetable gardens for the seven families who live on the farm; Rijks workers’ restroom and meeting room will be renovated; Workers on Simonsig will benefit from a crèche and after school facility, complete with computer and internet access; Spier’s winnings will be split between the Anna Foundation, Little Angels and Food Pods, the last teaching people to grow their own gardens; Stellenrust’s R20 000 will to the Stellenrust education trust, extending Fairtrade activities and computer literacy classes. Finally, Villiera, where Pebbles is based, will donate the money to a school leavers project, specifially a welding course for one young man who lives on the farm.

That’s what I call giving a life to all those who contributed to those ten very smart chenin blancs.

Searching for the perfect bubble

Every problem has a solution, so it is said. But not every solution is successful in its own right.

I stumbled on one this past week, when I asked Pieter Ferreira, at what age their vineyards had to be before the fruit would be channelled into the extensive range of Graham Beck bubblies. At the time our lucky group of media were faced with the vertical of Ferreira’s Blanc de Blancs (pictured below), and what I thought was the raison d’être of the event.

Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs (l - r) 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010. Note how little the colour changes
Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs (l – r) 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010. Note how little the colour changes

Given the meticulous attention Ferreira pays to every aspect in his search ‘for the perfect bubble’, that question seemed entirely logical but I was somewhat taken aback by his reaction of delight. He promised to answer it – later. That answer arrived at lunch in the form of Gorgeous, a pinot noir-chardonnay still table wine and new addition to the range, made from vines too young to be used in any of the bubblies. According to Ferreira, until the vineyards reach six or seven years old, the fruit won’t be ripe at 19° Balling.

This pinot noir-chardonnay (or vice versa) blend is an interesting phenomenon. Technically, it’s a rosé, but I wonder how many would find that nomenclature less attractive than a label bearing the two great grapes of Champagne? The style is certainly not a one-night wonder; the Cabrière von Arnim family have enjoyed and still enjoy 20 years later, huge success with their Chardonnay-Pinot Noir and I note from compiling the index for the 2015 Platter guide that others have joined the party.

Gorgeous 2014 pack shotThe Beck version is no namby-pamby little pink, but a serious wine in its own right. It’s food-friendly dry with pure pinot flavours and a lowish 11.25% alcohol, all attractions as a lunch time indulgence with an afternoon’s work ahead –Salmon Trout on this occasion, which complemented the wine in colour as well as the oily/fresh contrast.

But how are people going to ask for this, I wonder? ‘I’ll have a glass of Gorgeous, please,’ isn’t a phrase I can imagine suits asking for. The name, though reflects the late Graham Beck’s favourite term of endearment. So if this manly man could use it, why not other men? I do, however, guess it’ll come down to; ‘A glass of the Beck Pinot Noir-Chardonnay, please.’ And you won’t be sorry with wine, nor a reasonable restaurant mark up, when the ex-cellar price is R60.

The thought occurs, what happens when those young vineyards come of age and graduate into the bubblies? I guess more pinot noir and chardonnay will have to be planted; maybe by then some newer clones, even better suited to making South African Méthode Cap Classique will have been identified.

It’s the newer, Champagne clones and virus-free vines that have made all the difference to Ferreira’s Blanc de Blancs from 2008. We tasted from 2006 to the current release 2010 (R190 ex cellar). The two oldest wines have the same languid fine bead as the younger trio, but lack the creaminess associated with evolving Blanc de Blancs. ‘Simple’, as Ferreira describes them. Things change dramatically with the 2008, my favourite; with its creaminess and typical nutty evolution, it’s unmistakeably a Blanc de Blancs. The majority vote went to 2009, which retains the typical limey tones of Robertson chardonnay. 2010 is still a baby, the creaminess yet to develop and there’s still a hint of oak on the nose (half the juice is barrel-fermented to encourage that creamy texture).

Tastings with Ferreira are always both informative and enjoyable; I hope his search for the perfect bubble doesn’t end too soon!

'Champagne' day in Cape Town for the launch of the new Graham Beck Gorgeous
‘Champagne’ day in Cape Town for the launch of the new Graham Beck Gorgeous

30 Years of Cape Winemakers’ Guild auctions

CWG logoIt’s a pity, for two reasons, that the CWG auction tasting for the handful of us who taste the wines blind, is held mid-August. It is, of course, in the thick of Platter tastings, so one forgoes most of a day of working on that; but since the event is held at Jordan restaurant, there is the delicious thought of George Jardine’s lunch afterwards, enough of a temptation to remain strong through this year’s 62-wine line up. The pity too as I and my colleagues also at the CWG tasting are exposed in our Platter tastings to a much wider range of wines, styles and, I have to say, quality, including some of the Cape’s best.

Whilst it could be seen as unfair to say I was generally underwhelmed by these wines marking the 30th auction, because of the greater variety enjoyed for Platter, on this occasion it was difficult to get terribly excited. I should also point out  that I hadn’t looked to see who had entered what, so my tasting was in effect double blind.

The members do, of course, play to their audience of buyers (and international critics), which has always meant more reds than whites, as they receive higher prices. The wines themselves tend to focus on the classics – cabernet, merlot, shiraz, Bordeaux style blends with sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, chenin and Bordeaux styles among the whites. I was imagining this would have been reflected in the lots on the first auction in 1985, but was surprised to see there were five whites among the just 11 wines auctioned that year.

The problem is there is going to come a time when a different audience comes along, an audience that would prefer to follow the developments with new varieties and styles that are already making waves in the general Cape scene. It’s something the Guild and its members should be more actively anticipating.

If the first tentative steps have been taken by inviting both Adi Badenhorst and now, Andrea Mullineux to join the group, it’s a process that should be beneficially hastened.
My above remarks notwithstanding, my 10 favourite wines are as follows (listed in the order tasted):

Mullineux Semillon Gris 2013 – labelled just Semillon with The Gris underneath to satisfy the authorities as this mutation of semillon has yet to be recognised as a wine grape. What I particularly like are that it’s bone dry with great texture and a pithy finish. Not so much fruity as vinous, the flavours have a subtle earthiness with spice and dried herbs. A wine of great presence and very much in the modern Swartland idiom.

The authorities’ sanctioned semillon under Nicky Versfeld’s Lanner Hill Double Barrel white 2013 I also enjoyed as an unshowy though expressive example. Fruit from Darling was fermented in 3rd fill 600 litre French oak. It is so welcome to find some Guild members are steering away from new oak; Versfeld’s wine is the more elegant and sophisticated for it.

Older 600 litre French oak barrels were also used and to similar positive effect, by Duncan Savage in his sleek, impressive Cape Point Vineyards Auction Reserve 2013, a 50/50 semillon/sauvignon blanc blend. Main points: its lovely mouthfeel and excellent ageing potential.

Of the chenins, Johan Joubert’s Kleine Zalze Granite Selection 2013 stands out (It’ll be interesting to see what he presents for the auction after his move to Boland Cellar) for the concentration of its old vine fruit and really firm, fresh build. Oak is still evident but should harmonise with the fruit with the ageing it needs.

My belief in Elgin chardonnay was yet again confirmed with the lovely Paul Cluver The Wagon Trail from, in Elgin at least, the excellent 2013 vintage. It has lots of energy and tension with depth. Another that will benefit from keeping.

So to the reds.

Adi Badenhorst’s AA Badenhorst Kalmoesfontein Ramnasgras Cinsault 2012  (to give it its full title) has more flesh than his previous auction cinsault and is full of spice with an extra flourish in the tail.

Of the pinots, Bruce Jack’s The Drift Mountain Farm Heartbreak Grape 2013 should win many hearts with its gorgeous perfume and the sort of mouthfeel that makes pinotphiles weak at the knees.

I pass over the Bordeaux-style blends to Neil Ellis’s Auction Reserve 2011, a 75/25 cabernet/shiraz blend, a sadly underrated blend in my view. I noted Rhône style, as the shiraz spice and supple feel is well to the fore, but cab’s grip is an evident finishing touch. It’s well able to cope with its new oak dressing.

Memories were stirred with Etienne le Riche’s Auction Reserve Cabernet 2004. It might be riper than his old Rustenberg cabs, but it has their elegance and gentleness but also their persuasive nature. Just lovely drinking now.

The one shiraz that stood out, unsurprisingly, is Marc Kent’s Boekenhoutskloof Auction Reserve 2012 (as a category, the shirazes were disappointing). The catalogue doesn’t reveal fruit source, but from the freshness, punchy tannins and marked spice, I feel at least some grapes come from Porseleinberg. The colour too isn’t as dense as I’ve noted in Kent’s shirazes from Wellington fruit.

I made no notes on Carel Nel’s Boplaas 1880 Ox Wagon Reserve 8 year Potstill Brandy, it slipped down so smoothly after lunch, it must be pretty good!

Cover of the 30th CWG auction catalogue
Cover of the 30th CWG auction catalogue

Some thoughts on South African wine

This time of year, thanks to the constant stream of wines of all sorts to taste for Platter, offers something of a bird’s eye view of what’s happening with South African wines.

Due to the regional tastings no longer taking place, everyone has been allocated a wider spread of producers, which is a good thing as it does give a more comprehensive view of quality and helps with calibration. It’s as delightful to come across really well made, unpretentious everyday drinking wine as it is the grandees that excite me sufficiently to nominate for five stars.

There are, of course, still the high alcohol with residual sugar and too much oak brigade but they a slowly yielding to wines that show more all-round balance. As Saronsberg’s Dewaldt Heyns said at the recent vertical, while we all love being cool, properly read, hot vintages can also produce good wines, ie wines that are balanced so that none of the individual components sticks out like a sore thumb.

oak barrelsOaking in particular seems to be better used; not only in terms of new or used (most producers now have a good range of barrel ages, so can modify the amount of new oak to suit the wine) but size and toasting are also being given due attention according to the wine itself. Whereas it used to be 225 litre barriques that ruled in the barrel cellar, today you’ll find anything from 300 litre up to 700 litre with even larger foudres (some of several 1000 litres). Size isn’t the only change, so is toasting; there’s very much less heavy toasting, some barrels aren’t toasted at all. The effect is that oak now plays second fiddle to the wine; it’s more complementary and harmonious. That’s if oak is used at all. I’ve come across a handful of reds where no oak (not even staves or chips) has been used, yet the wines are thoroughly satisfying, having structure and concentration. It must have to do with vine age.

If there are unoaked reds, there is also an effort being made to produce more interesting rosés and what those winemakers who produce them call ‘light reds’, which lie somewhere between a rosé and full-blown red. Both oaked rosé and these light reds fill a gap for mealtimes on those hot summer days, when red is too heavy and an ordinary rosé just doesn’t have the stuffing to stand up to food.

Winemakers aren’t shy to charge for these wines, which requires more of a marketing effort, but as the quality is there, they deserve attention.

An area of special pleasure – and sometimes, surprise – has been the entry level or second label ranges. Most are just well and honestly made without any tricks; the winemakers have taken good fruit and vinified it into an easy-drinking but not facile style. These wines can offer more pleasure than those at the more ambitious and pricey level, when they are showily exaggerated.

Shannon winter pnBut I think the most interesting development is the increase in single vineyard bottlings. This subject deserves a piece on its own but until I have the time to do the necessary research, an alert that the category is growing will have to suffice.

Until a few years ago, the single vineyard wasn’t officially recognised, although some did of course exist and were bottled as such (but not indicated on the label). The basic requirements are that it has to be registered, may not exceed 6 hectares and must be planted to a single variety. Given the soil variation, even aspect and altitude, within a short distance in the winelands, 6 ha seems unnecessarily large, though I doubt many of those registered are that large. From the single vineyard wines I’ve tasted these past few weeks, I’ve noted most are from older vines, which makes sense as the winemaker will be aware of the quality and whether it matches up to making something special as a solo bottling. The question now is will these single vineyards continue to have the same thumbprint year after year, not to say will the other wine/s into which the fruit used to be incorporated be adversely affected.

About the only thing that hasn’t come my way this year is a new variety .. there’s time for that yet.

Come hell or high water

And you can throw in a gale too, but the one opportunity a year to taste through the latest vintages of Eben Sadie’s Ouwingerds range as well as Palladius and Columella is not to be missed. This year’s event had even more urgency given every wine had sold out within a couple of days.

Sadie Family Ouwingerds wines
Sadie Family Ouwingerds wines

Both last Friday and Saturday delivered one of this winter’s deluges along with cold and windy conditions, but the route I take to the Sadie’s Perdeberg farm, even when it’s wet and grey, is a relatively easy and certainly a scenic one with wheatfields lining the road and mountains in the distance. Relatively easy, for the last 4 kilometres is along a dirt track more suited to a 4×4 than a very old Toyota Conquest! But I made it in just on an hour, which is nothing in terms of many wineries strung out across the winelands.

The greeting, as always, was warm from the Sadie siblings – Delana, Nico and Eben – and other friends there; not too many of them at the early hour of my arrival, so I could get stuck into tasting without being diverted into the social chat that happened later.

Cross section of soils in vineyards where Sadie buys fruit.
Cross section of soils in vineyards where Sadie buys fruit.

With the Ouwingerds, it was the 2013s on show. As far as the whites go, I noticed an unusual firmness of structure about them; no question of imbalance, just a vintage character. That said, Skerpioen (chenin, palomino) is also a little fuller with good intensity of understated (if those two aren’t incompatible) earthy, honey flavours. The firm acid backbone is notable on Skurfberg (chenin), as is its subtle yet expansive ripe apple character. I believe T’voetpad (semillon, palomino, chenin, muscat d’alexandrie) is Sadie’s favourite this vintage. It has a lovely lightness of touch but also impressive mouthfeel, finishing with an intriguing hint of muscat. Apart from Mrs Kirsten, I feel T’voetpad has the most interesting future. Kokerboom (semillon) is also on the fuller side, with semillon’s typical beeswax features. These are relieved by a marked mineral tail. It will need time to come around from this and its current rather sullen nature. For concentration and structure, Mrs Kirsten (chenin) can’t be beaten; she will need lengthy ageing, but I hope the most appealing fennel and honey notes hang around as she does. There was so little made, none has been sold, so we’ll have to hope the Sadie’s hold on to her and we’re invited when her various bottles are opened.

If I enjoyed the whites, it’s the reds this year that have got me really excited: Soldaat (grenache), Pofadder (cinsaut) and Treinspoor (tinta barocca); all in my humble opinion are the best to date. Sadly, I didn’t manage to buy any Soldaat, but for those who did, please don’t be in too much of a hurry to open it. It glints like a valuable ruby, has deep and enticing wild strawberry and pepper spice fragrance. But there’s lot more to evolve and it has the structure to do so. It captures the essence of grenache in its light texture and freshness. I have managed to lay my hands on some Pofadder, which is a stealthy cat compared with Soldaat. A glimpse of wild red fruit spice is here one minute, gone the next, but it’ll return and develop. It’s very tight with tannins that are both vibrant and currently pretty impenetrable. Of course with sound balance, it’s worth however long it takes to settle and mature. I still remember the first Treinspoor, well, actually primarily the tannins, which were fearsome but which Sadie firmly believed will resolve. They’re much more balanced in this vintage, allowing for a more elegant expression of tinta with wet gravel soil and violets and a lively freshness. As with the other reds, ageing will be rewarded.

Back a vintage to 2012 with Palladius and Columella. It’s amazing how even 3% viognier, the amount in Palladius, makes its presence felt, as does the wine itself. It’s more forceful and pithier than usual but it also has underlying breadth. It really does need time to pull together, which I hope everyone who jumped in to buy it will allow for.
If I am a little ambivalent about Palladius right now, Columella is a totally different proposition, and my favourite vintage to date. Sadie says it reminds him of his 2010, but for me this has more precision, detail and personality. I keep saying what a wonderful vintage 2012 is for red wines – and crossing my fingers that I’m not the only one to have experienced these wines! – as with Columella, the best are totally in harmony if not yet unison, as structure is a big part of their success. Lengthy cellaring will be advisable for some.

Every year I come away full of admiration for the subtle yet characterful wines the old vineyards deliver thanks to Sadie’s ever-greater understanding of them. I fear these heirlooms are sold too cheaply; they are surely among the most authentic of South African wines.

I think I’ve written before how much I enjoy the way these new vintages are presented; all those involved are there to answer questions, otherwise it’s a happily casual occasion. Certainly worth the journey, whatever the weather.

Proudly warm & inland

When life sends you chances, grab them, especially when it’s a ten vintage vertical of a highly regarded wine from a reputable producer.

The value of such an experience is multi-faceted: discovering whether the wines have matured or merely aged, whether there’s been a style change and, importantly, whether there’s any sense of place. Given South Africa’s many young vineyards, the effect of age of the vines may also be notable.

Dewaldt Heyns enjoying one of his Saronsberg Shirazes at the 10 vintage vertical tasting
Dewaldt Heyns enjoying one of his Saronsberg Shirazes at the 10 vintage vertical tasting

All came to mind as winemaker, Dewaldt Heyns took a tightly-packed audience of around 40 enthusiastic wine writers and retailers through ten vintages of his Saronsberg Shiraz; from the maiden 2004 to a barrel-sample of 2013.

He joined Saronsberg in 2003, just after Pretoria businessman, Nick van Huyssteen had purchased this Tulbagh property, naming it Saronsberg after one of the mountain peaks behind some of their vineyards.

It was a mixed blessing that, shortly after Huyssteen purchased the farm, a wild fire wiped out some vineyards; the upside was that more up-to-date viticultural knowledge could be employed in their replanting.

Heyns is a thoughtful, down-to-earth person and winemaker; there’s no braggadocio, rather plenty of refreshing honesty. ‘Tulbagh is suited to shiraz, though it won’t necessarily ever make the best,’ he admits. Rather than force something on the fruit to make a grander wine; ‘I try to let the wine express a style that the area produces naturally and believe each should make its own statement about vintage conditions.’

Heyns has a self-depreciating sense of humour, so to listen to him is entertaining as well as informative. Weather conditions, not only during harvest but also from the previous winter and how the amount of rain and cold, or lack of it affected the harvest, never sounded so interesting thanks to Heyns’ fluency and relevance (NB other winemakers).

But the main point he repeatedly emphasised is the importance of balance. He makes no bones about his shirazes being big; prior to 2009, all bar 2006 clocked in at 15% alcohol, the odd one out a mere 14.5%. Despite that and residual sugars somewhere between 3 and 4 grams (technically dry, but with high alcohol present, an impression of sweetness is likely), the balance is such there’s no alcoholic glow and the wines do taste dry. This allows them to make great partners with food, as Harald Bresselschmidt’s dishes for the lunch which followed proved at his Auslese venue.

The line-up divided neatly into two styles: 2004 to 2008 inclusive and 2009 to 2013. Because of the fire and having to replace vineyards, fruit for the first few vintages was bought in; in fact 2008 was the first from all home-grown grapes, but stylistically it seems to fall in with the earlier vintages. These can be characterised by their more obvious richness and denser, bigger tannins. Except, that is 2006, where the colour is stronger, more youthful, the wine fresher, more elegant. It was a cooler year, ‘Though coolness is relative,’ Heyns maintains, adding; ‘We’re so enamoured with being cool, we write off hot vintages.’ An unfinished statement insinuating that properly read, hot vintages can produce good wines. This was more than adequately proved in the Saronsberg 2005 and 2007, though I wouldn’t hold on to the older wine any longer.

From 2009 onwards the shift is to greater refinement, better extraction and integration of tannins, oak as well as grape. Heyns confirmed from 2008 there was less toasting of the barrels, a positive move that also increased fruit definition.

Bling for Africa! Awards 'art' on Saronsberg Shiraz. Would you buy so decorated a bottle?
Bling for Africa! Awards ‘art’ on Saronsberg Shiraz. Would you buy so decorated a bottle?

It was strange to see the bottle of 2009 without any of the adornment accorded the others (apart from 2012 which has yet to pass any judges’ taste buds, but watch this space; it’s a cracker). Lower volume, Heyns told us, meant there was insufficient quantity to enter the usual shows.

It’s impossible to miss these bottles with their vast array of stickers; discussion about them and competitions was inevitable. ‘How do you prove to consumers that you’re making good wine?’ Heyns answered this rhetorical question by admitting they’d chosen going the competition route but describing it as a ‘necessary evil’; he’d much prefer to sell without any stickers, which caused plenty of chuckles, given his friend and Top 100 Wines’ owner, Robin von Holdt was among the guests! Heyns passed some unnecessary depreciating comment about his status as a winemaker, along the lines of not being a rockstar, but frankly, it can’t help when you’re making wine in Tulbagh. Really only Saronsberg, Rijks and Fable have any image in this sleepy area where there’s obviously much un-achieved quality potential, let alone any local body trying to brush up Tulbagh’s image with some enthusiastic marketing.

Tulbagh has also become a bit of a pariah for officially being part of the Coastal Wine of Origin, when it is patently so far from any coast. I did query with Heyns whether producers had been consulted during the process for the recent changes (see Tim James report here). He confirmed they were, but the opinion is that if Tulbagh had to be removed from the official Coastal Region, then so should Franschhoek, parts of Paarl and Wellington. Needless to say, one can’t see that happening, so Tulbagh preferred to let the status quo stand. It begs the question: shouldn’t the whole WO system be revised.

Heyns is proving that however Tulbagh is officially defined, his quality Saronsberg shirazes are authentic reflections of this warm inland area.

A ramble through Tim Atkin’s SA report

A bit late in the day but Tim Atkin’s 2014 South Africa report deserves attention and airing.

Tim Atkin (r) congratulating Charles Back on his Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 International Wine Challenge Awards
Tim Atkin (r) congratulating Charles Back on his Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 International Wine Challenge Awards

I have no idea how many, in either hemisphere, have bought it but wine people in both should (it’s available here for R220, a sum that’s hardly going to break the bank). For those in the northern sphere of the planet, I guess mainly in the UK, you (and we) are lucky Atkin has not only a keen palate but a keen eye; his numerous photographs add significantly to his report, capturing a sense of the place in the scenic shots and hinting at the character behind the portraits of the wine people. For those unlucky enough not to have visited the Cape and met the winemakers, these provide a characterful setting for the classification and individual ratings to come. It makes the point that wine can never be divorced from where it grows and the people who make it; thus there’s a completeness in Atkin’s report which should provide useful insight too.

For those in the southern sphere, Atkin’s is an important and informed voice from outside the country. Much of what he has written, especially in the 10 things you need to know about Cape wines, has been voiced by local commentators, but such is the ‘smallness’ of the local industry, it listens to those it likes or wants to listen to rather than always those who speak sense. I hope I sometimes do, so am particularly delighted Atkin mentions my particular hobby horse – the need for greater varietal diversity, a diversity that would better suit our current climate and soils as well as with an eye on climate change. As it is just eight varieties currently account for 80% of our vineyard; in my and Atkin’s view, a case of putting too many eggs in one basket.

He’s fair but pulls no punches where necessary, such as describing the country’s over-sized bulk wine as ‘anonymous at best’. At the top end ‘over-oaking and excessive alcohol levels are far too common, as are heavy, bicep-challenging bottles.’ From my own observations, alcohol levels are decreasing or at least there is better balance in the wines so those high alcohols (15%+) are less noticeable on taste, but – and it’s a big ‘but’ – their effect remains; one can drink less of them from the point of view of the drink/driving issue and they’re generally exhausting and lack refreshment. Oak and especially those bragging bottles remain issues, (as I’ve said elsewhere, if Meerlust and Kanonkop can sell their top wines for good prices in bottles of modest weight and design, why can’t others?)

If I do have a quibble, it’s that Atkin – and others – still refer to chenin blanc as ‘South Africa’s most undervalued white grape’. With Eben Sadie’s Mev Kirsten, Ken Forrester’s FMC, Chris Alheit’s new Magnetic North selling for several hundreds of Rands and others, going for at least three figures, being snapped up, chenin’s time has surely come. It’s just at the cheaper end that sauvignon remains more popular than chenin.

I also had a raised eyebrow at the paucity of fortifieds Atkin’s mentions – just the Overgaauw Cape Vintage 1994 – the current release! But he tells me others weren’t presented. Come on, Calitzdorpers, not to mention KWV, Monis and others who produce Cape style fortifieds that even the Portuguese admire; there are excellent jerepigos and Muscadels out there too. This report is an excellent platform to show off the best of our diverse wine styles.

Atkin has a terrific work ethic; he kindly let me join him on one of his mop-up tastings, where he tastes sighted, by variety and, apart from his iPod quietly looping his favourites, silently throughout the day. I also like tasting to music, finding it helps my concentration. It was a wonderful opportunity to tastes wines I either didn’t know or hadn’t had for a long time.

It’s a sad fact that as the number of producers increases, I’m going to be able to get to know fewer and fewer of them. The cost in time and petrol for, mainly, no financial return makes getting around to everyone an impossibility. My own approach is if I’m impressed by the wines and believe the winery is serious and understanding of quality, I’ll visit; even then I’m not entirely successful in getting round to everyone.

Atkin tastes far more broadly at any one time than any journalist here; one reason it’s unwise to criticise his classification. In any event, in such a vibrant and evolving industry as ours, there will always be movement up and down the list. We’re not alone: even the so-called hallowed 1855 Classification of the Bordeaux growths would look somewhat different should a re-organisation be permitted.

However pleased or aggrieved people might feel at where they are or aren’t on the list this year, for those serious about quality, next year might bring more positive results.

South Africa is fortunate to receive such detailed attention in this professionally presented report; future editions should be no less interesting, or controversial.

A gentle Swartlander

If something of a winemaker’s own character is reflected in his or her wines (as well as terroir, of course), then David Sadie is a gentle yet uncompromising soul.


David and Nadia Sadie at the launch of their latest vintages
David and Nadia Sadie at the launch of their latest vintages

It would, perhaps be wrong to say Sadie ‘burst upon the scene’, a feat limited by his and wife, Nadia’s very limited production; from just 713 bottles of his acclaimed white blend, Aristargos, to 7000 bottles in 2013, the third vintage; thankfully, production has ‘soared’ to 18000 bottles this year!

Nevertheless for those, myself included, who have bought and enjoyed his wines, there is recognition of another star in the making. Such recognition has already spread beyond South Africa’s boundaries, with UK writer, Tim Atkin MW reckoning in his latest South African report that Sadie is someone ‘to look out for’. He’s already rated him a 3rd Growth in his Cape Classification, alongside such recognized luminaries as Hamilton Russell, Thelema and Waterford. So one could say Sadie is already up among the best.

He’s a Swartland boy by birth and a member of the Swartland Independents by inclination, preferring to interfere as little as possible with the best fruit possible.

While this philosophy is applicable to all members of this group, it doesn’t mean their wines are not evolving in style. I would indeed warn that for those who’ve enjoyed Sadie’s wines since 2010, they are evolving every vintage. This was very clear at a tasting of the new vintages – 2013 for Chenin Blanc, Aristargos and Grenache (noir); 2012 for the red blend, Elpidios. The general trend is for more restraint and freshness, which means they need longer to come out of their shell, especially the blends.

Dare I say it, but we’re getting used to chenin having come out of its shell of mediocrity and increasingly showing how it can dazzle – even if it’s sometimes in a quiet way rather than razzle-dazzle.

Bearing in mind my opening sentence, it should be no surprise to hear Sadie’s chenin is a bright star but not one on steroids. As a member of the Swartland Independents, he eschews any additives apart from a little sulphur, and the barrels in which the wine was fermented and aged were older and larger (300 litres). In the end only two of the more than a dozen original barrels made the cut (the uncompromising part of Sadie’s nature). It has the pure yet intense aromatics underpinned by a subtle earthiness I associate with natural ferment. There’s the vitality occasioned by both freshness and a supple, bouncy feel, but this is all carried out in slow motion rather than with great vigour. As the fruit is drawn from the Swartland – Kasteelberg, Paardeberg as well as hills on the western side of Malmesbury – and follows the Independents’ directive for vinification, it’s not surprising there are others in the genre, though each with its own individuality.

Can it still be that chenin is ‘this wonderful, under-rated variety’, as Tim Atkin describes it? I realize quantities remain limited (a maximum of 50 x 12 of Sadie’s 2013) but winelovers are now willing to pay very good money for chenin; Sadie’s is around R240 retail and there are now plenty upwards of R100.

There was some discussion at the launch about single vineyard chenin and would Sadie consider producing one. The reason he wouldn’t isn’t because there’s no site worthy of solo bottling, but rather that a single site might become uneconomic to farm; by taking fruit from several farms and vineyards, the likelihood of that happening to all is diminished.

DavidAristagoslabelChenin is also the majority partner (though 10% less than previous vintage) in Aristargos with viognier, clairette blanche (another variety that is being beneficially re-discovered) and newcomer to the blend, roussanne. Tighter, fresher with subtle pithy finish, this wine definitely needs time to fill out. Sadie believes clairette is a restraining influence and picks the viognier early to avoid overly overt fruit.

If it’s fruit you’re after then the Grenache is your wine – but be prepared to fork out R270 odd. Some whole bunches, the balance de-stemmed but not crushed generates juicy, pure wild strawberry and fynbos flavours with a really dry finish. It clocks an unusually low, for Grenache, 12.5% alc; ‘About the minimum one could get anything out of this variety,’ surmised Tim James, who also returned to his debate on how high this could score, despite preferring to drink it as compared with something much bigger and well made but less to his liking. Whatever your view – and who can deny Chateau Rayas is a five star wine? – this one is more for warm weather enjoyment than to accompany a hearty winter dish.

But to my favourite of the tasting; Elpidios 2012, a blend of mainly shiraz (52%) but for me and some others, driven by its lesser (in quantity) partners; grenache, carignan and cinsaut, which provide lighter, brighter spice and wild scrub savouriness. This makes it all the more interesting, as so many blends with shiraz taste of little else.

The good news that production has significantly increased in 2014 is joined by David’s new venture at the farm Paardebosch, on the same Perdeberg slopes as Adi Badenhorst and next to Pieter Euvrard’s Orangerie. The old cellar there is being revitalized; David will make his own wines there as well as two single vineyard wines under the Paardebosch label.
More excitement, if of a gentle nature, in store from this young gun team.

Neither cold nor hot

If there’s one reason I’m thankful the Platter guide takes place during July and August, it’s because it’s winter in the Cape. I really can’t imagine tasting all those wines in summer, not because I’d prefer to be outside (well, only partly) but because it’s so much easier to taste the wines close to the temperature that will help them show at their best.

Not all white wines should be chilled to this degree.
Not all white wines should be chilled to this degree.

My office in winter is pretty chilly – it faces south with a single high north-facing window that doesn’t even get much sun through it. In fact it’s cooler than the cellar, which sits at a constant 16°C, good for some reds but a bit warm for most whites. The whites that do need a bit of chilling, I leave in my office as I faff around doing some chores and getting rid of the taste of toothpaste before settling down to taste them. This usually does the trick; there’s no need to put them into the fridge. Only bubblies and sweet whites need that treatment.
If all this sounds a bit too fussy, the temperature wine is served at makes such a difference to how it performs. And when Platter is involved, it could make the difference between leaving a wine at 4.5* and nominating it for 5*. Whites can be killed with chill; reds served too warm also hibernate and too cold send those tannins into hyperdrive.

I proved this again to myself with an elegant Swartland white blend. I like to drink rather than merely taste some of the better wines, which I’d done with this blend but I’d put it in the fridge after tasting to enjoy a glass in the evening. I forgot to remove it until just before I wanted that glass; the wine was dumb, zilch, nada of the delights I’d experienced earlier that day.

As I usually do, I did a re-taste the following day having made sure it had been nowhere near the fridge; to my relief it had returned to its former delightful self. The stress of indecision on a rating was no longer.

Not the best way to bring up a red to the right temperature & there are some better enjoyed much cooler.
Not the best way to bring up a red to the right temperature & there are some better enjoyed much cooler.

The issue of temperature is becoming more important with the increase of lighter, fresher red wines, with softer tannins (which, in my book are so to be welcomed); wines such as the new Craven Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Sadie Pofadder Cinsaut, Spioenkop Pinotage 1900. Red wines like these will give much more pleasure when served cooler (around 12°C to 14°C) rather than more traditional red-wine temperatures. That ‘room temperature’ idea is really a nonsense, as this varies according to the room and time of year. The more full-bodied reds are fine served directly from the cellar in winter; we tend not to drink the bigger ones at the height of summer.

Whites too need a re-think; gone are the days of the majority of those hefty, oaky, buttery chardonnays. With less oak, less of the acid-softening malo-lactic fermentation, which gives a much fresher taste and taste better when slightly chilled. Fuller, richer styles, not only of chardonnay but chenin, semillon and blends can easily be killed with over-chilling. But there is no ‘one size (temperature) fits all’ these days.

At least there’s a fix, if not always quick, to correct a wine’s temperature, something not possible with other mistakes.

Reds with time

Since last writing about my experience of 2008s, I’ve found some genuine reds from that vintage (remember that Waterford was actually a 2004 which, on the handwritten label, was intended for the CWG 2008 auction).

But first, I also opened my last bottle of 08 Beaumont Hope Marguerite. Whether it’s the variety – chenin, the place – Bot River, grand age of the vines – several decades or the understanding experienced hand of the winemaker – Sebastian Beaumont – I wouldn’t like to say, (it probably has something to do with a little bit of each) but, with the Chamonix Chardonnay, it was the most interesting of the white bunch. Like the other whites it shows a good deal of evolution in the flavours, but there’s also some complexity and flesh on the structural bones. Will it offer further? I’m doubtful but (properly stored) it’ll certainly offer pleasure for another year. Lesson here, it’s misleading to brush all varieties, all areas of the winelands with the same vintage brush; that’s without taking the individual producer into account.

A lesson repeated with the two reds I dug out: Eagles Nest Shiraz and Buitenverwachting Christine, the latter a cabernet-led Bordeaux-style blend noted for its longevity.
Knowing Christine 2009, an absolutely stand out vintage, I can’t say the 2008 is on the same level and it shows itself much better with food than alone, when the astringency remains a barrier to enjoyment. However, it is absolutely true to the Buitenverwachting style; classic, austere but the austerity is from grape tannins, which will resolve with time (unlike oak tannins), dry but still full of fruit without being fruity. There is not even a suggestion of modern, ultra-ripe reds with their high alcohol and often residual sweetness. I would certainly be inclined to hold on to this wine for several more years, monitoring it after another two or three.

As for the shiraz, I see my colleague, Tim James wrote about this Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show trophy winner and Platter five star wine in the 2011 guide: ’08 .. back to purer style. Violets, black pepper intro to notably creamy ripe, yet elegant wine; already hints at complexity ..’ Looking at my own notes now (made before looking at Platter) they very much reflect that view with the addition of that hinted-at complexity, partly through greater homogenisation of flavours. I’m so glad I have a few more bottles, which I’m in no hurry to open – that is by unscrewing rather than uncorking. We know closure, as well as factors mentioned above, influences how a wine ages but those under screwcap have yet to be tested over ten years or more. In many ways, the Eagles’ Nest does appear more youthful than many six year old reds.

Eagles Nest ShirazI felt the 2009 and 2010 showed a little too much oak on release, which was strange, as winemaker, Stuart Botha told me there had been no change in the oaking regime. Thankfully, the wines have come into balance over time and there’s no hurry to open them. I was very interested to taste the latest and just released 2011 at last week’s Shiraz Awards, where it had reached the top 20. Notable is the concentration and structure from older vines but with no diminution of the wine’s trademark pure fruit and suppleness; oaking too is seamlessly absorbed. It should please its many fans, even though, for some strange reason, the judges failed to place it among the top 12.

Could it have anything to do with the fact that the panel was made up of winemakers, three of whom had a total of four shirazes in the top 12? I have no objections to a winemaker judging; there’s always one on the panel of three judges on the Trophy Wine Show. He or she can bring valuable technical knowledge to the table, but in the case of the Shiraz Awards – or any other competition – there should surely be better balance to ensure every style receives a fair hearing. I would hope at least the scores of the judges whose wines made the top 12 were discounted for their own wines; there was no mention of this.
The judges, under chairman, Dr Andy Roediger CWM, were Richard Rowe, Australian winemaker, currently consulting winemaker and brand ambassador to KWV, Carl Schultz (Hartenberg), Niels Verburg (Luddite) (who doesn’t enter his wines on any show), Francois Naudé (Rhebokskloof) and Anthony de Jager (Fairview).