The great garden

It is better to travel hopefully than arrive. Well now, I know this idiom shouldn’t be taken literally, but my arrival at Lismore was just as rewarding as the lengthy, hot yet enchantingly scenic drive to get there.

From my home to the tiny spot of shade on Sam O’Keefe’s driveway is 153 kilometres; in the early stages along the N2 there’s all the hustling traffic of mainly cars and taxis but once over Sir Lowry’s Pass it’s more heavy trucks, fewer taxis and, further still, past the turn off to Hermanus, just very much less traffic altogether.

The scenery too noticeably changes: a progression from the huddle of informal settlements, shopping malls and distant towns to the orchards and vineyards of Elgin to the plunge from the top of Houw Hoek pass and the sweep of wheatfields below. Wheatfields which are now brown and stubbly but there’s still grace in the way they embrace the contours of the gentle as well as steeper slopes. The road to Greyton I’m now following, after leaving the N2, itself weaves around the contours, as if describing a giant slalom.

As the fashionable village of Greyton and the Riviersonderend mountains draw closer, the hypnotic gentleness yields to the drama of these granite peaks, running like an impenetrable barrier parallel with the eponymous river towards the eponymous town to the south east.

‘Turn right at the third stop street by the Greyton Superette.’ O’Keefe’s instructions lead me on to a dirt road – thank goodness one of the better of its type – which 10 kilometres and a left turn towards the mountains later, brings me to Lismore. My journey had been without rush, so I could savour all the scenery afforded me. I hope the photo taken at the bottom of the last stretch to the farm will illustrate the general remoteness.

Samantha O'Keefe's home is just visible on top of the mid-distant hill.
Samantha O’Keefe’s home is just visible on top of the mid-distant hill.

So why did American O’Keefe and her then husband, also American, buy here? ‘We could only afford an old dairy farm in Greyton, not a wine farm in Stellenbosch.’ An entirely logical answer, but not only is the farm remote, there wasn’t another vine in sight. But one look at the soils – shale with a clay base, so poor and water-retentive – reveals a wine growing gem.

Lismore ShaleLismore lies within the summer rainfall region, the annual average being around 1300mm but drought conditions also occur, creating problems for these dryland vineyards, however water-retentive their soils. Summers can be very hot, up to 35C is not unusual, but days are followed by a dramatic night time dip, sometimes close to single figures, allowing the fruit to regain its pure, cool-climate flavours.

In such an untested area, how did O’Keefe decide which varieties to plant? Climate and soils obviously played a role, but I prefer her honest market-oriented answers. ‘Sauvignon blanc because that was what everyone was planting then as it had (still has) wide consumer acceptance. Chardonnay because I’m from California. Shiraz and viognier because everyone else was going for Bordeaux varieties. I had the idea of blending a little viognier with shiraz, as in the Côte Rôtie then; now more producers are bottling 100% syrah. That’s why I’ve got only .8ha of viognier; it was intended as a blending partner. I never envisaged its popularity as a varietal wine.’

Lismore's south facing chardonnay and syrah vineyards
Lismore’s south facing chardonnay and syrah vineyards

On her first and recent visit to the Rhône, O’Keefe met her Condrieu hero, Georges Vernay, recognised as the man who rescued the appellation from near-extinction and who she describes as ‘wedded to viognier’. He nodded approvingly at her wine; while both agreed it’s not Condrieu, Vernay recognised it as something special and individual. Lismore fans will be glad to hear more plantings are planned; not just of viognier, as the plan is to increase the current 65 ton harvest to 100 tons.

Yes, the viognier is special; special in its subtlety yet purity of fruit – spice, orange citrus and finally its characteristic ripe apricot. Contrast is found in the textural density and a pleasantly bitter, pithy conclusion. Like all Lismore wines, it’s hailed by sommeliers as a fantastic style to match with food; Asian in this case.

Chardonnay, (the only 2013, the rest 2014s) too captures this cool climate purity with its more lime and lemon pith than flesh, spice too. Focused and fluent, with just enough weight from its evolution in well-used 225 and 300 litre barrels, O’Keefe confirms curries make a wonderful partner.

But both, in my opinion, are surpassed in individuality and completeness by the Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc (oxidised juice, fermented/aged in 300 litre very old barrels without S02 until bottling after 11 months). There’s more nuance and complexity in the wine’s chalky, citrus, red apple tones; the texture, gently grainy and braced by wonderfully balanced tension, offers a perfect contrast to those pure flavours. This is the wine to watch as it ages.

Syrah is the sole red, in 2014 fermented with 40% whole bunches, which provides a more punchy, spicy, energetic wine with nice juicy tannins but a little too noticeable heat on the tail.

All these wines are fermented and aged in oak barrels of different sizes, simply because O’Keefe doesn’t have any stainless steel. She doesn’t even have a cellar. Space is now rented in, believe it or not, Olifantsberg, a heck of a long way from Lismore. Thankfully, she does have the use of a cottage there, where she stays over harvest.

Originally she used the cellar constructed under her home (which she and her ex also built), but it became too small to hold the harvest. Once the new planned plantings come into bearing, she’ll re-think erecting a simple cellar on Lismore. The name is an old one, dating from 1830 and meaning ‘great garden’.

Sam O'Keefe with Leo (Boerbul/Great Dane) one of her canine companions
Sam O’Keefe with Leo (Boerbul/Great Dane) one of her canine companions

Samantha O’Keefe has the handsome, strong features to match her own mental strength; her 12 years on Lismore haven’t been easy and, to an extent, it still isn’t. She has two young sons to look after, as well as making and selling her wine. Every cent counts. Thanks to her philosophy of ‘allowing the fruit to tell its own story’, the wines which do this so eloquently and her own gregarious nature, she is deservedly successful. This without entering shows or Platter (we have extensive off-record discussion about this and much else!). She does feel now that she’s reached the end of a phase where being alone here has been an interesting story; now she would like to see others come to the area and plant vines. She hints there is a cattle farmer neighbour serious about establishing vineyards; she will be pleased if he does.

Her sons return from school and I leave for a rather quicker drive home, this time reflecting yet again on the excitement that continues to bubble through the South African wine industry, in no small part due to O’Keefe and Lismore.

Birds, buck & baboons do their best to eat all Lismore's fruit. Sam O'Keefe is driven to trying any method to chase them away, including human hair in a bag.
Birds, buck & baboons do their best to eat all Lismore’s fruit. Sam O’Keefe is driven to trying any method to chase them away, including human hair in a bag.

SAA Shield – 20 years on

Twenty years ago today, the South African wine industry was on the brink of a rude wake-up call. It duly arrived the following day when South African wines received a 78 to 21 point thrashing by the Aussies at the first and only SAA Shield.

Michael Fridjhon, with John Platter, Lynne Sherriff MW and James Halliday (‘doyen of Australian wine writers’), conceived the idea during a trip to Chile early in 1995. Fridjhon has chronicled the background story in detail here, but I asked him and John Platter about the timing, whether they felt the goal was met and of most interest, do they believe today’s youngsters would have done as well regardless.

Timewise, Fridjhon responded; ‘We were just emerging from isolation, demand for South African wine was massive and no one seemed to be paying attention to the concerns I had been expressing (I think John Platter was also on record cautioning the industry about international expectations) about how far we had slipped behind in the 10 years since formal sanctions. There was no point in trying any sooner and later would only have exacerbated the problems.’

Both Fridjhon and Platter confirm the goal to give the industry a wake-up call was met. Platter added: ‘Competition is healthy; this one did an enormous amount of good and, of course, eventually led to the tri- now six-nations annual event.’

Would our young guns be the toast of the international market regardless of the Shield? Fridjhon again: ‘ In the main, yes. They have the talent and international vision. But it might have taken longer: their mentors and role models were fast-tracked because of the Shield. It was the cellar rats of that era who brought the transformative power to the industry.’ Platter feels it was too long ago to contribute to what’s going on today, but says the youngsters may be aware of this event.

I asked a few young and slightly older winemakers whether they’d heard of the Shield; some had vague recognition, others none. These winemakers are free from the baggage carried by the young and slightly older in 1995. I’ve been told that once the results, predicted by both Fridjhon and Platter, were made public, several of the industry’s senior players were incandescent with rage. Not at any lack in their wines, a lack they didn’t believe existed, but that the show was held at all and that it would harm exports.

The upshot of this furore was that: ‘SAA succumbed to dinosaur-like views from KWV and other conservative elements in the wine industry and held back from affirming its sponsorship (of similar events against Chilean and Argentinian wines).’ To quote Dr John Seiler, an American political scientist, who lived in South Africa until his death. How things have changed since then. Sure, there are still people who prefer not to enter competitions or the Platter guide, but there’s much more open-mindedness today.

Associate judges: (l-r) Oz Clarke, Tony Mossop, yours truly, Jeremy Oliver, Vanya Cullen, Jabulani Ntshangane, Max Allen
Associate judges: (l-r) Oz Clarke, Tony Mossop, yours truly, Jeremy Oliver, Vanya Cullen, Jabulani Ntshangane, Max Allen

I played a small role in the Shield. Fridjhon had kindly invited me to be one of the Associate Judges; the Aussies brought along their own too, as well as divers media. Held in the old BMW building in the V&A Waterfront, official and Associate judges tasted in separate rooms; we had infinitely more fun, not least because Oz Clarke was our Chairman!

But we were serious too: we might be Associates whose ratings don’t count, but we were as professional as the pros next door when tasting. It was a great learning curve. As it was tasting with the Aussies, always known for being smart and uncompromising, which they were about some of our wines.

South African wines did win three classes, all white, but these successes were overshadowed by the wine that came third (yes!) in the Shiraz class: Stellenzicht Syrah 1994. It caused a storm not only because it was precocious but because it had beaten the ultimate Aussie flagship, Grange, a 1990. Even the class winner and second, Henschke Hill of Grace 1991 and Mount Langi Ghiran “Langi” Shiraz 1993, received less attention than André van Rensburg’s amazing Syrah (the first allowed to be so named). Afterwards, van Rensburg being van Rensburg had plenty to say about the event and SA wines in general, advising those who couldn’t keep up with international quality should grow vegetables instead (I summarise)!

Rather label-damaged but indisputably Grange-beater, Stellenzicht Syrah 1994
Rather label-damaged but indisputably Grange-beater, Stellenzicht Syrah 1994

I subsequently bought six bottles of that wine and to commemorate this 20th anniversary, invited colleagues Christian Eedes, Tim James and Aussie, David Clarke to taste my last bottle – blind, of course, and without any indication of what they were tasting except that ‘it’s a wine of historical significance.’ While each guessed its South African origin and were close with vintage, none managed variety, which surprised me a little. There’s still suggestions of red fruit and spice in its tertiary complexity. It’s a big wine, but beautifully balanced and very much alive. A revelation in its day, this bottle at least would have performed well in a line-up of current shirazes/syrahs.

Van Rensburg recalls: ‘I picked at 25 degrees balling which was horrific to me and the alc was around 14,4% – therefore 14% on the label which I designed! 10% Merlot was added for fruit complexity and the wine was aged 10 months in 225 l barrels and a further 8 months in 2500/5000 l wooden tanks – about 3 years old at the time.’

Van Rensburg went on to Vergelegen in 1998, since producing a range of wines recognised as among South Africa’s best.

Twenty years ago, Richard Kelley, now a Master of Wine, was gaining experience in the Cape to help pass that demanding exam. I remember his comment after the Shield: ‘South African wine is going through a revolution; it takes a long time to turn around a dinosaur but once complete, South African wine will go through the much more exciting phase of evolution.’

Twenty years on, in 2015, that evolution, full of the promised excitement, is taking place.

Quality either side of the wide river

Life is full of quirks and ironies, some with small consequences, others much more significant. I’d place those affecting Paul and Corine Leeuwerik in the latter space.

The Leeuweriks are from the Netherlands, where Paul was a fiscal adviser. After their children had left home and their thatched roof home had burnt down, they determined to see more of the world. First stop in 2002 was Namibia and Zimbabwe. Africa captivated them; they wanted to see more.

Paul & Corine Leeuwerik in Olifantsberg cellar
Paul & Corine Leeuwerik in Olifantsberg cellar

It so happened an old client of Paul’s had a house near Worcester in the Cape; when he died, the man’s son intended selling it but was happy for the Leeuweriks to stay there in 2003. Three weeks and much discussion later, they decided to buy the house and its few hectares of cabernet and shiraz; after all, it had the view Corine had set her heart on. It also had a thatched roof; they laugh at the irony!

Apart from loving good wine, Bordeaux especially, the Leeuweriks had no detailed knowledge of what went into producing it. They were in for a sharp learning curve. Harvest 2004 produced around six tons of grapes for which they received R2000 from the Co-op. The following two vintages were made by their farm manager with the winemaker at De Wet Co-op. In 2007 a cellar was constructed from an old glass blowing facility. But things didn’t work out and by 2009, Leeuwerik knew he needed a young but well-qualified winemaker. Enter Jacques du Plessis.

The Leeuweriks’ headaches weren’t yet over. They wished to extend their 4.5ha of vineyards, but their beautiful, wild hillside slopes lay in a red zone. Many hoops were required to be jumped through to get permission; eventually it was given for a maximum of 20 hectares (much on virgin soil). One of the conditions was that they had to protect old and now inactive termite hills. Water rights, channelling ground water, reclaiming dams, too had to have permission.

Listening to these trials and tribulations, it’s clear further vineyards are highly unlikely to be authorised on these slopes.

Corine & Paul Leeuwerik with viticulturist/winemaker, Elizma Visser. NB short échalas trained vines. Badsberg & behind it, Slanghoek mountains in background.
Corine & Paul Leeuwerik with viticulturist/winemaker, Elizma Visser. NB short échalas trained vines. Badsberg & behind it, Slanghoek mountains in background.

Rejoice then that Olifantsberg will eventually have 20 ha of vines; the current 17 ha, established between 2010 and 2014 on these wonderful schist and shale soils and surrounded by fynbos, are planted to shiraz, carignan, mourvèdre, grenache – both blanc and noir – and roussanne, 10 ha grown as échalas, one vine on one stake, these of different lengths. These Rhône varieties are completely at home in this climate; it’s hot, yes, but the hillside slopes are well exposed and catch whatever breeze is going. There is also chenin, an important variety in their plans, a little pinotage and chardonnay.

Olifantsberg schist soils.
Olifantsberg schist soils.

Even fruit from young vines already turned into wine, has a sense of character: honest, vibrant, generous in flavour but not showy, moderate in alcohol and welcomingly dry. Olifantsberg Silhouette, a shiraz-based blend threw a spotlight on the property when it picked up a gold on this year’s Trophy Wine Show.

From next vintage, these grapes will be vinified by Elizma Visser, an Elsenburg-trained, Kuils River lass, who took over from Jacques du Plessis in June this year. After meeting her on my visit, I feel confident she will continue in du Plessis’s footsteps. She’s down to earth, well travelled, enthusiastic and has no desire to impose what doesn’t belong on these wines. Her first post after graduating with with Ronell Wiid then at Hazendal; a positive start to Visser’s career: I have endless respect for Wiid’s abilities. Harvests in France and Italy were followed by a couple of posts back in the Cape, the last of which was at Waverly Hills. ‘The job was much more than just winemaking; I had to look after the fynbos nursery and conservation area, something right up my alley!’ But Olifantsberg Family Vineyards is even more up Visser’s alley; ‘I have always wanted to manage the vineyards and make the wines. It’s a dream come true.’

Locally, the wines are available from Caroline’s Fine Wines and Wine Cellar. Acquaint yourselves with them now; they are destined to become much better known.

Attie Louw his infectious smile not quite hidden by his wines!
Attie Louw his infectious smile not quite hidden by his wines!

Across the Breede River valley, behind Badsberg, lies the Slanghoek Valley and Opstal, home to seven generations of one family. Due to passing down the female line, Roussouw and Everson came before Louw. The genial Attie Louw gave me a potted history of the farm – from originally producing rebate wine for ‘sherry’ to focussing on quality from around 1995, when his father, Stanley received Veritas gold medals for his cabernet,

After graduating, working in the Rhône and Yarra Valleys and 18 months of marketing and sales, ‘Because I was sick of winemaking,’ Louw admits, he complete his first Opstal vintage in 2010. Thank goodness his enthusiasm returned. It has infected many of the other 18 winemakers in the Breedekloof, as Louw was one of the leading lights behind the Breedekloof Initiative, initiated in 2014 to try and raise the region’s image.

The initiative gave participants (nine in the first year, 15 in 2015) the opportunity to produce the best chenin blanc possible. Louw’s own offering, Carl Everson Chenin Blanc (named after his great grandfather) is drawn from a 2.5 ha vineyard celebrating its 35th birthday in 2016. Getting together with his great friend, David Sadie, Louw started experimenting. Settled juice with 5% lees goes to older 300 lts and 400 lts barrels and allowed to ferment without inoculation at its own pace. In 2014 that lasted 12 days; this year it took 3.5 months!

Opstal vineyards stretch from tree on lefthand background to unplanted land on right & from foothills of Slanghoek mountains.
Opstal vineyards stretch from tree on lefthand background to unplanted land on right & from foothills of Slanghoek mountains.

The 2014 is a calm yet concentrated wine with lovely breadth of intricate chenin flavour. Elegance is an appropriate term for this and other wines in the range, including the new juicy, approachable Carl Everson Cape blend 2013 from equal parts cabernet, shiraz and pinotage. ‘Perhaps it needs a bit of zip,’ Louw looks at me questionally as he pours a barrel sample of his new petit verdot, a fragrant, vibrant number which should certainly spice up that blend. Louw smiles.

The Opstal vineyards stretch in a neat rectangle from the foothills of the Slanghoek Mountains, across the flat, alluvial, sandy, clay soil to the cellar and now to the other side of the road, rising up the southern slopes of Badsberg, where roussanne and carignan have been planted.

Opstal's roussanne & carignan vineyards on south-facing slopes of Badsberg.
Opstal’s roussanne & carignan vineyards on south-facing slopes of Badsberg.

Like those vines, Attie Louw and Opstal are on the rise; here’s another youngster full of energy and enthusiasm, free from baggage of the past, who believes everything must be about the wine.

Today, there are few reasons to drive the N1 en route to the north or Robertson without exploring Breedekloof.

When to release?

It’s a pertinent question, one often dictated by accountants rather than the wine. When Tim James and I get together to taste the latest batch of wines kindly sent to us by the producers, the majority in the line-up – being new or newish releases – are generally young. Most are quite ready for drinking and that’s the way they were intended. For instance, of the six 2015 sauvignon blancs we tasted, Bon Courage Gooseberry Bush (R50) and Van Loveren (R50 ex-cellar) were styled for immediate and easy drinking. Both have a suggestion of sweetness and enough varietal character without being overly aggressive to satisfy their intended audience. No surprises, no excitement but also no problem assessing those two.

The danger with sauvignon blanc is that it’s seen as a cash cow, meaning there are some released too early, before they’ve had time to settle; judging how these will evolve is a more demanding task. We felt both Fryer’s Cove sauvignons – Doring Bay (±R75/80) and, more especially, Bamboes Bay (±R120/130) – would have benefitted from holding back a while. The former, a bit reduced, has good energy with a ripe, tingling fruitily fresh finish. Bamboes Bay is very quiet at this stage – just a hint of tropical ripeness with an interesting saline edge (the vineyards are almost on the beach). The price difference is nicely articulated in each but I’d leave each for a few months to shed that youthful gawkiness. Dombeya Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (R70 ex farm) comes from the expert hands of Riane Strydom. It has a smoky, flinty character, lipsmacking juiciness and bone dry yet long finish. Lovely, but again a little too raw, something a few extra months would have polished.

Unwooded sauvignons are one animal, wooded ones another and generally need the extra time to pull together. We felt this about André Rousseau’s Sacharia Wooded Sauvignon 2015 (R190). Rousseau was formerly winemaker at Constantia Uitsig, where he did much to raise the quality of the wines, actually picking up two Platter Five Star awards in the 2016 edition for his Semillon and Natura Vista (sauvignon/semillon blend) 2014s. After departing under somewhat unhappy circumstances, he’s now got his own label and also does viticultural consulting work. No doubt this early release is driven by financial constraints, a pity but understandable. The fruit, from Constantia Uitsig, was fermented and aged in older 600 litre barrels, even so, there’s still the suggestion of oak sweetness. A quieter, unaggressive style with the richness lees-ageing imparts, another six months may see the improvement concomittant with such a price tag.

Chardonnay suffers from the same early-release problem, especially now they are being made in a tighter, fresher style with oak a support rather than centre stage. The top 10 chardonnays at the recent Prescient Chardonnay awards fitted this aesthetic and are the antithesis of the oaky, oily versions which, mercifully, are rarely found today. But tucked within their vibrant frames are flavours and textures yet to be unleashed. These embryonic wines – all from 2014 or 2013 – are not so easy to judge.

Eikendal's enthusiastic and meticulous winemaker, Nico Grobler.
Eikendal’s enthusiastic and meticulous winemaker, Nico Grobler.

These awards, previously known as Christian Eedes Chardonnay Report, are however made from a hand-picked 60 entries with track records, and judged, as always by Eedes with colleagues, Roland Peens and James Pietersen of Wine Cellar. Such methodology likely makes the results less of a lottery; indeed there were few surprises among the 29 scoring over 90/100 (more surprising were some at the bottom end of the list – Lismore just 85/100 – really?) and the 10 poured at the awards were all of a high quality; Paul Cluver 7 Flags 2014 and Eikendal 2014 my favourites.



It used to be common cause reds need longer before release; today, not in all cases. Neethlingshof’s 2014 Pinotage (R80 ex the Bergkelder vinoteque), an Absa Top Ten selection, is fruitily tasty now. In a difficult vintage, De Wet Viljoen has cajoled enticing cherry fragrance & flavours in a lively frame with plenty of freshness and ripe tannins. I really don’t see it getting any better with keeping.

Neethlingshof PinotageEven wines structured to age can be enjoyable young. I always remember Paul Pontallier’s mantra: for a wine to taste good when it’s old, it should taste good when it’s young. The latest Delheim Grand Reserve 2013 (R285), the first since 2008, is 100% cabernet. The change in size and age of oak – larger and less new – a gentler hand with acid, ripe grape tannins, all combine in making this flagship a better balanced wine and readily enjoyable now, but also with plenty more years in store. As winemaker, Reg Holder, confirmed; ‘It’s got to be drinkable on release, when most bottles will be consumed.’

If three years is an average release date for reds, some are kept back for a further two; Meerlust Rubicon 2010 (R333 ex-farm) and Glen Carlou Gravel Quarry Cabernet 2010 (R375 ex-farm for 2009) come to mind. Both are splendid wines, Rubicon a Platter 5*, Glen Carlou 4.5*, with longer lives ahead. Sadly, the Glen Carlou didn’t crack a Platter five star but I think both stood a better chance at five years than three, due to their formidable structure.
For those who are quick to criticise how a young white or red wine is rated, on its release, on shows or in Platter, just bear in mind the winemaker’s intention, as well as the accountant’s!

Platter 2016 revealed

Platter fivestar logoWhatever one thinks of the Platter Wine Guide these days, the announcement of the year’s crop of five star wines, White, Red and Winery of the Year, probably generates more excitement than any other awards. This year is no exception, with the 83 Five Star laureates receiving their certificates earlier this evening at a function in the Mount Nelson Hotel. The full list appears below.

The guide is now into it’s 36th edition and my own 30th year of tasting and writing. The task has multiplied hugely; what used to be John, Erica, their ‘PA’, myself and the printers, has morphed into: Sales & Administration, Advertising, Typesetting and Maps, Database and QR Codes Coordinators, Copywriters, Tasters, Associate Editors, the very important and efficient Editor, Phil van Zyl and finally Publisher; in total 29 (some doubling up in different roles; I might be one or two short).

Chris & Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Wines, Platter 2016 Winery of the Year.
Chris & Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Wines, Platter 2016 Winery of the Year.

But back to the present: it is Swartland’s year again with Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines taking a quintet of five star wines, included among them Red Wine of the Year, the new category, Dessert Wine of the Year and, for the second time in three years, Winery of the Year. This means a Swartland producer has held the title for the past three years: Sadie Family Wines receiving it last year. In all, Swartland producers have captured 12 five star wines, an excellent record given the area’s relatively small number of producers.

Stellenbosch, as one might expect, boasts the majority of this top rating and also White Wine of the Year – Warwick White Lady Chardonnay 2014, also an awardee on yesterday’s Prescient Chardonnay list. There are good showings too from Constantia, Elgin, Hemel en Aarde, Franschhoek, Paarl, and Calitzdorp; Robertson too is in the mix; pretty well the whole of the winelands is covered.

But pouring over those names, it will be obvious there are some notable ones missing: Alheit, Boekenhoutskloof, Crystallum, De Trafford, DeMorgenzon, Fable, Hamilton Russell, Jordan, Kanonkop, Steenberg, Thelema, Tokara, Vergelegen – all with excellent international and local reputations; one would expect them to be on the five star roster. Yet again this illustrates the shortcomings of blind tastings however carefully they’re conducted. But I still think it’s a more credible process than any sighted determination for a five star rating.

The five star tasting this year included every wine already bottled and receiving 4.5*. In other words tasters didn’t nominate wines for five stars, though still scored each out of 100, with all over 90 going through. This left around 600 wines to be tasted over two days by eight panels of three tasters, results being achieved by consensus. To ensure as fair an assessment of each wine as possible, tasters had different starting points: beginning, end and in the middle with plenty of robust post-tasting discussion. Roving tasters, Michael Fridjhon and Cathy van Zyl MW helped where there were disputes.

Personally, I prefer tasters having to nominate wines for the five star tasting; this year’s method easily leads to laziness and lack of decision. We’ll see what happens next year.
One positive change in this year’s guide, one I’ve been pushing for over many years, is that only the five and four-and-a-half stars entries are in red, all four stars now join the rest in black print. A good move to highlight the more limited top tiers.

Just a little to commemorate my own landmark year with the guide. When I joined John and Erica, it was very much in the early days of technology, with Erica resolutely using a typewriter (she’s a tech whizz-kid these days!). My first brief from her and John was a neatly typed two-A4 page of instructions, an extract as follows:

‘You will … handle the tasting and updating of information; and the chasing up of the tardy. You will be responsible for all the co-ops, for any new cellars, and for some estates. John will do his usual cellar visits to the major estates and producers … but would like you to accompany him as second palate and scribe. He will give you his assessments etc. for these cellars during or after the visit/tasting, and you will then work them into the existing entries.’ A list of a dozen wineries plus the Bergkelder follows. ‘From the above list, John would also like you to set up a tasting of cabernets, cab. blends and grand vin blancs (chardonnay and sauvignon) plus wooded whites.’

I should also point out that until then, copy was updated via cut-and-paste. As I had just bought my first desktop computer with floppies (remember them?), another task was to transfer the copy onto the PC and thence to those floppies – in chronological order – a nightmare!

The improbable magnitude of these instructions has caused much hilarity between Erica, John and myself over the years; needless to say I never got further than the tasting, updating of info and chasing, pretty pressured as it was.

By comparison, my responsibilities today are fewer but also greater in doing justice to our world-class wines. I do that to the best of my ability and get as depressed as others when wines I love don’t get the five star nod: the lovely wines from Bartinney, Thorne and Daughters, Iona and Sijnn are just a few missing this year.

Platter Publisher, JP Roussouw & Editor, Phil van Zyl at this evening's launch, with the 'Cool Breeze Blue' Platter 2016 cover.
Platter Publisher, JP Roussouw & Editor, Phil van Zyl at this evening’s launch, with the ‘Cool Breeze Blue’ Platter 2016 cover.

But that is life and Platter. As always, I remind readers it’s a guide, not a bible, use it to make discoveries – of new wineries, new varieties, new styles; so many wines other than those at the top of this year’s pile, deserve your attention.

Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines

Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Iron Syrah 2013

Warwick Estate White Lady Chardonnay 2014

Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Olerasay Straw Wine NV


AA Badenhorst Family Wines Ramnasgras Cinsault 2014
AA Badenhorst Family Wines Red 2013

Anura Vineyards Méthode Cap Classique Brut 2011

Beeslaar Wines Pinotage 2013

Bellingham Bernard Series Basket Press Syrah 2013
Bellingham Whole Bunch Roussanne 2015

Bloemendal Estate Kanonberg 2014

Boplaas Family Vineyards Cape Vintage Reserve Port 2012
Boplaas Family Vineyards White Muscadel 2012

Botanica Wines Chenin Blanc 2014

Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2013

Buitenverwachting Chardonnay 2014

Cape Chamonix Wine Farm Cabernet Franc 2013

Cape Point Vineyards CWG Auction Reserve White 2014

Cederberg Private Cellar Blanc de Blancs Brut 2010
Cederberg Private Cellar Ghost Corner Sauvignon Blanc 2014

Constantia Glen Constantia Glen Two 2014

Constantia Uitsig Natura Vista 2014
Constantia Uitsig Semillon 2014

David & Nadia Sadie Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc 2014
David & Nadia Sadie Aristargos 2014
David & Nadia Sadie Grenache 2014

De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve 2013

Delaire Graff Estate Botmaskop 2013
Delaire Graff Estate Laurence Graff Reserve 2012

Dorrance Wines Chardonnay Cuvée Anaïs 2014

Eagles’ Nest Shiraz 2012

Eenzaamheid Chenin Blanc 2013

Ernie Els Wines CWG Auction Reserve 2013

Fleur du Cap Laszlo 2012

Foundry Viognier 2014

GlenWood Chardonnay 2013

Graham Beck Wines Lonehill Chardonnay 2014

Guardian Peak Wines Lapa Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Haskell Vineyards Anvil Chardonnay 2014
Haskell Vineyards Haskell IV 2010

Kaapzicht Wine Estate The 1947 Chenin Blanc 2014
Kaapzicht Wine Estate Vision 2012

Keermont Vineyards Riverside Chenin Blanc 2014

Ken Forrester Wines Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2014

Klein Constantia Estate Vin de Constance 2011

Kleine Zalze Wines Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

La Couronne Wines Muscadel NV

Leeuwenkuil Family Vineyards Heritage series Syrah 2013

Luddite Wines Saboteur 2012

Meerlust Estate Rubicon 2010

Miles Mossop Wines Max 2012
Miles Mossop Wines Kika 2014

Mulderbosch Vineyards Faithful Hound 2013

Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Granite Chenin Blanc 2014
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines CWG Auction Reserve The Gris Semillon 2014
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines White Blend 2014
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Iron Syrah 2013
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Olerasay Straw Wine NV

Mvemve Raats MR de Compostella 2013

MVH Signature Wines Chardonnay 2014

Nederburg Wines Noble Late Harvest 2014
Nederburg Wines The Young Airhawk 2014

Neil Ellis Wines Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc 2015

Newton Johnson Vineyards Family Vineyards Chardonnay 2014
Newton Johnson Vineyards Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2014
Newton Johnson Vineyards Resonance 2014

Nico van der Merwe Wines Mas Nicolas Cape 2013

Nitida Cellars Coronata Integration 2014

Oak Valley Wines Mountain Reserve White Blend 2011

Paul Cluver Estate Wines Seven Flags Chardonnay 2014

Reyneke Wines Syrah 2013

Richard Kershaw Wines Elgin Syrah 2013

Rijk’s Reserve Pinotage 2011

Sadie Family Wines T Voetpad 2014

Savage Wines CWG Auction Reserve Follow the Line 2013

Spier 21 Gables Sauvignon Blanc 2014
Spier Creative Block 2 2014
Spier 21 Gables Pinotage 2013
Spier CWG Auction Reserve Frans Smit 2011

Sterhuis Chardonnay Barrel Selection 2013

Sumaridge Wines Chardonnay 2013

Vondeling Erica 2012

Vuurberg Reserve 2012

Warwick Estate White Lady Chardonnay 2014

Waterkloof Circle of Life White 2013

Windmeul Cellar Pinotage 2014

Winery of Good Hope Radford Dale Black Rock 2013

Brandy/Husk Spirit

Boplaas Potstill 20 years

Dalla Cia 10 Year Old Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot Husk Spirit

KWV 10 Year Old Vintage

KWV 12 Year Old Barrel Select

KWV 15 Year Old Alambic

KWV 20 Year Old

KWV Nexus

Oude Meester Souverein

Van Ryn 12 Year Distillers Reserve

Van Ryn 15 Year  Fine Cask Reserve

Van Ryn 20 Year Collectors Reserve

Van Ryn Au.Ra

A matter of opinion

There can be few wineloving South Africans who aren’t aware of the positive and enthusiastic reviews of our wines from the foreign media. Given they are exposed to the whole world of wine on a daily basis, for South Africa to gain so much attention is noteworthy and encouraging.

As all those who feel the glow of that praise are aware, this is no time to rest on their laurels; the journey to better, more interesting wine never stops. If anyone hesitates, there’ll be someone else, another country, eager to fill the gap. It takes a team effort to maintain the momentum; our viticulturists and winemakers can’t make the journey alone, they need the backing of those who write and administer the rules and regulations.

Recently, thanks to urging and input from Swartland producers, new classes of wine with their specific requirements have been officially added to the regulations of the Liquor Products Act. I say ‘officially’, as styles such as Skin Macerated White, Méthode Ancestrale and Extended Barrel Aged White/Gris have been available but not under those names; in fact it was from practical experience of making these and the other permitted styles that the specific requirements were drawn up.

Seal applied to every certified wine, including details tracing its history back to the vineyard
Seal applied to every certified wine, including details tracing its history back to the vineyard

What those requirements are is not germane to this piece, apart from the fact that each and every one has to be certified. One of the main stumbling blocks to certification for those who veer from the safe but often boring route of wines that meet all requirements to gain that bus ticket lies in the sensory examination by the tasting panel of the Wine & Spirit Board.

Certification faults 001Each of the five members of this panel sits in an individual tasting booth, unable to see or talk to any of the others. The decision to press the button for the green light (pass) or that for the red light (fail) is his or her’s alone. As is obvious from the list of ‘Unacceptable Quality Characteristics of Wine’, so many decisions are subjective; if I were on the panel, I know I’d fail many wines for ‘Excessive wood or vanillin character’ – yet how many have been failed for that? And, for goodness’ sake, how can a young cab be failed for ‘Tannic, astringent’, when that’s precisely what a young cab should have?

But back to the new styles, which in themselves encourage more extreme winemaking: lower alcohols, older oak only, no fining or filtration are pretty much the norm. But these can leave the wines open to some of those ‘Unacceptable Quality Characteristics’. Skin-macerated whites in particular, can result in turbidity or haze.

A winemaker friend, who produces this style, has no problem with turbidity when it is a protein haze provided the wine is stable, something that is checked in the lab before bottling. As my friend comments, ‘Fining can help to stabilise wines against these issues, but for quite a few of us we simply don’t care. The sensory quality is generally unaffected by such haze or turbidity.’ I should point out this is a summary of a much more detailed explanation.

Even with the lab report confirming the wine is stable, it’s failed by the tasting panel and, like many of the other unacceptable characteristics, the decision is a matter of the individual’s opinion.

What needs to be born in mind today is that winemaking skills – aided by better viticulture and fruit – have improved enormously. The purpose of the sensory examination was a much more useful tool in catching dodgy wine when those skills were not as sharp.

I have known too many winemakers whose wines have failed the tasting simply because of this subjective system rather than being faulty. It’s frustrating on several levels: many of the wines are pre-sold, so there’s a ready body of consumers who are willing to vote with their wallets – can there be better judges? Receiving the red button is also an expensive exercise, especially for small scale producers; each submission for certification requires three bottles, which might seem nothing for the Distells and KWVs of this world, but when your total production is four hundred bottles, every one sold has a bearing on your continued existence, especially for those with limited or no backing.

While our wines have marched forward, the system hasn’t. Time for a total re-think, if not scrap the sensory tasting.

Bubbles – a question of taste

A question – do you have le goût anglais or le goût francais? This ‘English taste’ or ‘French taste’ refers, as far as I know, to Champagne but I guess it could include any beverage or food that is preferred young or mature. But let’s stick to Champagne, and our own Méthode Cap Classique.

The sayings refer to the English taste for aged vintage Champagne and the French taste for much younger, fresher wines – well, that’s how I understand it.

Russian champanski
Russian champanski

Checking on the internet, I found le goût anglais initially referred to sweetness rather than age, as it does, in ascending degrees, for American, French and Russian tastes. Anyone who has tried Russian Champanski will appreciate the truth of that level of dosage! But all would taste sweet to today’s palates.

Goût anglais (“English taste”, between 22 and 66 grams); note that today goût anglais refers to aged vintage champagne
Goût américain (“American taste”, between 110 and 165 grams)
Goût français (“French taste”, between 165 and 200 grams)
Goût russe (“Russian taste”, between 200 and 300 grams)

Over the years my taste has changed. I used to think more mature MCC’s more interesting, though this was often achieved via bottle age rather than autolysis, the reason for that being the wine had spent longer on the cork rather than on the lees. The younger Non Vintage wines then were too raw, too simple after too short a time on the lees (the minimum time as prescribed by the MCC Producers’ Association is 12 months) and the cork. That’s also been due to their popularity, with the big players like Graham Beck, Villiera and Simonsig having to release these NVs sooner than they’d have liked. It’s only as one moves onto the vintage and the prestige cuvées that producers are able to give the benefit of longer lees ageing.

Lanson Champagne NVSo what I’m looking for today is freshness with elegant, subtle autolysis, a definition confirmed when I recently tasted Lanson Black Label Brut NV, just one of a range of wines from this Champagne House re-introduced to South Africa under the wing of Great Domaines.

If proof were needed about the alchemy of time, the three and a half years this and the Lanson Rosé NV spend on the lees clearly offers it. A small addition of reserve wine, the oldest portion 10 years old, increases complexity, but freshness is maintained. Even the Noble Cuvée 2000 degorged in 2012 maintains purity and freshness as well as gentle toasty, brioche features. In fact, purity and freshness sums up the whole Lanson range.

Le Lude Brut NV & Glass

Not too long after this tasting, local MCC specialist, Le Lude launched their first wines. I wrote about them here, after my visit back in May. Under the dedicated enthusiasm of winemaker, Paul Gerber and owners Nic and Ferda Barrow, Le Lude is set to become a major player in the quality bubbly market.

Like Lanson, their two first releases, a Brut NV (R190) and Rosé NV (R195), spent three and a half years on the lees though neither received reserve wine, a component that will be added in future. We tasted the 2012 reserve, aged for two years in barrel, then kept in magnums. If it would be unrealistic to imagine these maiden bottlings to have complexity similar to the Lanson range, they do, however capture both the elegance and freshness plus a bubble that’s both bright and creamy – a lovely combination. Gerber explains that bubble texture gains from longer maturation.

Alongside the reserve wine, the morning’s tasting started with 2015 base wines of Rosé and what, in five years’ time, will be released as Prestige. The former with colour and fruit from some red wine made in beaujolais style, the latter including an oaked portion. Not an everyday experience; it’ll be interesting to compare when these are released.

An agrafe holding cork in place during lees ageing
An agrafe holding cork in place during lees ageing

The comparison Gerber did submit us to, blind, was the difference between ageing on the lees on crown cap as opposed to on cork, the latter securely fastened by an agrafe, a first in South Africa. The difference is amazingly clear – and this was with exactly the same wine, the Prestige cuvée: on crown cap, the wine seems leaner, less evolved and much in need of dosage to pull it together. On cork, it is altogether more harmonious, detailed and delicious without dosage. Again it’s a textural difference.

I should point out that the first releases have been aged under crown cap, but after six months on the cork and with the addition of a little dosage (sugar levels are 7 g/l and 5 g/l in the Brut and Rosé respectively – le goût sud africain?) they are well harmonised and certainly fulfil my taste for freshness and subtlety, as well as being refreshingly really brut.

A mix of le goût anglais and le goût sud africain?

LeLude launch agrafe

A wander around the Douro

It’s one of life’s little (or perhaps that should be ‘big’) ironies that our fortified wines receive high praise, praise that unfortunately isn’t reflected in sales. We all love to talk them up but few are drunk.

Weather plays a role in this: a warmer and drier winter than usual, as we’ve experienced in the Cape, doesn’t help especially our Port-styled fortifieds.

A few years’ ago, the good wine producers of Calitzdorp, the self-styled ‘Port’ capital of South Africa, decided to take a leaf out of their Douro colleagues and embark on using Port varieties in table wines.

The Portuguese took this route back in the 1980s, when they started to establish vineyards according to variety rather than the field blend of sometimes up to 40 different varieties. Although this allows them to produce varietal wines, blends still predominate, given the region’s challenging climate.

Among the raft of varieties present in Douro vineyards, we have many of the more popular ones: tinta roriz, tinta barocca, touriga franca, touriga nacional, trincadeira and souzão.
It’s not surprising to learn the Nel cousins – Boets at De Krans and Carel at Boplaas – were in the vanguard of experimenting with table wines incorporating varieties also used in their Port-styled wines. Red Stone Reserve, a touriga, cab blend and Kuip and Clay, a touriga, merlot, cab blend were respectively their early efforts. I remember one of the Nel’s – I can’t remember which – telling me that a blend purely of Portuguese varieties didn’t work, which is why they fell back on cabernet.

Things are quite different today. De Krans Tritonia blends touriga, tinta barocca & tinta roriz (aka tempranillo); Boplaas Ring of Rocks mixes tinta franca with tinta barocca. They aren’t the only ‘dorpers to have broadened and shored up their portfolio with the addition of table wines: among others joining them are Axe Hill, Calitzdorp Cellar, Peter Bayly Wines and Fledge & Co.

Partners in this last ‘Co’ are Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel, daughter of Carel & Jeanne, who is also winemaker at Boplaas. Together, they are cutting-edge Calitzdorpers, experimenting along with the Cape’s best. Their pair of unoaked chenins, HoekSteen from Stellenbosch and Klipspringer from old vines in the Paardeberg, are full of character, showing chenin doesn’t always need an oak crutch. But it’s their Big Red Blend 2012 that’s the focus here. A blend of two 300 litre older barrels each of souzão and touriga franca with one of touriga nacional (fruit source isn’t disclosed, but all the vineyards were at least 30 years old). Coetzee says it’s the first time in 30 years that this particular varietal trio have ripened sufficiently to make a blend. Yeast and sulphur were the only additions and the wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Coetzee and Nel kindly agreed to let me include a bottle in my presentation of six Douro reds, as per the list below. They also added a Boplaas Touriga Nacional 2012 and the Boplaas Portuguese White 2015 (tasted blind beforehand).

Despite its youth, this last proved quite an eye-opener. A blend of all Calitzdorp fruit led by verdelho and sauvignon blanc with viognier and chardonnay, it has good density with lots of greengage and citrus freshness. Straightforward but not facile and thoroughly moreish, especially with its R40 price tag.

Portuguese reds 1015We usually have a test to keep everyone on their toes; this time I asked them to identify the three wines made by one producer and the two wines not from the Douro (I made no mention of them being South African).

The line-up was tasted blind, as usual, in random order but coincidentally, The Fledge and Boplaas Touriga were numbers one and two.

The former proved divisive; some were in the over-ripe, dull camp, others, myself included agreed about the ripeness (alcohol is 13.88%) but found good balancing freshness, gentle tannins, silky texture and complexity in its fragrant spicy, pot pourri, violets features. However, it did suffer coming back to it after tasting through the other wines. Strangely, things were better when it was paired with food and the following day.

The real surprise of the evening was Boplaas Touriga, which no one picked out as not a Douro, whereas four had nominated The Fledge. Perhaps there was more obvious tannin than the Portuguese wines, but no imbalance; it just needs time. We were genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how well this wine showed; it offers much encouragement for the future.

The Douro wines too were most pleasurable and all-round of very good quality. These are wines at ease with themselves, there’s nothing forced, no over-oaking or extraction and even though alcohols are around 14.5% (typically, the Niepoorts are 13% or 13.5%), all enjoy a sense of natural freshness. Only Quinta do Crasto was felt to be drying out a little.
Few of us had tasted many Douro table wines before; the experience left us feeling positive about the potential here for blends built around the major Port varieties we already have, some vineyards with good age.

It’s a category that needs, even deserves, more attention; not at the expense of Port-styles but as well as. Not only could these blends add interest to our Port-style producers’ portfolio but buttress them against slack sales of their fortifieds.

For anyone interested in reading more about the Douro, in fact Portugal in general, UK journalist, Sarah Ahmed specialises in the country’s wines. Her website is a useful source of information.

Fledge & Co Big Red Blend 2012 R200; Boplaas Touriga Nacional 2012 R150; Quinta Vale D Maria 2012 R605; Roquette & Cazes 2012 R295; Niepoort Batuta 2010 R735; Niepoort Redoma 2010 R425; Quinta do Crasto Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2012 R305; Niepoort Vertente 2012 R230

The two favourite wines of the tasting.
The two favourite wines of the tasting.

Old new & new new

In my last post, I failed to mention so many more excellent wines I tasted at Cape Wine, let me rectify that now.

Bellingham is a name, for those of us with long memories, associated with Bernard and Frieda Podlashuk, their beautiful property in the Franschhoek Valley and its own railway station. It’s also associated with the first Premier Grand Cru and commercial shiraz. For those slightly younger, Bellingham was part of the Graham Beck portfolio and where he built a modern cellar and tasting room, until the brand was sold back to Douglas Green Bellingham (yes, that’s what the B stands for!). More recently, the whole property has passed into the hands of neighbour, Anthonij Rupert Wines, leaving Bellingham but a name on a bottle.

wine-roussanneThe Bernard Series (named after ‘Pod’, as he was affectionately known) sits at the top of the Bellingham range and regularly carries off bits of silverware at shows, but I hadn’t had a serious taste through the wines for a long time. Cape Wine offered the perfect opportunity. The wines, sensitively crafted by Niel Groenewald, are individual and easily equal to many of the more fashionable names around. My stand-out is the 2015 Whole Bunch Roussanne from Voor Paardeberg. The fruit purity – white floral notes – is enhanced by lack of oak, but this vessel’s usual benefits – richness, structure and firmness – are imparted by lees ageing and, I guess, a great vintage. One of SA’s first two varietal marsannes is also drawn from Voor Paardeberg. Again crafted to highlight the slightly more exuberant white peach fruit only a portion was in (old) oak. I was also privy to a preview of a splendid new white blend, including, if I remember rightly, this pair among other varieties. It should most certainly be regarded among the top tier of this much spoken-about genre.

As for the reds, the Basket Press Syrah has varietal clarity, gentle tannins (as one might expect from the name) all harmonised & polished by subtle oaking.

The Bernard Series range may be tasted at the re-furbished Franschhoek Cellar, on the right just before entering the town. Do so; there should be no disappointments.

Of the five ranges under Anthonij Rupert Wine, I tasted the Cape of Good Hope and flagship, Anthonij Rupert wines with Marketing Manager, Gareth Robertson. One could hardly find two more stylistically different line ups.

Cape of Good Hope SemillonCape of Good Hope is home to some of the old vineyards from where Eben Sadie also sources his Ouwingerds range: Van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc and Laing Semillon, while much younger vineyards in Elandskloof, near Villiersdorp are channelled into Altima Sauvignon Blanc and Serruria Chardonnay. Paardeberg provides fruit for Basson Pinotage. Freshness, moderate alcohols and a sense of hands-off winemaking lends each of these interest and the desire for another sip to discover more.

By contrast, the all-red Anthonij Rupert wines, current vintages around 2008 – 2010, are in the increasingly old-fashioned ultra-ripe, over-oaked, heavy style, though Robertson assures me younger vintages are heading in a fresher, less oaky direction. One can only be thankful for that.

David and Jeanette Clarke’s Ex Animo trade tastings are never to be missed; the wines shown earlier this week were all most definitely at the cutting-edge of current trends.

For those under the illusion that winemakers work only during harvest, bear in mind the recent schedule of many pouring their wines at this event. Two weeks’ ago was Cape Wine, three days of the show itself but with many satellite events before and after; hardly was that over, than many hopped on airplanes to the UK for the New Wave tastings in London; some have gone on elsewhere, others returned home with several on stage again, pouring and discussing their wines at the Clarke’s event on Monday. And every time, answering many of the same questions; I don’t envy them. Perhaps this explains the soubriquet ‘lunatic fringe’ that’s been tagged to them!

Kyle Dunn works with Adi Badenhorst and, like his other co-worker, Jasper Wickens, has now done his own bit of moonlighting. Skinny Legs is presumably a play on Dunn’s curiosity about skin contact (his own legs being unknown to me!) as his Semillon 2014 and Grenache Gris 2014 from the Swartland and Voor Paardeberg respectively have undergone two weeks on skins. A year in 300 litre oak, followed by six months settling in bottle has delivered a brilliant semillon, pale gold in hue with an incredible intensity of orange blossom and orange peel aromatics. The flesh is sweet, the tannins dry and a reminder that white wines do not lack in this structural element. Alcohol at just 11% follows what is becoming the modern norm. I love this wine, which should retail around R140. As should Skinny Legs Grenache Gris 2014, which is more austere, its acid and tannin lacking amelioration of the semillon’s sweet fruit. A challenge alone, it will show at it’s best with food.

Craven ClairetteI’m glad Mick and Jeanine Craven of the eponymous label have decided to use only a portion of skin contact wine on their clairette, 65% in 2015, with just 35% fermented in older oak. Jeanine says the 100% skin contact version wasn’t so popular, but both they and I prefer the blend, the latest combining delicacy with terrific length of flavour, a tug of tannin and just 11.5% alcohol. Versatile and individual.

It would be difficult to beat Trizanne Barnard’s Syrah Grenache for value and deliciousness. Retailing for +-R100, 2014’s spicy savouriness is full of lightness and life. ‘Open and drink,’ Barnard advises; I’d add have a second bottle handy. Her skills are clearly evident in her Elim Syrah 2014, which she describes as a very difficult year with disease drastically lowering quantities. Due for February 2016 release, it’s a wine of quiet pleasure, probably peaking before the 2013.

I tasted nearly all Craig Hawkins’ new Testalonga range last; all nine were unbottled samples of this year’s crop, but it’s clear that not only do they confirm the quality of the harvest, but that they benefit from Hawkins’ full attention since he left Lammershoek. His management of skin contact now allows for much better balance between fruit and tannin, but there’s still plenty of distinction. The reds too are also on a par with the whites; Baby Bandito ‘Follow Your Dreams’ Carignan, +-R115 retail, is a dream and, for any who don’t know the variety, a valuable experience.

So much to excite and harvest 2016 isn’t that far off.

Cape Wine 2015 – some reflections

Last week, thousands of trade and media from all over the world converged on the Cape Town Convention Centre for the three days of the now triennial showcase, Cape Wine.
Listening to and reading comments after the event, it appears pretty much everyone was impressed by what was deemed a world-class show.

It was a wise decision to change the gap between these exhibitions from two to three years (there were four between 2008 and 2012 because of the World Cup). As was correctly suggested after 2012, there is much more that’s new with a three year break.

Bearing in mind that only about a third of all producers participated, it’s clear the winelands are abuzz with activity.

For myself, I went with a plan, one I inevitably didn’t complete. ‘You must taste this or meet so-and-so’ frequently diverted my plan, but it’s good to have time to chat to new producers when their stalls aren’t inundated by others.

One where I did just that was Olifantsberg and its Dutch owner, ex tax-accountant, Paul Leeuwerik. ‘Turn right 5 kms off the Worcester/Ceres road, another 2 kms on a dirt track and you’ve reached us.’ I shall be following his directions once we’ve decided on a suitable date for my visit. When someone successfully crafts a serious Blanc de Noir, you know they’re worth taking notice of. Fermented in large oak, lees-aged in tanks, Olifantsberg’s salmon-hued, flavoursome ‘noir’ from shiraz just begs tuna. Oliftantsberg arrived on the radar when its Silhouette shiraz-based red blend won a trophy on this year’s Trophy Wine Show, but my Cape Wine experience confirmed all the wines have similar purity and interest. The vines are still young; I anticipate much greater things as they age. Definitely a winery to watch.

Jocelyn Wilson Hogan with her excellent Swartland old vine chenin.
Jocelyn Wilson Hogan with her excellent Swartland old vine chenin.

As is Hogan. Jocelyn Wilson Hogan worked at several international and local wineries including La Bri, before starting her own label with an impressive chenin blanc from Swartland old vines, vinified as naturally as possible in old oak. She had both the maiden 2014 and as yet unbottled 2015 for tasting. While the latter is the more complex wine, living up to the vintage hype, 2014 will certainly help put Hogan on the map.

As will the B Vintners Vine Exploration Co’s whole range. I couldn’t make the launch of Gavin Bruwer Slabbert & cousin, Bruwer Raats’ new venture, but didn’t miss this opportunity. What a great range! Like the Cravens, B Vintners are showing Stellenbosch can also do character and concentration without a new oak crutch and 15% alcohol. Harlem to Hope, a blend of chenin, semillon with a whiff of muscat; De Alexandria straight Muscat d’A both inspired, but the wine which pleased me most is Strandwolf Chardonnay, with its purity of dainty lemon, lime freshness, persistence and just 12.5% alcohol. Talk about shaking up Stellenbosch!

Much of the buzz focused on chenin and cinsaut. Standouts were Ryan Mostert’s Silverwis and Smiley labels; the chenins more vinous than fruity, with lowish alcohols but lees-aging giving them dimension, so very much in today’s mode; the cinsaut rejoicing in its wild strawberry fruit and freshness. Ian Naudé’s Old Vine Cinsaut, with slightly more silky sophistication, again has that delicious, fresh wild strawberry fruit and ready drinkability. Cinsaut is absolutely the answer to a summer lunchtime red wine.

Naudé’s Old Vine semillon packs an awful lot that’s flavoursome into 11% alcohol. Wynand Grobler (Rickety Bridge winemaker) also gave me a preview of his own Road to Santiago semillon from the Landau’s 100-year plus vineyard. Both will further shine with age and especially with food. If you prefer your semillon with sauvignon blanc, the new One Man Band from Iona only adds lustre to the genre with its polish and personality. Look out for big successes next year (it wasn’t submitted for Platter this year).

Pinot noir is another lunchtime red. Johan ‘Stompie’ Meyer might be better known for his Mount Abora wines, but under his own label he produces, among other wines, three pinots from different regions: Elgin, Elandskloof and, my favourite the complex Outeniqua. Meyer was part of the fabulous, fun Zoo Biscuits stand, a group of 15 ‘young and restless’ producers who showed the benefit of working together. They certainly gave the Swartland Independent Producers (motto: S.I.P or Swallow!) a run in the popularity stakes.

Shorts and flip-flops set the fashion at the Zoo Biscuits' stand. This didn't stop the queues to taste the wines.
Shorts and flip-flops set the fashion at the Zoo Biscuits’ stand. This didn’t stop the queues to taste the wines.

There was so much more to excite (at last I tasted through the whole of Sam O’Keefe’s Lismore range; the raves are all justified) but readers are going to end up as exhausted as I was at the end of Day one.

But I cannot resist two standout events:
Standout tasting: South African Greats – decades of terroir, where ten vintages of Warwick Trilogy, Eben Sadie’s Columella, Kanonkop Paul Sauer, Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir, Vilafonté Series C, Hartenberg Gravel Hill Shiraz and Klein Constantia Vin de Constance were presented. I completed the first four, plus a couple of Gravel Hill before giving up (it was the end of Day one).

Two memories: Trilogy 1989, the oldest red, is still singing; 2006 as a vintage is faring much better than the more highly rated 2005. I tasted the latest, 2011 Vin de Constance the following day. Fresher, more zingy and boasting gorgeous fruit, this is the best for many vintages.

Standout seminar: (okay, I attended only one) Rosa Kruger’s Listening to the Landscape – the typicity of our terroir, which attracted standing-room only (including, as Rosa told me, a handful of real boere grape farmers!). Memorable quotes: ‘We don’t always know from science; there are amazing vineyards that defy where they grow and produce great wine.’ Rosa Kruger. ‘Thanks to reliable French sources, new varieties and clones require only one year in quarantine.’ Nico Spreeth, CEO of Vititec. ‘We’ve got to plant what belongs, not what sells.’ Eben Sadie.

(l - r) Newton Johnson Albarino, Sadie Family Verdellho, Assyrtiko, Mencia and Agiorgitiko, Bosman Wines Nero d'Avola. New varieties tasted at Rosa Kruger's seminar.
(l – r) Newton Johnson Albarino, Sadie Family Verdellho, Assyrtiko, Mencia and Agiorgitiko, Bosman Wines Nero d’Avola. New varieties tasted at Rosa Kruger’s seminar.

Remember the names: Albarino, Assyrtiko, Mencia and Agiorgitiko. They are Spanish and Greek varieties that could be adding much further excitement to the Cape’s wine spectrum.

Roll on Cape Wine 2018!

Leon Coetzee of Fledge & Co, Calitzdorp & Gavin Brand of Cape Rock , Vredendal, showing great wines from either end of the Cape winelands.
Leon Coetzee of Fledge & Co, Calitzdorp & Gavin Brand of Cape Rock , Vredendal, showing great wines from either end of the Cape winelands.