Stellenbosch cabernet

Stellenbosch cabernet – what could be more synonymous! There’s a lot of it too; 2508.98ha to be precise*, the majority, 1515.43ha planted across this mountains-and-valleys region under the general Stellenbosch WO, the balance across the eight Wards, where greater singularity of expression is considered possible.

Given the association of cabernet with Stellenbosch and the amount grown there, it’s important Stellenbosch cabernet doesn’t become a generic brand. This is where the Wards need to take a lead by focusing on cabernets reflective of where they are grown.

The approximate order of the Wards’ arc from west to east, starting close to the sea, working inland and back towards the sea, is: Polkadraai Hills, Vlottenburg, Devon Valley, Bottelary, Papegaaiberg, Simonsberg, Banghoek and Jonkershoek Valley. The Helderberg would satisfyingly complete the picture, but there’s too much in-fighting and politics over boundaries. Don’t hold your breath for that one being demarcated any time soon! (Seems I’ve been too pessimistic about this happening. I understand a Helderberg-Stellenbosch Ward was applied for last year but, as yet, hasn’t been finally approved. The application and boundary map maybe viewed

Polkadraai Hills is closest to the ocean, having unfettered views of False Bay and benefitting from the cool breezes blowing off it in summer. Anticipate cabernets of freshness and vibrancy. The lower slopes of the Simonsberg are further inland and warmer. These cabernets are usually richer, muscular and firmly structured.

Thanks to Saxenburg Wine Farm and Delheim Wines, who had sent me their Private Collection Cabernet Sauvignon and Grand Reserve respectively, both from the excellent 2017 vintage, I was able to put my thoughts on characteristics of the Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch to the test. Both were made by previous winemakers: Edwin Grace at Saxenburg where Dirk van Zyl is currently cellarmaster and Reg Holder at Delheim, where Roelof Lotriet is now cellarmaster.

I’ve listed the viticulture and vinification details for each wine at the end.

As usual, I enjoyed these two over two or three days, an approach which allows the wines to open up and gives an idea of future potential.

Freshness and vibrancy are indeed attractions in the Saxenburg, oaking unobtrusive, so the sweet fruit of the just-ripe red berry type takes centre stage, becoming softer and silkier on Days 2 and 3; it did fall short on the concentration and depth I hoped for and for this reason, I feel it will be best enjoyed by around 2024/25. That said, it’s still a very pleasant cabernet.

Grand Reserve does live up to what that name implies and to my idea of cabernet from the Simonsberg. Dark-fruited and impeccably tailored with tight-knit tannins, both acidity and oaking are background enhancements. The anticipated muscular richness grew over the time I enjoyed it but there was always the suggestion of more to come. Such poise and balance will see lovely maturity in a future which I’d guess could be 2025-2030.

By coincidence, at Kaapzicht’s recent presentation of their new Family Range, Danie Steytler told us about The Stellenbosch Cabernet Project 2021. The purpose of this is to try and discern the individual characteristics of cabernet in Stellenbosch’s different sub-regions.

The format involves six producers each from a different region (not all official Wards)  in Stellenbosch selecting a block of cabernet on their farm and giving each of the other five producers 500 kgs of grapes from that block; all relevant technical details of each block is recorded. The six winemakers then make each of these six wines in the same way and age them in similar oak barrels before filling 30 bottles of each wine, which will permit a six-monthly evaluation.  

I understand from Danie the first evaluation is due sometime in November. As each sub-region is repeated six times, Danie and his colleagues believe this is a meaningful experiment which should help reveal more about the specific characteristics of each region. It should be fascinating to follow the results of each evaluation.

I believe this is a valuable and important exercise which will take us beyond ‘Stellenbosch is cabernet’ to, hopefully, giving some answers to ‘but what is Stellenbosch cabernet?’

*(SAWIS figures for 2020)

Saxenburg Private Collection Cabernet Sauvignon

Single, trellised vineyard planted in 2000

Soil: decomposed granite with some koffieklip.

Slope: west-facing, 150 metres above sea level.

Extended maceration; ageing in oak, 40% new, for 12 months.

Analysis 14.23% alcohol, TA 6.2 g/l, pH 3.73, RS 2.3 g/l

R265 ex cellar

Delheim Grand Reserve

90% cabernet 8% merlot 2% cabernet franc

Multiple vineyards on Vera Cruz

Trellising: cabernet sauvignon – bush vines, merlot and

cabernet franc – VSP .

Soil: Oakleaf profile, mainly decomposed granite

Slope: South-west facing, 220m – 280m above sea level

Fermentation in open top fermenters and stainless steel tanks; ageing in 300L French oak barrels for 18 months. The finest barrels selected for the blend.

Analysis: 14 % alcohol, TA 6 g/l, pH 3.48, RS 2.2 g/l

RRP R420-450

Media or social media?

There are winemakers who court the media and there are winemakers who don’t – but are still noticed, their wines’ excellence acknowledged.

Blackwater Wines’ Francois Haasbroek fits in the latter category. This prompted my opening question, ‘So, what’s your strategy?’, as we sat under the oaks at De Meye, where he currently makes his own wines as well as theirs.

It elicited a spluttering laugh; ‘I’m driven by my personal preference of living life. I enjoy flexibility, being able to read books every day; picking up Daniël (his son) from school and so on.’

He believes ‘if I increased my prices ‘to the R350 level, it might stroke my ego, but then my life would be spent doing PR, looking for more importers.’ Then the crunch statement: ‘I make wine because I enjoy it.’ His enjoyment is reflected in the wines, but pragmatism is also required. He has a new, actually former, cellar for harvest 2022, one that he’s financially involved in, ‘it required a new strategy for the cost,’ he explains.

Since 2020, he’s made the Jan Harmsgat wines for this Bonnievale Country Guest Lodge and Restaurant’s wine portfolio; he has now added Naked Wines. A chance tweet (if Francois doesn’t court the media, he’s very active on social media, from which one learns much – @blackwaterwine on Twitter, shot_of_time on Instagram) about some prime sauvignon blanc grapes looking for a home just before harvest 2021, was seen by Naked Wines, drew interest and a firm order from them. Next year he’s developing a new brand, Rock View, for them. ‘A technical shift’ is how he describes the approach.*Breaking news: that sauvignon blanc he made under the Rock View label has just been awarded 95 points and a rave review from the IWSC judges, including three MWs.

Another facet to this dynamic winemaker, as his Twitter followers will have learned, is that he started and completed a two-year MBA, ‘Just to do it’, he shrugs at my ‘Why?’ He does admit it was a hugely stressful, 100% demand on his time and especially on his wife and family. It’s business strategy rather than business itself which attracts him and now the ongoing research and writing articles. Reading, of course, too; check out his book deliveries on Twitter, which should confirm his admission that he never stops learning. He quite likes the idea of strategy consulting aimed at the wine industry. I think this could be a case of watch this space.

Around this point, bottles of wine, a Coravin and Zalto glasses are brought out. (Stupidly, I forgot to take a photo until just before I left, when everything bar a few bottles remained – those Zaltos themselves incline one favourably towards the wine.)

Sitting outside on a beautiful, spring day, tasting through his range with the winemaker is a privileged and informative experience, much more so than tasting the wines at home, as is the norm for Platter and which I did some two or three years ago for Blackwater Wine. (Both practical and subjective reasons brought Platter tastings with winemakers to an end.)

As we taste, Francois mentions some of those who’ve influenced his wine journey. Neil Ellis, an important mentor, gave him much advice, including; ‘don’t call yourself a winemaker unless you have worked ten years on a vineyard.’ It was at a tasting with Chateau Margaux’s Paul Pontallier in 2006 that Francois’s thinking about red wine making underwent a fundamental change. The 2005 white and red were poured, the former at 16% alcohol with no comments on imbalance, and red which did not taste so young and unformed. Paul’s message here was a wine which is balanced, integrated and tastes good when young will age.  A lesson Francois applies when deciding on bottling; ‘If I can now drink this wine, that’s when I’ll take it to bottle.’

What impressed about every one of the 13 wines Francois poured is their luminosity, a clarity that doesn’t preclude complexity. We spoke about ‘noise’, extraneous matter which confuses and detracts from the focus of discussion or wine. Blackwater wines carry no extraneous noise, excess extraction or oak, and are the more captivating for that.

Notes on a few wines only since they generally follow my above description. Chenin makes a frequent appearance, and is Underdog 2021’s sole variety. I comment it’s now misnamed, as chenin has risen way above underdog status. It comes from a single vineyard planted in 1987, so qualifies for Old Vine status. There’s some consternation about whether a wine that sells for R85 would demean the OV concept; neither Francois nor I believe so. Old Vine chenin with a value price tag should more widely spread appreciation for these old vines beyond the higher priced examples which few can afford.

Thanks to the conversation rapidly veering from one subject to another, I failed to ask why the name Chaos Theory, though I suspect 2017’s 60% chenin, 30% clairette blanche and 10% palomino blend with some skin contact and old-oak fermentation, has something to do with a branch of mathematics where small adjustments can lead to much greater consequences.  Whatever adjustments were required here have resulted in highly positive consequences. An oxidative hint, layers of savoury flavour, a nudge of pithy grip, all bound under the spotlight of freshness. My kind of wine.

As is Pleasure Garden, no need for further sell with that name, one of the earliest iterations of ‘re-discovered’ palomino, from 91-year-old vines down Ashton way. Texture is the focus, drawn from skin contact and fermentation in concrete egg.

It was interesting to hear Francois is dropping pinot from 2020, ‘too much competition for top grapes and, frankly it doesn’t sit easily in my range.’ I nod in agreement.

The other reds certainly do. For all who enjoy ‘lighter, tighter, brighter’, Francois’s reds hold all that appeal. Although he gave that description to his red-fruited Omerta (carignan), it applies equally to berry-spiced Zeitgeist cinsaut, fragrant and dense Daniël Grenache, meaty, mushroomy and supple Cultellus shiraz (‘17 Platter 5*, ’18 fragrant but still sheathed in youthful tannin),and the new 2020 Sophie (his daughter born that year) cabernet franc and cinsaut, a pairing just made to be together; the epitome of  Francois’s reds.

Fragrance in each is an immediate attraction, the flavours endlessly expanding, (think of water when a stone has been thrown into it), the tannins, trim and fresh – these wines are so alive, claiming one’s attention on many levels apart from their pleasure.

Don’t wait for others to tell you, go and pay court to Blackwater wines for yourself; there should be no regrets.


Chameleon of Terroir

In Tim Atkin’s 2021 Special Report on South Africa, one of the most quoted or referred to views he airs relates to South Africa’s progress: ‘What it (South Africa) has achieved, not just since 1994 but in the nine years that I have been writing this report is truly remarkable. No other wine industry has made such strides, no other wine industry possesses such energy or excitement.’

Everyone has their own starting point for our break-out vintage (mine is 1997, and the first Boekenhoutskloof Syrah), but whichever year marks the change for you, it is relatively recent, recent enough for many pieces of the multi-layered jigsaw yet to be fitted into place. That shouldn’t and doesn’t stop the excitement.

Chris & Andrea Mullineux at launch of the Soil range

The recent launch of Chris & Andrea Mullineux’s latest vintages of their single vineyard, soil-focused syrahs and chenins, together with a vertical of the syrahs, was most instructive, illustrating how far and in what ways they have come since the first 2010 vintage and, frankly, why 20-years hence these wines will likely generate even more excitement.

It was in 2008 and again 2009 that the Mullineux’s noticed the particular character each vineyard/soil displayed in their syrah; a particular character they felt warranted individual bottlings. So it was in 2010 the Soil range was born. Why syrah and would any other variety rooted in the Swartland respond in the same way? I asked. Andrea had no hesitation in confirming ‘Syrah is a chameleon of terroir,’ in other words it easily reflects the soil on which it grows. And her view is; ‘Soil must always be the strongest character, not just the vintage.’ The soils in question are Paardeberg granite, Kasteelberg (Roundstone home farm) schist and Malmesbury hills, Iron.

Their approach in the vineyards is to farm organically and, depending on the needs of each, cover crops with carbon or nitrogen will be planted. Specific rows within each site have been determined for the Soil syrahs, the balance directed into the regular syrah.

Vinification sees crushed whole bunches fermented in 500kg batches with hand punch downs in 500 litre barrels, extended four to six weeks’ maceration on the skins, and a year in barrel with a second year in foudre.

Both viticulture and winemaking are open to refinements per se and according to vintage, thus adding a further layer to the quality dial.

Their observations have been well-rewarded; the ten vintages of Granite & Schist so clearly illustrate (Iron isn’t made every year) the consistency of terroir, vintage variation providing extra interest.

As Chris and Andrea suggest, granite is more linear, schist has more flesh and density. Or the Hermitage and Côte Rôtie of the Swartland.

A few stand-outs from the tasting: for me, Schist performed better in difficult vintages eg 2013, which was preceded by a cool, wet winter and heat spike which required a rush to harvest. Schist is lovely, deeply aromatic, densely fleshed and bearing fine, ripe tannins. No Granite was made that year. Schist is also the better of the pair in disease-ridden 2014, well-balanced if lacking great depth.

Both 2015 (the ‘dream’ vintage) and 2017, the second drought year, produced excellent wines. The 2015s are still tight; time may see Granite the better wine. The Mullineux’s were better prepared with viticulture and winemaking in 2017 than 2016, though, thanks to their use of the cover crop as mulch, which helped prevent stress in the vines, the latter vintage is remarkably good. Both wines are concentrated, structured and will take time to harmonise and relax.

In 2017, the second drought year, the wines responded splendidly to the Mullineux’s better understanding of dealing with this phenomenon. Granite is taut, linear with an expansive tail; Schist, broad, fleshy texture, dense and with integrated tannins. By 2018, they were on top of dealing with another drought vintage; the wines are perfectly ripe, fresh, individual and have a lovely depth of flavour.

Better rains were experienced in the lead up to 2019, the latest release, though the drought wasn’t entirely gone. Nevertheless, the vines had adapted and were what Chris and Andrea delightedly called ‘happy vines.’ The wines are equally happy and have reached what Andrea calls an equilibrium. Granite, with its dense grape tannins and expressive spice. Schist’s red earth character, flesh and well-integrated fine tannin. Iron is perfectly matched intense bright red fruit, structure, freshness and general taut feel.

The 2020 chenins are the best the Mullineux’s have made. From 400 metres on Paardeberg, Granite has understated purity, silky texture and charm. Schist, from home-farm, Roundstone is a structured, grippy wine, with savoury, stony flavours, while Iron is lean with marked acidity but also deep flavour in its energetic body. Such an expressive trio with assured ageing potential.

Soils (l to r) Schist Granite Iron

There are yet more pieces to be slotted into this jigsaw, ones that will surely propel further excitement in these and other quality-focused producers’ wines.  One that is obvious now, lies with Chris and Andrea themselves. How they have developed as people and in their wine journey; they wouldn’t have got as far as they have without developing within themselves.

It is all these progressive steps that lead me to feeling confident Tim Atkin will have good reason to repeat the quote I open with in another nine or 27 years’ time.

Wines of …..

As Ian Naude was wrapping up his Zoom tasting yesterday evening, he exclaimed; ‘I wish I could make a wine with just the vineyard name on the bottle and no mention of Naudé.’

Ian Naudé presenting his new releases

Whether or not the four wines below do represent their terroir, Ian’s hand has been instrumental in guiding them to their distinction and exceptional quality. ‘Guiding’ by knowing what not to do rather than do, for he does very little. In summary, his wines have structure, balance and freshness; tasting these four youngsters, one can’t help but have confidence that waiting for maturity will be more than worthwhile.

Old Vine Langpad Colombard 2021

There’s a growing fascination with this variety, admittedly among a small number of winemakers. Traditionally a distilling grape responsible with chenin for South Africa’s highly-regarded brandies, now these adventurers want to show colombard can also shine as a table wine. Or, as Ian puts it; ‘What I want to make is something new and interesting but also old.’

On a trip to Vredendal, he asked around for ‘what’s exciting that no one has yet found?’ The answer to his question led him to the colombard vineyard planted in 1983 on 100% sand about 35kms from the coast. It received the traditional flood irrigation of the area and no doubt also bore the typical huge yields. Now many bunches are dropped.

Langpad (long road and true of the 400 odd kilometres from Vredendal to Stellenbosch – I think that’s how Ian explained the name and by which many  ask for the wine rather than colombard.) is whole bunch pressed, naturally fermented and, most important, left as long as possible on the lees; the end result is startlingly good. There’s a wildness of flavour I associate with colombard accentuated by its natural, vivid acidity. But it’s the lees richness that brings it to life, adding class and quality at only 11.5% alcohol. It begs: age me, I’ll surprise you in ten years and many more.  Ian says it’s his South African answer to assyrtiko, his wish is that in ten years’ time colombard will be as highly regarded as chenin and in as many different styles.

On a vote, Langpad was the favourite wine of the evening for most of the roughly 32 attendees.

Langpad colombard vineyard

Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2020

From a single vineyard in Agter-Paardeberg planted in 1971, Ian wanted to create a chenin with lightness and minerality; ‘I find many Swartland chenins too heavy with too much oak.’ This is one achievement but it also has old vine concentration and the area’s sunny tones. Similar vinification to Langpad, lengthy lees ageing a pivotal action, here with batonage ‘to extract all the flavour’. Another deserving of time, delicious as it is now.

Old Vine Chenin

Old Vine Cinsault 2016

Ian recalls he was fortunate to find this beautiful old vine cinsault vineyard, planted in 1978, on a farm just outside Darling. He has firm ideas about what a ‘proper South African cinsault’ (his words) should taste like: Turkish Delight and rose petals. Whether it’s auto-suggestion or a feature of the vineyard, I do find both in this wine. Ian reckons they are just starting to develop as the cinsault reaches its fifth year.

Vinification depends on vintage, the challenge being to balance whole bunch and destemmed grapes with addition of stalks. ‘One has to understand the area, vineyard and story; the job of the winemaker is to respect the wine farmer and the workers with honest winemaking.’ As with the other wines, fermentation is spontaneous, soft pump overs occur once or twice daily with a further two weeks on the skins, before the wine is pressed off into older French oak barriques, where it stays for 12 – 15 months.

The sensation of light texture and freshness is augmented by the relatively low 12% alcohol, but also aided by lack of heavy extraction, something not in Ian’s makeup. There’s intensity and richness of flavour a plenty, including a dash of spice to add to Ian’s exotica, all lingering long after the last sip. My friend and celebrated lady old-vine whisperer, Rosa Kruger, is quoted as saying ‘I think this is the best cinsault I have tasted.’ I’m not sure I wouldn’t agree with her.

Usefully, Ian suggests don’t serve this too warm, advising to serve around 15C, it’ll continue open up as it warms.  Oh, and hope to be around in 20 years’ time as it’s sure to age that long. Sadly, 2021 is the last year Ian will make this particular Old Vine cinsault; ‘After eight years (I hope I’m right-AL) it’s time for a change,’ Ian reckons.

Darling Old Vine Cinsault

Grenache 2019

Ian’s objective with fruit from this Agter-Paardeberg vineyard ‘is to create a lighter, classic style, more typical of what you’d expect in an old world Grenache.’

He’s had only two tries so far, the first in 2014 and now 2019; during the four year gap he wasn’t able to secure the fruit. Interestingly, he shares the block with six other winemakers. ‘I’m the first to harvest, it’s another 10 days before the next person picks.’  As with the cinsault, the grapes are chilled overnight to 10C and undergo a similar vinification.

Someone made the point that wine colour does not relate to taste. That’s true of this Grenache; its pale, limpid ruby contrasted by the concentration of juicy red fruits with their racy acidity and firm tug of tannin.

Think 2029 for a grand, grown up grenache.

Natural freshness, concentration of fruit and acidity and always totally dry, these wines are of a family. It was a great pleasure to experience them and learn more of Ian’s philosophy.

When I thought of a title for this piece, I couldn’t get further than Wines of, without a third-word cliché. Now it strikes me that imagination would fit the bill. Imagining the style the vineyard would naturally produce and having the imagination to let that happen in the cellar. Ian does both.

First come, first served?

Having a problem buying wine? Walk into a wine retailer, supermarket or other liquor store and you’ll be faced with shelves of bottles, boxes and cans, so, where’s the problem? Remember the alcohol ban in 2020 and consequent unsold millions of litres; surely there can’t be a shortage.

Of those various containers lining the shelves above, there is no general shortage but when it comes to limited production wines and, especially those from a single vineyard, the situation can be very different.

Chasing popular wines is nothing new. Remember when Thelema released their sauvignon blanc on 1st July (I think it was) every year; a month or six weeks later it was all sold. Knowing the release date of course kept everyone on their toes; fewer producers have as regular a release date these days, Kanonkop Paul Sauer being an exception (1st July) with much the same result as Thelema.

Since the law was changed to allow for single vineyard wines, they have become trendy and more have come onto the market; by their nature the wines are limited, originating as they do from that one block only. Given the vagaries of nature, from drought and heat at one end of the scale to untimely rain and rot at the other, yields can vary widely in quantity and quality. Limited production is often the cautious approach taken by winemakers branching out on their own and untested in the market, if for no reason other than lack of finance. Have your maiden vintage highly rated and widely spoken about and that limited production is likely soon snapped up.

While we’re not yet in the same situation as many high-profile Californian wineries, where there’s a waiting list to get onto the mailing list and a few, precious bottles often at astronomic prices, we are already experiencing a system of allocation. Allocation can be a tricky business, no one wants to alienate customers but how to keep everyone happy? Different approaches are taken as to who receives what/how much of their wine. As the scramble for high quality, limited wines grows, the issue is going to become more pertinent.

My instinct is to honour loyalty first; those who’ve followed a winery and bought their wine regularly from the start deserve to reap the benefits of their constancy. The same with retailers who themselves receive allocations; honour customers who give you their custom beyond these scarce gems. In a less than generous vintage that can mean receiving fewer bottles than usual, a solution I don’t think anyone should complain about (that happened with Duncan Savage’s fabulous Girl Next Door Syrah last year). Rather retain loyal customers than spread the wine further afield with no guarantee of a follow up sale the next year.

Ryan Mostert’s latest release is long-awaited Terracura Trinity Syrah 2017

My personal allocation experiences recently include the long-awaited release of Ryan Mostert’s Terracura Trinity Syrah 2017, a wine I first encountered and loved at Tim Atkin’s top rated wines on his 2019 South Africa Report. With just 360 bottles produced of this single vineyard wine, equitable distribution was going to be difficult to say the least. The offer that came through this week was for a case of 12 bottles, six each of the regular Syrah 2017 (a very smart wine itself) and six Trinity. Normally, these days I buy a maximum of three bottles, (mainly as there are so many great wines I’d like to buy!) but I wasn’t going to miss out on Trinity. Luckily I found someone to share the case with me.

Sam Lambson’s Stars in the Dark 2020 & Experimental Semillon ex Elgin

Thanks to being on his mailing list, I was also offered and bought the latest vintage of Sam Lambson’s Stars in the Dark Syrah, which hit the headlines when Neal Martin, highly-respected taster, waxed lyrical about the 2019. Sam’s production is tiny, so I guess the new 2020 won’t be available long. I don’t know whether joining this mailing list requires anything more than signing up; my point is, it records an interest and, once wines have been purchased should help when the fan queue grows.

Sadie Family Wines Mev Kirsten one of Ouwingerds range

The (Eben) Sadie’s approach has been refined over the years, as demand for the wines, especially Ouwingerds range, has increased. These are all single vineyard wines, many dryland old vines growing in isolated places with low rainfall; the recent drought even forced Eben to drop all the grapes from ‘T Voetpad in order to save the vines. Skurfberg yielded 30% of its usual Chenin crop in 2019. Sharing the wines fairly has to be a nightmare and that’s just among importers and those, including retailers, on the closed mailing list. Covid prevented the usual pre-sales tasting last year, it was left to getting in one’s order pronto on the designated morning at 8am sharp (no earlier).  This method was not without stress in the Sadie office, so this year, what one purchased last year became your allocation for this year. There are a small group who buy a case of each wine every year, but I’m sure there are others like me who buy one or two cases based on which wines have particular appeal each vintage. I’ve yet to hear reaction to this revision from others whose buying approach has been like mine.

While first come, first served is possible for many and many good wines, keen wine lovers are going to have to listen closely to the grapevine and act quickly to secure the growing number of fabulous, tiny quantity gems.


We were entering uncharted territory; who can remember a comprehensive tasting of South African riesling – ever? Our goal was nothing less than Rieslings from every local producer (eventually for the sake of keeping the event to two days, Noble Late Harvests were left for lunch only)

Can riesling be so under-appreciated when we tracked down 36 current producers some making more than one?  A few others dabbled with the variety in the past.

Why Riesling? Daryl Balfour started the ball rolling when, sometime in spring 2020, he commented how Jessica Saurwein’s Chi Riesling excited him about South African rieslings’ development. When he’s not photographing wildlife, Daryl pursues his other passion, wine; no surprise his thoughts didn’t lie idle. As a fellow riesling enthusiast and based in the Cape rather than Nelspruit, my role was clearly practical.

Post-tasting discussion. Clockwise from Koen Roose standing, Penny Setti, Francois Haasbroek, me, Daryl Balfour, Wesley du Plessis, Ken Forrester, Norma Ratcliffe

Riesling has never received the respect it deserves here. Whenever it was introduced to these shores, and there’s as much debate over that as with many other varieties, by the 1940s Johann Graue was producing rieslings at Nederburg (see Phillida Brooke Simons’ Nederburg The First Two Hundred Years). Until 2010, riesling was obliged to take either Rhine or Weisser as a qualifier to differentiate it from Cape Riesling or, more correctly, Crouchen.

The 2000s began South Africa’s modern golden age; the youngsters, carrying no baggage of the past, were busy creating wines according to their own styles and standards. Serious producers of riesling wanted that rightful name returned. Paul Cluver and Gary Jordan of the eponymous wineries as well as Lowell Jooste, then owner of Klein Constantia, lobbied the authorities for change with support from other riesling fans. Their lobbying paid off: from 2010 vintage, riesling has been allowed; Cape riesling has had to take its proper name, crouchen.

This acknowledgement of riesling stimulated renewed interest in quality; quantity will always remain niche. Riesling currently covers 126 hectares, just .14% of our 92 000 ha under vine; a tiny area that is widely, if thinly, spread over the winelands from Outeniqua to Breedekloof. Its heartland lies in Elgin, a seemingly natural home for the 26.5 ha, as we discovered at #rieslingrising, the event that culminated in Daryl’s musing on Jessica’s Chi Riesling.

Thanks to Ken Forrester, 18 riesling enthusiasts assembled at 96 Winery Road on 21st and 22nd May (most attended both days) to taste and discuss riesling in South Africa.

Some rieslings on #rieslingrising tasting

For context but not comparison, four international rieslings introduced the event (the full list with flights from both days is included at the end); the Trimbach and J J Prum especially underlined ageability as an important quality factor. Tension and tautness, like the tightest wire on the piano, are part of ageability; think low pH, high acid and balanced residual sugar. ‘Don’t taste analysis’, I requested before the tasting; often a wine technically off-dry tastes drier thanks to that core tension.

Spioenkop’s Koen Roose told the audience among his requirements for quality riesling are a cold environment, allowing slow development in small bunches with more expression grown on vines where vigour is restrained. ‘Also important is harvesting around 18 to 21 Balling with a low pH, mine comes in around 2.9 pH’ added Jessica Saurwein. Ripeness and spontaneous fermentation were mentioned as important for true riesling character. ‘Pick ripe and do nothing,’ is Leon Coetzee of The Fledge & Co’s advice.

Where wines didn’t hit that tightrope tension, the acid appears looser, the wines less integrated, especially noticeable in lower acid wines.

The intention of #RieslingRising was an exploration not a judgemental event nor a competition. There were marked differences between what were considered excellent rieslings, those that should age with benefit (‘One should expect at least 15 years,’ is restaurateur, Harald Bresselschmidt’s view) and others of sound riesling character but of a more commercial style. Lime, spice and, in some, a little terpene are most often noted flavours.

If there was doubt about Harald’s 15 year ageability span, even in some of the highly-regarded examples, there was one wine that amazed all who tasted it with lunch. Ruiterbosch Mountain Cuvée Rhine Riesling 1992 came from vineyards planted above Mossel Bay by Danie and his son, Carel Nel of Boplaas. Sadly, weather and logistics resulted in them being pulled up after a few years, but this riesling was testament to both site and winemaking

Other than Elgin, only Stellenbosch and Darling mustered enough rieslings for a dedicated flight, two in Stellenbosch’s case. Long-time and well-regarded producers, Thelema, Jordan and Hartenberg (especially 2013) proved their consistency and the validity of their specific terroirs; due to demand for The Real McCoy, Jordan does incorporate a little fruit from both Elgin and Hemel en Aarde. Darling was more difficult to pin down; different fruit expressions and good drinking is probably the best summary.

Most regions outside of Elgin and Stellenbosch have just one producer; there can be little conclusion as to riesling’s future there. That said, there was appreciation for Herold from Outeniqua and La Vierge from Hemel en Aarde Ridge.

Quality is but one aspect of a riesling renaissance, marketing is vital. The good news is that, thanks to this event, the Riesling Association is being revived. Francois Haasbroek suggested riesling needs regional championing, as happens in Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia. Elgin should stand up here.  

What riesling doesn’t need is the same approach as chenin blanc and some of the artificial prices asked. As Ken Forrester reminded us, for every seven bottles of sauvignon blanc, one bottle of chenin is sold. People don’t ask for riesling automatically in restaurants, Harald noted, but they do enjoy it when part of a tasting menu. One of riesling’s assets, whether dry or with some residual sugar, is its compatibility with many foods, as proved by Ken’s Riesling-inspired three-course menu after the tasting.

If enjoyment and discussion were criteria for success, then #rieslingrising succeeded. Let’s hope the momentum continues.

Rieslings for tasting and lunch

Day One Flight One – INTERNATIONAL

  1. Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2018 Australia TA 6.4 RS 0,9 g/l
  2. Framingham Classic Riesling 2018 Marlborough New Zealand TA 7.1 NO RS listed
  3. Trimbach Riesling Reserve 2017 Alsace France Dry
  4. Joh. Jos. Prüm Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlese 2015

Flight Two – ELGIN

  1. Minimalist ExperiMENTAL 2019 WO Elgin TA 7.58 RS 1.86 g/l
  2. Francois Haasbroek Riesling 2016 WO Elgin TA 7.6 RS 1.5 g/l
  3. Lothian Vineyards Riesling 2018 Limited Release WO Elgin

TA 7 RS 2.00 g/l

  • Spioenkop Riesling 2011 WO Elgin TA 8 RS 4.9 g/l


  1. Van Wyk Family Vineyards Riesling NV WO Stellenbosch TA 6.3 RS 1.00 g/l
  2. Neethlingshof Estate Ode to Nature Riesling 2018 WO Stellenbosch

TA 5.2 RS 3.3 g/l

  • Hartenberg Estate Riesling 2013 WO Stellenbosch TA 5.9 3.5 g/l
  • Hartenberg Riesling 2017 WO Stellenbosch TA 6.1 RS 6.2 g/l

Flight Four – ELGIN

  1. Catherine Marshall Riesling 2020 WO Elgin TA 7.2 RS 6.4 g/l
  2. Saurwein Chi Riesling 2020 WO Elgin TA 7 RS 7.8 g/l
  3. Vrede en Lust Early Mist Riesling 2017 WO Elgin TA 7.2 RS 9.4 g/l
  4. BLANKbottle Hinterhofkabuff 2012 WO Elgin TA 5.88 RS 13.97 g/l


  1. La Vierge Last Temptation Riesling 2016 WO Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge

TA 6.5 RS 2.5 g/l

  • Klein Constantia Estate Rhine Riesling 2009 WO Constantia

TA 7 RS 4.1 g/l

  • Klein Constantia Estate Riesling 2016 WO Constantia TA 6.1 RS 6.3 g/l
  • Nitida Riesling 2020 WO Durbanville TA 7.3 RS 9.3 g/l

Day Two Flight One – ELGIN

  1. Oak Valley Stone & Steel Riesling 2019 WO Elgin TA 6.7 RS 4.1 g/l
  2. The Fledge & Co Riesling 2018 WO Elgin TA 6.8 RS  4.7 g/l
  3. Meinert The German Job Riesling 2016 WO Elgin TA 7.2 RS 4.9 g/l
  4. Sutherland Riesling 2019 WO Elgin TA 6.7 RS 5.2 g/l

Flight Two – DARLING

  1. Illimis 2017 Riesling WO Darling TA 6.6 RS 1.5 g/l
  2. Cape Collective Riesling 2018 WO Darling TA 6.8 RS 4.5 g/l
  3. Groote Post Riesling 2019 WO Darling TA 7.2 RS 9.7 g/l
  4. Fairview Darling Riesling 2020 WO Darling TA 5.5 RS 11.2 g/l


  1. Remhoogte Free To Be Weisser Riesling 2019 WO Stellenbosch

TA 5.5 RS 5.2 g/l

  • Jordan The Real McCoy Riesling 2019 WO Western Cape TA 7 RS 7.7 g/l
  • Thelema Riesling 2017 WO Stellenbosch TA 6.9 RS 7.3 g/l
  • Thelema Rhine Riesling 2009 WO Stellenbosch TA 6.6 RS 10.7 g/l


  1. Herold Weisser Riesling 2019 WO Outeniqua TA 7.9 RS 2.4 g/l
  2. De Wetshof Estate Riesling 2013 WO Robertson TA 7.3 RS 9 g/l
  3. De Wetshof Estate Rhine Riesling 2007 WO Robertson TA 5.7 RS 17.2 g/l
  4. Bergsig Estate Weisser Riesling 2020 WO Breedekloof TA 6.4 RS 7.3 g/l


  1. Paul Cluver Riesling 2020 WO Elgin TA 7.4 RS 16.44 g/l
  2. Woolworths Paul Cluver Ferricrete Riesling 2018 WO Elgin

                                                                                                  TA 7.9 RS 19.6 g/l

  • Paul Cluver Riesling Close Encounter 2016 WO Elgin TA 9.3 RS 37.9 g/l
  • Hartenberg Occasional Riesling 2017 WO Stellenbosch TA 7.64 RS 20 g/l

Family matters

The recent 50th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Stellenbosch Wine Route was a reminder of the importance of family wineries. The three involved in this South African pioneering tourism venture were all owned and run by families: Simonsig and Delheim still are, whilst Spier is owned by the Eindhoven family but they are less present than Neil Joubert, then owner and third founding member of the Wine Route. A visit to a family-run winery is a personal affair, especially when one meets and is welcomed by family members, young children too and the obligatory dogs and other animals; such a visit triggers an unforgettable memory and desire to buy the wine in future.

Several wineries have enjoyed ownership by the same family over generations: the van Veldens of Overgaauw are now 4th generation, while the de Waals of Uiterwyk go back nine generations. Then there are descendants from the early Huguenots to arrive here, who are still involved with wine: Bruwer, de Villiers, du Preez, du Toit and Viljoen are all familiar names associated with South African wine.

While some children are absorbed into the family farm, offspring of others branch out, spreading the good family name across the winelands. This is very much the case with the Finlaysons. The first Finlayson on the family tree to make a name for wine, was Dr Maurice Finlayson & his wife, Eleanor, who bought Hartenberg in 1948. Perhaps too long ago for many to remember, but surely his winemaker sons, Walter and Peter are familiar to today’s wine lovers.

I met Peter when he was at Boschendal, which must’ve been in the early 1970s, as he joined Tim Hamilton-Russell when the latter founded Hamilton-Russell Vineyards in 1975. Walter and his wife, Jill, came onto my radar a few years later, when he became winemaker at Blaauwklippen, owned by friends Graham & Trish Boonzaaier. Those late 1970s and early 1980s cabernets were the stuff dreams were made of and would stand with today’s best Stellenbosch cabernets. Walter and I went on to found the Blaauwklippen Blending Competition in 1984. The following year, Walter and a Johannesburg partner founded Glen Carlou; the Finlaysons moved there in 1989 with 1988 the first bottling.

Those who had enjoyed Walter’s wines at Blaauwklippen, followed him to Glen Carlou, which soon became a must-visit cellar. Some ten years’ later, Walter had been joined by and was handing over to the next generation of Finlaysons, son David, who went onto establish his own winery Edgebaston. Meanwhile, at Glen Carlou, a new partner had joined Walter in ownership, Donald Hess of Hess Collection Winery in California. Further down the line, Walter retired, David left to concentrate on his own winery, handing over winemaking to his assistant, Arco Laarman. Hess sold to a local consortium, Arco left to start his own range – and so the personality of the family, the Finlaysons in this case, was lost.

I admit my interest in the farm had dwindled but recently, I was very happy to receive latest vintages of the two single vineyard wines to try: Quartz Stone Chardonnay 2020 and Gravel Quarry Cabernet Sauvignon 2018.

The chardonnay is brilliant; if my increasing enjoyment over five days is any indication as to its potential, it’s worth maturing for five years at least (Selling for R340 ex-cellar, one would hope buyers aren’t in too much of a hurry). The welcome trend to freshness is evident in the tightly-woven corset of steely acidity but even this fails to obscure the plump, tropical citrus flavours and creamy lees with a subtle bush of toasty oak.  

Gravel Quarry Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 does seem to be a victim of the difficult vintage. There is some promising fruit, sound cabernet dark soft berries and tangy blackcurrants but they are pushed aside by alcohol and an intimidating acidity (The R440 price tag is also a little scary). My usual method of trying the wine over several days brought it no closer to harmony, though the flavours did increase to some degree. I’d suggest caution in lengthy ageing.

It took the kindness of Glen Carlou and winemaker, Johnnie Calitz to remind me of two of the farm’s top wines, ones I used to be familiar with under the Finlayson ownership.

What this reminds me is of the importance of wineries having a human face, a link between the winery and its customers, a link which imbues the winery with personality and thus more of a trigger for wine lovers to return and build a long-term relationship.

Family-owned wineries especially, if not exclusively, are in a position to create this important and valuable human face.

Stellenbosch memories

At the end of 1985, as I contemplated the deep plunge from salaried employee to the variable income of a freelancer, my intention was to take whatever work came my way.

For once, I was in a ‘right place, right time’ scenario; writing commissions flowed in – there were few independent writers then. But I didn’t want to get tied down without exploring all possible options, variety was most definitely the spice of life.

An offer from Stellenbosch Wine Route (just the one back then) to run their Vineyard Trail walk celebrating the Route’s 15th anniversary, was just the sort of variety I was after.

The Vineyard trail was a lengthy if stunningly beautiful walk from Papegaaiberg (remember when it was covered in pine trees?) along the Bottelary Hills to Kuils River, taking in many vistas and vineyards along its 24 kms. I remember walking the whole route with a group led by Etienne le Riche; the Stellenbosch Wine Route event promised a more leisurely, less exhausting 10 kms, ending at Stevie Smit’s stone hut at the top of Bottelary Kop.

A walk, however dazzling the scenery, is still a walk and some need motivation; another attraction was needed.

As a child, my father used to compile a treasure hunt for my birthday, observed in summer, rather than its actual winter celebration. Dad was brilliant at dreaming up cryptic clues (rhymes or the like) which kept us youngsters running around trying to find the hiding place of a clue from the one we’d just discovered. A great barbeque was our reward.

A treasure hunt was my suggested fun component to the walk, one readily agreed to by those in charge. Now, I had to organise it and the clues; what had I let myself in for? The incentive to get to the end, as with my birthday parties, was, in this case, a braai; further encouragement for walkers came from various Wine Route members stationed along the way, offering their wines and other refreshments. The map shows each winery’s spot en route.

Dreaming up clues required walking those 10kms, looking for suitable landmarks. We ended up with 20, starting with ‘How long does it take for a good winemaker to rot away?’ The walk started behind Oude Libertas near the graveyard; not difficult to make the link and find the drum with the next clue. And so on. Some were in Afrikaans. My favourite (and a phrase I often use) ‘Moenie ‘n draadsitter wees nie’, obviously next to a fence that needed negotiating! With each clue, walkers had to answer a question about members of the Wine Route with the incentive of a case of wine as prize.

Armed with Passport (proof of payment – R11 pp! – and identity), Stellenbosch Wine Route sun hat and brochure, as well as all-important plasters, around 100 enthusiastic participants gathered at Oude Libertas Centre at 8am on Saturday, 5th April 1986, where Spatz Sperling fired the starting gun. As far as I remember it was a glorious autumn day.

Vineyard Trail map with Wine Route members tasting stations

Some found it difficult to get their heads around the clues and how they worked, but that and blisters didn’t spoil the fantastic gees with everyone making it to Stevie’s stone hut, lunch and generous quantities of delicious Stellenbosch wine.

It involved a lot of hard work and planning but was one of the most enjoyable events, allowing wine lovers to see Stellenbosch from a different perspective while enjoying its wines.

Stellenbosch Wine Routes today is too big for anything similar but there must be other fun ways of showing off Stellenbosch from a different perspective. Creative souls out there?

As much as I enjoyed being involved with the Vineyard Trail Treasure Hunt, which did generate plenty of media coverage, I decided it had to be either PR or writing, both couldn’t gel. Writing won.

Cape Vintners Classification

Possibly the Cape Vintners Classification requirement that would be the easiest for the consumer to understand is that relating to the wines’ consistency. To qualify for the CVC seal, five vintages of a wine have to reflect uniformity of variety or style, if a blend, terroir and quality as assessed by a panel, including independent judges.

Twenty two of these accredited wines (11 pairs of a young and older wine), from 11 producer members were presented to guests including media, retailers and WOSA, at Kanonkop last week.

To a certain extent, all fulfilled that goal, some with more conviction than others. Anthonij Rupert Cape of Good Hope Van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc 2017 and 2019 provided a positive start, showing natural freshness, vitality, a bit of grip and subtle yet concentrated flavours, as reflected in many Skurfberg chenins.

Lourensford Viognier was less successful, possibly because of some differing vinification methods. I didn’t have a chance to try the Cap Classique served as a welcome drink.

Of the chardonnays, the pair that gave me most pleasure were the De Wetshof Bateleur 2018 and 2009, which clearly reflect the same site – showing bright lemon and chalky textured – they also benefit from vine age, the vineyard,  planted in 1987, was one of the earliest. A less heavy hand with oak, especially in the younger wine, enhances their distinction. If I didn’t care so much for the Almenkerk, nor DeMorgenzon, both presented 2014 and 2018, the wines maintained the seal’s objective.

Tasting is subjective and I know Diemersdal pinotage wasn’t popular with everyone, yet the 2017 and 2019 were of a family, one in riper, juicier mode with fragrant raspberry flavours and telling yet well-formed tannins.

It was difficult to say whether Groot Constantia Gouveneurs Reserve Red 2006 and 2017 follow the required pattern, as the former had the typical tomato-leaf notes of stressed, virused vines. By 2017, new cleaner vine material was producing the purer, riper fruit one might expect..

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1995 and 2017; need more be said. Well, yes, the ’95 does. I’ve had two bottles recently, one corked and the replacement, not entirely clean. This third was, thankfully, perfect, as was 2017, my first taste of this vintage. It’s a glorious wine, beautifully balanced, precise, fragrant fruit, seamlessly enjoyable now but with a great future.

Morgenster Estate 2003 has also matured excellently with lead pencils bouquet, cabernet-led structure, well-fleshed tannins and properly dry. The younger 2018, which includes petit verdot with dab, merlot and cab franc, seems fleshier, less austere and bigger but also the framework for ageing.

Vergelegen GVB 2001, this bottle at least, has reached the end of its life, noticeably drying out; 2015 more than makes up for it with gorgeous cedary scents, fresh and silky blackberry flesh and polished tannin support.

The final pairing was the most interesting, simply because of the odd bed-fellows. Waterford The Jem mixes Bordeaux varieties (mainly cabernet) with Rhône (Shiraz, mourvèdre) with Italy (sangiovese, barbera). Percentages don’t differ that much in 2005 and 2015; but the former seems more cabernet-oriented, 2015 with more spice, suppleness and Rhône-like. Most attractive and intriguing.

Back to the meeting and its main purpose: an update from CVC Chairman, Johann Krige on recent developments in this body, which has slumbered for some eight years since its premature launch.

So what is meant by ‘member’, ‘regulations’ and ‘seal’?

CVC seal which may be applied to accredited wines

There are currently 15 members; In addition the above farms, Delaire Graff, Lanzerac, Simonsig and Wildekrans are also part of the group. Criteria for becoming a member include grapes have to come from a vineyard owned by the producer or under a long-term agreement (it used to require the property to be registered to produce Estate wine but that was dropped.) The origin is important in order for the wine to reflect a sense of terroir, the distinction and consistency required to qualify for the seal, which confirms success in the five-year tasting.

I asked Johann Krige how many wines have failed this tasting; without having exact figures, he reckons about 40%, which does suggest a credible level of rigour.

Farming in an environmental sustainable way, and ethical treatment of all involved, whether on the home farm or outside vineyard are required; so IPW and WIETA accreditation are necessary.

Harking back to the old Estate system, parts of which the CVC has carried over, the farm has to have a cellar and a tasting room whose ‘facilities exceed global expectations’, however those are defined.

If the goal of raising South Africa’s image for wines of distinction and priced accordingly, that is admirable and as it should be, but if the concept remains complicated to those who attended the briefing, then it must mean little to nothing to the average consumer. One only has to think of the Old Vine Project and Chenin Blanc Association, how both have been understood and enthusiastically taken up by consumers, to realise that the ‘keep it straight and simple’ message regularly conveyed meets with success.

This is what the CVC is going to need to do to make any impact; they now have a new, younger group of Board members, including Joris Almenkerk, Thys Louw and Johann de Wet. They need to bring dynamism and clarity to marketing the CVC if it’s not to slumber on. For now, I retain some doubts.

Ten-year-old tasting

Innovative, intriguing and in vogue. South Africa has grown an enviable reputation for white blends. On one side are the innovative, Chenin-based with a kaleidoscope of other varieties; on the other, the classic Bordeaux style of sauvignon blanc and semillon.

A bit of history before coming to last week’s tasting of a small selection of highly-regarded 2011s from South Africa and Bordeaux.

Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends, a strong category in Bordeaux and South Africa

Charles Back was ahead of his time when he produced the first of these classic blends in 1987 under the Charles Gerard label. It was short-lived, partly because the semillon vineyard was uprooted, making way for new semillon material.

All fell quiet on the category until 2001. That year, Steenberg made a prototype blend, before hibernating the idea until 2007 and the maiden Magna Carta. There was no hibernating after André van Rensburg’s maiden Vergelegen White 2001, a 78/22 sauvignon blanc/semillon blend; he subsequently raised semillon to lead partner. The blend in our 2011 was 50/50 with the sauvignon specified as from Schaapenberg.

The first Cape Point Vineyards wine labelled Isliedh was a 2004 barrel-fermented, straight sauvignon blanc; the blend followed in 2005 (85 sauvignon/15 semillon) and received immediate recognition with a 5* Platter rating and White Blend Trophy on Trophy Wine Show.

Tokara White, as it was first known, also launched in 2004 with a straight barrelled sauvignon, adding 21% semillon in 2006.

Under Gottfried Mocke, Chamonix joined the party a little later, in 2011 with the maiden Reserve White, 60/40 sauvignon/semillon. Recognition was immediate with a Platter 5* rating.

There is good history and track record in these five blends, which, I’d argue, established the category’s reputation for both quality and ageability. Pitching them against top Bordeaux blancs, Domaine de Chevalier and Chateau de Fieuzal was a good test of how they shape up against quality international counterparts.

James Pietersen CEO of Wine Cellar and Winemag’s editor, Christian Eedes joined me for this blind assessment. Double blind in the case of Tokara and Isliedh, which I decanted into other bottles, due to the former’s screw cap and the latter’s distinctive bottle shape. We all agreed the South African wines showed very well, except for Magna Carta which was oxidised, though Christian found features he liked.

Is there any sense of place? De Fieuzal stood out as being French but the local wines were harder to pinpoint, apart from Tokara, which, like the rest of the range, has an intense purity. It was by far the fruitiest wine with clear blackcurrant leaf, naartjie definition and freshness.

In the early days, the blends were much fruitier; as the category and the serious wines have developed, texture has become a defining feature, something helped by the blend percentages becoming more settled. Generally, either 70/30 or 60/40 with sauvignon leading. This combination can give the wines great longevity; although all in the line up showed interesting evolution, with semillon’s waxy richness braced by sauvignon, most have good life ahead. They make versatile and great food partners, especially with age.

If white blends are generally strong, the sauvignon-semillon category at this level is excellent and the wines may be bought and aged with confidence. Sadly, they are under-appreciated and under-bought. Ideally, they are restaurant wines, where a sommelier can recommend complementary dishes.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable tasting of quality wines; a pity about the Steenberg, which may have been a single bottle rather than general fail.

I left James and Christian to score but we all ranked the wines. The results as follows:

  1. De Fieuzal
  2. Cape Point Isliedh
  3. Vergelegen GVB
  4. Domaine de Chevalier
  5. Cape Chamonix Reserve
  6. Tokara Director’s Reserve
  7. Steenberg Magna Carta