Villiera re-visited

As far as Wine of Origin demarcations are concerned, Villiera might appear to be in limbo. It was, until around 2002, at the extreme southern edge of Paarl, after which it was incorporated into Stellenbosch, where it lies at the extreme western edge of the district.

Such Origin musical chairs have not deterred winelovers; Villiera was buzzing with a constant stream of visitors during my – long overdue – visit there last week.

I had intended to catch up with Jeff Grier, whose family have owned the farm since the early 1980s, for their 30th vintage, but somehow two further vintages slipped by without commemoration. ‘We actually didn’t do anything to mark that milestone ourselves,’ Jeff admitted.

The clinic on Villiera, available to staff at all Pebbles' members.
The clinic on Villiera, available to staff at all Pebbles’ members.

My visit starts with a walk around the clinic and new Pebbles Project offices. (Pebbles was started in 2004 by Sophie Warner for children with special needs but focusing on those with foetal alcohol syndrome, sadly far too prevalent throughout the Cape winelands.) Much of the funds raised to start the clinic came from Jeff’s cousin, David Grier and his well-publicised Cipla MilesforSmiles Foundation runs. Within its ‘E’ shape container construction, there are individual consulting rooms where help for everything from ordinary bumps and bruises to oncology and psychiatric disorders may be sought. There’s even a learning centre, where workers are told about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse.

Strolling back to the tasting room, Jeff shows me the huge store ‘hangar’ with its 900-and-something solar panels, so effective ‘we could sell electricity back to the grid,’; and, a little further on, the crèche for their workers’ children; a happy, noisy bunch they are! I remember shortly after Pebbles started, Sophie Warner taking me around several farm crèches; Villiera’s was, even back then, held up as a model.

Good worker relationships are an inherent part of the Grier family ethic. Their success can be gauged by the number of workers who have clocked up 20 years’ service. This milestone is acknowledged annually at the farm’s St Vincent’s Day celebration; so far, 15 have received the Long Service Award, with another four due to pick up the same next January.

Monro Brut 08 (l) & super 09 (r), Bottle in background has yet to be finally dressed.
Monro Brut 08 (l) & super 09 (r), Bottle in background has yet to be finally dressed.

There has been similar long service and pride from Villiera’s side with Woolworths and sister company in the UK, Marks & Spencer. They have supplied wines to Woolies since wines were introduced in 1985 and are their largest supplier of bubblies. Giving an idea of importance of sparkling wine to Villiera, it accounts for 40% of production and 50% of turnover.

Their loyalty is acknowledged by long-time Woolworths wine selector, Allan Mullins, who tells me Villiera held to their word on allocations and prices when other producers chased more lucrative markets or asked for higher prices in good times.

Wine growing in the 1980s meant having to produce wines for every taste, as South Africa’s pariah status then meant exports were difficult. It might also seem difficult to create a large and varied range yet also specialise; somehow Jeff and his cellar team do.

Frenchman and Champenois, Jean-Louis Denois has played a big role in both Villiera’s success with Cap Classique bubblies and the Grier’s venture in the South of France. He met Jeff whilst working at Boschendal, persuaded him to go into production of MCC and established a 10-year royalty agreement with Villiera. Some years ago he moved to the Limoux area. By the mid-2000s, Jeff felt the need for rejuvenation and the challenge of somewhere new. That ‘somewhere’ was originally going to be Elim, but Jean-Louis found an economically viable plot with many old vines in Roussillon. Beyond being a new challenge, Jeff sees the venture as a hedge against global warming, giving the possibility for his and Lyn’s two children to work on their own and helping with traditional winemaking ideas on Villiera. Happily, it’s also proved a profitable venture since 2012.

French Domaine Grier label. The design represents Africa & S France, with the red dots, Cape Town & St Paul in Agly.
French Domaine Grier label. The design represents Africa & S France, with the red dots, Cape Town & St Paul in Agly.

The wines have also become more assured since the early vintages; ‘A benefit of getting to know our vineyards,’ Jeff acknowledges, pointing out the ex-owner looks after the vines and they have a good winemaker. Domaine Grier Chardonnay 2011, Grenache 2011, Odyssea a grenache, carignan, syrah blend and the shiraz-grenache blend, Olympus 2009 are individuals with character, balance and natural freshness; ‘We’ve never had acid in the cellar’ Jeff confirms. They, like the Villiera wines, offer value for money, an unchanging Grier objective.

If value is a constant, the Griers are alert to consumer trends, listening to both journalists and winemakers as well. Sauvignon Blanc Bush Vine for instance now includes 15% oaked portion to add interest and temper the green pepper – the latter a style that won Jeff Diners Club Winemaker of the Year with his 1997 Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc.

New Villiera labels; the colour suggests their green approach, the name that it is growing out of the ground.
New Villiera labels; the colour suggests their green approach, the name that it is growing out of the ground.

On the bubbly side, Jeff is trimming Tradition NV to a lighter, fresher style in tune with the trend for wines such as Prosecco. No fiddling, except to push for better quality, with top-of-the range, Monro Brut, a regular major award winner both locally and internationally. A taste of 2009, a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and a little pinot meunier (‘included in cooler vintages only for extra dimension’), suggests the Griers will have another big winner on their hands after its early 2015 release.

The Grier family were in the chicken business; Jeff’s original intention was to study poultry, but, thankfully soon changed to wine; cousin Simon Grier, Villiera’s engaging viticulturist, followed him a year later. Jeff’s sister, Cathy Brewer with her husband, Julian are also part of the hard-working team, who ensure they really understand the business they’re in.

It’s a team that prefers to make its presence felt through the success of their wines, rather than seeking the spotlight.

Far from being in the ‘indeterminate state’ that is limbo, visitors to Villiera will actually find themselves at one of the Cape’s most forward-thinking producers.

Telling a story attracts winelovers; these back labels point tol the Villiera sustainability story with links to them on the website.
Telling a story attracts winelovers; these back labels point tol the Villiera sustainability story with links to them on the website.

 

A typical value for money wine from the Griers, this excellent touriga nacional-shiraz blend sells for around R40
A typical value for money wine from the Griers, this excellent touriga nacional-shiraz blend sells for around R40

Seeking site

Anything but chardonnay > absolutely brilliant chardonnay. Was it so long ago numerous winelovers belonged to the former group? Many wines that went under the varietal name bore little resemblance to it, let alone reflected any sense of where the vines were grown.

Ripening chardonnay
Ripening chardonnay

There may be a few winelovers who continue to like those former heavy, rich wines, dressed in lashings of heavy toasted oak but I’m sure more find freshness, less oak and also less alcohol, make for much easier, more interesting drinking.

Pleasant drinking is one thing, character is quite another: character derived from site. Site may be a single vineyard or a number of blocks which make up a single vineyard but can also be used more generally about the general characteristics of a specific area.
Two events last week focused on site specific wines.

The first was the inaugural Franschhoek Appellation Grand Prestige awards. This event was initiated a year ago, when a large group of local winemakers and media got together

Bunches of semillon
Bunches of semillon

to taste various vintages of three varieties – semillon, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon – bearing the Franschhoek Wine of Origin. These three were chosen as the valley’s historical best performers and the tasting aimed to identify aromas, flavours and general style common to each variety and Franschhoek. Despite the District’s different aspects, altitudes and soils, tasters managed to pinpoint features each variety had in common to a surprising degree.

franschhoek-vineyard_semillonThis exercise led to the recent tasting by a panel of around 17 local winemakers and retailers of 57 entries, across all three varieties, with ten being adjudged to carry the varietal and Franschhoek thumbprint as defined in the initial tasting but also of top quality. These were: Semillons from Haut Espoir (2009) and Franschhoek Vineyards (2012, 2013); Chardonnays from Chamonix (2013 Reserve), Moreson (Mercator Premium 2013 and Knoputibak 2012), Maison (2013) and Rickety Bridge (2013); Cabernets from Stony Brook (Ghost Gum 2009) and Rickety Bridge (Paulinas Reserve 2011).

More important than the awarding of these wines, will be to see how they perform in future. The ultimate point of this exercise is to identify those sites which consistently produce typicity with quality. If this does happen, it will not only benefit Franschhoek as a wine producing area but South Africa as a whole.

The bi-annual Chardonnay Celebration, a generous and informative event organised by the De Wet family of De Wetshof, also put site specificity under the spotlight.
In the past, various media were asked to nominate their top ten, with the most-often mentioned being selected. That rarely covered the wide spread of the Cape winelands where chardonnay is now successfully grown.

To correct this anomaly, samples from a wide range of origins were blind tasted to select a pair from each of eight listed below.

Chardonnay’s very versatility both in where it will put down roots and its sympathetic response to the winemakers’ fashioning in the cellar has led to difficulty in pinpointing origin, but given winemakers’ present attention to reflecting what happens in the ground rather than the cellar, it could be imagined an exercise such as this year’s Chardonnay Celebration would help to shed some rays of light on general characteristics of each origin, limited number of samples nothwithstanding.

The tasting was preceded by guest-speaker, the ever-eloquent Andrew Jefford, who, in his introduction, drew an apposite analogy between the piano and chardonnay. Comparing grape varieties with musical instruments, he said: ‘There’s little music that cannot be played on the piano, and no instrument which interprets a wider range of musical thought with more expressive grace and profundity than the piano does. And wine’s piano, for me, is Chardonnay.’

Among the six Stellenbosch chardonnays – Helderberg (Vergelegen, Vriesenhof), Simonsberg (Rustenberg, Tokara) and Bottelary (Hartenberg, Jordan), there was just a general sense of greater ripeness and breadth of fruit flavours, but also greater focus on freshness, especially in the last pair.

The home team of Robertson, represented by Kranskop and De Wetshof Bateleur, illustrated the area’s defining pronounced limey/citrus vigour. (De Wetshof The Site chardonnay, served at lunch, is even more expressive of Robertson.)

Of the cooler areas, perhaps a purity and natural freshness of fruit could be appropriated to the Cape Peninsula pair of Groot Constantia and Cape Point Vineyards, despite lying on opposite sides of the peninsula mountain spine.

Tension and concentration typified the Hemel en Aarde pair; Ataraxia and Hamilton Russell, even though they originate from opposite ends of the valley.

Elgin, surprisingly, was a disappointment. Obvious residual sugar in both Richard Kershaw 2012 (2013 is spot on Elgin) and KWV Mentors obscured the area’s usual thrilling vibrant mineral liveliness.

CapeofGoodHopeChardThe biggest thrill was left to the Anthonij Rupert Wines Cape of Good Hope Serruria Chardonnay 2012. (Its unlikely partner was the always excellent and ageworthy Chamonix Chardonnay Reserve from Franschhoek.) Grown at around 670 metres on the Stettyn mountains outside Villiersdorp in the Elandskloof Ward, the Rupert wine has the throbbing intensity and tension of wine grown in an area surrounded by winter snow and marked diurnal summer temperatures. I really hope to try it again in a few years.

The move from style-driven to site-driven wines has been made; the journey is underway. It won’t always be a smooth one, but much of interest lies in store.

Celebrating 35 years of Platter

Platter publisher, JP Rossouw announcing 5* winners
Platter publisher, JP Rossouw announcing 5* winners

With the launch of the 2015 edition of Platters South African Wine Guide, a new era begins as Jean-Pierre Rossouw (JP) completes his first year as publisher.

There are changes too in the guide itself: no longer are the four-star and above wines highlighted in red and for many wines below four stars, only the ratings are listed with no tasting notes. These will be incorporated on the website.

It’s a pity that the red print has disappeared altogether; I’ve long mooted for the five and four-and-a-half stars only to be printed in red, which was on the cards at one stage, before the decision was taken for entirely black print (a question of cost?). It might make all wines look equal but it also makes the text appear more dense and unfriendly to read. Time will tell whether this was the right move.

But these are incidentals as compared with what everyone wants to know at the launch of a new edition: the five star wines, white and red wines of the year and, at the top of the ladder, the winery of the year.

Eben Sadie making his accceptance speech as Sadie Family Wines winery of the year.
Eben Sadie making his accceptance speech as Sadie Family Wines winery of the year.

A word on the last of those, which has been won for a second time by Sadie Family Wines. The choice of winery of the year is the editor, Phil van Zyl’s prerogative, but in previous years the choice was made easier, since different wineries received more five stars than any other. Not that this criteria is the defining one; a few years ago, Kanonkop won the award when other wineries had more five star wines. This year, none outperformed Eben Sadie’s trio; the award is well deserved, not least for Sadie’s consistency.

 

 

 

I can’t think of any other winery that has received the white wine of the year two years in a row; DeMorgenzon’s success is also achieved with the first vintage of their Reserve Chardonnay, a noteworthy feat.

Hylton & Wendy Appelbaum, Carl & Kathryn v d Merwe of DeMorgenzon
Hylton & Wendy Appelbaum, Carl & Kathryn v d Merwe of DeMorgenzon

 

This year, the five star tasting was a much longer affair, the teams of three encouraged to take their time deliberating over their allocated wines, a maximum of 60. To help out in divisive situations, Michael Fridjhon and Cathy van Zyl MW acted as roving palates. While there was plenty of discussion before giving a final score – between 90 and 100, with those scoring 95 and over receiving five stars – there were inevitably, unlucky losers, wines which really deserve five stars. Blind tasting, however carefully carried out, is not a perfect science.

David Sadie, Chris Alheit & Paul Nichols (Fable)
David Sadie, Chris Alheit & Paul Nichols (Fable)

As might be expected, white blends captured the most five stars with eight. Then it was over to the reds, with cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and red blends receiving five apiece.
Of greater surprise is that the smaller pinot noir category produced four five-star wines. A few weeks’ ago, I wrote here how pinot has enjoyed considerable success in the five star stakes and asked whether we’re deluding ourselves that we can produce so many pinots of such quality. Well according to that panel, we can to the extent that this guide includes the most five star pinots ever. The jury’s out on how they’d all bank up in an international line up (perhaps the topic for an interesting tasting), but kudos and congratulations to Nadia and Gordon Newton Johnson (and the whole NJ family), whose Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013 chalks up a sixth successive five star rating.

On that topic, it’s sad to see two wines which have also enjoyed numerous successive five stars – Fleur du Cap Noble Late Harvest (seven) and Nederburg Ingenuity White (six) – not make it this year.

At the other end of the scale, nine wineries won their maiden five stars: Creation Wines, Crystallum, Diners Club Bartho Eksteen Academy, Fram, Iona, Oldenburg, Porseleinberg, Stellenbosch Vineyards/Flagship and Sumaridge.

The Hemel en Aarde pinot noir 5* winners
The Hemel en Aarde pinot noir 5* winners

Brandies were introduced last year but of their nature were not re-assessed. The KWV 12 Year Old Barrel Select is a new member of the range, so eligible for rating.

Little publicity is given to the back-room people during the tasting period; they are the ones who keep the whole dynamic moving – chasing wineries, sorting wines, querying missing wines/name changes, liaising with tasters, updating the database and much more. It’s a task that demands stamina, attention to detail and a calm temperament plus a dose of good humour. Christina Harvett and her band of ‘eleves’ (mainly university students) do a remarkably efficient job; without them, Platter tastings wouldn’t function and be completed within the time frame. They deserve as much acknowledgement as anyone else involved.

Swartland Revolutionaries: Eben & Maria Sadie 2015 Winery of the Year, Chris & Andrea Mullineux 2014 Winery of the Year
Swartland Revolutionaries: Eben & Maria Sadie 2015 Winery of the Year, Chris & Andrea Mullineux 2014 Winery of the Year

WINERY OF THE YEAR
Sadie Family Wines

WHITE WINE OF THE YEAR
DeMorgenzon Chardonnay Reserve 2013

RED WINE OF THE YEAR
De Trafford Blueprint Syrah 2012

FIVE STAR WINES

Cabernet Franc
Warwick Estate Cabernet Franc 2011

Cabernet Sauvignon
Groot Constantia Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Le Riche Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2011
Nederburg Wines II Centuries Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Stark-Condé Wines Three Pines Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

Cinsaut
Sadie Family Wines Pofadder 2013

Petit Verdot
Stellenbosch Vineyards Flagship Petit Verdot 2010

Pinotage
Flagstone Winery Time Manner Place Pinotage 2012
Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2012

Pinot Noir
Creation Wines Reserve Pinot Noir 2013
Crystallum Cuvée Cinéma Pinot Noir 2013
Newton Johnson Vineyards Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013
Sumaridge Wines Pinot Noir 2012

Shiraz/Syrah
Boekenhoutskloof Winery Syrah 2012
Boschendal Wines Cecil John Reserve Shiraz 2012
De Trafford Wines Blueprint Syrah 2012
Fable Mountain Vineyards Syrah 2012
Porseleinberg Porseleinberg 2012

Red Blends
Delaire Graff Estate Botmaskop 2012
Ernie Els Wines CWG Auction Reserve 2012
Hartenberg Estate The Mackenzie 2011
Thelema Mountain Vineyards Rabelais 2010
Vilafonté Series C 2011

Chardonnay
DeMorgenzon Reserve Chardonnay 2013
Iona Vineyards Chardonnay 2013
Richard Kershaw Wines Elgin Chardonnay 2013
Sterhuis Barrel Selection Chardonnay 2012

Chenin Blanc
Alheit Vineyards Magnetic North Mountain Makstok 2013
Fram Wines Chenin Blanc 2013
Kaapzicht Wine Estate The 1947 Chenin Blanc 2013

Grenache Blanc
The Foundry Grenache Blanc 2013

Sauvignon Blanc
Buitenverwachting Husseys Vlei Sauvignon Blanc 2013
Diners Club Bartho Eksteen Academy CWG Auction Reserve Vloekskoot Sauvignon Blanc 2013
Reyneke Wines Reserve White 2013

Semillon
Vergelegen Wines Reserve Semillon 2013

White Blends
Constantia Uitsig Constantia White 2013
David & Nadia Sadie Aristargos 2013
DeMorgenzon Maestro White 2013
Flagstone Winery Treaty Tree Reserve White Blend 2013
Miles Mossop Wines Saskia 2012
Oak Valley Wines Mountain Reserve White Blend 2010
Sadie Family Wines Palladius 2012
Sadie Family Wines Skerpioen 2013

Méthode Cap Classique
Graham Beck Wines Blanc de Blancs Brut 2009

Dessert Wine, Unfortified
Delheim Wines Edelspatz Noble Late Harvest 2013
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Straw Wine 2013

Dessert Wine, Fortified
Nuy Wine Cellar White Muscadel 2013

Port-Style
Boplaas Family Vineyards Cape Tawny Vintners Reserve NV
De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve 2012

Brandy
KWV 12 Year Old Barrel Select Brandy

A pair of beauties

Most days I’m lucky enough to drink a wine that pleases me, sometimes a wine that leaves me feeling content; the thrilling, exciting ones are more rare (but probably the more thrilling/exciting for that), so to taste not one but two such exciting rarities in one day left me feeling – well, pretty happy.

Raats Bruwer 05 cheninThe first, Bruwer Raats 2005 Original Chenin Blanc, wasn’t so old at around nine and three-quarter years, but as the first wine to be closed under screwcap in a South African produced bottle, it was also unique.

Screwcap closures was the theme of the event hosted jointly at George Jardine’s restaurant on Jordan winery by the European Aluminium Foil Association, whose members represent around 75% of global aluminium closure production, local aluminium producer, Hulamin and Guala Closures South Africa, local subsidiary of the Italian founded international closures group.

Of the many facts and figures put forward to persuade both producers and consumers to use/buy wine and other produce where aluminium closures are used, I liked that around 75% of aluminium ever produced is still in use today thanks to its recyclability.

I get as annoyed as the next person when an old or one-off bottle of special wine is cork tainted, though thankfully, it rarely occurs in bottles from our cellar. I’m equally relaxed with screwcaps, especially as they look so much smarter these days. They do have their own annoyance factor when the top refuses to part from the capsule, sending the whole thing round and round without opening. Attacking it with a knife often results in serious damage to self.

Frankly, the competition between the closures has benefitted both and, of course, consumers. Screwcaps’ popularity has taken the heat off corks and allowed the industry to sort out much of its problems, while the aluminium closure industry has been forced to upgrade aesthetically to improve the image of screwcaps.

Bruwer Raats Original Chenin Blanc, 2005 left, 2012 right
Bruwer Raats Original Chenin Blanc, 2005 left, 2012 right

The one on Bruwer’s old bottle had done its job admirably. As you can see from the photo (it’s the one on the left; the other is 2012), the colour has remained youthful and bright. The wine’s still enticingly fresh but the flavours have mellowed; it was this contrast with harmony that made for a much more interesting experience than mere ageing and there’s plenty of life in it yet.

Bruwer did say this was one bottle from a case he’d forgotten about and found recently. A vertical sounds a very good idea.

The other piece of happy sipping came later in the day when the Joubert family brought themselves and boxes of bottles to town from Barrydale for a tasting of some new wines and one that’s new but very old.

Try as I might, I cannot work out how many Jouberts there are but there are many (and all

Meyer Joubert with Sue-Anderson, Joubert-Tradauw representative in Cape Town
Meyer Joubert with Sue-Anderson, Joubert-Tradauw representative in Cape Town

helluva good looking!). Winemaker at Joubert-Tradauw, Meyer, introduced the new wines; market and sales guru, Cobus spoke about the new but very old, while Schalk-Willem (GM at Rupert & Rothschild) and youngest brother, Andries – I didn’t catch what he does – lent support, as did their parents. Maybe I’ve missed others.

Their farm on the famous Route 62 enjoys ‘a continental climate, with no sea view,’ commented Meyer. The vineyards, mainly on shale, were planted by Meyer’s father, Jacobus just over 30 years’ ago in 1982 but it was only in 1999 they started making their own wine.

Chardonnay is the sole white and an elegant, balanced and characterful wine the 2012 is; all that’s positive about today’s Cape chardonnays.

Pinot noir and cabernet franc followed. The 2013 pinot is Meyer’s third attempt and the first he feels happy enough to bottle. Made solely from Clone 115, with a few stalks added, it has a different and intriguing suggestion of fynbos/garrigue, a pleasant savouriness and full, supple mouthfeel. Maturation in older oak has provided certain harmony and focus though it’ll benefit from further ageing. As will the tempestuous cab franc, a wild spicy beast at present, the spice further boosted by its year in new oak.

Cobus Joubert telling the story of Jaubert Family Muscat
Cobus Joubert telling the story of Jaubert Family Muscat

But we had come to honour grandfather Schalk-Willem Joubert, who, in the early 1950s, had upped from his property in Wellington and taken his family to live in the beautiful Tradauw valley. He also took with him a tiny but precious 115 litre French oak barrel, first filled with Muscat d’Alexandrie around 1800 and never entirely emptied since. Occasionally the Jouberts have drawn small amounts from it, occasionally Meyer has thrown in a bottle of Barrydale Muscat brandy to sustain it, at times the family have even forgotten it, but now they have bottled just six 375ml bottles. How to sell it is now under discussion with Nederburg Auction an idea: very d e e p pockets will be needed.

This sort of solera system leaves a deep, wine dark aged colour but the strands of pure, grapey fragrance introduce a more youthful freshness to the almost fathomless depths of molasses, dried naartjie peel, nutmeg and cinnamon spice. Viscosity is there but never does the wine feel over-rich or heavy thanks to its riveting acidity. If a sip alone was magic, a sip with goats’ cheese studied with cranberries was paradise. Like the wine, the memory will be never-ending.

Jaubert Famly Muscat from a barrel never emptied since 1800. The bottles were especially made in Swaziland.
Jaubert Famly Muscat from a barrel never emptied since 1800. The bottles were especially made in Swaziland.

 

Style, integrity and chardonnay

Later this month I’ll be attending Danie de Wet’s bi-annual Chardonnay Celebration. Danie was a chardonnay pioneer – before it even was chardonnay! – and much more so when the real thing happily put down roots in his Robertson vineyards. That was over 40 years ago now, but more on that event in due course.

Chardonnay has wound down many stylistic paths since those early days. Initially more oak than fruit due to young vines and a just-started barrel programme meaning all were new; used, less flavour-dominant barrels would take a few years to find a place in the cellar. And even then didn’t, as many winelovers had come to enjoy the vanilla flavours. Then there was also the ‘Breakfast’ style, less pleasant than one might imagine, the wine’s simple buttery flavours and texture augmented by heavily toasted oak. And I haven’t even touched on the over-enthusiastic stirrers of the lees. At the opposite end  of the spectrum, some attempted what they called ‘Chablis’ style, either totally or mainly unoaked but bearing little or no resemblance to the genuine thing.

In more recent years, chardonnay has blossomed, in part thanks to expanding its footprint. Robertson is home to around a quarter of all the Cape’s chardonnay, doing well in both bubbly and as a distinctive, limey table wine. Hemel en Aarde valley and, particularly, Elgin have thrust quality chardonnay further into the international limelight. In fact, I’ve long been convinced Elgin’s fame will rest on chardonnay.

The Top Ten chardonnays in Christian Eedes 2014 Chardonnay Report
The Top Ten chardonnays in Christian Eedes 2014 Chardonnay Report

It was something of a surprise then that only one Elgin chardonnay, the Paul Cluver 2013 and one from Hemel en Aarde, Newton Johnson Southend 2013, were acknowledged in the top ten of Christian Eedes’ fourth annual Chardonnay Report, sponsored by Sanlam Private Wealth. The full report can be read here.

Eedes with his colleagues James Pietersen and Roland Peens, taste 60 selected wines, awarding a top ten with a certificate (and kudos). Those invited have performed well in competitions or are from highly regarded producers. It was clear tasting those 10 that the judges have a specific stylistic aesthetic, best summarised in two words: freshness, purity. Oak is still evident in a few but it’s more a question of harmonising over time than an inherent lack of balance, not a result one could have been confident of way back when.

If that fresh, pure style shouldn’t come as a surprise in wines originating from the cool highlands of Elgin or southerly, sea-influenced Hemel en Aarde, some might wonder that the majority of the ten – seven in fact – come from Stellenbosch. Closer inspection of that group will show altitude plays an important role, with proximity to False Bay also a factor

The view from Uva Mira, one of the highest lying farms on the Helderberg. Table Mountain & False Bay are visible in the background.
The view from Uva Mira, one of the highest lying farms on the Helderberg. Table Mountain & False Bay are visible in the background.

in the case of Uva Mira 2013, Eikendal 2013, Longridge 2013 and, I guess to some extent, Haskell Anvil 2012: all being on the Helderberg . Attentive readers will also note the predominant vintage: 2013 is turning out to be a great one for chardonnay. Even in what might be thought of as a warmer area, the Bottelary Hills, the high-lying vineyards of Hartenberg and Stellenrust (the latter based on the Helderberg) provide the freshness and purity (as well as the intelligent winemaking) which secured them a place in the top ten. The only successful Stellenbosch chardonnay I struggle to attribute to altitude is Glenelly Gran Vin but then it is a 2013!

The one winner from Franschhoek, Chamonix Reserve 2013, arguably is one of less than a handful of chardonnays enjoying the most integrity of any in South Africa,  another being Hamilton Russell, which, for the first time, didn’t make the top ten this year. (I have enormous respect for Jordan Chardonnay, but I think even Gary & Kathy have slightly changed their style – to one that’s beneficially slightly fresher.)

I see integrity deriving from three factors. Firstly, the vines being planted where they feel at home; secondly, the winemaker’s understanding of what nature is giving him or her (a lengthy process and so often the tripping block here, given the musical chairs that goes on between winemakers and cellars) and thirdly, established, mature vines.

I got to thinking about integrity this week after tweeting an article about the need to re-calibrate after those who score, mainly on the 100-point scale were ratcheting up to a level that leaves little leeway to reflect better wines in future vintages.

I believe it is unwise even unhelpful to rate over-generously before such integrity has been established; the swings and roundabouts of vintage, winemaking experiments and less than compatible relationship between site and vine can often lead to a less than consistent result in the wine, leading to confusion among consumers. It may also call the scorer’s own integrity into question.

Viognier – the Constantia factor

Constantia has all of 4.5 hectares of viognier; 2.7 are shared between Beau Constantia (.9ha) and neighbour, Eagles’ Nest. As much as Constantia is recognised for sauvignon blanc, these two producers have shown the area’s reputation needn’t rest on that one white variety.

It was Eagles’ Nest second consecutive double gold on this year’s Six Nations competition that prompted a deeper inspection into what makes viognier from this northern end of the Constantia Valley special.

The oldest block of viognier on Beau Constantia, planted 2003
The oldest block of viognier on Beau Constantia, planted 2003

My first visit was to Beau Constantia, the newer farm of the pair, and like its neighbour, a phoenix which rose from the ashes of the devastating 2000 fires. Justin van Wyk’s wine has also received acclaim from both Neal Martin and Tim Atkin MW; as their Platter taster, I’ve also long been an admirer.

The first of Beau Constantia’s three blocks was planted in 2003. All are on high, north-east facing slopes with stark exposure to the south easter, one determinant when it comes to yield. ‘Viognier is anyway a shy bearer,’ van Wyk advises; ‘A vintage will deliver anything between three and five tons per hectare, or an average of 2500 bottles.’

Full ripeness occurs early to mid March at around 24 to 25° Balling, when the berries are orangey gold, with floral, white peach and orange blossom notes and concentrated flavours. ‘Apricot and oiliness due to low acid,’ he says, ‘are associated with warmer climates, which is where it should be grown for production rather than quality, or so we were told at University. I pick with a pH of 3.5 and acid of 6.5, that’ll give 5.5 in the wine.’

Just planted - tiny viognier 'stokkies' on Beau Constantia
Just planted – tiny viognier ‘stokkies’ on Beau Constantia

Canopy management plays an important part in achieving van Wyk’s ripeness goals. Once the berries have reach pea berry size, leaves on the morning sun side are stripped to expose the grapes. In spots where there’s more vigorous growth, leaves are stripped on the afternoon sun side as well. Answering my concern about sunburn, van Wyk assures that the skins are thick and get used to the sun when exposed at such an early stage.

Thick skins means a lot of unwanted phenolics, something Van Wyk avoids by whole-bunch pressing. Fermentation ensues from a cold start, in barrel, lasting around two weeks until the wine is bone dry. Of the normal 10 barrel production, two will be new (light-toasted Taransaud and Francois Frères barriques), the balance back to fourth fill. ‘I like to age the wine on its lees for five to six months,’ says van Wyk, ‘it keeps the wine healthy.’ Battonage is applied once a week for four weeks, then once a month. Sulphur is added to inhibit malo-lactic after the first month.

Prior to bottling, under screwcap, the wine is racked, fined and cold stabilised.
So much attention to detail, now to take the taste test on the newly-bottled 2014. ‘Yes, it was a challenging vintage with lots of botrytis,’ admits van Wyk, ‘even thick-skinned viognier got some. I was hoping to make a Noble Late Harvest, but it turned sour.’
Taking into account the Beau Constantia 2014 Cecily (named for the farm’s owner) still needs to settle and lose youthful estery notes, there is already enticement in its blossom, orange peel aromas. With age too it will gain a lees-enriched dimension to balance the alcohol. ‘Here’s another old idea,’ van Wyk sighs, ‘that viognier needs to be drunk within three years. Our first vintage was 2010, so there’s not that much history, but I’ve had a superb 2006 from Eagles’ Nest.’

Viognier & proteas at Beau Constantia
Viognier & proteas at Beau Constantia

It’s to Eagles’ Nest I go. Winemaker, Stuart Botha, drives me around the farm, pointing out the two blocks planted in 2001 and 2002, the latter on a higher, more exposed site. A third, recently planted vineyard brings up their 1.7 hectares of viognier. Yields are eight or nine tons per hectare, translating to an average 8000 to 9000 bottles, ‘But it depends on wind during flowering,’ Botha admits. That said, he views the wind as a massive pro, cutting the crop but keeping the vines cool. Both winemakers suggest the best viognier vintages are cool years with lots of sunshine.

(Foreground) The higher of the two bearing blocks of viognier on Eagles' Nest.
(Foreground) The higher of the two bearing blocks of viognier on Eagles’ Nest.

Like his neighbour, Botha breaks out leaves on the morning sun side of the row at pea size, and the afternoon sun side a few days prior to harvesting; this provides his desired ‘rosy cheeks’ colour. ‘There is a three-day window when the acid/flavour profile is as I want it,’ he explains. ‘Managing the acid is half the battle.’

Viognier is the first variety to be harvested on Eagles’ Nest around mid-March. The portion of the lower block under permanent cover crop is picked early, at 22° Balling and tank fermented ‘for backbone’. The balance will come in between 23.5 and 24° Balling.

Lower block of viognier on Eagles' Nest. Vines closest to the camera provide the tank-fermented portion.
Lower block of viognier on Eagles’ Nest. Vines closest to the camera provide the tank-fermented portion.

The chilled grapes are whole bunch pressed, the juice taken to tank, inoculated and allowed to ferment a couple of degrees to ensure homogeneity before being transferred to barrel. Botha’s choice is a mix of blonde or light toasted French and Hungarian barriques, between 15% and 25% new. Once dry, the barrels are filled, sulphured after a month and then battonaged every two weeks. The decision whether to leave the wine on its gross or fine lees and for how long is dependent on vintage, structure especially ‘the development of palate weight’. The two components are blended and may be returned to oak before fining, cold stabilisation a coarse filtration and bottling, also under screwcap.

Botha, like van Wyk, is enthusiastic about viognier’s ageing potential, offering the 2008 is super now. He believes its popularity is due to the wine’s integrity; using wood for effect not flavour, lower alcohols (around 13% on Eagles’ Nest), fruit and freshness. A style which does well both with and without food.

Neither of these viogniers is blowsy, oily or oaky, negatives which have turned off many from this Northern Rhône variety. Rather they show freshness and subtlety, positives which sees both rapidly sell out to enthusiastic fans.

Eagles' Nest viognier 2015 in embryo!
Eagles’ Nest viognier 2015 in embryo!

Self-delusion?

Before we began the Platter five star tasting last month, I asked the question on what standard are we judging these wines, international or local. In the ‘How to use this guide’ section of Platter, the ultimate five star rating is described as ‘Superlative. A South African classic’, which might appear to make my question irrelevant. But what is the point of that rating if it has absolutely no relevance on an international level as well?

'Heartbreak' grape, pinot noir
‘Heartbreak’ grape, pinot noir

The purpose of my query related in particular to pinot noir and riesling rather than sauvignon blanc or cabernet. Although both of the first pair are considered notoriously difficult when it comes to making good, let alone great wine outside of their home turf (Burgundy and Germany respectively), pinot noir at least has enjoyed considerable and consistent success with Platter five star ratings.

Having written that, I was more than a little surprised on checking past editions that one, two or, even three pinots have received that ultimate local accolade every year since the 2007 guide (Success or otherwise in the 2015 guide remains to be seen.) Are we deluding ourselves that we can produce so many pinots of such quality?

What makes this issue more pertinent is that it’s not a big category; I would guess the maximum number of pinots nominated has never exceeded single figures.

Cluver SevenFlags 2011This Platter success was a topic of discussion last week at a convivial lunch, hosted by Paul Cluver and his sister Liesl Rust, the purpose of which was to introduce the latest, 2011, Paul Cluver Seven Flags Pinot Noir. My fellow guests were Caroline Rillema, Higgo Jacobs and Tim James.

Tim made the point that it seems far more difficult to get five stars for sauvignon blanc or cabernet sauvignon, varieties which he believes are deserving of more five stars than they receive.

In defence of the pinot producers, none claim to have reached anywhere near the level they feel is possible, both young vines and cellar experiments are hurdles yet to be overcome. For instance, I have been, mildly, critical of Elgin pinots for being more about structure and not enough about silky caress. ‘But this wine has;’ the always charming, young Cluver quickly riposted and I have to agree; it’s drinking beautifully now with plenty of life ahead, though I question an increase in interest.

There’s no doubt every vintage has seen an improvement on the previous, in part to winemaker, Andries Burger’s better understanding of his raw material (and plenty of drinking experience with great Burgundies, DRC included!). Currently made from a single, old vineyard planted to one clone, I’m sure when other, older vineyards are introduced, the wine will be more complex. At R380, it is among the priciest of local pinot offerings but the question remains, how much value does it offer, especially when compared with slightly less pricey and highly rated examples. (I have no idea whether it was nominated for or received five stars in the up-coming guide.)

By chance, I had the opportunity of comparison with some Burgundies the following day, when I attended a Burgundy tasting hosted by Suzy Himely, owner of that Aladdin’s Cave called La Crèmerie in the Gardens Centre. She has recently acquired a liquor licence, allowing her to sell wines and spirits; these now complement every other French delicacy, including a wide and tempting range of cheeses.

The tasting, presented by Great Domaines’ Morgan Delacloche, featured seven Burgundies bookended by a Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne and Hine VSOP Cognac. The two pinots included were both from Bouchard Père et Fils; one, a generic Bourgogne Pinot Noir La Vignee 2012 (R265), the other, the slightly grander Gevrey-Chambertin 2012 (R480).
Bouchard Gevrey-ChambertinLet’s put it this way, it’s worth trading up to the Chambertin and, from the point of view of purer fruit and enjoyment, I’d choose a Cape pinot over the generic Burgundy. One is caught between a rock and a hard place with Burgundian pinot; generics rarely offer value or a taste of what Burgundy is about and better are exponentially more expensive. That said, the Chambertin has charm and authenticity; the sort of wine that will evoke, ‘Ah, I now I get Burgundy’. Given the exchange rate and the inherent cost of Burgundy, it’s not badly priced.

So where does this leave South African pinots? As our vines age, we will definitely be a contender among New World producers – our wines have been described as ‘light’, ie lacking concentration and gravitas, a vine age factor. The best are enjoyable and have charm but we, like everywhere else, are way off the grandest and horribly expensive Grand and Premier Crus Burgundies.

Nor do enjoyment and charm make up for complexity and true greatness. The trouble with receiving a Platter five star rating is that is the ceiling. What now happens as the wines do get more complex and grand? I think we have been a bit hasty in our enthusiasm, as understandable as it is after those much less convincing organic wines from the old BK5 clone.

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.

BeauCapeNewt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.