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.

ChristineBVW
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).

Time to go

At this year’s feedback session to the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show it was good to hear the number and quality of Museum Class entries had grown. Even though most will have long sold out, their success confirms we are producing ageworthy wines, even if a four-year-old white or eight-year-old red (the minimum age for the Museum Class) are hardly old. As I commented at that event, a reputable wine-producing nation cannot be built on young wines alone. Given the still relative youth of our modern wine industry, it would be unrealistic to expect wines that improve over decades but a good ten to 15 years should be the minimum possible in a favourable vintage for both whites and reds crafted with ageing in mind.

Very little gets written about older wines, mainly because few people have the space to keep them, so what they drink is what is available at the supermarket or wine merchant; usually wines of no more than a year or two old.

We’re lucky enough to have a cellar where the wines are held at a pretty constant 16°C with sufficient humidity. So I cannot blame conditions when wines disappoint.
What I can look to is the vintage itself, something I’ve been doing recently with several 2008s, both white and red. I’d not invested much in 08s, one or two I buy every year, plus some leftovers from previous Platter tastings, so there’s but a small representation on the shelves.

It was while talking to Steenberg’s John Loubser at the recent Magna Carta launch that I thought I should open a selection of these six-year-olds. Loubser was bewailing this difficult year, a year when there was no Magna Carta, which must’ve been a difficult decision, as 07 was the maiden vintage, but Loubser was adamant the wine wasn’t up to their stringent standards.

Steenberg Old bottlesLooking back at my harvest report for Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Guide, I noted it was ‘dubbed “a viticulturist’s vintage’, as vineyard work primarily determined success or otherwise.’ The cold, wet winter extended into spring and early summer. Showers and humidity caused disease pressure, demanding extra attention to canopy management and grape sorting – hmm, is 2014 another 08, I wonder? The more typical hot, dry conditions arrived only in late February. I made no note of ageability but it didn’t sound a promising possibility then, nor, in my recent experiences has it turned out to be.

First off the shelves was Steenberg’s Semillon, darker in colour than some 07 whites I’ve enjoyed but not oxidised, in fact the waxy, lemon grass varietal character was quite clear, if lacking any depth. Simplicity best sums up the wine as a whole and although pleasant, it’s not hugely satisfying.

Jordan ChardonnayThe chardonnays – Jordan under screwcap and Ataraxia – showed lessChamonix Chardonnay typicity; in fact they were quite honeyed and, like the semillon, shallow. I liked them less. But, but there are always exceptions to the rule; in this case, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a Chamonix. I opened a bottle of Gottfried Mocke’s Reserve Chardonnay 08 about a month ago, before I’d started focusing on the vintage. You’d have thought it came from another planet, let alone another vintage, it was so alive and layered with flavour and ripe flesh. Not a hint of honey and far from being superficial. It was obviously no one bottle wonder, as the wine went on to win the trophy for best Museum Class Chardonnay at this year’s
Trophy Wine Show.

The two reds I’ve opened so far are Hartenberg Gravel Hill Shiraz, a wine I’ve always loved for its innate personality. While I don’t think the 2008 is up to the great 2000 or 2005, it has a presence the whites don’t and was, in fact, better on the second evening than just opened with more of a rumble to its dark spice and brilliance in its crystalline mineral core. It can still do with a bit of rounding off at the edges, possibly another couple of years,
Hartenberg Gravel Hillbut there don’t seem to be great depths of flavour yet to emerge.

I also opened a Waterford that was hand-labelled ‘CWG 2008’ but was closed with a cork branded 2004. Checking back in Platter, I’m reminded it is a 2004, destined for the 2008 auction! It’s a blend of shiraz, mourvèdre, petit verdot and barbera, which on yesterday evening’s showing (of course, there are leftovers for tonight), had more flesh and richness than the 08 Gravel Hill. As I’ve rarely been wowed by 2004 either, this made for an interesting, if hardly comprehensive comparison.

There are a few other 2008 whites (Vergelegen flagship, Beaumont Hope Marguerite) and reds (Boekenhoutskloof Syrah, Buitenverwachting Christine) awaiting their turn, but on the evidence so far, I’d say the white wines’ time is up (unless it’s a Chamonix or good lookalike) and keep a beady eye on the reds.

Characterful blends

There are South African wines which, on first taste, impress with their character and quality. Happily this is happening with increasing frequency, which improves the image of both the industry as a whole and smiles on the faces of wine lovers.

Not all advances occur at the same pace; some varieties and styles take a quantum leap forward while others struggle to find the way forward.

I’m sure the previous ABCers would agree chardonnay has improved immeasurably over the past few years; today’s subtly oaked, citrusy fresh examples are a far cry from those earlier, over-oaked, buttery wines. Chenin Blanc is also heading forward via a variety of valid routes, encompassing everything from site specific wines through to skin contact (or orange) wines; what we have moved away from is the sweet, heavily oaked style.

White blends too are finding good direction with clear definition between the Bordeaux-style sauvignon-semillons and generally chenin-based styles, incorporating any or all of chardonnay, viognier, roussanne, grenache blanc and clairette.

I do feel, though that red blends have some catching up to do. Often, the blend looks interesting on paper but just lacks it in the glass. At last week’s South African tasting held by Handford Wines in celebration of their 25th anniversary, I believe there was some disappointment with the Bordeaux blends, though I can’t remember which were presented.

For me, blends using Rhône varieties are often less interesting, something I hope is due to young vines.

Domaine du CaillouThe point about older vines, especially with a variety like grenache, was clearly illustrated in this recently-enjoyed, delicious Domaine du Caillou 2006 Chateauneuf; the grenache vines, which make up 85% of the blend, are between 56 to 58 years old and planted on the famous pudding stones of the area. The other 15% is syrah from 35 year old vines in sandy soil. It’s an unashamedly big wine (so perfect for the current icy weather), dense, yet full of energy and freshness (so there’s no question of not hitting the bottom of the bottle!). Together, the two varieties make something more satisfying, complete than I can imagine they would alone.

If we’re not hitting that level here yet, there are a few wines showing a glimpse of what should be possible as the vines age and winemakers become more experienced.
Beaumont in Bot River must have some of the oldest mourvèdre vines in the Cape; Sebastian Beaumont crafts two wines using this variety. My usual tasting partner, Tim James and I recently tried both the varietal Beaumont Mourvèdre 2011 which sells for R185 from the farm and the blended Shiraz-Mourvèdre 2011 (R130). I doubt many wine lovers here are familiar with Bandol, the spiritual southern French home of mourvèdre. It’s a puzzler of a wine as a youngster, demanding several years’ patience before revealing what I find to be an appealing gamey character (nothing to do with Brett this time) from behind its gruff tannin exterior.

Beaumont Shiraz-Mourvedre
Beaumont’s version is not as impenetrably tannic as its French counterpart, but will benefit from a further three to four years’ evolution when the clean leather, violet-toned dark berries should provide more complexity to its comfortable density. The blend is entirely more approachable with shiraz lifting both the aromas and drinkability. I don’t think it’s a question of 1 + 1 = 3 here, but the partnership is entirely compatible and the wine may well become more interesting over the same time span as the varietal mourvèdre.

Tim commented that he finds a rustic quality in the wines – I remember him making a similar remark when we previously tasted Beaumont reds. I know what he means; it’s not a negative stemming from Sebastian’s winemaking, more an inherent character in the wines.

Forrester Three HalvesKen Forrester might be known as ‘Mr Chenin’ but it would do him and his other wines a disservice to not recognise especially the reds blended from Rhône varieties (there are no fewer than three in his numerous range). We tasted both the Renegade 2010 and Platter five star Three Halves 2009 during 21st anniversary celebrations for the Ken Forrester label. Both include grenache (some from that ubiquitous, old Piekernierskloof vineyard), mourvèdre and shiraz, Renegade (R105) is based on the first of the trio, is light of texture which highlights the freshness and full, spice-laden flavours. Older, 400 litre oak barrels do no more than they should in harmonising the wine. Mourvèdre accounts for half of the Three Halves; ‘the other two halves are grenache and shiraz,’ is Forrester’s way of explaining the logic behind the name! An assortment of liquorice, raw meat, minerals and yet more flavours, it’s the much richer though well-balanced wine; from experience, this sipped alongside a venison casserole make a sublime partnership. The R195 price tag shouldn’t bring on indigestion either; there are wines providing far less satisfaction costing far more.

As I said, these few give a glimpse of what is possible and even they can offer more with vintages to come.

Sauvignon shared

Time to return to the Steenberg Sauvignon Odyssey, where we progressed from straight sauvignon blanc to that variety’s natural partner, semillon.

Semillon grapesI and many other wineloving journalists may punt semillon until the cows come home, but sadly as a varietal wine it’s never become an earworm with the wine drinking public at large. This is inexplicable as from cooler areas it can and does even resemble sauvignon with vivid aromatics and a sprightly freshness. From warmer areas it’s often far less aromatic, the emphasis being more on texture, a sort of swishy rich satin, lending all-encompassing mouthfeel.

Not all semillons are passed by, thank goodness; Steenberg’s has always been popular and of consistent quality. Until a few years ago, the wine was fermented in small oak barrels before immediately being transferred to tank; for the past few vintages, it has been left for several months in oak, a move which has provided better integration and evolution.

Steenberg’s 2011 was served at the Odyssey, along with the Sauvignon Reserve of the same vintage, both accompanied by that delicious duck breast with orange, chilli and ginger reduction chef Garth Almanzan rightly considered so good a match. Even better, I have to say with the semillon, where its honey, lemon and ginger aromas and flavours, wrapped in its satiny richness, made an even better partnership.

It’s only when one tries the partnership does it become apparent how one plus one really can and usually does equal three. Benchmarks for this dry sauvignon blanc-semillon blend (it’s the more common mix) come from Bordeaux, more particularly Graves with the best from its Pessac-Léognan enclave. Sadly, say ‘Bordeaux’ and winelovers immediately think red, though even some First Growths now have white wines (some straight sauvignon, others blends).

I guess because these white blends are overshadowed by their red counterparts, even in Graves, they haven’t really taken off around the world.

'Y' pronounced Ygrec in French, the great dry version of Yquem Sauternes. NB its AOC is merely Bordeaux Superieur!
‘Y’ pronounced Ygrec in French, the great dry version of Yquem Sauternes. NB its AOC is merely Bordeaux Superieur!

I was kindly invited by Miles Mossop to attend the Cape Winemakers Guild recent tasting of dry white Bordeaux wines. Unfortunately he was unable to source wines from other than Bordeaux and locally, but it was reassuring to discover the benchmarks were as varied in style as ours. (The wine of the evening for many was Yquem ‘Y’, the dry though still botrytised version of its famed Sauternes; a style I urged some of the CWG members to try for the auction.)

The local wines presented were Nitida Coronata 2011 (R125), a 60-40 sauvignon-semillon blend is in more fruit-forward, accessible style but also ages well; Tokara Directors Reserve 2010 (R215) 70-30 more New World in style with pungent blackcurrant character, firmly structured with intense long flavours, excellent balance and built to last. Both bottles of Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2010 (R235 sold out) were unusually off song, leaving for me the pick of the local blends Steenberg Magna Carta 2011 (R460) 65-35. This partnership seamlessly combines sauvignon’s freshness with semillon’s more textured feel, the whole giving a wine of subtle class, one that’s still keeping its full attractions under wrap. Such shyness didn’t prevent the judges on the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show from observing and rewarding the wine, where it deservedly won the Grande Roche Trophy for the best white blend.

Steenberg Magna Carta 2011Although the first vintage of Magna Carta was as recent as 2007, there was a prototype named Catharina which dates back to 2000 but was made for only a couple of vintages; ‘Before its time,’ suggests Steenberg’s GM, John Loubser. I still have a bottle of the 2001 in our cellar. The last bottle opened, two years ago, I think – had aged gracefully illustrating just why both Steenberg and this combination make a classic style. So, a pity Catharina was discontinued, especially as the flagship style did start to gain traction with André van Rensburg’s maiden 2001.

I was so pleased to see his flagship once again in the trophy line up on the OMTWS; this time the Vergelegen 2009 sauvignon-semillon blend, the recipient of the Museum Class white blend trophy. These wines take a few years to get into their stride, so often don’t perform as well as they deserve in competition. They are traditionally firmly built and very dry but age majestically.The current release is 2012, selling ex-cellar for R290.

Dare I say it but our local sauvignon-semillon blends offer greater diversity and singularity than the popular chenin-based blends. In fact, there seems to be much more a sense of place in many, the flagships especially, which derive from cooler, coastal areas or those with cooling influence. As flagships, the above wines are not cheap but will undoubtedly reward with time. Fortunately, quality isn’t limited to these rarefied prices and wines that require time to show their best; there are everyday drinking wines, ready off the shelf still express the ying and yang of this classic combination.

Cabernet re-visited

Remember those school reports where the principal noted ‘tries hard’? Your initial enthusiasm is quickly dampened with the realisation that it’s actually a euphemism for ‘despite trying, the results are less than stellar’.

The principal in me often emerges with cabernet, though in this case, a further qualifier seems necessary: ‘tries too hard’. The effort is, of course, by the winemaker rather than the grape. Cabernet sauvignon has the reputation of being a sternly built variety, one requiring years to make agreeable drinking. It is also considered an excellent candidate for new oak to help the wine and its fearsome tannins evolve. In theory this makes sense, in practice it doesn’t always produce the desired result.

cabernet grapesIn South Africa cabernet has been particularly troublesome for two main reasons: one, it’s late ripening and even with a tough skin, early winter rains may leave it less than desirably ripe. Leafroll virus too has been a primary cause; despite the introduction of virus-free vines, there’s still old infected material in vineyards and the virus-free (NB not resistant) have in some cases reverted to virus. The clean vines present their own problem with sugar levels escalating to levels where the potential alcohol is 15% plus, but leaving ripeness of skins and pips lagging behind. Some residual sugar may be left for balance but makes for heavy weather of drinking the wine.

Despite these apparent hurdles, there are many great cabernets. Careful site selection, meticulous viticultural attention and a gentle hand in the cellar, blending in other varieties, all contribute to cabernets that may be enjoyed young as well as with a good many years under their belts – or should that be ‘bottles’.

Last week, the third Christian Eedes Cabernet Report, sponsored by Sanlam Private Investments, offered the opportunity to taste the ten best examples as selected by him, together with his colleagues Roland Peens of Wine Cellar and James Pietersen, now also of Wine Cellar. The trio had blind-tasted a hand-picked line up of 60 cabernets (seeded players, local and international award winners and what Eedes calls ‘best in their field if low profile’.)

In his report, which includes a summary and tasting notes on all 60 wines and may be downloaded here, Eedes says of the trio’s findings that ‘winemakers are going in pursuit of fruit and less aggressive tannins ..’ achieving this via opening up the vine canopy, harvesting riper grapes and adjusting acid and pH levels in the cellar.

Pointing out areas that remain problematic, Eedes mentions tannin management; over-extraction of grape tannin and over-oaking, which results in dry oak tannins. I’m 100% behind his cry for ‘More gentleness of touch’.

It was no surprise that eight of the ten cabernets singled out for praise, came from Stellenbosch (Franschhoek and Darling filled the other two spots), which boasts the largest area under cabernet, just on 2809 ha, so good stuff should be coming out of there.
One aspect Eedes didn’t mention is how well winemakers are interpreting very different vintages; among the top ten, 2012, 11, 10 and 09 were represented. No 09 has any business to be anything other than excellent, but 2010 was much more difficult. I’ve yet to get my head around 2011, but 2012 is promising.

I’d agree there’s generally more fruit but some enthusiastic oaking did suggest a sense of ambition that the fruit wasn’t always up to. More disturbing for me was clumsy acidification. There is a world of difference between freshness and the gravelly woooosh of acid, either too much or added at the wrong time. I’m afraid that wooosh was evident in at least four of those ten.

Waterford cabernet labelGenuine freshness may also derive from fine, ripe tannins, a positive I discerned in my two favourite wines. Waterford’s aesthetic is one of elegance and restraint both of which are evident in the 2011 (R175); its freshness and dry finish provide digestibility. Despite the sleek lines, there’s no shortage of flavour with more to develop, I’d guess beyond the judges’ suggested 2018. Thelema 2010 (R185) is more muscular but beautifully proportioned, a fine example of contained power. Fruit seems to be more of the dark berry type with far less of the characteristic mint (this is the standard bottling). Thelema’s track record ensures a long future. These are two really great wines, the producers deserving of their second consecutive appearance in the top ten.

Rickety Bridge cabernetBoth Rickety Bridge Paulina’s Reserve 2011 (R195) and Knorhoek Knorhoek Pantere CabernetPantère 2011 (R130) offer satisfaction in their honesty and character; their price tags too aren’t unwarrantedly large, a claim that may also be made for Waterford and Thelema. Rickety Bridge and Knorhoek, crafted with that ‘gentle touch’, has brought out the best in them and which over-ambition would have destroyed, The former, flying the Franschhoek flag, has the distinction of being in the top ten for all three years since the event began, so Stellenbosch doesn’t completely rule the cabernet roost.

My own report for these four at least, reads ‘tries hard with admirable success’.

Simply sauvignon

It’s easy to see why sauvignon blanc became the darling of the wine drinking masses. Its vivid flavours, green pea or tropical fig, and refreshing acidity make it easy to drink and understand.

Sad to say it’s become a victim of its own success; to temper the sometimes too vigorous acid and widen the wine’s appeal, producers started leaving residual sugar. In many cases, all this has done is to make one ‘savvy’, as the Kiwis call the grape, taste like any other, so ending up as a caricature of the real thing. It’s not surprising this has led to some critics belittling sauvignon.

Sauvignon blanc grapes when ripe taste very similar to the wine
Sauvignon blanc grapes when ripe taste very similar to the wine

It only takes an event like the Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc Odyssey to jolt one’s taste buds into the realisation that sauvignon is much more than a one-trick pony, even if its classic credentials were queried by Jancis Robinson in her original Vines, Grapes and Wines. ‘.. of the nine grape varieties included in this ‘Classic Varieties’ section, Sauvignon Blanc’s claim to classic status is perhaps the weakest,’ she wrote, continuing; ‘The varietal (sic) has not proved however, that unassisted it can produce wines for the future, and longevity is surely a component of greatness in wine.’

Steenberg’s Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 1999 has certainly not heard about that; as the oldest wine tasted – and more sensibly, consumed – by Odyssey guests, it provided great pleasure. There’s no shortage of eye-appeal in its brilliant yellow gold hue; vivacious freshness but also developed toasty notes add to overall interest. Lending some noteworthy context to its age, current winemaker, JD Pretorius admitted he was in Standard 6 when the grapes were harvested!

To make sure we fully understood the excellence of the farm’s sauvignon terroir and positive message about the ageability of these wines, the Reserves from 2009 and 2006, as well as the standard from 2008 (‘not a great year’ according to GM John Loubser) were also poured. Each was different from the others; all retained a high quotient of enjoyment.
The ‘99 wasn’t quite the first sauvignon from Steenberg; that had been made five years earlier in 1994, by Nicky Versfeld at Welmoed Co-op in Stellenbosch, a set up that continued until Steenberg’s cellar was completed for the 1996 harvest.

Delving a little further into the past, the onset of this 205 hectare farm’s current, enviable reputation came with JCI (Johannesburg Consolidated Investments), who purchased it in 1990 for R22 million (I shudder to think what its 2014 value is!). Ex-Boschendal viticulturist, Herman Hanekom was put in charge of developing the property and vineyards. He retired to Wilderness some years ago, but was at Saturday’s lunch to celebrate the launch of the new Black Swan Sauvignon Blanc 2012 and reminisce about the early days.

Steenberg BlackSwan 2012The handing over of the baton from Reserve to the Black Swan is very much a case of ‘The King is dead; long live the King’.

The Reserve, first singled out in 1997 though not labelled as such then, came from a vineyard which, by 2011, was well into its third decade. Something I didn’t know before was that Peter Pentz (of Groote Post) planted it in 1989. The site couldn’t have been better chosen: east-facing, on decomposed granite and spanning an altitude between 80 and 120 metres are all propitious features for vigorous, cool climate sauvignon. Of late, yields had dropped to uneconomical levels, something the Constantia wine farmers are more aware of than most, given the high rates they pay. The threat of disease in this cool, wet area delivered an added incentive to uproot part of the block and replant.

We paid respects to the last Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2011 and its re-incarnation in the Black Swan 2012, both being served with Garth Almanzan’s carefully match dishes; Duck breast with an orange, chilli & ginger reduction with the former and Pan-fried Salmon Trout with grilled crayfish and sautéed asparagus with the latter (thereby illustrating sauvignon’s versatility as well as ageability).

The younger wine differs not only in name; a name which reflects that given by its first ownerm Catherina Ras – Swaaneweide, the feeding place of the swans. No swans there of course; she probably mistook the local spur-wing geese for the European birds, one a different colour from the rest. Grapes came from the remaining portion of the old Reserve vineyard, plus 20% each of two younger blocks, seven and four years old. Both youngsters inject a new note of brilliance via intensity and breadth of flavour; notes of juicy, crunchy blackcurrant leaf are particularly attractive. A tiny portion fermented in larger old oak barrels brings extra shoulder and richness. Needless to say this exhilarating juvenile (R160 ex cellar) will benefit from at least two to four years’ quiet slumber.

I’m glad the lid is still firmly on the box of my 2011 reserve. Unoaked and with much less of the younger vineyards, it is a different proposition with more of the resonant green pea character associated with the old reserve label but also ripe flesh, cutting edge poise and length. I’ll try to forget it for a few more years.

If you think this is a short Odyssey , stand by for sauvignon shared, following shortly.

A wedge of swans heralding the arrival of their black cousin (no black sheep this!)
A wedge of swans heralding the arrival of their black cousin (no black sheep this!)