Niche but nice

Let’s accept it, pinot noir is niche. Starting with 1176 hectares planted throughout the Cape, much of which is channeled into Méthode Cap Classique. The fruit destined for red table wine is shared between roughly 130 producers; it’s easy to see quantities are of necessity limited. Many vines are also still young.

The variety was introduced to South Africa in the 1920s. More general interest grew in the 1980s with early examples from Hamilton Russell Vineyards 1981 and Meerlust 1980; both were made from BK5, a Swiss clone better suited to bubbly than red table wine. It was only during the 1990s that dedicated red wine clones from Burgundy were introduced. Paul Cluver Wines in Elgin was one of the first to plant these in the mid-1990s. But as cellarmaster, Andries Burger revealed at Winemag’s Pinot Noir Report awards (where his Paul Cluver Pinot Noir 2017 was among the top ‘Magnificent Seven’ as the winners were dubbed), that vineyard is about to be uprooted due to virus; that’s 23 years growth gone. According to other Elgin producers present, many pinot vineyards were planted only from 2005 onwards. Sure, there’s better vine material now, but, as the rest of the awardees confirmed, nothing can beat mature vines.

Let’s accept that pinot noir is a tricky customer in both the vineyard and cellar. It prefers a cooler climate, is very vintage sensitive and requires specific vinification to give of its best. Whereas producers can get away with an ordinary cabernet or shiraz, this doesn’t work with pinot. It should be no surprise that many of the top pinot producers are, in the main, pinot specialists with several, sometimes many years of experience. If, in the early years, pinot often came out looking more like cabernet – dense in colour, highly extracted and overly ripe and probably too much new oak as well – now, most sit confidently without disguise; ‘They show more purity than five or 10 years ago,’ Andries Burger confirms. There’s also suppleness with weight, freshness with structure.

De Villiers Graaf (De Grendel), Christian Eedes, Morgan Steyn (De Grendel), Gary King (Tonnellerie Saint Martin)

Let’s also accept pinot noir doesn’t come cheap. The overall winner, De Grendel Op Die Berg 2017 is a reasonable R200; Creation Emma’s 2017, a statement R905. The rest of the top seven hover between R200 and R345. Giving context to pinot prices, Winemag’s editor, Christian Eedes revealed the average price for all the wines scoring 90-plus was R361; this compares with R286 for cabernet and R230 for shiraz. It may be more than the price which deters many winelovers from buying South African pinot; Burgundy, as the variety’s benchmark, is stratospherically priced and difficult to come by. Again, poor examples, of which I’ve had a few, do neither grape nor region any favours.

Pinot Report Magnificent Seven

But let’s not accept that South African pinot is a lost cause. Far from it. Firstly, it fits so well into the current – and hopefully, long-term – trend for lighter, fresher red wines, of which grenache and cinsaut are also exponents. These latter two have captured winelovers’ imagination, so why not pinot. I was more than pleasantly surprised by all seven winners; there wasn’t one I didn’t enjoy, from the light-footed Lothian, Shannon’s broad, mouthfilling flavours of black and red berries to the dark-hued De Grendel, spicy and full-bodied yet with no dulling heaviness. Could one have enjoyed as much a one or two-year old cabernet or even shiraz? As can be seen from the full results, 35 entries were received from 24 producers; many of the recognised pinot producers weren’t represented but no longer is quality limited to a few, the talent is spreading as are the areas producing quality pinot, though all enjoy an element of coolness.

Now it requires sommeliers to assist the cause. Pinot, in all its iterations, is a food wine par excellence. Fish, from hake to tuna; poultry and game – duck can be a marriage made in heaven – to red meat; there are pinots begging to be enjoyed with each and all of these.

Let’s accept pinot noir is niche but very nice.

When good isn’t good enough

I’ve been lucky to taste a number of great wines over the past few months; the names behind them won’t come as a surprise. Sadie Family Wines, David and Nadia, Mullineux, Savage, Crystallum, Restless River, Hogan, The Foundry, van Loggerenberg and more – but you get the idea. What makes these wines exciting? They are not only among South Africa’s best but also individual, whether they are from a single vineyard, a soil type, or a region, whether they’re a single variety or a blend.

As well as the above, I had the opportunity to taste the numerous chenin blancs and shirazes nominated for five stars in the upcoming 40th edition of the Platter wine guide; this year’s format arranged the wines that qualified in bands at each level of scoring, a useful approach in calibrating quality. The quality that shone through in the best and the line-ups generally, confirmed that these two are our strongest varietal suits. The bar in both is set extremely high, as it is in other categories, even if some don’t have similar numerical depth.

New CWG Auction labels. Hand signed, more bling, textured paper

When the competition is so strong, wines have to be exceptional to compete at premium prices. Which brings me to the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction wines. I and a few colleagues were kindly given the usual opportunity to blind taste the line-up for this year’s event. The only information presented was variety or blend and vintage.

After my Platter tastings, both of individual producers and the five star wines, I was particularly interested in the CWG chenins and shirazes. As I learned after the tasting, the chenins come from some of our top producers: Raats, Beaumont, De Trafford and Spier and yet, with respect none stand out as being better or vitally different from their excellent offerings on the open market. I doubt this will hinder them receiving the usual elevated auction price levels, although it will be interesting to see what difference two new auctioneers make. Richard Harvey MW and Giles Peppiatt of Bonhams Auctioneers in the UK take over from Henré Hablutzel of Hofmeyr Mills Auctioneers, who retired after enthusiastically wielding the gavel for 21 years.

The old CWG labels

Shiraz fared better; Boekenhoutskloof Syrah Auction Reserve 2017 was my star of the tasting and easily among the country’s best. ‘A big wine’ I noted but more in depth of flavour and texture than alcohol. Just two barrels, one from Porseleinberg, the other Stellenbosch fruit. Boschkloof Epilogue 2017 is another striking individual, a little more openly expressive than Boekenhoutskloof but as satisfyingly confident in style and potential. Cederberg Teen Die Hoog Shiraz 2017 was matured in new oak and it shows; time will tell whether fruit and oak forge a happy partnership.

For the rest, it’s a mixed bag, as it usually is. There are some wines which are immediately recognisable in a positive way; Jordan Chardonnay, Kanonkop Paul Sauer and Pinotage. Others which are different from any other; Miles Mossop Jo-Saskia 2017 a chenin-clairette blend, understated yet compelling; Mullineux Le Gris Semillon, Boplaas Daniel’s Legacy 8 year-old Potstill brandy (most certainly a delicious flag bearer for our excellent brandies), but does it do the CWG or sauvignon blanc any favours to include a 2019 which hasn’t had time to shed its still-gawky youth?

What the CWG members and we all need to remember is that the pace of improvement in Cape wines is relentless, regular recalibration is essential to appreciate the great from the good.

The journey

One of the most satisfying things of being involved with wine is experiencing the progress made by winemakers from the start of their career. The adrenaline level has been upped over the past 22 years or so thanks to the scary speed the current batch of young and not-quite-so-young guns have scaled the ladder.

Some have personal relevance. Marc Kent’s Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 1997 has long been a wine of legend, in part because it was a one-off from a vineyard in Somerset West which was subsequently ripped up. It also set a benchmark for South African shiraz, giving a nod toward the classic syrahs of the Northern Rhône. Marc also went against then current trend of new oak, the older barrels aiding the wine’s savouriness. I was lucky enough to be one of the first to taste it, prior to bottling, for Platter and was suitably enamoured.  I’ve not had a bottle for several years, but I know it has thrived far longer than its analysis suggested it should.

The following year, Eben Sadie made the first wines at Spice Route, the wines as characterful as the cellar just outside Malmesbury. Those 1998s heralded serious interest in the Swartland, which Eben went on to drive a few years’ later with his own wines. Merlot, cabernet, pinotage as well as syrah were admired for their softer, integrated tannins and subtle oaking. ‘One of thrilling new-genre of SA shirazes’, I wrote in Platter 2000, as the range made its first appearance in the guide. Let’s not forget the barrel-fermented chenin blanc from 36-year-old bush vines, surely an eye-opener to the distinctive character the Swartland could produce. If the wines received appreciative noises from the local cognoscenti, a later vintage (2001?) of Eben’s Spice Route syrah got a nod of approval from Gerard Chave, one of the greatest wine producers in the Northern Rhône; Chave Hermitage is arguably the most revered.

Chris Williams wearing his The Foundry hat

Add Chris Williams to these two; all three were at Elsenberg together and inspired by the Rhône wines they experienced on a trip together. Chris, under his own The Foundry label (his day job is Cellarmaster at Meerlust), has concentrated on producing wines from Rhône and Southern French varieties, both white and red. He says this is more of a coincidence than they are all interesting single sites grown on granite, some from Voor Paardeberg, alongside the Swartland. Chris also hit the road running when his first Syrah 2001 was awarded Platter 5 stars (guess who was the taster!). His philosophy of restraint with purity and freshness follows through his range.

Marc, Eben and Chris are at the top of their game, but they’re only at that level as all understand that producing quality wine is a never-ending journey rather than a destination. For that reason, their attention today extends beyond the cellar into the vineyards and marketing.

A steady stream of like-minded, free-wheeling producers are still following in their wake; many from the Swartland, but the rest of the winelands is also well-represented. Not only does the quality and distinction of their own wines raise their image but that of South African wine generally.

David & Nadia Sadie July 2019

 

 

David and Nadia Sadie are one of the more recent teams to join the ranks of the young guns; they too caught the media and public’s attention with their first wine, the 2010 chenin-based Aristagos. The Sadies are unrelated to Eben but for obvious reasons, have avoided using the surname, choosing the brand name David and Nadia. Wine of Origin Swartland, the area where David was born, has been their motivation from the start; their current focus is on old vine chenin, ‘showing the beauty and honesty of the vineyards and soils.’

 

David Sadie circa 2013 showing Tim James & me an early vintage.

I clearly remember David bringing his early wines for tasting to my home or my colleague, Tim James’s, who then lived down the road.  The philosophy hasn’t changed, though his confidence has grown, as was apparent when he introduced their latest 2018 wines last week. The wines too have changed, following the positive trend from bigger and bolder to more restrained and fresher.

A better understanding of their vineyards encouraged them in 2014 to keep separate a few barrels from each vineyard: Skaliekop (1985 vineyard on shale) and Hoë-Steen (1968 red iron, clay-rich vineyard west of Malmesbury) receive regular recognition from Platter with 5* ratings and high scores from Tim Atkin. In 2018 these have been joined by Plat’bos (‘small, low bushes’, planted early 1980s on 100% granite, next to Skaliekop) on the Sadie’s Paardebosch farm. It also contributes to the main chenin label and Aristagos blend.

The question was raised whether the market can absorb all these chenins, especially as prices between R200 and R300 are now commonplace. David’s response reflected his belief in a collaboration like the Swartland Independent Producers, ‘which aim to farm, make and market wines from the Swartland as an appellation, a collective and collaborative team effort in creating awareness around the Swartland and therefore also the Cape.’

David and Nadia single old vine vineyard chenins

A great goal, but one that can be met only when the wines do display the necessary distinction, which this trio does: being good isn’t good enough.

Skaliekop floral and tropical peach aromas, concentrated flavours and tangy acid.

Hoë-Steen complex juicy ripe flavours, infused with tension, incisive, long finish

Plat’bos arresting, steely and linear; more structure than fruit for now, but all three will benefit from age.

Plat’bos Chenin Blanc with its Certified Heritage Vineyards sticker

With a lower yield anyway due to the drought, 2018 has produced a measly 1200 – 2000 bottles for each of these chenins. That said, there will be much more reward from buying all three to discover their individuality.

For the unlucky or empty of wallet, the regular chenin, also from old vine blocks, offers great quality with affordability..

As does the rest of the range, where the Grenache with its elegant power, fine structure and fruit, was my stand-out red.

The journeys these and the other guns, of whatever age, are undertaking cannot fail to inspire and excite. We live in an ever-golden age of South African wine.

Pinot noir

Are we too reverential of pinot noir? It’s easy to think of reasons why this might be. First, Burgundy; how limited are the top wines even in a year when the weather is kind, much less so when those wicked spring frosts do their own wrecking effort. Regardless, the top wines fetch stratospheric prices and many think of Burgundy as beginning and ending in the Côte d’Or. Then, it’s often said that pinot is unforgiving, there’s nothing worse than a poor example.

There are probably other reasons, but with proper pinot so hard to come by and, in many cases, beyond the average winelover’s wallet, it’s no wonder it is placed on a pedestal.

Locally, there’s also a tendency to have a somewhat narrow view with regard to styles but as the number of producers grows, each with his/her own interpretation of pinot, winelovers need to shed their myopsy. From a rough calculation in Platter 2009, I counted +- 48 producers, some making more than one pinot. Compare with 2019, where I gave up counting, but entries in the index take up over a whole column. There will be yet more this year; I see Thelema are upping the stakes in Elgin by releasing their first Sutherland Pinot Noir Reserve, a 2016 selling for R395 ex-cellar. I’ve not tasted it, but this range is becoming more impressive every year, so a wine to take note of.

 

I have tasted and drunk quite a few pinots of late. From Stellenbosch, a relatively quick sip of the latest Meerlust 2018, which, like its predecessor is more firmly structured than most local pinots. Behind the tannin there’s plenty of dark red fruit, encouraging sign for the benefits of ageing. There’s been a bit of discussion about Stellenbosch and pinot and whether it’s pinot country at all, at least for table wines. Much is successfully channeled into MCCs. While I admit there are some well-made and enjoyable Stellenbosch pinots, I’ve yet to have one with the thrill factor of those from other areas.

 

Those ‘other areas’ are where the rest of my recent pinot experiences have come from. A pair from Hemel en Aarde: the Kruger Family Wines Pearly Gates 2018 WO Upper Hemel en Aarde and Saurwein OM Pinot Noir 2018 from Hemel en Aarde Ridge. The appeal in both of these is clarity with complexity as well as the natural freshness that’s so much part of pinot and those two higher Hemel en Aarde Wards.

Charming Saurwein labels of OM & NOM Pinot Noir

Jessica Saurwein’s OM is a new wine, which she describes as ‘a lighter style’. She was drawn to the area from her student days; her dream now is to own a vineyard there one day. In the meantime, fruit has been purchased from one of the properties on the Ridge and treated as hands-off as possible, ‘To learn about the site.’ Saurwein notes the name, OM ‘symbolises the concept of universal creation and is also synonymous with peace.’ These tie in well with dealing with a three-month-old baby during harvest and finding a sense of peace in the vineyard.

 

The wine, on the other hand, is full of life within its compact, fine frame, which, with the fruit purity account for that lightness of touch. But lightness doesn’t mean lack of staying power. After five days, this pinot was still singing. The same can be reported about NOM Pinot Noir 2018 from the 700 metres high-lying Kaaimansgat vineyard. Still elegant with tremendous natural freshness, it has greater dark fruit density than its partner. Saurwein explains the name NOM or nombulelo means gratitude in Xhosa, while Nomkhubulwane is a forgotten African goddess of agriculture.

 

 

It would be understandable that all three of these pinots might seem slight as well as lighter than the reds most are used to. Understandable, but wrong; there is great depth to them all, which time will reveal.

It’s hardly necessary to point out the many other excellent Hemel en Aarde pinots covering a spectrum of styles from the three Wards.

Our pinots are there to enjoy, so drink and enjoy them, rather than criticise them for what they’re not or put them on a pedestal.

A bit of a rant

It’s been quite a while since I last read through the background to the Wine of Origin system, but wanting to remind myself of some details, I turned to the Wine of Origin file in my SAWIS folder.

The ultimate paragraph in the Introduction reads: ‘Certain basic principles were taken into consideration when the system was formulated. It was for instance necessary to comply with EU regulations because a great deal of South African wine were (sic) exported to Europe. Principles such as honesty in business, factual terms, titles, adaptability, local, marketing truths and free participation were addressed.’

While acknowledging that South Africa still remains ahead of the rest of the wine world where origin hasn’t been as tightly defined as in the traditional world, it’s true that not all those principles outlined in the last sentence have always been rigorously followed.

It’s no surprise that like wine itself, so some areas enjoy a better (more sexy) image than others. Franschhoek immediately comes to mind. Originally, it was demarcated a Ward within the District of Paarl. Even today, Paarl sadly has an image problem; this led to many producers who fall under Simonsberg- Paarl WO, joining the Vignerons de Franschhoek for marketing purposes. Franschhoek itself also felt the need to divorce completely from Paarl and got itself re-demarcated as a District. Then there was all sorts of nonsense about wanting to extend its reach to the N1, but I think the message is clear, as I wrote above; some of the principles have not been as faithfully followed as they might have been.

What I see as a similar piece of cynical marketing was the demarcation of Cape Town as a district, promulgated on 26th May 2017. It embraces the Wards of Constantia, Durbanville, Hout Bay and Philadelphia. The opinion was that Cape Town would have greater resonance than these (than historic Constantia??), but much of the push came from Durbanville, which itself had been demarcated a Ward on 26th May 1989, 28 years earlier than upstart District Cape Town. Now, few Constantia producers can use WO Cape Town, as they have their own, proudly Constantia-labelled bottle mold; nor can all Durbanville producers use it, as Durbanville is part of their name.

But my real anger – no, sadness – is epitomised in a new wine from Meerendal Estate. This Durbanville farm, founded in 1702, with the first vineyards planted in 1714, was one of the first 14 farms to be awarded Estate status after the introduction of the Wine of Origin scheme in 1973 (not 1993, as on their website). Then there’s the Heritage Block of pinotage, planted in 1955, which wine now bears the Certified Heritage seal of the Old Vine Project.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first bottling of Meerendal wines in 1969, a new pinotage was introduced: ‘The Pinotage Vine’ 2016, as it’s labelled. A heavy bottle with a big punt, that in themselves send an image message, are matched by the back label which advises; ‘This unique wine, already 11 months in barrel, went through a third fermentation on the lightly pressed skins of wine made from our Pinotage vineyards that are more than 60 years old,’ indicating inclusion of the Heritage Block. Then: ‘A Wine grown, made and bottled at Meerendal Wine Estate – The home of Pinotage,’ firmly locates the wine’s origin.

The front label would seem to refute all that, showing the silhouette of Table Mountain with Cape Town printed across it (not one I’d be attracted to pick off the shelf). A total divorce from all the heritage of vines and land highlighted elsewhere.

This strikes me as not only bad marketing, but cynical marketing at its worst and not upholding the Wine of Origin principles. A pity, as the wine with its typical, bright red pinotage fruit, fresh leesy weight and medium body, makes for a pleasant, different interpretation of pinotage.

An Elgin maverick

Every wine country has characters; every wine country needs characters. South Africa has its own original in Koen Roose, who decamped from Belgium in the early 2000s after encouragement from L’Avenir’s then winemaker, Francois Naudé. Originally studying to be an engineer, Roose soon realised this wasn’t a career for him; he went on to be a highly-regarded sommelier then an importer, his portfolio including many South African producers, including L’Avenir.

Koen Roose behind a large piece of Ferricrete rock, an important soil component on Spioenkop.

Roose’s training on the ground began at L’Avenir, ‘where Francois taught me everything about pinotage,’ then followed harvests at Tokara and several in Burgundy, where he worked in the vineyards rather than cellars.

During this period, he purchased 47 hectares of virgin land in Elgin that was to be Spioenkop. Just 10 hectares are planted to vines only; ‘No apples, I’m not a f…king apple farmer.’ Roose’s Flemish-accented English, littered with such colourful terms, is delivered at speed and length and with great enthusiasm.

If a lack of apple orchards is one area he differs from many of his Elgin colleagues, another is his approach to viticulture, specifically his pruning regime, which begins a month earlier than anyone else. Other Elgin farmers think he’s mad, as growth also starts a month earlier, with the risk of frost, but Roose defends his methods and his unirrigated vines with their low-growing canopy; these are spread out around the hill, composed mainly of ferricrete, a hard, erosion-resistant, sedimentary rock, brown-rust in colour. The vines roots struggle to get past this rock to find any moisture below. Stress makes the vines concentrate on producing and ripening fruit rather than ‘pretty canopies’.

Once we’re through the viticultural exposé (and I’ve not touched on half of Roose’s lesson), it’s on to the main purpose of the morning, tasting his latest releases. Bar one wine, all the grapes for both the 1900 and Spioenkop ranges come from the farm.

Spioenkop and newly-designed 1900 labels

Roose is no less a maverick in the cellar than in the vineyards; ‘I’m an alchemist, I love to do everything with feeling rather than by any book.’ The first glass contains 1900 Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (R160); he’s even sorry he’s had to release it so young! Texture and dimension are essentials in Roose’s wines. To achieve this in his sauvignon, he designed tanks with sieves, giving skin contact for 24/48 hours before drawing off the free-run juice, leaving the skins on the sieves then pressing them in a basket press. Naturally fermented, aged on gross lees with no additions, this is the antithesis of a simple, fruity, young sauvignon. But does a three-year-old sauvignon sell, I asked? Apparently, the good sommeliers understand and are willing to list it, but not so much the average winelover. The newly-named Sauvignon Blanc SA would do well to give the ageing aspect of sauvignon more attention, as an increasing number are made with this in mind. Roose’s 1900 illustrates the potential.

Newcomer, Queen Manthatisi Sauvignon Blanc 92% -Chenin Blanc 8% 2016 (R175) is a riper style with more general appeal, the sauvignon gaining richness from six months in 300 litre older oak. Queen Manthatisi, who llived during the 18th and 19th centuries was known as a brave and capable leader of her tribes, who ensured they stayed together during peace and war. Roose loves history, hence the variety of historical names.

The star of Roose’s white wines and for me, the whole range, is his Spioenkop Riesling, arguably the best in South Africa. ‘Everything I do for sauvignon and chenin, I don’t do for this queen of grapes,’ he asserts. The current 2017 (R263) is unusually expressive for so young a Spioenkop wine; fragrant spicy, flea powder aromas; elegant, lightish-bodied (12.5% alc), with rivetting fruity acids and zingy length. Well worth tucking away a few bottles.

That’s not to downplay the quality of Spioenkop Sarah Raal 2018 (R283) and Johanna Brandt 2017 (R263), a splendid pair of chenin blancs, quite a rarity in Elgin, where Roose was the first to plant the variety. They come from different elevations in two vineyards; Sarah from the upper part showing riper, red apple charm; Johanna from the lower with fresher green apple tones and a suggestion of oak spice, 10% new admits Roose almost under his breath; he says he hates the taste of new oak and doesn’t generally use it.

In honour of his pinotage guru, Francois Naudé, Roose goes against all his principles of making wine from only Elgin fruit. 1900 Pinotage 2018 (R263) comes from and has typical raspberry perfume, ripe fruity flavours and gentle tannins. A readily recognisable and enjoyable pinotage but Roose’s Elgin Spioenkop Pinotage 2018 (R425) takes the grape to a different level and style. More spice and liquorice than traditional aromas, there is also intense cool climate freshness more reflective of the area’s pinot noirs. Only the dark, crimson-rimmed colour gives a clue to its real varietal origin. For me, Roose’s 1900 Pinot Noir (R202) is unlike its Elgin counterparts being denser, more firmly structured with dark spice and a whiff of smoky oak. For something interesting and different, I’d opt for the Pinotage.

Nothing can replace visiting a wine farm to better understand the wines; a visit to Spioenkop with a tour led by Koen Roose gives one a better understanding not only of the wines but this individual, opinionated winemaker, a welcome addition to the Cape’s wine scene.

Classic cabernet

Nights are drawing in; there’s a chill in the air reminding winter’s coming, even if the winter rains are so far resolutely staying away. Time to return to exploring ten-year-olds from the cellar; this time red wines.

Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2009 is an appropriate first choice, given the recent release of two site-specific cabernets and Reserve cabernet from 2014.

Vergelegen is one of too few wine farms fortunate enough to have had the same winemaker for 20 or more years; in André van Rensburg’s case, 22 years. His involvement and interest has never been in the cellar only; he’s fanatical about healthy, virus-free vines.

Among the first cabernet vineyards was one with leaf-roll virus, its fruit was thought to add a touch of greenness, which consumers then associated (appreciated?) with Stellenbosch cab. Such character wasn’t on the van Rensburg list of positives; he persuaded the Board of Anglo-American, the company that owns Vergelegen, that a complete re-planting was required. Today, the 120 hectares under vine are 16-19 years old and virus-free, annual ELISA tests confirming if there’s any doubt.

If, when he joined Vergelegen, van Rensburg, viewed his position as a caretaker job for maybe five years, his first harvest showed him how special the place is. Replanting the vineyards ensured he would be there long term. ‘It’s only after eight to 10 years that one starts to know and understand vineyards,’ explains this perfectionist. By 2003 both vineyards and cellar fell under his control.

Cabernet sauvignon is inextricably association with Vergelegen; there are five or six varietal cabernets or blends including cabernet, throughout the range. Fruit for these is drawn from several cabernet vineyards comprising different soils, elevations, aspects and clones, each reflecting its own site expression in the wine.

Andre van Rensburg, Vergelegen’s winemaker since 1998

An apt segue into the two new cabernets (there’s also a merlot) from specific sites. All, from 2014, are the result of van Rensburg’s collaboration with renowned French consultant, Michel Rolland, his consultant of choice.

If there was some surprise that van Rensburg needed a consultant at all, or specifically M Rolland, he explains; ‘It’s good to get an outsider who is able to see the benefits of a vineyard when the winemaker can’t.’

The first releases of this collaboration – The First Thought Cabernet Sauvignon and the Last Word Cabernet Sauvignon (the Merlot has the moniker The Mistake) – are splendid and classic (perhaps more so without those names, which remind Vergelegen has cabernet covered from start to finish.)

The former cabernet is on a sheltered site and ripens around two weeks earlier than Last Word. While it has the more generous fragrance and open texture, there is no shortage of structure or freshness that benefits ageability. Like all van Rensburg’s cabernets, it has wonderfully dry yet ripe grape tannins, which help to counteract the 14.5% alcohol, there being no sense of heat or sweetness.

Last Word site is one of the oldest, planted in 1999 to a traditional local clone on high clay soil, which accounts for later ripening. More aromatically closed than First Thought, more a sense of ripeness than fruit, with layers of stern yet ripe grape tannins, which also lend freshness, this is perhaps the grander cabernet, demanding at least two or three years before broaching. Both wines received the same vinification and perfectly absorb their 18 months in all new Taransaud 225 litre oak barrels.

If 2014 isn’t regarded among the Cape’s great red wine vintages, these wines do not reflect that at all; surely the virus-free vines are an important factor. They will certainly age as well as my 2009 – yes, I’m there at last.

Vintage 2009 was a different story. Winter 2008 was very cold and wet, a mild spring followed with the traditional heatwave arriving in February, later than usual. Slower ripening resulted in a healthy crop with excellent analyses. Fires across the winelands were a sad negative. On Vergelegen, where around 5 hectares of vineyard was affected by heat, vines were marked where there were traces of ash or smoky smells in the canopies; berries were sampled, trial fermentations and finings carried out; all to no avail. ‘Nothing helped and in the end we had to dump about 20% of our total harvest,’ André van Rensburg’s despair can surely only be matched by his delight at the tremendous quality of unaffected fruit. In his notes on the wine, he declares 2009 as ‘one of the best SA vintages of the last 20 years.’

This Reserve comes from several vineyards (including the sites mentioned above). Vinification featured punch downs, as opposed to pump overs on ’14 but all received lengthy post-maceration and 18-22 months in new small French oak.

Vergelegen Cabernet Reserve 09

 

Cabernet franc and merlot, 3% of each, join cabernet in ‘09. Is it auto-suggestion that the former brings a note of leafy spice? Many cabernets with a similar 14.5% alcohol would taste lush and sweet, not this classic dry, tailored style, which also achieves pleasing complexity in its meaty, dark-fruited, savoury layers.

How would it have fared on Winemag’s Ten-year-old Awards? I would like to think very well, as that complexity is what was lacking in some of those top reds.

 

 

Vergelegen’s red wines’ track record suggest this delicious cabernet has many more years’ great drinking ahead. I have no concerns about keeping my remaining bottle for at least another five years.

Alternative varieties

Alternative has so many dubious connotations these days, some explanation is called for of what constitutes an alternative variety. I’d hasten to add, there’s nothing remotely dubious about its use in this context.

Some top-scoring whites on Winemag’s Alternative Varieties Awards

In this context it is specifically South African and refers to Winemag’s competition featuring wine grape varieties outside those that cover the majority of the South African vineyard.

Historically, the South African vineyard has been and still is a very lopsided affair: the ten most planted varieties cover 86% or 81 359 hectares, out of a total of 94 545ha (SAWIS 2017 figures). From top down, the ten are: Chenin blanc, colombar (mainly for brandy), cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, sauvignon blanc, pinotage, chardonnay, merlot, ruby cabernet (a useful blender) and cinsaut (climbing the ranks thanks to the current interest). Pinotage and ruby cabernet (a Californian cross of carignane and cabernet sauvignon) aside, the rest are all associated with major French wine-growing areas.

In a slight sidetrack, there was some social media discussion with a colleague in England, who commented that the term alternative variety is much used there for new world wines (sic), the classic varieties of Bordeaux or Burgundy wouldn’t be considered alternative. Grenache, rarely seen as a varietal wine, and petit verdot ‘for sheer obscurity even in Bordeaux and lack of varietal wines’ would be examples of his ‘new world’ alternatives.

Alternative or mainstream? Two frequently-awarded cab francs.

Classic or major French varieties indeed form the majority of the top-performing, alternative varieties on Winemag’s Awards: semillon, viognier, cabernet franc and grenache blanc (grenache as much associated with France, where it is widely planted, as its origin, Spain). Portuguese varieties, verdelho and tinta barroca added a little more of the unusual and interesting to the mix.

In view of some high-profile producers’ success with those first three varieties, it would be understandable to think of them as mainstream or at least, not alternative. Niche might be a better description.

Why alternative varieties matter is the more serious issue here. We need a greater number of varieties, which, planted in suitable sites and, no less important, made by winemakers who are fixated on reflecting site, elevate them among the country’s top performing wines.
Since the quota system was dropped in 1992, matching variety to site has increased in importance. Many wines from the abundant top ten are far too similar, the use of fruit-enhancing yeast or the grapes picked so ripe, the wine lacks any detail, are just two causes. They might be pleasant wines to drink but they are unlikely to set the pulse racing, nor will they further South Africa’s international standing. That will happen only with wines of quality and distinction.

Climate change will also affect choice of variety. Rhône and Southern French varieties such as marsanne, roussanne, clairette blanche, grenache and mourvèdre are growing in popularity, so it was disappointing only one grenache did well on the Winemag competition. Lack of numbers and experience could account for this to an extent, as well as absence of some of the better producers, but overall there’s plenty of room for improvement, which I’m sure there will be.

Looking beyond France, there are warmer parts of Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece where we should be looking for suitable varieties; Greek assyrtiko has already been identified, with a few vines already yielding fruit and more commercial-size vineyards being planted this year.

There is another hurdle for today’s youngsters to overcome. Few of them own vineyards; they lease or have other agreements with farmers who grow the fruit. With many farmers getting out of grape growing and not all being willing to follow winemakers’ wishes, establishing new varieties takes on a different challenge.

This year’s Alternative Varieties Awards was the just second (and hopefully not the last); if nothing else, it has helped to inform winelovers of some varieties they’ve never heard of and possibly encouraged them to try a few. But any novelty factor cannot be sustained without quality and, ultimately that often elusive ‘sense of somewhereness’.

Stellenbosch game changers

Ask international winelovers to name one wine region in South Africa and (provided identification of both Africa and South Africa is possible) the most likely answer will be Stellenbosch.

This, the second oldest wine producing area after Constantia, has a long-established reputation for producing high-quality wines, with its most-planted variety, cabernet sauvignon  lending the region a classic, traditional air.

This is not to say there’s a lack of innovation, either with less common varieties or individual styles, but Stellenbosch has built its name on a limited number of mainly classic varieties and especially generous, full-bodied reds with cabernet the jewel in the crown.

One might not be surprised if the good producers of the area became a little lulled into complacency. If they were, the introduction last year of the Cabernet Collective, among other initiatives, certainly stirred them to life.

The long & the short of it. Lukas van Loggerenberg (l), Jeanine & Mick Craven

But there are game changes of another type. Mick and Jeanine Craven, as well as Lukas van Loggerenberg, are both creating ranges (under their eponymous surnames) which reveal Stellenbosch from a totally different perspective.

They are both relative newcomers; the Cravens’ first commercial bottling was a pinot noir in 2013, while Lukas van Loggerenberg has just completed his fourth vintage. Their shared philosophy is freshness achieved via earlier picking with lower alcohols a beneficial result. Older oak also plays an important role. Their goal starts, as with all good wines, in the vineyards. Good relationships with the farmers (neither owns vines) ensure farming is equally positive for both farmer and producer. But grape security can be tenuous; there’s no guarantee a farmer will remain nor one taking over will uphold their similar sustainable standards; a situation which unfortunately led to the Craven Clairette Blanche being discontinued after 2018.

Lukas van Loggerenberg, Mick & eanine Craven with their distributor, David Clarke of Ex Animo Wine Co

It was this vintage of their respective ranges Mick and Jeanine, followed by Lukas, introduced to media and trade this week. These were two impressive line-ups; there wasn’t a wine I wouldn’t want to drink from either quality or distinction points of view and every year has shown improvements; ‘All due to the work we’ve put in to creating healthy, balanced vines.’

Summarising the vintage as ‘seeing the brunt of the drought and you know there’s a drought when you want rain in harvest’, Mick admitted not all was negative; the key was being in the vineyards, keeping an eye on the vines and soils. Picking early was imperative; although the vines took a beating, the grapes showed well once they were in barrel. Lukas offered much the same message: ‘Think on your feet, don’t follow a recipe and get out into the vineyards.’

One or two personal favourites include:
Craven Clairette Blanche 2018, sadly the last and the best they’ve made. An authentic yet accessible example of (a partially) skin-fermented white. Crisply dry, it’s a statement of what the variety can achieve. Approx. retail R195. For the same price, the Pinot Gris’s smoky pink hue and aromatic wild strawberries become more red-wine like with its light tannin grip. There was some discussion about where it should fit on a wine list – ‘definitely not a white wine’. Elegant, fresh and supple, The Firs Syrah (R265) from Devon Valley is full of fragrant red fruit, lilies and charm.

Charm and seduction fit Lukas van Loggerenberg’s Trust Your Gut Chenin Blanc (R370). Paardeberg as well as Stellenbosch contribute fruit to the swathe of sunny, yellow peach, pear and pineapple aromatic and flavour generosity. For those who prefer chenin in a more linear, tighter mode, you’ll have to be quick to get Kamaraderie (R405); 2018 yielded a meagre 880 bottles. Graft (R370) is 100% syrah (2017 included cinsaut) is a hedonistic mix of white spice, fennel and dark berries with fine, powdery tannins mothering the supple flesh.

Craven Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (l) Van Loggerenberg Breton 2018

And so to cabernet sauvignon. ‘If you’re from Stellenbosch, you need to make it,’ declared Mick Craven. ‘We like drinking it, so we decided to have some fun and experiment.’ Unorthodox according to Stellenbosch norms, the fruit was whole-bunch fermented, pressed before fermentation had finished which ended with 12.5% alcohol, ripe, dry grape tannins, fine vinosity and pure yet unshowy cab cassis and blackberries. What reaction from Stellenbosch? I enquired. ‘Some interesting facial expressions when I poured it at Cape Wine,’ Mick quipped; ‘and shock at the whole bunch, but many liked it.’ Apart from whole bunch, here’s a retro, authentic cabernet. Ageing? Yes, I guess it will, but nothing wrong with drinking it now. Working with an engaged farmer, the Cravens have picked ripe fruit even from these partially virused vines.

From cabernet sauvignon to cabernet franc and Lukas van Loggerenberg’s Breton (R370), the variety’s Loire name also Lukas’s inspiration. If 2018 has a little more textural breadth than 2017, there’s the freshness, purity and finesse that was rewarded in the older vintage’s Platter five stars. So what did Stellenbosch make of that? A broad grin crosses Lukas’s face. ‘I can’t count the number of winemakers who wanted to know more about picking early! ’ If he’s finished by beginning of February, most others harvest towards the end of the month. Like the Cravens’ cab, Breton will age while being delicious now.

Both the Cravens with their cabernet sauvignon and van Loggerenberg with his cabernet franc are small but important game changers. Whether more in Stellenbosch follow their ideas remains to be seen. I hope consumer support for the wines offers sufficient encouragement.

Aged or mature?

Put another way: old or better? Whichever, the conundrum remains about what is going on in a bottle of wine over the months or years before it is opened and which allows it either to merely taste a bit wrinkly or to have blossomed into something more beautiful and interesting with age.

Some of the top scoring wines on Winemag’s Ten-year-0ld Awards

 

This topic might appear irrelevant to most winelovers, given the perception that 98% of them open a bottle of wine within 24 hours of purchase. Unusually, this opinion was not corroborated by readers of Winemag during the recent User Survey. Responses revealed only 7% buy and drink so rapidly. In contrast, 14% prefer to age wine and for a significant 37%, ‘it varies’, which presumably suggests wines that will benefit from ageing are accorded at least a few years. Perhaps the topic isn’t so irrelevant.

 

 

 

My curiosity about the age vs maturity question was initially piqued (and not for the first time) at the recent lunch to celebrate the top scorers on Winemag’s Ten-year-old Awards, focusing on 2009s. Only wines scoring 93 or more out of 100 were poured, so there was no chance to taste the two Cap Classiques, but whites, reds, a dessert and fortified were.

The notion that our white wines can last ten years is fairly recent; I seem to remember (I may be wrong) that in the not too distant past, Winemag judged whites at five years, reds at ten. Tokara Director’s Reserve White, a sauvignon-semillon blend, Raats Chenin Blanc and Tokara Reserve Collection Stellenbosch Chardonnay did themselves and their screwcap closures proud; the chenin in particular has years of life ahead and the blend has perhaps achieved the most complexity of any of the top wines. But with each of the three, age has brought something of interest (Bruwer Raats wryly remarked; ‘A much better rating than the wine’s 2* on a long-ago Chenin Challenge!’).

On the subject of the ageing process and white wines, it’s apt to reflect on what Jancis Robinson had to say in her amazingly detailed Vintage Timecharts, published 30 years ago. ‘But if little is known about the precise ageing process of red wines, even less is understood about exactly what happens as a white wine matures (partly because the majority of long-living wines are red, partly because it must be quite different from what happens in red wines with their much higher level of phenolics).’

Only shiraz among top scoring wines was Rob Armstrong’s Haut Espoir, here with Winemag’s Jax Lahoud.

The reds are a different matter. All, bar the Haut Espoir Shiraz, feature varieties associated with Bordeaux, either in a blend as in Tokara Director’s Reserve Red and La Bri Affinity or in the varietal Remhoogte Merlot and Rustenberg Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon. They are big, ripe wines topping 14% alcohol, two over 15% and only one wine clocks in under 2 grams/litre residual sugar. Now, I know the same can be said of analyses as of statistics – there are analyses, analyses and damn lies – because a wine doesn’t always taste as its analysis suggests, but this quintet are of a stylistic family from the late 2000s in their bold, rich flavours and, frankly, apart from the shiraz, intense dark ruby colour. While the tannins have softened to a degree, there seems to be little flavour development. Should they be drunk now, kept in the hope of improvement, or, as I wondered aloud to the winning winemakers and other guests, would these red wines have tasted as they do now two or three years ago?

Jancis again in Vintage Timecharts: ‘One further frustrating aspect, is that, in a sense one never knows for sure when a wine has reached its peak until that peak has past and the wine begins to show signs of decline.’ Which returns us to: ‘One fundamental reason why so little information is given about what happens to individual wines in bottle because so little is known.’

My sense is that a properly balanced grape will produce a wine that can mature with complexity; fiddling in the cellar may do little more than to bring the wine into balance (sometimes), but over the years it’ll age rather than develop.

While virused vines struggle to ripen, especially late-ripening cabernet, new clean vine material has ripened all too easily, initially catching winemakers unawares with high sugars and consequent high alcohols. Much has changed in the past ten years, including a much better understanding of and attention to viticulture; a significant number of consumers are turning away from the big, ripe, sometimes jammy, oaky reds of yore and enjoying today’s fresher, more flavoursome wines. Yes, there are those who believe the momentum has swung too far in the other direction, that many wines are too light, insubstantial. But with the introduction of cement eggs, clay amphorae even qvevri, plus oak of all shapes and sizes but mainly older, even lighter wines have gained interesting textural dimension.

Winemag team & top scoring producers on 10-year-old awards

Can today’s wines mature rather than just age? That’s the $64000 question. Perhaps the best chance will come with 2015, as a generally lauded vintage, but if one takes 10 years as a measuring stick, we’ll have to wait until 2025.

A final thought. It’s infinitely more rewarding to drink a wine on the way up than when it’s on the decline and, as Jancis pointed out in the quote above, one never knows when a wine has reached a peak, until that peak has past.