Steenberg re-visited

In the continuing tsunami of new wine producers and labels, keeping up to date with those who made their name many years ago isn’t easy.

An invitation from Steenberg’s winemaker, JD Pretorius, for a catch-up tasting and lunch was both timely and welcome.

I’d forgotten what a comprehensive range comes from this cellar at the southern end of Constantia valley: even tasting 15 wines meant one or two were left out. Pretorius, one of the nicest guys involved in wine, has been at Steenberg for nine years and one has the feeling he’s got his finger on the pulse pretty well across the board. As he would need to; against the general grain, 2017 delivered the biggest crop off the farm ever; in all, 1200 tons were processed in a 900 ton cellar!

The MCC bubblies remain unfairly unsung, the main acclaim falling on the sauvignon blancs. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of consumer fans, which is what really matters. Of course, the bubblies are excellent; Pretorius is as enthusiastic about the style as is previous Cellarmaster and more recently MD, John Loubser, who originally honed his skills at Graham Beck (Steenberg is part of the Graham Beck stable). Loubser leaves this month to concentrate on his own MCC label, Silverthorn.

Steenberg Brut Chardonnay NV is now given a year on the lees rather than nine months and more interesting for it. Although it has a riper feel, the dosage is exactly the same – 8 grams – as in the apparently much drier Pinot Noir Brut 2015, my favourite. A delicate coppery pink, with sour cherry, raspberry flavours, rather than sweet strawberries, it’s full of attraction. The newish flagship, Lady R, 2011 the current vintage, is a 70/30 pinot noir/barrel-fermented chardonnay blend. Disgorged some 18 months ago, it’s still as fresh as a daisy. Freshness and delicacy are hallmarks of today’s quality MCCs; admiration for the more oxidative style has thankfully all but disappeared.

Old & new Steenberg labels. Catharina white (l), a prototype of Magna Carta (r). The then golden swan much resembling an award!

If the Chardonnay Brut NV is a popular seller, the Estate Sauvignon Blanc, around 140 000 bottle production, faces such unprecedented demand, 2017 is already on the market. There was a time the farm bit the bullet, holding it back for a year; sadly, that’s no longer possible. Steenberg’s sauvignon reputation is endorsed in the oaked Rattlesnake 2016; a drop of semillon enriches the texture, the focus of attention rather than fruit, it’s a great partner for food. As is Black Swan 2016 (R195), the original Reserve, still, I was surprised to learn, from the original 1989 vineyard, which was going to be uprooted due to uneconomic yields. Through careful farming, 2 tons/ha has grown to 6 tons/ha and, thank goodness the vineyard remains. This is steely, lees enriched, unfruity sauvignon at its best with years of ageing potential.

The jewel in the crown belongs to Magna Carta (R545) a judiciously oaked sauvignon/semillon blend introduced with 2007 (but not made every year); the latest, 2015 is as excellent as the vintage promised and in more classic mode than some of the other bright-fruited, cool climate blends.

Reds have fought their own corner, Steenberg Merlot in particular often the focus of attention, mainly because of its ‘love-it or hate-it’ minty features. The current 2014 curiously shows very little of this character, yet amusingly, Stately Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz 2015, one of three non-estate wines, where grapes are drawn from Darling and Helderberg, has a distinct mintiness!

But this was nebbiolo’s day and the second time Tim and I have tried 2015 (R255) recently; it also impressed at our new releases tasting a couple of weeks ago and must be the best vintage from this property. Herman Hanekom, viticulturist in the farm’s early days, would be delighted to hear this; in his enthusiasm for the variety he suggested it be planted.

Those vines are now 23 years old and showing their mettle; the wine has lovely purity in its tar and floral aromas, with great freshness and attack, but still more accessible than in its homeland of Piedmont.

Looking through my notes, I’ve frequently recorded the use of larger and less new oak barrels, both benefitting the wines. The nebbiolo was in 500 litre, just 10% new.

What there isn’t less of is the number of happy customers; Bistro 1682, where Kerry Kilpin does more than justice to her previous mentor, the excellent Franck Dangereux at Foodbarn, was packed and, according to Pretorius, it’s like that every day. No surprise to learn then that sales are pretty equally divided between the farm itself, locally and exports.

Over lunch discussion turned in many directions, including the new District WO Cape Town, something Pretorius says is unlikely to be used by producers in Constantia. ‘Firstly, so many have Constantia as part of their name; many also used the Constantia molded bottle,’ he explains, ‘which would preclude the use of WO Cape Town.’

From WOs to water and power. Unlike the Graham Beck Robertson operation, where roof space and access to sufficiently long sunlight allows for solar power, Steenberg’s structure and positioning underneath the mountain do not. Water is another matter. Pretorius tells me three, old 35 000 litre stoog vats are being epoxied and will catch rainwater from the roof, enough to provide for the cellar, tasting room and restaurant. There are also thoughts of making the toilet plumbing more water efficient and re-cycling waste from the cellar.

Pretorius won’t be asked to add the admin required of a GM to his portfolio, there is to be some sharing out of these duties; a good thing, leaving him to focus his very capable eye on the large, overall sound wine range with more than a few brilliant stars.

Red is for winter

The Cape weather is, at last, delivering what it should at this time of year: plenty of rain and cold. At last, too, it’s time for hearty food and red wine; ah, but what sort of red wine? Thanks to the luxury of having two, very different shirazes (one, tellingly labelled Syrah) open this past week, it’s been obvious that more matters than having the same variety on the label, even in different languages.

The first, Julien Schaal’s Mountain Vineyards Syrah 2016, was one of a small bunch of newish releases Tim James and I tried recently. I was pleased to see it return to the range, (neither 2014 nor 2015 were made due to fruit quality issues) as Schaal’s wines are always elegant with a natural freshness.

He’s now part of a group using the Gabriëlskloof cellar, where he realised the farm’s own vineyards could produce great syrah, one he describes as having: ‘Lower alcohol, great intensity and very much focused on the white pepper aromas that I like.’

That’s very much how Tim and I found it: radiant purple, crimson-rimmed with delicate, red fruits, lilies and spice, the flavours pure and persistent, tailing off with a pleasing savouriness; the only discord is in its youthful exuberance; it’s just too young. The picture of a gentle silky feel emerged over a further three of four evenings, suggesting there’s benefit in not pulling the cork for a further six months or, better still, a year.

Time will also take us to spring, summer and different dishes: hearty, winter meals (such as spiced, pork rashers with lentils and rice, beef olives in red wine I’m currently enjoying) just swamp this wine’s more elegant frame.

It’s worth the wait and, when shiraz prices generally are taken into account, very much worth a R125 retail price. But speed is also called for: only two (300 litre) barrels were made; that’s little more than 100 x 6 bottle cases if my calculations are correct. At least it’s all being sold in South Africa with quantities increasing from 2017.

Those who know me will likely be very surprised at my enthusiasm for a wine boasting 15% alcohol, but wine is much more than its alcohol content. I really enjoy Janno Briers Louw’s Eenzaamheid Shiraz 2013, what’s more it’s the perfect style to match up to my winter dishes; it has muscle, shape and structure. Sadly, it’s sold out from the farm (where it cost just R132) but some may still be available at retail.

I’m into the first few pages of Jamie Goode’s ‘I taste Red’ the science of tasting wine; so far, so very interesting and relative. I nodded in agreement at his claim: ‘Indeed, the structure of a red wine is to a large degree “felt” rather than tasted.’ An apt way of describing the Eenzaamheid; it’s a positive feeling too; nicely dry, even a sense of freshness in its firm grip and absolutely no flashy oak nor soggy over-ripeness, ending on a note of flavoursome warmth that satisfyingly creeps down through the body.

I didn’t have the chance of enjoying Bosman Nero d’Avola 2015 over the few days that I’d have liked; that pleasure was left to Tim (we share out wines we’ve tasted and enjoyed enough to re-taste – drink! – them later). We both enjoyed Corlea Fourie’s example of this Sicilian variety, the only one so far available in South Africa; on this showing, it deserves further exploration. Sicily, the large island off the toe of Italy, is hot, but it has beneficial diurnal temperatures in summer to permit the indigenous varieties – Nero d’Avola among them – to retain their natural acid, so even when full-bodied there’s still freshness. The vineyard, all 0.6ha and grown in Wellington, produces a wine with a wild scrub fragrance and a pleasing rustic grip. It’s big, but not heavy, structure balanced by that muscle again.
I like it so much more than 2014 – too much new oak – presented at the last Cape Wine in 2015. For anyone with an adventurous palate and R150, in today’s terms sound value, give it a try while the weather remains so wonderfully wet and cold.

Nero d’Avola vines & grapes, Firriato, Sicily

Winter whites? Why not. Despite an unpromising orange colour, Chamonix Chardonnay 2007 is flexing some fine muscle.

Vines of origin

The Wine of Origin Scheme, introduced in 1973, not only met export requirements but also put South Africa a step ahead of other countries outside of traditional Europe. From the start demarcations included Regions, Districts and Wards, like a Russian doll, fitting within each other in descending order of size; there was then an even smaller WO, the Estate, but let’s not unnecessarily complicate things. Some 20 years later, Geographical Units, not strictly regarded as WOs were introduced; Northern Cape was one of these.

Within this GU, there are three Wards (no Districts or Regions); WO Prieska the latest, declared in 2016. Any Prieska grapes vinified prior to 2016 have to take the GU Northern Cape.

This is all a prelude to the story behind Landzicht Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, made by Ian Sieg, who’s been at this Free State cellar since 1984. The wine caused gasps of amazement (and no doubt ruffled many a Stellenbosch producer’s feathers!) when announced as Cabernet Trophy winner at last week’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show awards.

The grapes were grown on Hennie and son, Bertie Coetzee’s farm, Lowerland, just north of Prieska (yes, I also had to look it up on a map) and vinified at Douglas Wine Cellar, which shares an owner, agribusiness GWK, with Landzicht. It also shares access to the Orange River, irrigation playing an essential role in growing vines in these parts.

This Northern Cape farm intrigued me, especially after learning of its interesting and very decent wines via Platter. Bertie was more than enthusiastic to answer my questions.
Hennie Coetzee, a director of GWK, planted the vineyards in 2000, ‘With the mission to prove there is no reason why we shouldn’t make good wines in Northern Cape,’ Bertie explains.

Soils in this area vary from Hutton/Clovelly to River Silt and the Red Kalahari sand where the cabernet was planted in 2001. New sites are being explored.

Being so far from the Western Cape, conditions are different; Bertie lists the biggest positive as the very low disease pressure, so organic is easy, but; ‘We get late frost, so are moving from earlier ripening varieties or planting them higher, further away from the river. Distances from cellars, laboratories and barrels are also issues but I think our biggest problem is the negative perception of Northern Cape – perhaps also our biggest attribute, now consumers are looking for interesting wines from weird sites.’

The Coetzees’ Bonsmara herd grazing in the cabernet vineyard after 2015 harvest

When he came back to the farm in 2013, Bertie believed his Dad was getting despondent and ready to return some of vineyards to pastures for their Bonsmara cattle. Coetzee jnr was more optimistic; not only did he retain the 14 hectares of vineyard, but, inspired by visits to Longridge, he turned them organic.

There has been quite a trail of winemakers from Alex Milner for the maiden 2006, Nikey van Zyl to Johnnie Calitz (then Anura, now at Glen Carlou), more recently JD Pretorius at Steenberg and Lukas van Loggerenberg. The wines too are a wealth of varieties and blends: viognier, shiraz, cabernet, merlot, petit verdot and tannat, Bertie believing the last two do best on the farm.

This is the short version of a much longer story, but enough I hope to give a picture of the Coetzee’s innovation and persistence.

Ian Sieg’s winemaking details are more succinct, but as enthusiastic as Coetzee’s. Both agree 2015 was an exceptional year, ‘especially Prieska fruit,’ adds Sieg; ‘The pips were ripe, nice grassy taste,’ which he likes. He notes that 2015 is only the second year this Reserve Cabernet has been made. With a potential 13% alcohol, the small berries fermented at a relatively low 16-22C, ‘But so alive, such nice flavours’ Sieg remembers; press juice was added back for structure and the wine aged for 14 months in 300 litre Seguin Moreau barrels.

Landzicht Cabernet Sauvignon Winemaker’s Reserve 2015 with OMTWS 2017 Trophy

This is not the first trophy on the show for Landzicht, which also has its own vineyards in the Free State; the White Muscadel 2015 won best Fortified Dessert Wine last year. Sieg did point out to OMTWS Chair, Michael Fridjhon, at the awards’ ceremony that his journey from Landzicht to Cape Town is nearly 1000 kms and hoped he wasn’t making it for nothing. Indeed, he wasn’t!

Whether Geographical Unit Northern Cape or, after 2016, WO Prieska, Lowerland and Landzicht wines sound sufficiently interesting from a decidedly different site to be worth seeking out.

I hope the Coetzees will use the new WO Prieska; the use of Wards on labels is controversial, many believing South Africa is as far as most consumers can relate to.
I think a little differently. For me, the aim of a Ward is sufficiently specific to encourage more distinctive wines, even if the larger District is more commonly used (eg WO Simonsberg-Stellenbosch Ward vs Stellenbosch District), especially for marketing.

Marketing is undoubtedly the reason behind the new WO Cape Town, a District, which encompasses the Wards of Constantia, Durbanville (both declared Districts in 1972, Wards in 1989), Philadelphia (Ward status 2004) and Hout Bay (Ward status 2008). I doubt the now repealed Cape Peninsula or Tygerberg Districts came trippingly off the tongue. Constantia and Durbanville on the other hand are so long established, each with a relatively few number of wineries, for any to drop the smaller WO for Cape Town, such as Meerendal (registered to produce estate wine too!) has already done, does a dis-service to the other producers.

As I wrote above, a Ward WO might not be so significant to consumers, but it should be a message of pride and distinctive wines to those who grow vines and make wines within it.

Winemaking ‘off the beaten track’

I first met Ryan Mostert and his partner, Samantha Suddons when they were at Reyneke, helping to create the early rumblings of excellence from that cellar.

It took a further few years and the launch of Terracura Syrah (there was a prototype served at the last Cape Wine, if I’m not mistaken) to learn more about the path to where they are now.

Mostert has had a roundabout entry to wine; he knew he wanted to work in agriculture and loved wine but hadn’t tied the two together when he spent two years studying in Italy at a college similar to Elsenburg. Returning to South Africa, he signed up to do a BSc at Stellenbosch, a move soon curtailed when, reading Wine magazine, his attention was caught by an article on Johan Reyneke and his biodynamic approach.

A visit to the farm resulted in him and Suddons moving to Reyneke; she assisting in the tasting room, he ostensibly helping around the farm, though it didn’t take long for him to end up in the cellar.

Weekends saw the pair exploring further afield and eventually into the Swartland, a place where Mostert says ‘We left a bit of ourselves every time we went there.’ This was the time of the Swartland Revolution; at the first of these events, business-man, Michael Roets bought a Nomblot concrete egg which he required to be filled with chenin blanc. Then Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst obliged, the wine being labelled Silwervis (after the silver-coloured, wine-filled bag in a box).

Three years later, Roland Peens, of Cape Town’s Wine Cellar, suggested forming a company with Roets and Mostert, describing the latter who he’d met at Reyneke, as ‘The most passionate person about wine I’ve ever met.’

Since then, Silwervis, still chenin blanc made in that concrete egg, has been joined by a red version from cinsaut. Fruit for both is drawn from single vineyards on the Paardeberg, winemaking is as non-intrusive as possible, just a little sulphur being added.
These two and the other labels I’ll get to, were served blind along with some international benchmarks at last week’s launch at Wine Cellar.

Some of white wines poured at Terracura launch. Smiley NV & Silwervis 2nd & 4th from right.                                                                                   
Some of reds served at Terracura launch. Smiley 2nd right, Silwervis & Terracura far left.

 

I prefer Silwervis Chenin 2015’s flavours, some peachy concentration behind its austerity, to the rather funky nose which also shows some age. The red, egg-fermented Silverwis Cinsaut 2015 (both R375 ex Wine Cellar) is much more appealing with youthful exuberance throughout its persistent juicy spice and red fruits; exuberant but not too showily perfumed that some whole-bunch reds can deliver.

Another label, Smiley, also white and red versions for R150 each, both NV or rather multi-vintage, was introduced after Silwervis. The story behind the label and the name will answer some furrowed brows. Mostert describes the wines as, ‘Little bits of off-cuts put together,’ which explains the, for some, unsavoury label, a sheep’s head, also an off-cut and known as a Smiley in South Africa.

The wines are much more attractive, even though Mostert admits he’s looking for; ‘Off the beaten path type flavours, rather than fruit.’ The current white Smiley, version three, is 100% chenin blanc, 50% from 2017, the balance from four older vintages, some with flor associated most with Sherry but, more importantly for Mostert, the Jura. This character is exemplified by the Tissot Arbois Savignan 2011 served between Smiley and Silwervis. The Jura has come from nowhere to being the goût de jour.

Very much in the modern way of un-manipulated wines, Smiley is the antithesis of fruity young whites with fresh, earthy character of natural ferment, the texture enhanced by a light grip from skin contact and a bone dry finish. The evidence of flor is subtle at this stage, but Mostert assures it increases with age. Red Smiley is based on cinsaut and mourvèdre (40% each) with syrah and tinta barocca making up the balance. Red Jura and Beaujolais inspire the style in this delicious, medium-bodied mouthful of fresh red fruits, nip of spice and gentle squeeze of tannin; a great value wine.

Ryan Mostert with Terracura

It’s a brave winemaker who puts his or her first syrah up blind against two top northern Rhônes, but Mostert and Suddons are inspired by and fanatic fans of Domaine Jamet, a leading light in Côte Rôtie; they couldn’t resist including Jamet’s 2013. Verzier’s St Joseph La Madone 2013 made up the trio. Terracura 2015 (R375), meaning caring for the earth, is a blend of three vineyards on the Paardeberg, Kasteelburg and a third outside Malmesbury. Obviously a young wine, it shows class, an elegance of white spice contained by fruity acid and tannin freshness. A tasty, digestible syrah, that promises to develop well with time; it’s a welcome newcomer to the ever more impressive ranks of local syrah/shiraz.

For those, like Mostert with his winemaking, who want to explore off the beaten track with their taste buds, Silwervis, Smiley and Terracura are very promising paths to follow.

Wine lists encouraging adventure

It would seem self-evident that when one goes to a restaurant it is with the intention of eating, whether it’s a burger at the Spur or a tasting menu at a Michelin star establishment.
For some, a wine list or, to broaden the scope, a beverage list, is an adjunct to the food menu, rather than an essential part of it. While it’s likely the fine diner will be more interested in the beverage/wine list, it’s not a given. Nor is it certain that the burger eater isn’t keen on picking an interesting bottle of wine, craft beer or even tot of spirits to partner it.

Yet, as social media has shown yet again recently, there has been an outcry about restaurants charging to list wines, most of which are supplied by larger producers (smaller producers quite rightly don’t and won’t participate in this sort of practice.) This often results in a boring list, one which doesn’t encourage customers to be more adventurous in their choices or even drink wine at all. How to change this?

(I’m not so naïve as to think there can be a wholesale move away from demanding listing fees, but one only has to think of Ocean Basket, which stopped the practice last year, to realise the message can be heard and re-acted to.)

Mouthwatering wine lists I’ve visited; these in Southern France.

Enthusiasm and even basic knowledge from the sommelier or wine steward would be my starting point, but I thought it better to get views from those on the restaurant floor. Few come more enthusiastic and knowledgeable than Tinashe Nyamudoka, Sommelier at renowned The Test Kitchen or Fortunato (Forti) Mazzone, who opened Forti Grill and Bar earlier this year, and before that owned Ritrovo, both in Pretoria. Forti also co-owns the brand Nick and Forti’s Wines with his friend, Nick van Huysteen, owner of Saronsberg, where Dewaldt Heyns makes the wines.

A pair with equal enthusiasm for wine but very different restaurants; nonetheless, food is a driving factor when the wine list is being compiled. There’s also a personal element to Mazzone’s selection; ‘Wines I enjoy, from wine farms I’ve developed partnerships and friendships with over the years.’

Nyamudoka notes that as 90% of diners choose the menu and wine pairing option (a choice of two wines for each of the eight courses), this strongly influences selections, though inspiration derives from unique wines and those drinking well. The wine list itself is a succinct, five pages.

It would be foolish and self-defeating not to include popular favourites; they are anyway more likely to have continuity on the list, given limited availability of many top wines; they feature to greater (60%) or lesser (30%) on Mazzone’s and Nyamudoka’s lists respectively.

Mouthwatering wine lists I’ve visited: Southern Rhône and UK

At the same time, it’s all too easy for guests to head for familiar names, especially if they’re shy of asking about wines they’ve never heard of. I know what it’s like staring at a wine list where I have little or no idea what I’d be drinking. A short description and vintage for each wine can be an encouragement, which both gentlemen’s lists offer; physically, the lists are easily updated when a new wine or vintage is introduced. I wonder how many other restaurateurs can or bother to do that?

That aside, I can’t think of a better way than their own interaction and that of the other wine staff to encourage guests to venture outside their comfort zone. Many wine staff, not just sommeliers, attend courses on wine and service these days to ensure at least a basic level of knowledge. Two of Mazzone’s staff have WSET Level 3 accreditation, but with his own Cape Wine Academy Diploma II and years of experience, he passes on knowledge to all his long-serving staff. Nyamudoka explains Test Kitchen wine staff need to be able to taste and explain a wine in their own words.

Good choice of wine by the glass, mature wines and degustation menus paired with select wines are other ways these wine enthusiasts encourage guests to try something new. As Nyamudoka has already mentioned, the majority of diners at Test Kitchen select the food and wine pairing menu. ‘They are guaranteed to taste a wine they’ve never had before and never thought they’d like until partnered with a good meal.’

It takes more than enthusiasm to create a really good and interesting wine list, one that spans the great and good the Cape has to offer as well as the more popular favourites.
Mazzone admits; ‘Differentiating yourself from the herd,’ is the most difficult part. ‘We do this by printing maps, information, interesting quotes and by making our menu an A3 document that is exceptionally easy to read.’ ‘In my case,’ offers Nyamudoka, ‘ it’s find the balance, ie depth of mature vintages, compatibility with an ever changing food menu and wines that best showcase a specific region.’

Difficult but not impossible. Encouraging diners to be more adventurous in their wine or beverage selection can be rewarding from many points of view; requiring payment to get on the list isn’t one of them.

Squaring the cabernet circle

Out shopping for a cabernet? I guess front of mind for the average wine drinker would be one that’s good to drink now. Is this such an unrealistic wish?

The late Paul Pontallier, Cellarmaster at Bordeaux First Growth, Chateau Margaux, once told me: ‘A great wine should taste good when it’s young as well as being able to age.’ Local wine writer and colleague, Christian Eedes sees things in a slightly different light, as he writes in his 2017 Prescient Cabernet Sauvignon Report: ‘There seems to be preoccupation with flattening out cabernet’s tannins … some tannic grip is precisely what has always made the variety so well suited to food as well as providing it with maturation potential, which remains the mark of great wine ..’

Just how does one square the circle that cabernet as a variety presents?

This & other photos, some of my favourite winning cabernets

Before delving further, Eedes’ remarks come not only on the back of tasting 65 handpicked cabernets for the above report, but also the obviously exciting experience, at the old wine tasting prior to the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, of a 1978 Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon. He expresses doubts that many of today’s cabernets will have the same staying power; I didn’t check whether that included any among the 15 Prescient winners, but my feeling is many have the pre-requisites for, if not 40 years, then enough of that maturation potential to give label them more than impressive.

A quick further detour; in his original John Platter’s Book of South African Wines, the man himself opined on Nederburg Paarl Cabernet Sauvignon, which he awarded three stars!: ‘Richly-flavoured dry red with great depth and excellent keeping qualities. An elegant wine, not too heavy on the palate.’ Strangely, I find no mention of 1978 in this or follow-up guides, but he does confirm: ’74 best recent vintage’, a vintage I remember very well as likely best of that decade and which I saw via a recent voice on Twitter, was still giving pleasure.

As I tasted through the 15 wines which met Eedes and his co-panel members’ (Roland Peens and James Pietersen of Wine Cellar), criteria of scoring at least 90/100, it’s clear winemakers are getting to grips with what makes a quality cabernet; one that shouldn’t deter pulling the cork, or, as is increasingly the case, unscrewing the cap, on a young wine.

 

That said, we’re still grappling with issues familiar to Gunter Brozel, Nederburg’s celebrated Cellarmaster during the 1970/80s, such as leafroll virus and acidification. On the other hand, those were pre-new, small oak years, which arrived at the end of the 1970s but its widespread use took off only in the 1980s. Brozel’s cabernets evolved in 4000/5000 litre old oak. Long, post-fermentation on the skins was also a thing of the future, as was over-extraction, oh, and high alcohols. Nederburg cabs in the 70s clocked in around 11-12%.

Virus-free (initially) vines changed all that: with sugars easily soaring, we soon reached the age of 14%+ alcohol, then a little residual sugar to temper these giants and a generosity of new, small oak – often not the best until winemakers learned the coopers’ ruses.

I don’t need to continue through the litany of misguided fashions, just be thankful that travel, drinking of the world’s wines and, most importantly, paying more attention to good viticulture – among other necessities – today’s crop of young and slightly less young, winemakers are realising what it does take to produce a great wine, and cabernet as the subject of discussion.

To me this is emphasised by the number of wines from that difficult vintage, 2014, which came through to the very top (I think it’s proving better than 2013). It was apparent that winemakers hadn’t tried too hard; they’ve let the fruit express itself without trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, producing some delicious, pure, well-formed cabernets in the process. Important too is that they’ve then released only after three years, if yet in Neil Ellis’s case; bar Groot Constantia, the others benefitted from an even later release date.

Perhaps squaring the cabernet circle, producing a wine that’s both good young and benefits from lengthy maturation, lies not only in starting with good fruit but also in the approach of Brozel and others of his era – don’t over-complicate the winemaking process. I have a feeling it’s a lesson our winemakers are learning.

PRESCIENT CABERNET SAUVIGNON REPORT 2017 WINNERS

92
Neil Ellis Jonkershoek Valley Stellenbosch 2014
Price: Not yet released.

Strydom Rex 2014
Price: R220

91
Bartinney 2014
Price: R179

Jordan The Long Fuse 2014
Price: R160

Kleine Zalze Family Reserve 2013
Price: R335

Le Riche Reserve 2014
Price: R500

Peter Falke 2013
Price: R140

Rustenberg Peter Barlow 2012
Price: R400

Tokara Reserve Collection 2013
Approximate retail price: R315

Waterford Estate 2014
Price: R295

Warwick Blue Lady 2014
Price: R275

90
Groot Constantia 2015
Price: R201

Neil Ellis Stellenbosch 2014
Price: Not yet released

Spier 21 Gables 2014
Price: R260

Vergelegen V 2012
Price: R1 300

Does bottle size alone matter?

A magnum offers many benefits, but the reason most often advanced, according to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, is; ‘It is widely regarded as being the ideal size for bottle ageing fine wine, being large enough to slow the ageing process, but not so big as to be unwieldy, or unthinkably expensive (unlike some other large formats).’

Thanks to the greater volume of wine to container, a magnum should age more slowly than in a regular 750ml bottle. This was the theory put to the test at the recent SA Sommeliers Association tasting presented by Tinashe Nyamudoka, SASA member and Head Sommelier at The Test Kitchen. All the wines had been sourced from the producers; there were some surprising results.

Nyamudoka had us tripping over our own tongues with the first pairing, a white wine (apologies for lack of photos; my attention was on tasting and taking notes): one, a brilliant green-infused lemon gold; evolving but eye-catching; the other, a deeper shade of orange/gold, not nearly as brilliant and suggesting a much older wine. The appearance of each is confirmed in the glass. Generous floral, honeyed maturity, a richness of ripe, concentrated fruit, lengthened by fine, natural acid; everything in that first glass gives maximum pleasure. Chenin 2007 I wager with time still on its side.

The other showing some oxidation, a little honey and definite sweetness; still chenin, but less harmonious than the first wine. Surely this is bottle, the first a magnum?

Wrong on both counts! Number one is from a regular bottle, but closed with a screwcap, a combination no one thought of; number two is the magnum with a cork closure! The wine: Ken Forrester’s FMC 2007.

The cork was still in good shape, so I’m not sure why the magnum is so advanced. That said, wines under screwcap are recognised as ageing more slowly, in an ageworthy white wine vintage like 2007 especially so.

With the next pair, both garnet-toned ruby, one somewhat denser than the other, there are no tricks, it’s down to bottle size. Clearly in pinot territory, the first immediately exudes ripe red cherry, raspberry aromas; forthright flavours too, fresh, quite viscous and a sweet-fruited tail; not very harmonious at this stage. The other is more reticent, though its black cherry fragrance remains a true varietal indicator. An excellent balance between tannins and freshness match that of pure pinot fruit. What’s more, it finishes totally dry. Bigger format and younger wine go the majority guesses.

As we adduce, the order is first regular bottle, second magnum. Both are Peter-Allan Finlayson’s Crystallum Cuvée Cinema from the rain-affected, lighter 2014 vintage.
I was glad I kept both to try again later, as both changed to their advantage. The bottle gained in harmony with less apparent sweetness, while the magnum opened to reveal its elegance and charm; the latter would certainly benefit from decanting now and I believe has a better future.

David Trafford’s De Trafford Elevation 393 is traditionally cabernet-led with merlot, shiraz and cabernet franc. Don’t be surprised at 15%+ alcohol levels, usually a part of the balanced package, which also includes all new French oak. This combination worked much better for me in the 2001 magnum, a more mature looking, subtle and savoury wine than the rather green spikiness and sweet/acid discord of 2007 from the regular bottle.
Of the many interesting lessons learnt at this tasting, the one I came away thinking about for the umpteenth time is that a specific vintage is not the same for every producer; some will do better than others, even with the same variety or blends.

The 750ml Warwick Trilogy 2007 is a timely reminder. Cabernet-led partnered by the farm’s renowned cabernet franc and merlot, this 10-year-old flagship still boasts a strong ruby red hue, an array of ripe red fruits and spice broadened by harmonious oak. Good energy, suppleness as well as rounded tannin suggest it has plenty of time to go. Weirdly, 2009 ex magnum looks older; there’s complexity but less detail in the rich flavours; a big wine from many points of view, maybe it’s still going through the struggles of youth; given the wine’s track record, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Sommeliers and tasters at the SASA tasting

Two other magnums were poured without regular bottle partners: Klein Constantia Perdeblokke Sauvignon Blanc 2004. Evidently a cool climate sauvignon, I guess before the reveal, with eye-catching brilliance, ageing green bean characters but still plenty of fruit richness.

The magnum of Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 induces a sense of wistful longing for reds that are neither over-ripe nor sweet. It’s ripe with good flesh, freshness, great supportive structure and length. A classically styled cabernet of yesteryear.

For younger tasters and sommeliers generally unversed in these different formats, closures and vintages, such an event offers an invaluable experience. It all goes towards building better wine service and understanding of our wines. Well done, SASA.

Decoration in the Ellerman House Wine Gallery, where SASA tasting was held

Quiet innovator

Many innovative South African winemakers are familiar names to winelovers; Eben Sadie leading that pack with plenty of young guns following him. Not every innovator receives the wider public recognition he or she deserves, not because of less talent, a lack of opinions or even wine sales; maybe they are of a quieter disposition or us writers forget to seek them out.

Super Single Vineyards’ Daniel de Waal is one of them. Back in the 1990s, I remember being impressed with his classic-styled reds from the family farm, Uiterwyk (now DeWaal Wines), an approach he still admirably follows. He holds strong opinions too, as I learned from a recent lengthy chat with him on his Cannettevallei farm in Stellenboschkloof.

The business, started in 2004, now has two distinct ranges. The ‘local’ one, Pella, focuses on small batches, roughly 900 bottles per label, from good, older vineyards around Stellenbosch, Paarl and the Swartland. Reds are without doubt De Waal’s forte, the Pella range includes a classic, cab-led Family Reserve blend, as well as equally splendid varietal wines, each named for the individual vineyard: Granietbult Cabernet Sauvignon, Oukliprant Malbec and Koueveld Petit Verdot with just one white, Kanniedood Chenin Blanc. None, however, are registered as single vineyards – yet. It is the current legislation for single vineyards that is a cause of annoyance to De Waal and I’m in complete agreement with him.

The regulations stipulate, inter alia, that the vineyard shouldn’t exceed six hectares in size and be planted to one variety, but, as De Waal explains, other factors which influence any sense of place in the wine, such a soil, altitude, aspect etc, are not taken into account and can vary even in a block smaller than that maximum. Thus, De Waal takes care to ensure his rows are homogenous in the above respects.

A break of at least seven metres around a block is required for single vineyard registration; ‘A deterrent to any farmer who needs to remove an income-earning row of vines to comply,’ notes De Waal.

As the smallest Wine of Origin, where a sense of place should be front of mind, the single vineyard needs much more rigorous interrogation by the authorities prior to registration. Regrettably, marketing is often argued over place.

Mount Sutherland vineyards under snow. One of several photos in the Cannettevallei tasting room.

It’s De Waal’s other range, Mount Sutherland, where he’s being daringly innovative. Sutherland, a four-hour drive from Stellenbosch, lies at an elevation of 1500 metres, is prone to frost, both white and black, snow and between 200-300mm rain in winter. Precisely the sort of continental climate, with schist soil – ‘not too rich, almost perfect’, De Waal was seeking when he planted the first vines in 2004. The grapes are brought to Stellenbosch for vinification.

It was a trip to the northern Rhône, where he encountered growers speaking of their continental climate, that made him wonder why nobody mentioned it here. A friend in Sutherland introduced him to the area; 2009 produced the maiden vintage.

It’s a brave (some might say foolhardy) wine producer who knowingly introduces vines where spring frosts are a regular occurrence. As I write this, it seems Bordeaux, the Right Bank especially, is being badly hit by frost; this along with areas stretching from Champagne to the Languedoc.

De Waal is pragmatic about the problem. ‘We manage white frost, which usually happens in October, by spraying the vines with water, which freezes and protects them from damage.’ Black frost, a danger in the drier, windy conditions from end October into November, burns the vine from the top down. ‘An upside is that the vine can go through a second budding after a black frost,’ says De Waal, relating with a smile that the Old Mutual Trophy winning Syrah 2012 was made from second-budding fruit.

Light intensity ensures ripening is no problem, ‘We’ve harvested shiraz at 12% potential alcohol with perfectly ripe tannins and even though daytime temperatures can climb as high as 30C, nighttime they’ll drop to 9C, which is good for pH levels.’

Shiraz bunches from Sutherland (top) & Stellenbosch (thanks to Super Single Vineyards Facebook page)

It also seems the diurnal differences, high altitude and dry, south-easterly winds account for the much smaller berries in Sutherland shiraz. ‘Even with small berries, the skins aren’t so thick and the tannins soft.’ De Waal describes some of Sutherland’s benefits but maintains Mount Sutherland wines are very much a work in progress. ‘We planted cabernet, but it needs more humidity and didn’t work out. Sauvignon blanc proved too acidic, so we’ve dropped that too.’ Until it’s seen how the current crop of wines develop, they don’t intend to introduce other new varieties.

That said, both ranges are selling well in the US, online, in restaurants and from the pretty little tasting room on Cannettevallei.

Daniel de Waal might be one of the less high-profile innovators but he’s certainly among those with the most vision and talent.

Poor pinot – a no-no

Many red varieties can get away with offering nothing more than decent red wine in your glass. Not pinot noir.

This isn’t the first time (nor the last) I and others vent such a view.

Shiraz, cabernet, grenache, pinotage: I’ve enjoyed many less than stellar wines from these varieties but a poor pinot is plain unpleasant.

After attending The Vineyard Hotel’s Pinot Noir Festival last Sunday, I also wonder how popular pinot is; there didn’t seem to be nearly as many winelovers as had attended Wine Concepts Chenin and Pinotage Celebration a few weeks before. Too different from other red varieties; too many poor examples; limited quantity of top wines; cost – what is it about pinot that fails to capture wider appreciation?  I know the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration sells out in the blink of an eye, but that is limited to around 150 winelovers or should I say pinot aficionados; if pinot flows through the veins of some, for others, there are the other reds.

There was little to dissuade me from my opening views about pinot on Sunday. Even though only 20 of the well over 100 producers were represented, they came from many areas with top wineries such as Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Newton Johnson and Paul Cluver present.

Ryan Mostert of Terracura recently noted about a Burgundy he tasted while in the area that it had; ‘weightlessness with wild power’. I’m not sure about the wild bit in all pinots but certainly the best at the festival gave a sense of weightlessness and power. Perfume too: is it a characteristic of 2016, I wonder? Certainly both Hamilton Russell and Newton Johnson Family Vineyards are aromatically beguiling, if tighter and less voluptuous than 2015. The latter showed extremely well considering it had only recently been bottled; the consistency the Newton Johnson’s have maintained since the maiden 2008 is amazing and with greater vine age comes greater complexity in the wine. Emul Ross’s first two vintages at HRV are also noteworthy; the pinots seem to have a new energy to them. Now that Kevin Grant has finally decided he’s sufficiently satisfied with his pinot to ‘classify’ it under the Ataraxia label, his Hemel en Aarde Ridge 2015 adds to the positive reputation of the valley as a whole. It has a generosity of ripe dark fruit with a hint of forest floor complexity, a well-integrated freshness and a blessedly dry finish. Sweetness, evident in too many, is a clumsy extra.

These and a few others on show highlighted just how well Hemel en Aarde producers are doing with pinot. That’s not to neglect Elgin, which does have an individual thumbprint, perhaps summed up by a cool freshness of feel, some wines capturing greater fruit richness than others. Paul Cluver, Iona and Shannon (the last made by Gordon and Nadia Newton Johnson and not on the festival) most consistently reflect the region, but chardonnay’s your grape, Elgin!

So to Stellenbosch. If I came away from the Pinot Noir Festival wowed by any wine, it was the Meerlust 2016; Chris Williams’ wine has aromatic purity with subtlety, rich yet delicate flesh in an harmonious whole; an absolute delight. Remember the years when this wine was earthy and organic thanks to the then predominant BK5 clone? Newer and better vines as well as earlier harvesting surely now account for such lovely fruit.

 

 

 
Meerlust is not alone; just down the road is Mick and Jeanine Craven’s Faure pinot noir. Their flavoursome 2016 shares Meerlust’s pure pinot perfume and freshness, just in a lighter mode (their alcohols rarely top 13%). It wasn’t on the festival and is probably like hens’ teeth at retailers, but snap up any bottles spotted.

Again, success is due producer rather than exclusively area, and, in pinot’s case, those producers who drink and understand pinot from Burgundy and around the world.

Where great wines are born

Put me in a vineyard and I’m happy. Put me in an old vineyard and I’m even happier. Put an old vineyard in a bottle and we should all be happy.

Andrea & Chris Mullineux, Rosa Kruger in 117-year old cinsaut vineyard. NB road in background.

Standing among 117-year old vines is an inspiring and humbling experience; an experience which becomes that much more tangible when tasting the wine those wrinkled but sturdy old plants have produced. To passing traffic, including myself many times, this Wellington cinsaut centenarian is just another vineyard, but for the past four years or so, it has become a special place for viticulturist, Rosa Kruger and winemaking team, Chris and Andrea Mullineux. It is now an integral and important contributor to their new Leeu Passant Dry Red Wine.

 

 

 

To divert a minute, Leeu Passant is the Mullineux’s project that’s caused much speculation and anticipation over the past few years; the idea was sparked when Kruger showed the couple old vineyards she found. It became reality when Analjit Singh, the Mullineux’s business partner, urged them to make something from these vineyards. I suspect few speculated correctly but here we now have two chardonnays – as different as only high, cool Elandskloof and lower, warmer Stellenbosch fruit, plus Andrea Mullineux’s sensitivity to site, can produce – and a Dry Red Wine whose cabernet sauvignon, cinsaut components hark back to the Rustenberg Dry Reds, Chateau Libertases and similar others of yore; a spicing of cabernet franc lends a modern touch (or as the Mullineux’s put it; ‘We’ve deconstructed and reconstructed’). It’s a near equal partnership where each variety plays so harmoniously with yet individually off the others. Truly a wine with soul.

General view of 117-year old cinsaut vineyard in Wellington.
To compare, old Wellington cinsaut vineyard’s neighbour, +- 40 years old

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As is that Wellington vineyard. Here there’s no neat trellising; each vine is self-supporting, has its own way of growing and rejuvenating and has to be tended as an individual. Dead branches are allowed to fall as and when they will to avoid risk of infection by removing them with a saw.

A thick layer of straw mulch keeps the soil cool around the vines but underneath that scrappy, sandy surface (a carpet of cover-crop green adds colour in spring) is moisture-retentive clay; both allow this dryland vineyard to survive even 2017’s long hot summer.
Beyond surviving, four years down the road the vines are starting to thrive, but not without regular fortnightly visits from the vineyard team. The mere 500 kgs harvested in 2014 increased to just under two tons (or around six tons per hectare) by 2017.

One only has to look at the younger, but neglected, neighbouring vineyard, to gauge the work and care that has gone into producing the beautiful, healthy fruit which plays an important role in the Leeu Passant Dry Red Wine. All this at a cost; R100 000 last year. For just one vineyard.

Franschhoek cinsaut 91 years old. Leeu Passant cellar, left of centre, other side of the valley.

The slightly-younger, Franschhoek cinsaut vineyard (a sprightly 91 and overlooking the Mullineux’s cellar the other side of the valley), yields around half of its Wellington counterpart (three tons/ha). For the real viticultural geeks, the red leaves indicate virus, but it’s not leafroll; there’s no problem with photosynthesis (brace yourselves – this year’s wine, spontaneously fermented, clocks in at just over 16% alcohol; less noticeable than one might think, thanks in part to being bone dry and with a firmness of tannin from fruit Andrea Mullineux describes as having ‘skins as thick as cabernet’.)

These are but two of 14 scattered vineyards currently providing fruit for the Leeu Passant wines. There have been others, but once vinified, the wine was deemed ‘not compatible with what we’re looking for’ and so dropped.

To produce wines of this calibre requires attention to detail (in the vineyard and cellar), understanding, good organisation and stamina. When their Swartland Roundstone cellar is in operation next harvest, the Mullineux’s, Andrea especially, will be doing much driving back and forth between the Swartland and Franschhoek; fortuitously, their two children go to school en route in Wellington. The search will soon be on for someone to assist at Roundstone.

If this has been more about vines than wines, it’s mainly because vines are rarely the focus of attention but also hopefully to give some context to the price of the wines (R625 for the chardonnays, R975 for the Dry Red), which, have unfairly raised eyebrows; they’re certainly not the first at this level and the Mullineux’s already have an established reputation for quality.

Tasting Leeu Passant wines with Andrea & Chris Mullineux.

 

Rosa Kruger enjoying the fruits of the team’s labours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Generally, rather than too specifically, texture is important in all three: shot-silk, a ripe peach-skin bite and refreshing natural acid in the Elandskloof, the flavours bright, tropical lemon flesh. It is more pleasurable now than the intense, austere and vibrant Stellenbosch version, which will, undoubtedly, blossom with time. I’d like to think anyone willing to pay these prices will give the wines time. The Dry Red – ah the red! – gently perfumed soft berries, leafy spice; a graceful glide across the palate, shaped by caressing tannins. Distinctive and full of soul, it will reward in many ways for years to come.

Each wine is beautifully interpreted, but ultimately the vineyards are where these great wines are born.

Leeu Passant, an heraldic term meaning Walking Lion