Blends every which way

So many other tasks get abandoned during Platter and this year another deadline loomed shortly afterwards; the recent silence is thus due to trying to catch up.
But back to work and a tasting with colleague Tim James of wines – some new, others just sent for a possible review – that made me think again about blends and how they aren’t limited to a mix of varieties.

Blends come in all shapes and sizes, so to speak.

For some, how they are labelled very much depends on the producer’s aim.
Take, for instance, Nitida Coronata Integration 2013 – one of this year’s RisCura Hot White Award winners and great value at R125 ex farm. In this mix of unwooded sauvignon blanc and oaked semillon, the Vellers are aiming for a wine where the blend is greater than the sum of its parts. As I wrote here, because the two varieties have similar fruit profiles, they blend very well and, in this case live up to the integration of the title; so well integrated, in fact, both Tim and I wonder how much more it can improve or age. We agree it’s exceptionally drinkable now, fresh but with polished edges, a lovely richness of feel with pure fruit of the tangerine peel, lemon grass and honey kind, all characteristics of its cool Durbanville climate. Very unlike the more austere style of Vergelegen, which needs a few years to get into its stride.

Shannon Sanctuary PeakShannon Sanctuary Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2014 is also a blend of unwooded sauvignon blanc with 11% wooded semillon, the latter here in essentially a silent partner, merely providing a little muscle. This is no flashy sauvignon; restraint with approachability sums up the Downes’ wine. It has that sense of aliveness that I associate with minerality; pleasing intensity and length too. This wine has changed over the years; I remember when Shannon was on my Platter list, James Downes was at pains to hold back the wine for a year before release, which it then needed. I guess with high demand, he has had to adapt the style with Nadia & Gordon Newton Johnson, who make the Shannon wines. It’s been achieved to great effect with every sip making the R105 asking price seem excellent value.

Of course, white blends of the multi-varietal type and featuring inter alia chenin blanc, viognier, clairette blanche, grenache blanc and roussanne, have helped put the Cape and the Swartland in particular on the international map. In truth, not many of this ilk that I’ve tasted have left me feeling disappointed, so it’s unfortunate that the new and pricey Avondale Cyclus 2012 (R225) fails to hit the mark with its promising list of components: viognier, chardonnay, roussanne, chenin blanc and semillon, all naturally fermented in 500 litre oak barrels. Yes, we notice viognier and a waxy finish but the parts just don’t hang together, let alone create something greater than their sum.

Ah, but perhaps we tasted it on a less than favourable day of the lunar calendar, something owner, Johnathan Grieve, is keen for the industry to follow. Of the four periods making up the calendar – root, fruit, leaf and flower – the last is considered the most favourable for wine tasting. So maybe Friday, 26th September was altogether the wrong day; if so, sorry Johnathan. Possibly the following two days as well? As I did keep trying it in the hope of a better result.

The wine was given the name Cyclus ‘because of the elegant way that Avondale’s unique life energy swirls through its invigorating layers.’ So now you know.

We liked the new Avondale Armilla MCC 2009 a good deal better, even though we tasted it the same day. There’s no accounting for these things. While it’s a straight chardonnay, left on the lees for five years, it also contains a small portion of wine from every previous vintage going back to 2003. So there’s another take on blending.

There’s a real creaminess cut by the attack of a fine, brisk bubble with a suggestion of the nutty character that develops in this style with age. A decent MCC, not at all austere but lacking in some of the complexity one would expect from a five year old, which makes the R198 price tag seem on the steep side.

Blends can be a difficult choice to make, especially if they are given a brand name – eg Palladius or Paul Sauer – rather than the more familiar varietal names of the grapes in them.

Surely this accounts, in part, for a successful 20 years of Haute Cabrière Chardonnay-Pinot Noir 2014 (R85) and likely will do for the new Graham Beck Gorgeous, Pinot Noir-Chardonnay 2014 (R60 ex cellar). As I wrote here, both are technically and visibly rosés, but by labelling them with the two great Champagne grapes makes them sound so much more desirable. The gentle flavours and smooth Cabrière is drinkable if without distinction, but I personally prefer the Beck with its stronger red grape flavour and firm, fresh profile; a good all-round food style. Pricewise and weighing in at only 11.25% alcohol, I’d be happy to have it as a lunchtime wine. Tim was less enthusiastic, saying there are many better rosés, a view with which I agree, so my caveat would be if such rosés weren’t on the wine list.

Calm after the storm

Pugnacious pinotages, savage sauvignons, confrontational cabernets, belligerent blends … okay enough alliteration but you get the message that Platter tastings are not all a bed of roses. As I wrote a couple of blogs ago, all I wanted once the last wine had been sniffed, tasted and spat, was plain water.

The last large tasting was of the five star nominations last Monday, since when I’ve deliberately headed for older wines in the cellar – well, relatively older , but wines that would offer a sense of calm after the challenge of the youngsters that, of necessity, are for the most part, offered for Platter.

I guess unless one pays over the odds at a restaurant that cares sufficiently to lay down wines until they’ve got a bit of age on them, few winelovers ever get the opportunity to experience the enjoyment and contemplation many inspire. That bit of age not only smoothes out the edges, but allows the full range of flavours to express themselves, at least in those wines that have that inherent ability to do so.













That was my luck with these three pictured, though, of them, the Beaumont has a lot more to reveal, which shouldn’t have been a surprise given it’s from that excellent vintage, 2009.
The Cape Point Vineyards Sauvignon is a perfect illustration of how cool climate sauvignon and semillon can taste so similar. What would have made guessing even more difficult is that this sauvignon includes 7% semillon and a small portion of barrel fermented wine. Sleek and silky, it’s hardly one’s benchmark savage sauvignon, though once tasted, any of this cellar’s white wines are sufficiently distinctive to stir recognition when tasted blind. Unless, of course, one thinks they’re from Elim, whose cool climate and similar clones can fox one. In any event, this seven year old was delicious with loads of flavour, freshness and pleasure. Going by my axiom to drink on the way up rather than down: drink up.

To date, the Newton Johnson’s have received Platter 5* for every vintage of their Family Vineyards Pinot Noir; this 2009 was just the second, from still youngish vines, but like its predecessor, has shown no hesitation in showing off that – hey – South Africa can do pinot, despite lacking latitudes into the 40°s south. It not only tastes great, but feels great too, like a gentle yet deep wave rolling across the tongue. Pinot at its best should always seduce; this one does, so don’t worry if you’re tempted to open another bottle. The message is the same as with the CPV sauvignon.

While talking of when to drink, this is one of the many questions Platter asks producers to indicate on the technical forms. Winemakers are an amitious lot, if those whose wines I tasted are representative; many ticked the 11 years and upwards box!

As beautiful and pure is the fruit in the sauvignon and the pinot, they just don’t have the intensity of the chenin; that is the old vine factor. It’s as though the vine has had time to ‘sow its wild oats’ during its early years, the roots pushing this way and that before the vine feels completely comfortable and can put all effort into producing concentrated berries.

What a treat it was to have the opportunity to taste even older vintages – of Hope and other wines in their range – at the recent lunch to celebrate Beaumont’s 20 years of winemaking and 40 of the family living on the farm. Sebastian had chosen 2007, of particular significance to both him and me; I’d nominated it for Platter 5*, confident it would sail through. Sadly, there were two batches of this wine, one undergoing some bacterial problem and it was this that got on to our 5* tasting and very quickly rejected. As upset as Sebastian was, this did allow him to find out what had happened and withdraw the faulty wine. The bottle opened for the 40 year party was one of the loveliest chenins and Hope’s that I’ve had the pleasure to drink.

Given how good even those two from younger vines are, I can only imagine how superb they’ll be in 15 to 20 years’ time.

Given how good even those two from younger vines are, I can only imagine how superb they’ll be in 15 to 20 years’ time.

Not all wines need keeping; some are made to be enjoyed in the cheerfulness of their youth, but not to experience the pleasure and intrigue of wines calmed by even a few years is rather like reading the first few pages only of Anna Karenina or taking a brief glance at Jan van Eyck’s immensely detailed and interesting Arnolfini betrothal. There’s so much more to relish in all, which time will reveal.

Dear semillon

Dear semillon, you have struggled for well over one hundred years in the Cape’s vineyards to receive the acknowledgement due to you as a classic variety capable of producing wines that blossom with age. Your abundance in 19th century Cape vineyards led to your proper name being disregarded and replaced with ‘wine grape’. By the 20th century, your popularity was on the decline, until you featured among the ‘also rans’ in the varietal status. There were a few enthusiasts, who preserved your old vines, but the wine was generally overlooked in the consumer rush for the new, fashionable other French classics, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Even when you were planted in areas such as Breedekloof, your juice was destined to be blended in generic brands, wines that in no way reflect your true quality capabilities. In the early years of the new century, there was a glimpse of positive change in your fortunes, thanks to a few dedicated winemakers, who understand your symbiosis with sauvignon blanc and who began to craft partnerships that have achieved acclaim locally and today, are receiving similar approval internationally. But, dear semillon, my heart is gladdened that there are also moves in one of your old strongholds to ensure your worth as a varietal wine will, in future, receive proper acknowledgement. Dear semillon, I think after all these years, your eureka moment has arrived.

Winners on 2014 RisCura White Hot Awards. (l - r) Christian Eedes, panel chair, Bernhard Veller Nitida, Michael White Highlands Road, Henry Kotze Morgenster
Winners on 2014 RisCura White Hot Awards.
(l – r) Christian Eedes, panel chair, Bernhard Veller Nitida, Michael White Highlands Road, Henry Kotze Morgenster












One of the blessings for both semillon and winelovers, is that the new clones, especially in cooler climates, have a taste profile very similar to sauvignon blanc, still the consumer darling. So, with a wine like Nitida Coronata Integration 2013, there is the familiarity of cool grassy, citrus flavours but with sauvignon’s usual aggressive edges ameliorated by semillon’s silkily-weighted texture, not forgetting its own lemon grass, honey and tangerine flavours.

The Veller’s Durbanville wine was one of the three winners on this year’s RisCura Hot White Awards, which focuses on Bordeaux-style white blends, a partnership of sauvignon and semillon in any proportion. The young man from RisCura sitting next to me enjoyed it particularly for the above reason. In fact, all three winners – Morgenster 2013 (Stellenbosch) and Highlands Road Sine Cera 2012 (Elgin) were the other two – already provide much drinking pleasure.

One of the other joys – there are many, price included! – of these wines, is their ying/yang of freshness and texture make them so versatile with food. Who better to show off such benefits than Foodbarn’s Franck Dangereux, who obviously had such fun (and success) in creating a variety of dishes to accompany them.

If the above names aren’t those that would come to mind automatically when nominating the big guns in this style, I mentioned to panel chair, Christian Eedes that the result illustrates the strength of the category, for those big guns were in the line up. (Eedes’ tasting report with full results may be found here).

The style has a big and glorious future and should be the way the majority of winelovers get to know and enjoy semillon; with that I have no problem.

Basil Landau in his now 108 year old semillon vineyard
Basil Landau in his now 108 year old semillon vineyard

As a varietal wine, semillon’s future lies in Franschhoek, home to probably the greatest number of old semillon vines of any area in the Cape winelands. Basil and Jane Landau’s vineyard (pictured here) is now 108 years old. A group of the younger winemakers – Craig McNaught of Stonybrook, Clayton Reabow of Moreson, Wynand Grobler of Rickety Bridge and Rob Armstrong of Haut Espoir – have started a movement to reward typicity and quality in three of Franschhoek’s major varieties, semillon being one; chardonnay and cabernet, the other two. Semillon’s major features, as identified at an initial tasting of a wide range of the area’s wines, are beeswax, lanolin and lemon, with honeyed notes developing with age.

The first Appellation Grand Prestige awards (yes, that title is far too pretentious for such a down-to-earth, worthy initiative) will be made in October to any of this varietal trio which have passed the typicity/quality test by 17 judges under blind tasting conditions; a minimum 80% ‘yes’ vote is required for an award.

What this exercise should do is not only raise the profile of semillon, but hopeful increase prices for the wine, which, in turn should encourage producers to pay the farmers more for their grapes, in turn again encouraging them to retain these old, low-yielding vines. Surely the wine community has learnt by now the value of these old vines and that everything should be done to conserve them?

The rigour of the AGP rules extends to admiting entries from only those wines carrying Wine of Origin Franschhoek; none of the parasite members of the Franschhoek Vignerons from outside the area, whose wines bear another WO, may participate. This lends the initiative a great deal more credibility and purpose.

The good folk of Paarl would do well to take note of this. Their so-called Paarl Wine Challenge is, I’ve learned, open to wines from any origin, provided they’re vinified in Paarl (what has vinification to do with terroir, as ‘Paarl’ would suggest?). Apparently this has always been the rule since their first Challenge. Their marketing being so poor, if it exists at all, this was revealed only after I’d queried whether KWV winning with their Elgin-sourced The Mentors Chardonnay wasn’t a bit of a swindle. No, that’s allowed and KWV wasn’t the only producer to win with outsourced fruit. But for so important and vastly improved a big company, I believe they were irresponsible and disingenuous to enter non-Paarl WO wines. It’s an ill-conceived competition based on origin that allows and awards wines from outside the region.

Time to re-think, Paarl.


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.