Working together (Part two)

Where to from here? There are reasons a-plenty why the years ahead should afford wine grape growers anxiety, the unprecedented drought just one.

A glance at the latest figures for Western and Northern Cape vineyards planted vs those uprooted, illustrates a level of disenchantment and lack of sustainability: since 2013, the annual shortfall has been around 1600 hectares.

Without giving precise figures, information from the Du Toitskloof team suggests their growers have a stable area under vine, with small pockets of citrus, kiwi fruit and mushrooms among other alternative crops grown. (Citrus is now a popular replacement for vines in the Robertson area.) Given Breedekloof’s aquifers, enough for irrigation even in the current drought, and the fertile soils, no general change to wine growing is foreseen. What is changing is the approach to viticulture; more suitable varieties being introduced; technology allowing for root depth manipulation and innovative canopy management all with the goal of producing higher yields of better quality and sustainability.

Quality and sustainability need to be complemented by better marketing. Over the past few years, a consortium of Breedekloof producers, both privately owned and producer cellars, have held a competition for chenin blanc, the most-planted variety in the area. The event appears to be well-organised and is beginning to attract some much-needed awareness of the area. The Du Toitskloof team not only see it as helping to generate more focus on quality but lifting the perception of the entire Breedekloof region as a brand. Their view is it could eventually lead to a collective Breedekloof brand, but it would need a collective mindset and collaboration.

The well-known Cape Agulhas lighthouse label on Lands End wines, now part of Du Toitskloof Winery stable.

It’s all a far cry from being nursed by the KWV. Some co-operatives have adapted better than others and even more adaptability is going to be required in future. What is going to be the situation in 2027; will there be even fewer wine growers, producer cellars and private ones too? Looking into their crystal ball, the team reckons sustainability will require more joint ventures establishing brands across price and quality points; even so, the market will largely dictate, as it does now but such brands would make it a far less confusing place. No change is envisaged for those sustainably established properties such as Kanonkop, Meerlust et al, which will continue to play an important role in supporting the positive image of Brand South Africa.

Du Toitskloof is already one of the leaders in establishing a collective brand different in several ways from their own. The Land’s End brand, with its well-known lighthouse label, was purchased in 2016. Fruit for both the sauvignon blanc and syrah will continue to be sourced from around the cool-climate, southern coastal area of Cape Agulhas and vinified at the Du Toitskloof cellar. (Rooiberg Winery is another, having purchased The Game Reserve conservancy range from Graham Beck Wines around the same time.)

Perhaps this is the future for many of the old co-ops, but come 2027, even if there are fewer wine growers, (as I suspect there will be), fewer producer and even private cellars due to closure or amalgamation, it will surely be the fittest, most market-savvy that survive, I expect to see Du Toitskloof among them.


Working together (part 1)

A while back, in one of his weekly articles for Decanter, Andrew Jefford wrote about a co-operative in the Languedoc. Remarking on the movement as a whole, he noted that it is not just ‘commercial entities with a social dimension, but collections of individual entrepreneurs who have agreed to pool resources and efface individuality for the common good.’

Although South Africa’s co-operatives were substantially structured along the lines of the French model, a major point of difference prior to the country’s re-admission to the international market in 1994 was they had a regulatory overlord. The KWV set minimum prices for both distilling and ‘good wine’ as well as implementing the quota system. Nothing incentivised quality, nor marketing and, if there was overproduction (aka a ‘surplus’), the KWV would mop it up, albeit at lower prices. Wine was sold via the KWV (both player and regulator!) to wholesalers, where it landed on retailers shelves under their own brands. A small quantity was bottled for their members’ consumption, some available from the cellar door, but selling on the open market was frowned on; that would offer competition to the hand that fed them.

The advent of democracy and opening up of international markets brought a rude awakening to the co-operatives; their KWV lifeline was cut, quality (including better-selling varieties) rather than quantity was demanded and there was competition to be faced, both locally and internationally.

Statistics tell how the co-operative scene changed. According to the KWV issued SA Wine Industry Statistics booklet dated 1996, there were 4634 wine producers (ie grape farmers), 71 co-operative cellars and 78 estate wineries, 105 private cellars and 93 889ha of wine grapes. By 2016, SAWIS (SA Wine Industry Information & Systems) statistics listed 3145 primary grape producers, 48 producer cellars (the old co-operatives), 493 private wine cellars and 27 producing wholesalers with 95 775 ha under wine grape varieties.

Figures cannot tell the whole story; it’s as much about the producer cellars’ ability to adapt to change in circumstances: some disappeared, some combined with others, some have carried on solo under their original name, though now as a company, the growers being co-owners or shareholders.

Interested to learn a little about how an ex-co-op has gone about change, I contacted the team at Du Toitskloof, a winery noted for its positive and dynamic approach to the changing conditions and market place. I’m grateful to Chairman, Johan de Wet, GM, Marius Louw and Bernard Kotze (not a man for titles, but best described as Brand Manager), who combined to answer my questions.


Spectacular view from Du Toitskloof Winery towards the Hex River mountains

One of Du Toitskloof’s major advantages is its location, the cellar complex being visible from the new N1 on the Worcester side of the Huguenot tunnel (apart from its own spectacular views); combine that with the name of the winery being the same as the brand gives consumers good reason to remember the name. The cellar is also recognised for consistency and value, further encouraging loyal fans. Visitors are greeted in a cheerfully decorated tasting area; a Melissa’s food shop is another attraction as are the summer picnics available. Rather than a workaday co-operative, the team believes winelovers’ impression is rather one of a large winery.

In fact, Du Toitskloof is of average size in terms of volume among local co-operatives; the annual production from the 22 members is around 15000 tons (or 12 million litres). Even then, the approach is on a smaller scale, similar to that of an estate. For example, site specific blocks are identified, appropriately managed and retained for the Select Vineyard range; regular awards have followed, a source of pride for everyone associated with the winery.

Pride was an issue raised in Jefford’s article; the director of the Languedoc co-operative was convinced of the value of co-operation but also noticed no one was proud of being in a co-operative; members didn’t want the word appearing on the labels.

In the old days, local co-ops had not much more to be proud of than big silver trophies on the Young Wine Shows, before the wine was swallowed up by wholesalers; now, pride and incentive for better quality comes from seeing their own brands on local and international wine shelves. Brand credibility also requires consistency; this is where working together pays dividends.

Sauvignon Blanc – one of the most popular wines in Du Toitskloof’s range.

For instance, a Du Toitskloof grower receives a premium for grapes considered good enough to be packaged rather than sold in bulk – around 60% of production is sold in bulk, mainly due to British and European wholesalers’ demand for quality Fairtrade wine. The goal is to sell more packaged wine, but the team admit markets dictate to a large extent on this issue.

From the cellar side, a high-tech make over has ensured the grapes receive optimum treatment to allow for quality wine. A high-tech cellar still requires a skillful and understanding cellarmaster; this Du Toitskloof have in Shawn Thomson, whose long tenure at the winery – he’s been there since 1999, taking over as Cellarmaster in 2011 – brings its own benefits. More recently, he’s had the opportunity to test his skills on grapes grown way beyond the winery’s Breedekloof borders; but that and some discussion of the future are for Part two.

Platter 2018

However rigorous and fairly set up a blind tasting may be, it is impossible to discount an element of luck (or lack of it) in the results.

Be that as it may, Bruwer Raats has put in a spectacular performance in Platter’s South African Wine Guide 2018, launched this evening at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town. His successes are thoroughly deserved: a quintet of five star wines and Winery of the Year under his own label; two in association with his cousin, Gavin Bruwer Slabbert under B Vintners Vine Exploration Co and last, but certainly not least, the iconic MR de Compostella, the result of a 13 year partnership with Mzo Mvemve. That’s an incredible eight five star wines Raats has a hand in. If there was a little luck, individual bottles of wine having their own say in matters, there’s definitely also a lot of understanding and skill from Raats. Bravo Bruwer and your partners too.

Platter 2018 – it’s red!

In any other year, Richard Kershaw MW (Richard Kershaw Wines) or Eben Sadie (whose Sadie Family Wines has already been a Winery of the Year), with four five star wines each, would have battled it out for top honours; they are also worthy awardees.

What the lack of a tie did avoid, yet again, was a decision from Platter editor, Philip van Zyl, about selection of Winery of the Year. I wrote last year; ‘But the format has always been the winery with the most number of five star wines, luckily there’s never been a tie … But the time has come to change this format.’ Despite several ideas put forward to both van Zyl and publisher, JP Rossouw, sadly lack of decision-making ruled and, although this year has provided a new and clear winner, rumbles of dissatisfaction continue from wineries with fewer wines in their range. Any producer who submits to Platter should have the chance of being awarded this honour. And to make it quite clear, I respect those, for whatever reason, who choose not to submit; it’s an entirely voluntary and free process, as sad as it is not to see a wider range of South Africa’s most exciting wines missing from Platter pages.

As for all those starry wines, chenin blanc again beat all-comers for most five stars; 17, a repeat of last year’s total. With that dominance – chardonnay was chenin’s closest white rival with nine – you could be forgiven for thinking the White Wine of the Year is most likely to emerge from those 17, but they were trounced by Chris Williams’ The Foundry Grenache Blanc 2015, one of a tiny handful of varietal grenaches, though adding character to and gaining popularity in white blends. Williams’ success not only gives grenache blanc a further boost but less mainstream varieties as well.

Less mainstream, but not niche; that descriptor I’d tag onto Craig Sheard’s Elemental Bob Grenache Blanc 2016, which includes some verdelho but, more importantly received skin contact, slotting it under the Alternative category. That five star award is another positive first for Platter.

A less positive move in my opinion, is to print scores out of 100 on the five star (95-100) and highly commended (94) seals. Firstly, it diminishes the five star rating (is it even relevant now?), always regarded as the ultimate rating in Platter, let alone the Wines of the Year, but it’s also confusing to have a score; most won’t understand how it’s arrived at and what about the lower star ratings. As a taster and someone who takes a lot of trouble in trying to convey the style and quality of each wine in (a very limited number of) words, I’m beginning to wonder whether actual notes are obsolete. I’ll watch reaction to this new move with interest but to my mind it’s ill thought-through, wasn’t conveyed to the tasters at any stage, and certainly doesn’t get my approval.

Less grumpily, I note there’s generally a good mix of varieties and styles across the five star board from MCC (I’m particularly happy to see three up there – it seems such a difficult style to find consensus) to Port styles. Sad not to see Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir there though; this breaks the wine’s record, consecutive eight year run of five stars since the maiden vintage.

My own input and that of two colleagues on the five star tasting was to determine which of 74 shirazes and 16 semillons deserved that valued rating: general positives in shiraz are less new oak and less extraction, allowing the wines a more natural, supple flow. On the downside, acid additions are often clumsy. Really pleasing is that the nine wines we selected come from both warm and cool climates, something they well express. We set an equally high bar for the semillons, a variety that tends to be unyielding in youth, a difficulty we did encounter; this didn’t stop us from giving enthusiastic nods to three (with a few more years on them, it could have been more) but all 16 showed distinctive style and great personality. It was a taxing yet fun two days.

One of the major lessons I learn from this annual tasting is generalising about a vintage is dangerous; most agree 2015 is excellent, producing ageworthy wines but there will always be exceptions. This edition’s Red Wine of the Year, Nederburg’s II Centuries Cabernet is a 2014 – there are others too from this talked-down red wine year – is a timely reminder that it often pays to follow individual producers rather than a vintage per se.

There are vintages, styles and producers a-plenty to choose from in this, the most numerous to date of five stars in Platter; 111 from just under 1000 in the blind tasting and around 7000 tasted sighted for the guide in total.

Congratulations to all.


Raats Family Wines


Nederburg II Centuries Cabernet Sauvignon 2014


The Foundry Grenache Blanc 2015


Klein Constania Vin de Constance 2013


Beaumont Family Wines Starboard Dessert Wine NV




 ALHEIT VINEYADS La Colline 2016

ALVIS DRIFT PRIVATE CELLAR Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc 2015


Harlem to Hope 2016

Liberte Pinotage 2016

BARTINNEY PRIVATE CELLAR Cabernet Sauvignon 2014


Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2016

Starboard NV

BELLINGHAM The Bernard Series Small Barrel SMV 2014


BOTANICA WINES Mary Delaney Collection Chenin Blanc 2016

BOUCHARD FINLAYSON Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2015



CAPE WINE COMPANY Erasmus Family 2015



Ghost Corner Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Shiraz 2015


CONSTANTIA GLEN Sauvignon Blanc 2017


CREATION WINES The Art of Pinot Noir 2016

DASCHBOSCH Hanepoot 2015


Skaliekop Chenin Blanc 2016

Höe-Steen Chenin Blanc 2016

DE TRAFFORD  Blueprint Syrah 2015


Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2015

White Reserve 2015

Cape Vintage 2015

DEMORGENZON Chardonnay Reserve 2016

DONKIESBAAI Hooiwijn 2016

EAGLES’ NEST Shiraz 2014

EDGEBASTON David Finlayson ‘GS’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

EIKENDAL Charisma 2015

ELEMENTAL BOB Grenache Blanc 2016

FLAGSTONE WINERY Writer’s Block Pinotage 2015


Grand Constance 2015

Gouveneurs Reserve White 2015

HARTENBERG ESTATE Gravel Hill Shiraz 2013


HIGHLANDS ROAD ESTATE Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2015

JC WICKENS WINES Swerver Red 2016


Insepector Péringuey Chenin Blanc 2016

Chardonnay Barrel-fermented 2016

JULIEN SCHAAL Confluence Chardonnay 2016

KAAPZICHT ESTATE The 1947 Chenin Blanc 2016



KLEINE ZALZE WINES Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard Selection 2015

LANZERAC WINE ESTATE Pioner Pinotage 2015

LE SUEUR WINES Paradoks 2016

LINGEN Lingen 2014



MORESON Cabernet Franc 2015

MOUNT ABORA Koggelbos 2015


Essence Straw Wine 2012

Straw Wine 2016

MURATIE WINE ESTATE Ansela van die Caab 2013

MVEMVE RAATS MR de Compostella 2015


Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 II Centuries

Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot Private Bin 109 2014

NEIL ELLIS WINES Bottelary Hills Pinotage 2015



Fountain of Youth Sauvignon Blanc 2017

Pinot Noir 2016


ORANGE RIVER CELLARS White Muscadel 2016

PASERENE Chardonnay 2015

PAUL CLUVER ESTATE WINES Close Encounter Riesling 2016


Courageous Barrel-Fermented Chenin Blanc 2016

Longevity Natural Sweet Chenin Blanc 2015

PONGRACZ Desiderius 2009


Original Chenin Blanc 2016

Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2016

Eden High Density Chenin Blanc 2015

Cabernet Franc 2015

Eden High Density Cabernet Franc 2015


REVERIE Chenin Blanc 2016


Elgin Chardonnay 2016

Lake District Bokkeveld Shales CY95 Chardonnay 2016

Elgin Pinot Noir 2016

Elgin Syrah 2015

RIDGEBACK Signature C 2015


1694 Classification 2014

Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

RUSTENBERG WINES Peter Barlow 2012


Palladius 2016

Skurfberg 2016

‘T Voetpad 2016

Pofadder 2016



Semillon 2016

Mount Bullet Merlot 2014

SPIER CWG Auction Reserve Frans K Smith 2013

STARK CONDE WINES Three Pines Cabernet Sauvignon 2015


STELLENRUST 52 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2016

THE FOUNDRY Grenache Blanc 2015


Ou Hoofgebou Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Vanderstel 2015

THE WINERY OF GOOD HOPE Radford Dale Black Rock 2015

THISTLE AND WEED Duwweltjie 2016

TOKARA Noble Late Harvest 2016


UVA MIRA MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS The Mira Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

VAN LOVEREN FAMILY VINEYARDS Christina van Loveren Sauvignon Blanc 2017

WARWICK ESTATE The White Lady Chardonnay 2016




The gentle kiss of semillon

Sit me down with someone who is enthusiastic about semillon and I’m happy. Sit me down with someone who’s even more enthusiastic about Hunter Valley semillon and I’m even happier. I think Bizoe Wines’ Rikus Neethling was surprised to find a fellow Hunter enthusiast here but when we got together over lunch, it allowed him to elaborate on his latest project, knowing his audience (me) understood what he was talking about and is familiar with the wines.

Rikus Neethling with his range of Bizoe wines

Before we got around to that discussion, Neethling poured his Henriëtta (named for his mother; the whole family is recognised in the range), a semillon-sauvignon blend, unlike most which see sauvignon the dominant variety.

As the style should, the older the wine, the more the semillon with its silky, textured feel, shines, sauvignon driving freshness in the background. It does have the ring of the more beeswaxy, earthy tones of old Franschhoek fruit, source of both varieties; the semillon from 21 year old vines on DP Burger’s property, Glenwood.

Henriëtta 2016 remains friskily fresh with just a wave of silky semillon peeping through at the end. Rather than oak, Neethling vinified half of the semillon in Flextank, an egg-shaped tank made of polyethelyne which allows for 20 mg per year of oxygen ingress; in other words, the effect of oak without any oak. The grape’s waxy breadth is more developed in the savoury 2015, probably encouraged by being oak fermented, though good vitality should allow for much more complexity of flavour and texture with age. It’s certainly the most harmonious of the trio, 2010 recognisably of a style, with supple breadth but short on the necessary freshness. Probably best to drink up soon. That said, the three vintages illustrated with interest the sort of progression and development one would anticipate.

We’ll have to wait and see how things or rather the wine evolves under Neethling’s new project, which is to produce a semillon ‘like those in the Hunter Valley’. What Neethling means is an early-picked, so lowish-alcohol (+-10%), unoaked white that turns from a youngster braced by fine, natural acid and a splash of citrus (a little like a youthful riesling, by which name the variety used to be known in the Hunter) into an altogether more amazing toasty character as it ages, fooling many into thinking it had a spell in wood.

Neethling was inspired by a recent visit to the region, where he had the opportunity to taste older vintages from Tyrrells, one of the leading semillon producers in the area. The current 2012 release of Tyrrells flagship Vat 1, one of the Hunter’s most admired semillons, sells for Aus$85 (just over R900!); amazingly, it is one of 11 semillons, either varietal or blended in the range.

Opened April 2017, this 32-year old Tyrrells semillon was still going strong.

Hunter Valley semillon is one of those strange wines, hugely popular with media (myself included) and a small number of consumers, but not understood by the wineloving public as a whole.

So, it’s going to be interesting to see how Neethling’s new wine, with fruit sourced from Darling bush vines as well as Glenwood, is received. If his attempt to create a South African version of Hunter Valley semillon raised one eyebrow, the other shot up when Neethling told me of his aim to release just 20% of each vintage each year, so the last tranche of 2018 will be five years old when it’s eventually released in 2023.

We are living in the age of innovation and bravado among South African winemakers and more open-minded wine drinkers. Rikus Neethling and his Bizoe wines (a new, still-tight chardonnay, Flextank, naturally-fermented, old oak-matured; an almost-too-easy Breedekloof shiraz and a Noble Late from, surprise, semillon complete the range) aren’t as high-profile as many other producers, this new project could make them more of a household name.

I, for one, shall follow the new project with interest and really hope it produces yet another talking point South African wine.

Celebrating 20 years of Stellenbosch cabernet

There must be many winemakers whose personalities are reflected in those of their wines; one who immediately springs to mind for me is Etienne le Riche. In the many years I’ve known Etienne, I’ve always seen him as having a quiet yet firm personality. This is also reflected in his wines, the cabernets especially, first at Rustenberg and, since 1997 under his own label.

Etienne & Christo le Riche

Throughout his winemaking career, Le Riche has stood by his three-pillar vision of quality, elegance and consistency; elegance, he explains is a wine with velvety softness and succulence more than extraction and high alcohols; consistency maintains quality while staying with modern trends, rather than producing wines of a sameness every year. The question of who decides on quality – the consumer, media or winemaker – was a pillar le Riche left hanging, but surely consistency itself is an important element.

Consistency of style was an issue his son, Christo le Riche picked up on at the family’s recent 20 year celebration. He took over the winemaking reins in 2010 and shares a similar philosophy as his father. It’s a year Le Riche jnr. describes as a tipping point, when the search started for their own piece of land. The following year, they purchased Raithby, a property on the lower slopes of the Helderberg but without any cabernet; fruit continues to be sourced from growers in Jonkershoek and Firgrove, with Simonsberg now added to the mix.

If Raithby doesn’t have cabernet vineyards, it does now have a cellar; a cellar specifically designed not to change the Le Riche style. ‘The open top fermenters have precisely the same dimensions as in our previous winery,’ Le Riche jnr. specified, ‘We also use our old 1940 press; it doesn’t break!’ The one change is more space, with sufficient concrete tanks to keep each batch separate.

Etienne & Yvonne testing the wines before the tasting.

The first crop processed through the new winery was in 2014, the vintage of the first red poured. Actually, we were welcomed with a glass of Le Riche Chardonnay 2016, a wine made every second vintage since 2006, but popularity has seen it a regular member of the range since 2014. It too keeps house-style restraint with just enough freshness, citrus, creaminess and oak (a portion only); a satisfying partner ‘to go with fish braais’, daughter, Yvonne explains why it was first made.

Richesse 2014, is cabernet-based with other Bordeaux varieties and 12% cinsaut, all older-oak matured. Cinsaut is famously associated with Le Riche senior and his Rustenberg Dry Reds; it is now also a favourite of his children, Yvonne researching the variety for her Cape Wine Master dissertation. It brings an appropriate touch of lightness to this juicy, fresh yet well-structured blend, providing harmonious pleasure now.

Like all the Le Riche wines, there is no impression of sweetness in the tail, let alone residual sugar; ‘A no, no,’ insists Le Riche senior, one of the reasons the reds often enjoy the elegance they do. High alcohol levels they do battle with, which was ‘more acceptable during Robert Parker’s heyday’, acknowledges Le Riche snr., but since the trend has swung back to more moderate levels, and partly through improved viticulture (though the bulk of the cabernet comes from the same vineyards as it did in 1997), there is an ongoing effort to rein back.

Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve; on right, 2014 with refurbished label .

While trying to keep alcohol levels under control, there’s a gentle approach in the cellar, which paid dividends particularly in a difficult year like 2014. What enjoyment there’s to be found in both the regular cabernet and the Reserve from that year. A natural freshness highlighting the fruit and rounded firmness in the former; engaging plush cabernet aromas with fruit-laden tannins in the latter. Stellenbosch does come under fire for its cabernets but certainly shouldn’t for these.

The regular cabernet 2005 provided another positive surprise. A hot, dry year that, when I held a tasting of some ten-year-old wines, didn’t generally inspire; we had anticipated much better. Now, 12 years on, Le Riche Cabernet still has freshness to lift its rich fruit.

Making up the mini-vertical were 2009 cabernet, webbed in tannin, so needing time; Reserves from 1999 (a Platter 5* as the standard, which le Riche then up-graded, not wanting the Reserve to appear the lesser wine, if you understand; a move disapproved of by many), with interesting maturity but ready and 2007 as well as the CWG Auction Reserve 2011. The last two, CWG in particular (due to a now unusual showing of new oak and lack of harmony, but also from a less than memorable red wine vintage) the only disappointments. I’m happy to say the 2014 CWG Auction Reserve is on a par with the 2014s tasted.

I think Le Riche father and son well summed up this family partnership at the end of the tasting. In relation to blending, but applicable to their whole winemaking approach, Etienne offered; ‘We have discussions, not arguments’, while Christo noted sagely; ‘A lot has changed over the past 20 years, but nothing is new.’ I guess the Le Riche family will be saying the same in 2037!

A new lease of life

When virtually all wine purchased is opened and consumed within 24 hours, the concept of maturing bottles for years, let alone having them re-corked after decades, must seem a weird idea. But there are some of us with private cellars who do indeed keep wines for years; there are also wineries, though not enough, who keep a library of their wines. These may be used in tastings, on auction or even to sell to private customers.

In all cases, wine needs proper storage to ensure a healthy maturity. One requirement is sufficient humidity, around 70%-plus, to keep the cork’s elasticity and provide a near perfect seal.

Having written that, corks have changed a lot over the years. At the old wine tasting held prior to the Trophy Wine Show, there are always bottles where the cork is no more than a crumbly mess, but the wine itself often in fine shape, even though it perhaps wasn’t intended to reach such an age intact! Both white and red wines often exceed the respective minimum of 15 and 25 years of age set for this exercise.

Venerable red wines opened at the Old Wine tasting. It is wines like these that are part of Amorim’s re-corking project.

Today, wine producers who use natural cork and cork producers themselves are far more conscious of using the right cork for the purpose. Even so, natural cork doesn’t last for ever. ‘It will lose some of its natural elastic memory over the decades,’ confirms Joaquim Sá, MD of Amorim Cork South Africa; ‘it won’t give as tight a seal and could lead to the wine’s slow evaporation.’

This was an introduction to a conversation I had with Sá about a re-corking project Amorim have begun recently in South Africa. Presently, this service is not generally available but contained to assisting a few wineries, including the famous Tabernacle at Distell, restore their wine libraries. It is a service that requires skill and time.

Internationally, re-corking is nothing new: Penfolds is well-known for travelling the world with its re-corking clinic. Both Port and Bordeaux producers re-cork after around 20 or 30 years, although Sá admits it’s on the decline because of the risk of counterfeiting.

Corks – new & old, removed from bottles of Klein Constantia stored on the farm.

The project grew legs – or new corks – as do many things these days, via social media, after Sá posted a photograph on Facebook of re-corking at Port producer, Grahams. His visit there to study the process, of which he knew little, was inspired by Danie de Wet, who asked Sá to re-cork an 19th century bottle of Constantia (Vin de Constance today’s version).
After his Facebook post, messages showing interest soon arrived from winemaker/sommelier/general man-of-wine, Jean-Vincent Ridon and Dalene Steyn, Business Manager of Nederburg Auction and involved with the Tabernacle, where the old wines of former Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery are stored (and famous, I believe, for great tastings!).

Ridon was a natural to be involved, having extensive experience in re-corking and re-conditioning wines in France and South Africa. Re-conditioning?

Sá says all the wines opened and tasted at the Tabernacle have been in good condition, if with a slight drop in ullage after 50-or-so years in the bottle. One of the opened bottles of a particular wine is selected to top up others of the same wine; these are then given a light dose of sulphur and closed with new ‘NDTECH, TCA free guaranteed corks,’ Sá notes. Since many of the old bottles have necks unable to accommodate the long corks we’re used to today, these are shorter.

Removing the old cork (sometimes in an unstable condition), cleaning bottle necks to remove particles accumulated over decades, topping, sulphuring and re-corking can take up to 20 minutes per bottle. Care also has to be taken not to expose the wine to oxygen. Skill is indeed a prime necessity!

Jean Vincent Ridon recorking Oude Libertas Cinsaut 1971 Photo courtesy of Amorim & Danie Nel Photography

Throughout the re-corking process, the winemaker has to be present and, after tasting the wine, give a final decision on whether it is worth a new cork. I guess the same would be true of the owner of the wine, if this project were ever to be made available to the general public.

Counterfeiting became a focus with Rudy Kurniawan, the wine connoisseur and collector, who consigned to auction top-name Burgundies and Bordeaux which turned out to be fake. It remains a sensitive issue worldwide.

Amorim is ensuring there can be no doubts about authenticity of the wines which are part of their re-corking project. ‘Each cork will be printed with a unique code validating the re-corking, including place and date,’ advises Sá, adding; ‘this information will be visible as a short capsule will be placed over the top of the bottle.’ A hologram sticker with a unique alpha-numeric code for tracking purposes will also be attached to each bottle. Once Amorim’s tracking system is set up on their website, entering this code will authenticate the re-corking process.

Of course, there’s a cost involved; one that will be variable, depending on the condition of the wine, but will include the new cork, capsule, sticker and labour.

This service would seem a must for any winery or restaurant with a vinoteque storing older wines, as strange as such idea might seem to the individual whose yesterday’s wine purchase now sits empty on the kitchen counter.

Meantime, I’m going to have a look through my old wines …..

Wine stories

To be seen as more than an alcoholic beverage, even the world’s most acknowledged wines (let alone the more commercial offerings) need the right packaging, personalities, price and stories behind them to bring them to life and entice winelovers to buy.

Individual varieties have their own selling points; for instance, sauvignon blanc has to be of the vintage to capture winelovers’ interest; there is still the belief that anything bearing last year’s digits, or older, can’t be any good. Right now, there must even be anticipation for 2018! But it was with a 2017 Sauvignon Blanc from Welmoed’s Heritage Selection that Tim James and I began a small lineup of newish releases.

Welmoed has long been regarded as the good value range of Stellenbosch Vineyards; the sauvignon (R48) and Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (R50) both ex-cellar seem to uphold that view. If we didn’t much care for the labels (the packaging is described as new), the wines are tasty and uncomplicated. Lively, tropical flavours with a hint of sweetness (and residue of fermentation) but refreshingly medium bodied, could describe many sauvignons, as it does Welmoed. But the price is probably sufficiently attractive to secure a sale. I guess a R50 cab from Stellenbosch is also sufficiently tempting to dig into the back pocket. If it doesn’t have layers of flavours (at that price?), the clean, fresh cassis, blackberry fruit paints a clear varietal picture as do the firm yet unobtrusive tannins; 13% alcohol and a rounded, dry finish add to its overall easy readiness.

Moving up the scale, there’s South African history behind La Motte’s Pierneef collection and a tribute to this South African artist’s work at the cellar until the end of the year; but one is introduced to Jacob Hendrik Pierneef via one of his works on the label of La Motte Pierneef Syrah-Viognier 2015. As with the artist, the wine has an enviable record of high quality – as indeed does the whole range crafted by Cellarmaster, Edmund Terblanche; a range best described as characterful yet unshowy in a classic style.

In the syrah-viognier blend, only the viognier is from Franschhoek; cooler areas, Walker Bay and Elim supply syrah and a natural freshness. Often viognier’s aromatics stand out in a ungainly manner when blended into syrah; not in this wine, where its 6% component is seamlessly incorporated. Terblanche is careful to harvest and co-ferment some viognier grapes with each picking of syrah; no doubt one reason for the complementary partnership.

This is worthy of the great vintage it comes from and R250 cellar door price; but a word of warning. So much is expected from 2015, yet I’ve found many wines don’t immediately set off the anticipated fireworks; they really do need time to unfold. It was on day four only that this wine showed its top paces – aromatics and flavours of fynbos, lilies and heady spice layered within a supple yet structured feel and elegant 13.5% alcohol. Patience with this excellent and delicious wine, will be well rewarded!

If the thought of keeping a wine for seven or eight years holds little attraction, then Jeremy Walker’s Grangehurst 350 Pinotage 2009 provides more calmness of age. In fact, Grangehurst is the go-to winery for a classic-style range released later than most.

It so happens in 2009, the pinotage grapes ripened that bit earlier than usual, being harvested on 2nd and 3rd February. Aware that 2nd February 2009 commemorated 350 years since Jan van Riebeek recorded wine first being made in the Cape, Walker and the Grangehurst team decided to keep separate the grapes harvested on that day for a special celebration bottling. It was a happy coincidence that South Africa’s homebred variety should be the one involved, although Walker does remark; ‘As per the Grangehurst tradition, a small quantity of Cabernet Sauvignon was blended with the Pinotage …’

It’s a style of pinotage most familiar with the grape will recognise immediately: sweet fruit, now plus some meaty evolution, and a net of fine tannin behind a pleasing silkiness. Nothing overdone, as is Grangehurst house style, but it does have an edginess that Tim describes as rustic. For this reason, it’s better partnered with a casserole type dish, one with a bit of spice. For a nearly-nine year old wine with an unusual story behind it, R380 ex cellar is reasonable.

Grangehurst wines are less known than they deserve to be, especially because they are released once the clamour of youth has given way to something calmer and more interesting; yet another selling point that lifts them out of being mere alcoholic beverages.

New blood

Roger Federer, recently turned 36, appears to be the eternal Peter Pan; Rafael Nadal, now 31, isn’t too far behind him. Neither has managed to remain injury free, but by rights neither should be playing tennis at the level they are after all these years. If their bodies have held together (just), their fans remain as enthusiastic as ever. As exciting as are the ‘Next-gen’, including Dominic Thiem (23) and Alexander Zverev (20), the decibel level has yet to reach the same intensity as it does for the older duo when they walk on court.

What has this got to do with wine? The power of reinventing yourself after years of being in the public eye, acknowledged as something special.

If any event has been in the public eye for years, 43 to be precise this year, it’s the Nederburg Auction. After getting stuck in the doldrums, it has had to re-invent itself several times: from one auctioneer to two; from a local panel of selectors to one including a palate of MWs, local and international; from a two-day event to one in 2017 (deliberate, or fewer entries?); from Auction of the finest Cape Wines (1976 catalogue) to Pursuit of Perfection (2017 catalogue). First auctioneer, Patrick Grubb MW, set up a bursary initiative to help those from disadvantaged communities in the wine industry; current auctioneers, Anthony Barne MW and David Elswood are involved with a bursary initiative to help promising viticulturists. These and many other changes have been effected by the auction team to maintain the event’s quality and prestige.

One move that pleased me particularly was to hold a walk around pre-auction tasting rather than a more formal, conducted tasting. Coming, as it does, during Platter season, my walk-around is far from comprehensive. Two things struck me this year: how few whites compared with reds are on offer and the recent vintage of some wines – even as young as 2015. Business Manager, Dalene Steyn, assured me that, once selected for the auction, producers commit to not selling any more of the wine on the open market; that’s one thing, but I’d be very surprised if some of these youngsters aren’t still on retailers’ shelves.

Since we’re told in the catalogue that the auction: ‘Has a special focus on promoting older South African wines,’ I find these younger wines detract from its specialness. Our white wines are now proving their ageability; why not make it a minimum of five years for white wines to be on the auction? Those meeting that criteria which impressed me were De Morgenzon Chenin 2005 from magnum, Zonnebloem Chenin Blanc 2011, as well as two blends: Nederburg Ingenuity 2008 and Vondeling Babiana 2011. As a vintage, 2011 whites are generally maturing particularly well.
Lanzerac Cabernet 1970 and Chateau Libertas 1967 satiated my satisfaction for old South African reds; both in fine shape and likely to command the sort of price our wines should be attracting, the younger ones too.

For me, the core issue does not lie with the auction wines nor primarily, top-end Nederburg wines themselves – after all, they have earned the farm Platter Winery of the Year twice – but who and what is Nederburg? Who is the face of Nederburg? Yes, the brand has a good name, but is it viewed as an exciting brand, always causing a buzz among winelovers? I’d suggest not, and that, for me, has a rub off on the auction. Think back to Gunter Brozel’s days; Nederburg’s image then was more positive and focused.

From Nederburg a quick segue to pinotage. The wine itself has come a long, long way from the days of, was it ‘rusty nails’ some MW dubbed it? There are diverse styles from Koen Roose’s elegant, pinot-like Spioenkop 1900 to the classic Kanonkop to Daniel de Waal’s richer, but finely-honed Thomas se Dolland: each has its place and will mature as well as some of the golden oldies international visitors still gasp in wonder about. Yet there remains an image problem, one I’d suggest comes back to the power of re-inventing itself via the personalities behind it. Of course, there are some great enthusiasts on the Pinotage Association and, on a one to one level, I’m sure do a great job. But it needs new blood, new ideas. Compare with for just one sense of why this is necessary.

Meantime, Federer is out of the US Open (sob!); Nadal is still in but whatever happens in this or future tournaments, both will remain huge favourites with the crowds.

The difficulties of less

The main difficulty, of course, is the distinct lack of posts on this site over the past few weeks. With the daily load of Platter tastings and write ups now finished (next week’s two-and-a-half day marathon five star tasting is another matter) I can now attempt a bit of a catch up.

The original topic of the title centres on the growing trends for both less (and sometimes, no) oak and lower alcohols, something I’ve noticed often enough to be a trend over the past month or so.

Larger oak barrels are returning to cellars alongside smaller formats, which made an appearance only in the late 1970s.

Thank goodness, new oak is on the decline, not because in itself it’s bad, but rather through inappropriate use; either the wine unable to handle it, or the oak and its toasting clashing with the wine. I suspect much of the decline has to do with cost but also producers are paying more attention to expressing site. If older, less-flavour intrusive oak is more common, so are barrels of varying sizes: 300 litre, 500 and even oval 1000 litre foudres; all are finding space alongside or instead of the previously ubiquitous 225 litre barrique.



Cement eggs in Eben Sadie’s cellar

The cement egg is becoming another familiar sight in cellars across the country. It seems to work especially well with white wines, giving them extra texture, while skin contact adds structure without the necessity of oak.

This is all adding to a diversity in South African wines, whites especially, which are receiving growing and continued international praise.

Picking earlier is an obvious way of achieving lower alcohol and greater natural freshness, but viticulture has to be carefully tuned as does vinification so the wine has substance and flavour. Whole bunch fermentation and lees-aging are among methods increasingly being used. There are already interesting, worthwhile results; no doubt more will follow.

For winelovers, this change in style needs some getting used to. Accustomed to an overwhelming, initial impact from the flavour of new oak and high alcohol, it would be easy to find these new, more subtle, elegant wines, generally lacking let alone what they were used to. A bit of reflection will show it’s the length of the wine’s memory rather than the initial impression that matters.

My recent tastings also made it clear that it’s difficult to generalise about quality in 2016; it was a hot, drought year, the less good wines – more whites at this stage – lack concentration and freshness. Sometimes, site plays an even more important role than producer. For instance, in Eben Sadie’s 2016 Ouwingerds range, Mrs Kirsten (chenin from Stellenbosch ) is one of the most expressive and structured, whereas Kokkerboom (semillon from Olifantsrivier) doesn’t quite reach its usual seamless self. These are differences, rather than basic quality issues. Pofadder (cinsaut) from the Kasteelberg is unusually and incredibly tight and tannic whereas Soldaat (grenache) from Piekernierskloof, is more aromatically restrained and fleshier than usual. But it’s these vintage differences that make wine interesting and always worthy of drinking when you’re in the thoughtful hands of Eben Sadie.

If anything is difficult for 2016, it’s coming after 2015, though Chris and Andrea Mullineux’s 2016 Granite and Quartz chenins are both expressive of soil and vintage, even though Quartz is off one vineyard, Granite two. Is it just me, or are there others who find single vineyard wines (which may cover up to 6ha and different soils) can be disappointing in their lack of distinction, whereas the Mullineux’s soil range are expressive and individual; none more so than the 2015 syrahs: Granite is grand, sophisticated with dark-fruited aromatic breadth, firm backbone, vibrant yet gentle tannins and beguiling silkiness; there’s a richness but no heaviness on the Schist, a crushed velvet texture and endless savoury, smoked meat flavours. Iron is again quite different, having a riper, more red fruit, blood profile but also having the freshest, grippiest feel of the trio.

I have no doubt each can and will mature with interest and complexity, if one has a sufficiently deep pocket to buy even a bottle of each (+-R985 ex-Wine Cellar).

On that, pricy note about what are surely among the cream of the 2015 red wine crop, await further thoughts, this time I hope without the difficulty of further lengthy delays.

An extraordinary 610 g/l sugar, 14 g/l acid, just 5% alcohol & 5 years’ fermentation!

Reaping rewards

Earlier this year I wrote about the importance of the time a winemaker has worked in the same cellar, especially at wineries that aren’t family owned.

Miles Mossop, winemaker at Tokara, in familiar pose with awards as top producer at Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show 2017

I thought again about this topic when the news broke first that Miles Mossop would be leaving Tokara, where he’s taken the wines from strength to strength since the maiden vintage; he started there in January 2000. Worthy of note too is that his fellow winemaker, Dumisani Mathonsi has added to the cellar’s collective service, joining Mossop in January 2004; that will be 32 years between them when Mossop leaves after next year’s harvest. Add a further 17.5 years for viticulturist, Aiden Morton, who came on board in November 2000, and any thoughts of coincidence that the wines have shown such consistency and performed so well can safely be put to one side.

Stuart Botha, currently winemaker at Eagles’ Nest, soon to move to Tokara

But what of Mossop’s successor, Stuart Botha, who himself has been at Eagles’ Nest since 2007? Botha joined Steve Roche, who was also viticulturist, in the cellar, both guided by the sensitive hand of Martin Meinert, who still consults. It’s good to note too that Kobus Jordaan, as familiar with the Constantia valley as any, will chalk up his 10th anniversary as viticulturist in 2018. Again, longevity of service reaps its own awards and sales!

Anyone lucky enough to have driven around Eagles’ Nest with Botha will be aware of the very different altitudes, aspects and other physical attributes of the vineyards are; they will also have benefited  from his deep understanding of each block, a knowledge that comes only with many vintages. It’s always a relief the drive is accompanied by his informative detail; the steep, rocky tracks are not for those who suffer vertigo, as spectacular as the views are!

My most recent visit there, a couple of months’ ago, was with Dreyfus-Ashby’s Richard Kelley MW (an untiring promoter of South African wine, who, of course worked here for several years) and Jo Locke MW of The Wine Society where South Africa is part of her portfolio. After the farm tour, we tasted through the range, one or two vintages of each wine and three of the shiraz, including the then just-released 2014; a tricky year. Botha recalled his difficult decision to pick considerably earlier than he would have liked due to imminent rain but he felt waiting until after the rain would have been leaving it too late. His decision, and those made in the cellar, have been vindicated with a wine that’s already made the Shiraz Association Top 12, a regular in that event. Whereas the 2012 reflects this big vintage, full of richness and concentration, 2014 enjoys more gentle succulence in its spice and fynbos flavours. Freshness and tannins are perfect in both. That afternoon, 2013 was still a bit closed.

I have followed Eagles Nest since their first 2005 vintage, as their Platter taster in the early years; to much laughter, we recall my ‘promising’ 3.5* for the first shiraz, followed by 5* for 2006 and they haven’t looked back since.

My immediate reaction to the news that Botha was leaving Eagles’ Nest was one of surprise, on reflection and with Botha confirming he couldn’t think of another winery he’d want to go to than Tokara, I saw it as another wonderful opportunity for him.

If Mossop’s shoes will be big ones to fill at Tokara (the latest achievement: top producer on 2017 Trophy Wine Show), so will Botha’s at Eagles’ Nest (as I write, they have yet to be filled).

Pieter ‘Bubbles’ Ferreira, cellarmaster at Graham Beck for 27 years, tasting (what else!) sparkling wines.

These moves did get me thinking about how many winemakers, not family-members on family-owned wineries (nor the former co-operatives), have been at the same winery for ten years or more. A thought I aired on social media with some surprising results. Surely the king is Pieter Ferreira, 27 years at Graham Beck but the others that came to light (not in any particular order of anything!): Matthew Copeland/Vondeling, Rianie Strydom/Haskell, Louis Strydom/Ernie Els, Corlea Fourie/Bosman, Rudi Schultz/Thelema, Carl Schultz/Hartenberg, Gunter Schultz/Tamboerskloof, Chris Williams/Meerlust, Andre van Rensburg/Vergelegen, DP Burger/Glenwood, Susan Erasmus/Vrede en Lust, Pierre Wahl/Rijks, Frans Smit and Anton Swarts/Spier, Yvonne Lester and Schalk-Willem Joubert/Rupert & Rothschild, Edmund Terblanche/La Motte, Dewaldt Heyns/Saronsberg, Sean Skibbe/South Hill, Abrie Beeslaar/Kanonkop, Herman Kirschbaum & Brad Paton/Buitenverwachting, Boela Gerber/Groot Constantia, JC Bekker & Lizelle Gerber/Boschendal, Sjaak Nelson/Jordan, Martin Moore/Durbanville Hills, Charles Hopkins/De Grendel, Neil Groenewald/Bellingham, Debbie Thompson/Simonsig, Nico van der Merwe/Saxenburg, Francois van Zyl/Laibach, Wynand Grobler/Rickety Bridge.

That’s 36 and there may well be more. I haven’t checked on viticulturists but it would be interesting to know how many on these and other farms, have ten and more years of service.

Add the family-owned wineries not included here and surely we have even a small clue as to why South African wines are doing so well and being spoken of with much more respect recently. Long may it continue!