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!


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.













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.