When the idea came to me of writing about honouring our South African vineyards, I vaguely remembered an interesting story about one of the most highly-regarded pinot noir vineyards in California, Pisoni Vineyards, which belongs to the eponymous family. Several producers buy their pinot, each acknowledging the vineyard on the label. I recalled there were certain conditions under which these producers could purchase the fruit but, unable to remember all the detail, I wrote to the Pisonis asking for further information.
A friendly note from Jeff Pisoni, ‘a huge fan of South Africa and the wine regions,’ filled in the background.
‘My father, Gary, is a wonderfully passionate (and entertaining!) individual. We grew up in a conservative farming town, and he always wanted to follow his own path and vision. This is where the “purchase agreements” come in. All other farmers in the area have signed contracts, and he never wanted to do so. He loved our vineyard and grapes so much that he didn’t want it to feel like a contractual negotiation. Instead, he wanted all his fruit sales (then and still today) to be based on handshake agreements—to respect each other and the fruit.
His requirements to our grape buyers are:
1. You have to make great wine.
2. You have to be my friend.
3. And you have to pay the bill! (and always being very witty, he would joke about the last one being the hard part!)’
I like that idea very much. By reputation, producers of Pisoni Vineyard pinot noir, are making great wine and honouring the vineyard. Is there is a vineyard here where a group of wine producers all source their fruit and bottle it without blending from other vineyards? Jeff’s dad’s requirements would go a way to honouring a great vineyard.
Coincidentally, Jeff told me he’s been here a few times for harvest and, seeing my article on Iona, remarked he’s tasted with Andrew Gunn ‘and really love his wines’. Jeff’s wife was at one time assistant winemaker at Saronsberg, while on another South African-related note, he tells me; ‘in addition to the wines I make for my family, I also make wines for Fort Ross Vineyard, where the owners are South African. And as a result, they grow (and I make) a small amount of Pinotage here in California. Fun stuff.’
We’ve honoured winemakers (too much), we’ve started to honour viticulturists (not before time), now we need to honour vineyards.
South African vineyards have had a rough ride. The scourge of leafroll virus is still rife; a few, with rigour, dedication and general sanitary practices, have eradicated it; Vergelegen is a notable example. Sadly, a newly planted, virus-free vineyard can soon turn: virus-free vines doesn’t equal virus-resistant.
Until 2006, individual vineyards were spoken of only in whispers and behind locked doors; they certainly didn’t receive official recognition. The Cape Estate Wine Producers Association saw to that; they enjoyed and protected their status as the smallest unit under the Wine of Origin scheme. With changes to the Estate legislation, so the single vineyard designation became legal. Such vineyard has to be registered, planted to a single variety, be no larger than six hectares and ‘single vineyard wine’ has to appear on the label (whether or not it’s accompanied by a particular name of the vineyard), as does the designated Wine of Origin.
Judging by the numerous responses to my request for designated single vineyard wines, even among knowledgeable wine friends, there is confusion – I received dozens of proprietary names, few of which are labelled ‘single vineyard wine’.
So how many registered single vineyards are there? According to the latest SAWIS figures – 1711; many producers register multiple blocks, some the whole farm; these are often listed as Block 5 or similar, only a few have a name. It might look a large number but not when one considers the extent of South African vineyards.
An interesting recent proposal suggests ‘in addition to the other stated objects (sic) (I think they mean objectives), in the case of single vineyard wine, the objects are “to express the distinctive characteristics of a small specific site as determined by soil, cultivar, rootstock, clone, meso-climate, exposure and viticultural and winemaking purposes.’ One might have thought such details would have been top of mind when the legislation was first passed.
It is relevant not only to the wine’s distinctive characteristics but its consistency. The old Vine Project has increased awareness of not just old, but quality vineyards. This recognition now needs to spread more generally; top vineyards need to be recognised alongside the top wines produced from their fruit. The chain shouldn’t stop at the winemaker nor viticulturist.
Of course, not all single vineyards are capable of producing stellar quality; nor are single vineyards the be-all-and-end-all, but the single vineyard does focus on the issue of matching variety and site for the purpose of revealing a sense of place in the wine.
This doesn’t happen overnight or it shouldn’t; it requires experience and understanding.
It was while reflecting on the issue of honouring vineyards that serendipity offered a hand. Andrew Gunn of Iona Vineyards invited me and my colleague, Tim James, to taste and discuss new wines, including the maiden single vineyard wines.
The single vineyards, Kloof, Kroon and Fynbos, are defined by both aspect and soil. North facing Kloof (both chardonnay and pinot noir) is on silica quartz with clay; Kroon (pinot noir) comprises alluvial gravel, sandstone and Ferrocrete underpinned by clay and faces south; north-facing Fynbos (chardonnay) lies on alluvial gravel, sandstone with underlying clay.
An important self-imposed restriction is that the vineyards have to be at least 10 years old before they’ll be considered for the single vineyard label; a period during which the vineyard can prove its quality credentials and the winemaker his understanding of it.
While waiting for ten years to elapse, these and some older chardonnay and pinot noir vineyards are channeled into Iona Chardonnay 10 Barrel and Iona Pinot Noir 10 Barrel, currently both 2018 and sold exclusively through Woolworths, where they offer terrific value for R250. There’s no dumbing down, no new oak, pure flavours and freshness that offer ready pleasure but are soundly built for a good few years.
Next level up incorporates the former Iona Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both 2018 and now indicated by Elgin Highlands on the label. A gentle introduction to perhaps a future new Ward, from which Elgin would benefit. Selling for just R40 more than the 10 Barrel pair, they are drawn from blocks of older vines, evident in their increased concentration which is well able to handle 30% of larger format new oak. The fragrant pinot is particularly charming; very Elgin in its lively freshness, with a delicacy matched by concentration.
The single vineyard quartet, all 2017s, selling for R500, are labelled ‘Limited edition’ as the official single vineyard wine label will come into effect with the 2018s. I think of them as unadorned, essentially holding up a mirror to each vineyard. The Kloof chardonnay and pinot pair are firmly built, their full flavours needing time to develop. The pinot stony, dark-fruited with a suggestion of truffles; concentrated and prolonged but again, with lightness and delicacy. There’s stony quality to the chardonnay too, complemented by a grainy texture and a sound acid backbone: it might sound unlikely but this is a graceful wine.
Kroon pinot and Fynbos chardonnay are more forthcoming; seductive, juicy and luscious .. but plenty of support to benefit from ageing.
Much of the wines’ freshness, purity and alcohols around 13.5% can be attributed to long, slow ripening with harvest taking place in mid-March, a full two weeks later than the rest of Elgin.
The approach Andrew and Rosy Gunn with winemaker Werner Muller are taking shows first and foremost they are respecting their vineyards; at every step doing all they can to ensure each vineyard’s voice is heard loud and clear.
We may be far off a vineyard classification but it’s a goal that would duly honour our vineyards.
Palladius, Eben Sadie’s white blend, is a reflection of the evolution of the Swartland. As with any wine, its development remains a journey rather than destination, but last Saturday’s vertical of the first 15 vintages fascinatingly revealed achievements along the route from 2002 to 2016 .
It was never Sadie’s intention to make a white wine; his focus was on a single red, Columella but while exploring vineyards for this, his attention was caught by the many old chenin and chardonnay vines. At the time, sauvignon blanc-chardonnay blends were popular, which encouraged him to experiment with not just a new blend, but a new category, which even until today defies categorisation. As Sadie noted, his Platter White Blend of the Year, Palladius 2017 is described on the award certificate as ‘White blends, other’.
As much as our white blends receive high praise from international commentators, winelovers don’t understand what they are about, so these blends are difficult sells. We are still a varietally-driven wine-drinking nation; such a pity as many blends, Palladius a star among them, offer something unique.
2002 – a cool vintage, 2003 – one of the warmest vintages, 2004 – cooler vintage
The blend in these years was chenin, chardonnay and viognier, with grenache added in 2004. Fermentation in very old Burgundian barrels obtained from Gyles Webb, occurred naturally. A mistake saw a few grams of residual sugar in 2002, which, due being unfined and unfiltered, started to re-ferment in the bottle leaving a slight spritz, which the Japanese enjoyed and complained when there was none in 2003.
Bottles of 2002 can be hit and miss; here the mellowness of age is accompanied by some sweetness, fruit richness and 14.8% alcohol with the spritz introducing an unusual but welcome freshness. Not unpleasant but without great distinction.
2003 is dry, again very ripe and big – 14.9% on label, actually 15.5%. Eye-catching bright yellow gold colour; viscous, creamy and rich delivering an immediate impact; it received big scores outside South Africa. It would appear old style now. Lower acid but still flavorsome.
2004 One of Eben’s favourites and mine of the older wines. I had a bottle in London earlier this year; this one too showed similar complexity, vitality and tension. Grenache blanc adds to the flavour dimension. Delicious now, though unlikely to head downhill anytime soon.
2005 – great vintage here and in Europe, 2006, 2007 – Sadie’s most perfect vintage of early years
Start of a major change with grenache blanc playing a more important role (up to 40%) and viognier reduced to 10%. Larger, 500 L barrels introduced ‘for greater stability’. Chardonnay was dropped in 2006 when Sadie realised ‘Swartland isn’t chardonnay country’. Clairette blanche, picked fully ripe at 11.5% alcohol, filled the gap and brought alcohol under 14.3%. Roussanne, which ‘gives volume’, joined the blend in 2007.
2005 has a glowing yellow gold colour. Impact here is from the firm structure, freshness and grainy grip, as opposed to richness of earlier vintages. Grenache’s thatchy, dry hay character adds a new flavour dimension.
2006 more developed, strong reddish gold and suggestion of oxidation. Follows 2005’s style but unlikely to gain further interest
2007 speaks of sunny climes and the Swartland but also has great energy and a saline edge in its subtle complexity. Lovely wine with real personality and plenty in store.
2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
Changes beyond the blend itself in this trio of vintages. In 2008, the bottle changed from Bordeaux shape to one with a sloped shoulder, indicative of the wine going its own way and reaching a stature similar to Columella. Picking was earlier for greater freshness. 2009 was a reference year for Sadie; Palladius became a blend of specific vineyards rather than varieties. Viognier and roussanne were dropped, being replaced by semillon blanc and gris and palomino. A dream vintage, as everything was harvested prior to the heatwaves. 2010 an easy year, the only problem being it came after 2009. The blend settled at 11 varieties, each of which has a place in the Swartland though not all liked by Sadie. 2011 identical weather pattern to 2009. Verdelho added to the blend.
2008 – Platter’s White Wine of the Year. Underwent an extended 18 months’ fermentation with a vigorous burst to dryness in October 2009. Deep yellow gold, quiet and developed with a touch of sweetness. Offers some pleasure without vitality and dimension of 2007.
2009 extraordinarily youthful, pale lemony, green; compact build with a silky undercurrent. More a sense of flavour – savouriness, herbaceousness – than anything specific. Elegant and ageworthy.
2010 youthful, pale colour contrasted by broad, mouthfilling richness with some oxidation. Lacks freshness and complexity, maybe an unrepresentative bottle if not, drink up.
2011 semillon’s beeswaxy character and satiny texture plus undertone of verdelho’s smoky, tropical melon add distinction to the freshness and precise finish. Needs good few more years to show at best.
A moderate vintage that went well, 2012 is notable for the first Palladius under 14% alc. 2013 is marked by Paul Jordaan joining the team in the cellar, sales of Palladius taking off and the style settled.
2012 more open, expressive than 2011; Sadie believes it’s a vintage that would better fit now on a restaurant wine list. Balance between freshness, weight and smooth flow. Doesn’t demand introspection, so good partner to conversation.
2013 the best from the old cellar regime. Multi-dimensional both in flavour – fynbos, wild herbs, dried grass – and texture – lots of energy, silky weight and grainy grip. Great precision and potential.
2014, 2015, 2016
A key change in 2014 was a new cellar, concrete eggs and clay vessels. Sadie’s thoughts on the purpose of each vessel is instructive. ‘Introvert grapes go into concrete eggs, where they are in contact with lots of lees. Louder grapes ferment in the amphorae which have a small base and less lees contact.’ After a year in these vessels, the wine’s blended and spends a further year in large, old foudres. No other oak is involved.
Colombar joined the mix in 2015. Sadie discusses psychological maturity, a term coined by Adi Badenhorst and meaning when the winemaker wants the wine to mature. Ripe and smooth reds for drinking in the year of release or tighter and structured for ageing. In relation to Palladius, Sadie believes the wine can’t get any leaner and still be a reflection of the Swartland.
2016 confirms a growth in complexity and confidence started with 2013’s stylistic change and 2014’s vinification modification.
2014 with alcohol under 14%, energy, a spring-like fragrance of fynbos and hay, juicy flavours held by a tightly-wound core, this is a charmer with plenty finesse.
2015 less exuberant than 2014, a more serious, complex and complete blend; still closed and very firm. I guess it needs at least three or four years to start showing its best.
2016 aromatically expressive, ripe but just 13.4% alc, prolonged concentration, brimming with vitality and refreshingly dry. For the long haul.
Turning 40 deserves celebration, especially when achieved by something as niche as a wine guide. Platter’s South African Wine Guide, as it is now known, has also managed, to an extent, to withstand the digital onslaught and is still published in print, with an app also available.
When there were fewer wines and wineries to review, more space was devoted to stories of the farms, wines and winemakers; thus it was an excellent repository for a small piece of history of South African wine. Sadly, today there is little space for such details.
But how much of Platter is actually read? Most turn to the star ratings and maybe read the actual reviews of the wines. Do many even glance through the Editor’s note, Trends in South African wine or Our Method and The Accolades We Award, which now are part of the guide?
In recognition of Platter’s milestone, I’ve compiled a selection of John Platter’s notes and thoughts from the first ten editions, as well as extracts from the luminaries who wrote a Foreward. Significant introductions to the guide are also mentioned, as well as the first and other early five star awardees.
For those who cannot wait to learn this year’s results, page down to the end, but please do return to read the rest!
First edition Preface – John Platter
This guide is intended for the average wine drinker, for the aspiring enthusiast – and for the confused; confused by the proliferation of wines with labels often bewilderingly vague about what’s inside the bottle.
The star system is NOT intended to indicate a wine without stars is inferior It is simply to praise those wines we do know. ..almost any yardstick is better than none and this guide would be the poorer without one. Five stars – Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon; Nederburg Paarl Edelkeur
Revised 1982 edition
We are now witnessing the first of the Cabernet Sauvignon blends containing Merlot and Cabernet Franc – the traditional Medoc way.
At last we seem in reach of an important goal: to produce wines deeper and more complex in fruity flavours – unaccompanied by sweetness.
Until more farmers stop overfeeding and overwatering and overcropping their vines, the quality of our wines will never rise much above a good average. … Cape wines have reached nothing like their quality potential yet, partly because of the vast and stifling quasi-official interference.
The reception of the first edition … seems to show there are lots of average drinkers and/or aspiring enthusiasts out there ready to join the cause. Cheers.
1983 – Dave Hughes Foreword
But if we are to be frank about our dry whites, we must admit they are, with few exceptions, boring. … in the case of chardonnay, we must speed up matters and here the authorities have a crucial role. … among all the thousands of entries at the annual National Goodwood Wine Show in 1982, there was only one solitary chardonnay entry.
Elgin, Ceres, Walker Bay – these are among areas that might provide prospects for improved performances of such vines (cool-climate loving riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot noir). But production there is restricted. Introduction of a General Index of variety/style
1984 – Jan Boland Coetzee Foreword
The impression I have is that we have produced and distributed wine without ‘selling’ it. The French .. ‘sell’ a story with every bottle.
It would be a great tragedy if the strides in quality were not matched by imaginative and fresh approaches … to loosen up and re-structure the industry .. to meet the challenges of the times ….
1985 – Author’s note
… we have modified our method of assessment and as a result a number of wines have a lower star rating than in previous years.
… the growing number of Cape wines vinified from inherently superior grape varieties, such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc …, made it increasingly inappropriate to continue assessing wines by cultivar. A ‘very good’ chenin blanc would in the past receive four stars, the same as a ‘very good’ sauvignon blanc when the latter invariably was instrinsically a better wine. (Of course, John’s view of chenin has since gone through 180 °; see pp 46-47 in his book My Kind of Wine)
1985 – Peter Devereux Foreword
Times of change are times of high excitement. For many winelovers they are also times of confusion – old knowledge becoming obsolete, new labels arriving in the shops … How important, then to have an annual update like this .. an assembly of well-presented reference. Five stars – Backsberg Cabernet Sauvignon; Delheim Edelspatz Noble Late Harvest; Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon & Paul Sauer Fleur 1982; Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon & Rubicon; Nederburg Private Bin R103 & Edelkeur; Overgaauw Tria Corda; Stellenryk Collection Cabernet Sauvignon; Vriesenhof Vintner’s Private Reserve; Welgemeend Estate Wine. (E&OE!)
1986 – Author’s note
More and more now, when you visit a cellar, after … tasting, the winemaker will wink confidentially and say: ‘Have we a few more minutes?’ He (Still very much ‘he’ in those days – AL) then .. pulls a cork or draws a sample. ‘Just something we’ve been trying on the side,’ he will beam proudly. Among such non-commercial wines I’ve tasted this past season are some absolutely superlative ones. In fact, they may outrank a number of the best mentioned in this book.
1986 – Nico Myburgh Foreword
The gentleman who first suggested … we have sufficient sunshine to justify not adding sugar could not have been a farmer himself, because he should have known that even in South Africa the elements do not always play ball. We are now forced to leave the grapes too long on the vines, with the result that they are over mature and have passed their peak.
We could do what the Italians do: use grape sugar (moskonfyt) to give us that extra 1 to 2 degrees of alcohol to make a really top wine .. when the weather lets us down.
1987 – Author’s note
In this latest 1987 edition we have had valuable assistance from Angela Lloyd, whose cheerful competence, whether before a computer or a glass, has lightened the load of preparing this much-expanded production. (It runs to 208 tightly-crammed pages, as compared with 119 very-spaced-out pages in the first edition – AL)
I am acknowledged as Contributing Associate Editor. Foreword featured excerpts from previous editions A wine’s rating
No star – the wine has not been assessed; (*) A star in brackets means a half-star; * – Acceptable; ** – Pleasant; *** – Good (to very good in its class); **** – Excellent; ***** – Superlative. These are personal ratings, made entirely in a South African context.
The first edition where wines rated **** and above were printed in red.
1988 – Author’s note
During this, the ninth annual marathon of tastings …, it’s become palatably clear that Cape wines at last are edging seriously towards world class and in the serious categories – Burgundies, both white and red. …only a tiny handful. But there can be no doubt … that South African wines will soon be a match for the finest of the Old and New Worlds.
We’re still releasing our reds and chardonnays too soon. The ‘elusive nuances’ of French classics take time to emerge.
The best reds and whites of just five years ago would today be considered very average.
1988 – Cecil Skotnes Foreword
I have loved dearly … Ronald Searle’s ‘Illustrated Winespeak’ amd Kingsley Amis’s ‘On Drink’. The latter’s great statement ‘you can commit to memory everything Lichine has to say about Gevrey-Chambertin and still have no idea whether you would like the wine – reading must be combined with as much drinking experiences as pocket and liver will allow’ has carried me through many meaningful moments.
1989 – Author’s note
The exercise is an exhausting pleasure; more than 3000 wines detailed, many of the re-assessed, with 230 new ones from this past season alone.
Perhaps the most exciting development … remains our chardonnays – even co-operative wineries will soon have them and are preparing to buy new French oak.
The odd contradiction in the ratings may be evident. Like all wine enthusiasts, I can be carried away here and there too, and shall spare readers any bogus apologies.
… we’ve tried to liven up the reading with numerous brief personal sketches of the winemakers, their vineyards, their methods and ideals ….. Date of establishment and current production in cases or tonnes are given where available.
South Africa, we’re told, has ‘the best average wines in the world’. It’s a put down that should not be allowed to stick.
… we must continue to hope the politics of apartheid do not forever starve our most gifted winemakers of world class competition, export markets and the stimulus of frequent international peer comparisons.
Boschendal’s Achim von Arnim and Twee Jongegezellen’t Nicky Krone have observed it would be meaningless to improve the quality of our wines without at the same time improving the quality of life of all who work in our vineyards.
1989 – Michael Fridjhon Foreword
The most accurate descriptions of all wines demand a certain poetic flair … Every wine is an historical artefact, the essence of a summer trapped in bottle.
John and Erica Platter are able to capture this essential truth without reducing the wines they describe to something sterile and two-dimensional. Man of the Year is introduced – Nico Myburgh was the first honoured, posthumously.
1990 – Author’s note
Our first edition recorded one Cape chardonnay. There are now 40. And who would have guessed then that chenin blanc, the Cape’s reliable staple, would be overshadowed so rapidly and emphatically, as a dry white wine, by sauvignon blanc, which accounted for four labels then and 121 now. Only one methode champenoise sparkling wine featured in the first edition; there are now 17.
We were reckless enough to ignore the charming gentleman at the KWV who tried to dissuade us … from undertaking such a folly. He was chief at the time of the KWV’s public relations department, charged with spreading the word of wine. ‘Hopeless’, he said ‘that sort of book is outdated so quickly you’d have to keep re-writing it.’
The first edition described 1250 wines (on 119 pages at a cost of R6,95); today’s records about 4000 (on more than 300 pages, at a retail price of R17.95).
We thought it fair ten years ago to record two wines with a top five-star rating. A decade later we have none – though rather more at four-and-a-half stars.
But Cape wines will never be completely acceptable to a wider wine world (and not only abroad) until our political house in re-ordered. This is a task beyond the powers of wine producers. But it should never serve as an excuse to lag behind in the fields in which individuals can make an impact – labour relations, housing, wages, education.
Introduction of (colour) photos taken by Dennis Gordon. Man of the Year was Etienne le Riche
1990 – Dr Danie Craven Foreword
I was brought up in an old-fashioned house where alcohol of any kind was to be avoided. … I had to travel to France, where a Springbok team was touring and where, of course, they are well-known for their wines. I told the Springbok manager that I intended to take wine with my meals but I did not, however, wish to have it at breakfast.
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The Mothership Chenin Blanc 2018
When did the Old Vine story really begin? It was a question even Rosa Kruger and Andre Morgenthal had difficulty answering and they have both been involved with the Old Vine Project from its early days. Rosa started hunting down old vineyards while working at L’Ormarins for Johann Rupert. In 2007 she also established I Am Old, a website where she listed those vineyards over 35 years old; to begin with she had to track down those details from the farmers themselves and with the help of Vinpro, as SAWIS wouldn’t release them.
Trying to recall these beginnings was the prelude to a tasting I hosted of the maiden Sadie Family Wines 2009 Ouwingerds range. Eben had kindly given me the wines many years ago; it seemed appropriate to open them as the momentum of the Old Vine Project continues to grow and as the wines reach ten years old. Eben started by giving us some historical background on the range and each vineyard.
It was relevant to the wines themselves that both Skurfberg (chenin) and Kokerboom (semillon) vineyards were in good shape when Eben first took in the fruit; not so for Mrs Kirsten (chenin) which was run down. It was this wine which limited the number of Ouwingerds range cases as just 300 bottles were made each year from 2006 to 2010.
Regenerating the vineyards has required interplanting; in clean blocks like Skurfberg and Kokerboom, using their own material. In virused vineyards, such as Mrs Kirsten and Treinspoor (tinta barocca), interplantings are from clean material. These younger vines do contribute to the final wine but the grapes are harvested at a different time.
Over the years, vinification has undergone major changes. The 2009s were basket-pressed and all spontaneously-fermented in small, roughly 22 year-old oak barrels purchased from Thelema; the wine was left to clarify in cask from which they were bottled, unfined and unfiltered with just a small sulphur addition.
Small casks gave way to big, old foudres and, in 2013 600 litre clay amphora were introduced; all, according to Eben, give a much better, purer expression of each vineyard.
The importance of the set of 2009 Ouwingerds range is perhaps not sufficiently appreciated by all of us who buy at least some of the wines every year. Before 2009, the Sadies tried to sell the wines individually; it didn’t work. The wines were considered too expensive, Mrs Kirsten (as she was until the Afrikaans Mev took over in 2009 to complement the other wines’ Afrikaans names) the most pricey.
It took the set – just 300 cases at R3000 each – with the William Kentridge labels to galvanise interest in old vines. Of course, other wines had been made from old vines: Francois Malherbe of Eikenhof, Marc Kent at Boekenhoutskloof (from Eikenhof fruit) and Basil Landau at Landau du Val had bottled semillon from old vines for many years, but the fuss really started and spread with the Ouwingerds range.
Unlike many of today’s limited production wines, pricing of the Ouwingerds range has remained remarkably ungreedy. The rationale, as Eben explains is to encourage people to drink the wines and to save more vineyards. ‘If the wines sold for R800 each, fewer wines would sell, so fewer vineyards would be saved. Charging around R300 ensures a more positive outcome.’
There’s rationale too in Eben’s choice of varieties. ‘You can’t tell the history of South African wine without chenin and greengrape (semillon), cinsaut and field blends. Tinta barocca is more Swartland specific.’
So to the wines. Pofadder first. There’s a serenity in its subtle flavour and supple mouthcoating flesh. With time, it grew in purity of expression and seriousness but always in a contained rather than flamboyant manner. Although it has secondary characteristics, it belies its age and 14.5% alcohol. According to Eben, alcohols higher than 12% or 13% are necessary in the Swartland.
Skurfberg weighs in at 14.8% alc but is also perfectly balanced. Bright lemony gold in colour, there’s a mature, wet wool, mushroomy/truffly complexity throughout, its richness nicely offset by a dry, pithy finish. A favourite among many.
‘T Voetpad (field blend of red and white semillon, palomino and chenin) 14% alc. The cork had dried out and crumbled but the wine was fine, if the most advanced in appearance (old gold) and with an oxidative note in its savouriness. Eben reckons this would be the one alive in 60 years time! If ‘T Voetpad was controversial, perhaps the most acclaimed wine of the tasting was …
Kokerboom is just sublime. Perfect balance, at 14.5% alc, provides the impression of lightness (fresh acid) with weight (dense silky texture). A true lemon honey fragrance and toasty lees-like conclusion made me think this is the best mature semillon I’ve enjoyed.
Mev Kirsten 13.5% alc. This, like the 2006, 2007 and 2008 Eben also brought along, is as dry a wine as I can remember having. Steely and sparse, it seemed to have less flavour than the others with 07 having flesh on its bones and good chenin wet wool, spicy character. Except for 09, the colours all have a degree of reddish gold. I’d probably drink up 09, with 07 the one most likely to age further.
Eselshoek 12.5% alc Hanepoot from the ‘T Voetpad vineyard. Made only in 2009, 10 and 11, this tawny-hued sweet wine has good acid to offset the sugar so it’ll live on, but when asked why he stopped making the wine, Eben responded; ‘I leave sweet wines to the Mullineux’s, one can’t compete with those.’
This was an exceptional and interesting tasting. I think someone mentioned a case of this one-off Ouwingerds range recently sold for R28 000. Thank goodness the individual wines are today within the reach of more winelovers to the benefit of old vineyards, the farmers and farm workers.
Back in the day (that’d be the 1970s/80s), visitors to the few independent wineries around would have found a wide range of wines to choose from. In their efforts to attract wine lovers away from the then all-dominant big guys like Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and Distillers, these smaller operations had to make sure they had a wine to suit every customer. Some also saw it as an opportunity to experiment with new varieties and see which worked best, both in the vineyard and the marketplace.
For anyone who never experienced this era, it took the independents a great deal of courage to bottle and sell their own wine; the producing wholesalers, on whom most relied to buy the bulk of their grapes or wine, could easily refuse to do so if they thought the independent producer was offering too much competition. In other words, going it alone could be commercial suicide.
This was particularly true of an area like Robertson where the co-operatives dominated and independent wineries were minnows by comparison. Checking through the first 1980 edition of Platter, just four non-co-operative Robertson wineries are mentioned (there may have been others not included): De Wetshof Estate, Mont Blois Estate, Rietvallei Estate and Excelsior. Only Excelsior was open to the public, the others were all marketed by the Bergkelder (part of Distillers), so carefully controlled ‘competition’.
Van Loveren might not have featured in the first guide but plans must’ve been far advanced to launch the first wine, as on 23rd October 1980 Van Loveren Premier Grand Cru, a chenin blanc, was released. Robertson then was better known for jerepigo and brandy, the latter made from chenin blanc and colombar but a dry white wine was considered a curiosity. Chardonnay, pinot noir and other red varieties were still light years away.
Wynand Retief, who made that first Van Loveren Premier Grand Cru, told guests at the 30th anniversary of the launch, it took a year to sell the 500 cases. Undaunted, by the time the farm first appeared in the 1983 Platter, a fernão pires and a hárslevelü, both 1982 had joined the range – remarkably both were firsts in the Cape. There’s confidence for you! The Retiefs were also quick to pick up on fashion. Muscat Blanc de Noir arrived in 1983, following the success of Boschendal’s maiden 1981. Wynand recalled his father’s wise advice, ‘You have to be able to give every consumer who visits what they want,’ so the range continued to grow.
After completing their studies, Wynand and Nico’s four sons joined the farm and in 2000, the Four Cousins range was introduced; the rest is history of this biggest-selling bottled wine brand.
Neither time nor the Retiefs stand still; there are always new consumers and a new generation of wine lovers to satisfy. Enter the Christina van Loveren premium range around the time of the 30th anniversary. No surprise again, then, when earlier this year, the ‘Almost Zero’ range was introduced. As Van Loveren CEO, Phillip Retief reasons: ‘Almost Zero taps into consumer lifestyle changes and especially the growing trend of fitness-focused healthy living that is driving innovation of low-alcohol and alcohol-free products. It caters to the very specific need to have a non-alcoholic drink that still has a distinctive wine character.’
Perhaps the ‘distinctive’ is optimistic but the three – um, de-alcoholised drinks (with just 0.4% alcohol, they cannot legally be called wine) – Wonderful White, Ravishing Rosé and Radiant Red do have a surprising amount of flavour. Briefly, these start as wine before being spun on a cone, where the alcohol evaporates. There’s obviously skill in retaining flavour; these contrast with many, far more insipid low alcohol wines, though the white and rosé are more successful to my taste than the red. Expect to pay around R70 for each.
Heritage and family are very important to the Retiefs. When Wynand and Nico’s parents, Hennie and Jean bought the farm in 1937, they named it after Jean’s ancestor, Christina van Loveren, who, with her husband, sailed from Holland to the Cape in 1699. With her, Christina brought her bridal trousseau chest. Passed down the generations, today it is admired in the Van Loveren tasting room.
They have also inspired the latest release from Van Loveren (although the farm’s name is only mentioned on the back label and in reference to Christina’s arrival in South Africa). Christina Trousseau Pinotage 2017 celebrates the heritage of family and South Africa’s own variety in grand style; in case anyone isn’t immediately aware on sight of its standing, just lift the bottle – sadly, its weight will still impress some wine lovers. Surely the sustainability wineries claim to be practising should extend to packaging? But to the wine, which, when I first read the press release, puzzled me, as I had no idea trousseau, a red variety from the Jura, was available in South Africa, let alone a permitted variety for making wine! Reading further, the true meaning was revealed. So, it’s pure pinotage in modern garb, with plush, ripe mulberries embellished with very good new oak. Rich in texture with the sort of seamless structure that the impatient can enjoy now, that structure is also sound, as it proved after the wine was open for three or four days. The wine should age well and gain in interest as it does so. In terms of prestige pricing, R250 ex-tasting room is hardly excessive.
I was going to end by pondering what the four cousins would be leaving for their children to introduce to Van Loveren but then I received the news that they’ve acquired the Zandvliet wine brand from the current owners of the farm, ANB Investments. According to Phillip Retief, ‘Acquiring the Zandvliet brand is part of Van Loveren’s long-term growth strategy and is an exciting addition to our core portfolio.’ Thinking ahead, thinking smart. I think even my colleague, Tim James, who recently wrote a little cynically about ‘Family Vineyards’, would agree Van Loveren Family Vineyards is indisputably a family affair.
Let’s accept it, pinot noir is niche. Starting with 1176 hectares planted throughout the Cape, much of which is channeled into Méthode Cap Classique. The fruit destined for red table wine is shared between roughly 130 producers; it’s easy to see quantities are of necessity limited. Many vines are also still young.
The variety was introduced to South Africa in the 1920s. More general interest grew in the 1980s with early examples from Hamilton Russell Vineyards 1981 and Meerlust 1980; both were made from BK5, a Swiss clone better suited to bubbly than red table wine. It was only during the 1990s that dedicated red wine clones from Burgundy were introduced. Paul Cluver Wines in Elgin was one of the first to plant these in the mid-1990s. But as cellarmaster, Andries Burger revealed at Winemag’s Pinot Noir Report awards (where his Paul Cluver Pinot Noir 2017 was among the top ‘Magnificent Seven’ as the winners were dubbed), that vineyard is about to be uprooted due to virus; that’s 23 years growth gone. According to other Elgin producers present, many pinot vineyards were planted only from 2005 onwards. Sure, there’s better vine material now, but, as the rest of the awardees confirmed, nothing can beat mature vines.
Let’s accept that pinot noir is a tricky customer in both the vineyard and cellar. It prefers a cooler climate, is very vintage sensitive and requires specific vinification to give of its best. Whereas producers can get away with an ordinary cabernet or shiraz, this doesn’t work with pinot. It should be no surprise that many of the top pinot producers are, in the main, pinot specialists with several, sometimes many years of experience. If, in the early years, pinot often came out looking more like cabernet – dense in colour, highly extracted and overly ripe and probably too much new oak as well – now, most sit confidently without disguise; ‘They show more purity than five or 10 years ago,’ Andries Burger confirms. There’s also suppleness with weight, freshness with structure.
Let’s also accept pinot noir doesn’t come cheap. The overall winner, De Grendel Op Die Berg 2017 is a reasonable R200; Creation Emma’s 2017, a statement R905. The rest of the top seven hover between R200 and R345. Giving context to pinot prices, Winemag’s editor, Christian Eedes revealed the average price for all the wines scoring 90-plus was R361; this compares with R286 for cabernet and R230 for shiraz. It may be more than the price which deters many winelovers from buying South African pinot; Burgundy, as the variety’s benchmark, is stratospherically priced and difficult to come by. Again, poor examples, of which I’ve had a few, do neither grape nor region any favours.
But let’s not accept that South African pinot is a lost cause. Far from it. Firstly, it fits so well into the current – and hopefully, long-term – trend for lighter, fresher red wines, of which grenache and cinsaut are also exponents. These latter two have captured winelovers’ imagination, so why not pinot. I was more than pleasantly surprised by all seven winners; there wasn’t one I didn’t enjoy, from the light-footed Lothian, Shannon’s broad, mouthfilling flavours of black and red berries to the dark-hued De Grendel, spicy and full-bodied yet with no dulling heaviness. Could one have enjoyed as much a one or two-year old cabernet or even shiraz? As can be seen from the full results, 35 entries were received from 24 producers; many of the recognised pinot producers weren’t represented but no longer is quality limited to a few, the talent is spreading as are the areas producing quality pinot, though all enjoy an element of coolness.
Now it requires sommeliers to assist the cause. Pinot, in all its iterations, is a food wine par excellence. Fish, from hake to tuna; poultry and game – duck can be a marriage made in heaven – to red meat; there are pinots begging to be enjoyed with each and all of these.
I’ve been lucky to taste a number of great wines over the past few months; the names behind them won’t come as a surprise. Sadie Family Wines, David and Nadia, Mullineux, Savage, Crystallum, Restless River, Hogan, The Foundry, van Loggerenberg and more – but you get the idea. What makes these wines exciting? They are not only among South Africa’s best but also individual, whether they are from a single vineyard, a soil type, or a region, whether they’re a single variety or a blend.
As well as the above, I had the opportunity to taste the numerous chenin blancs and shirazes nominated for five stars in the upcoming 40th edition of the Platter wine guide; this year’s format arranged the wines that qualified in bands at each level of scoring, a useful approach in calibrating quality. The quality that shone through in the best and the line-ups generally, confirmed that these two are our strongest varietal suits. The bar in both is set extremely high, as it is in other categories, even if some don’t have similar numerical depth.
When the competition is so strong, wines have to be exceptional to compete at premium prices. Which brings me to the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction wines. I and a few colleagues were kindly given the usual opportunity to blind taste the line-up for this year’s event. The only information presented was variety or blend and vintage.
After my Platter tastings, both of individual producers and the five star wines, I was particularly interested in the CWG chenins and shirazes. As I learned after the tasting, the chenins come from some of our top producers: Raats, Beaumont, De Trafford and Spier and yet, with respect none stand out as being better or vitally different from their excellent offerings on the open market. I doubt this will hinder them receiving the usual elevated auction price levels, although it will be interesting to see what difference two new auctioneers make. Richard Harvey MW and Giles Peppiatt of Bonhams Auctioneers in the UK take over from Henré Hablutzel of Hofmeyr Mills Auctioneers, who retired after enthusiastically wielding the gavel for 21 years.
Shiraz fared better; Boekenhoutskloof Syrah Auction Reserve 2017 was my star of the tasting and easily among the country’s best. ‘A big wine’ I noted but more in depth of flavour and texture than alcohol. Just two barrels, one from Porseleinberg, the other Stellenbosch fruit. Boschkloof Epilogue 2017 is another striking individual, a little more openly expressive than Boekenhoutskloof but as satisfyingly confident in style and potential. Cederberg Teen Die Hoog Shiraz 2017 was matured in new oak and it shows; time will tell whether fruit and oak forge a happy partnership.
For the rest, it’s a mixed bag, as it usually is. There are some wines which are immediately recognisable in a positive way; Jordan Chardonnay, Kanonkop Paul Sauer and Pinotage. Others which are different from any other; Miles Mossop Jo-Saskia 2017 a chenin-clairette blend, understated yet compelling; Mullineux Le Gris Semillon, Boplaas Daniel’s Legacy 8 year-old Potstill brandy (most certainly a delicious flag bearer for our excellent brandies), but does it do the CWG or sauvignon blanc any favours to include a 2019 which hasn’t had time to shed its still-gawky youth?
What the CWG members and we all need to remember is that the pace of improvement in Cape wines is relentless, regular recalibration is essential to appreciate the great from the good.
One of the most satisfying things of being involved with wine is experiencing the progress made by winemakers from the start of their career. The adrenaline level has been upped over the past 22 years or so thanks to the scary speed the current batch of young and not-quite-so-young guns have scaled the ladder.
Some have personal relevance. Marc Kent’s Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 1997 has long been a wine of legend, in part because it was a one-off from a vineyard in Somerset West which was subsequently ripped up. It also set a benchmark for South African shiraz, giving a nod toward the classic syrahs of the Northern Rhône. Marc also went against then current trend of new oak, the older barrels aiding the wine’s savouriness. I was lucky enough to be one of the first to taste it, prior to bottling, for Platter and was suitably enamoured. I’ve not had a bottle for several years, but I know it has thrived far longer than its analysis suggested it should.
The following year, Eben Sadie made the first wines at Spice Route, the wines as characterful as the cellar just outside Malmesbury. Those 1998s heralded serious interest in the Swartland, which Eben went on to drive a few years’ later with his own wines. Merlot, cabernet, pinotage as well as syrah were admired for their softer, integrated tannins and subtle oaking. ‘One of thrilling new-genre of SA shirazes’, I wrote in Platter 2000, as the range made its first appearance in the guide. Let’s not forget the barrel-fermented chenin blanc from 36-year-old bush vines, surely an eye-opener to the distinctive character the Swartland could produce. If the wines received appreciative noises from the local cognoscenti, a later vintage (2001?) of Eben’s Spice Route syrah got a nod of approval from Gerard Chave, one of the greatest wine producers in the Northern Rhône; Chave Hermitage is arguably the most revered.
Add Chris Williams to these two; all three were at Elsenberg together and inspired by the Rhône wines they experienced on a trip together. Chris, under his own The Foundry label (his day job is Cellarmaster at Meerlust), has concentrated on producing wines from Rhône and Southern French varieties, both white and red. He says this is more of a coincidence than they are all interesting single sites grown on granite, some from Voor Paardeberg, alongside the Swartland. Chris also hit the road running when his first Syrah 2001 was awarded Platter 5 stars (guess who was the taster!). His philosophy of restraint with purity and freshness follows through his range.
Marc, Eben and Chris are at the top of their game, but they’re only at that level as all understand that producing quality wine is a never-ending journey rather than a destination. For that reason, their attention today extends beyond the cellar into the vineyards and marketing.
A steady stream of like-minded, free-wheeling producers are still following in their wake; many from the Swartland, but the rest of the winelands is also well-represented. Not only does the quality and distinction of their own wines raise their image but that of South African wine generally.
David and Nadia Sadie are one of the more recent teams to join the ranks of the young guns; they too caught the media and public’s attention with their first wine, the 2010 chenin-based Aristagos. The Sadies are unrelated to Eben but for obvious reasons, have avoided using the surname, choosing the brand name David and Nadia. Wine of Origin Swartland, the area where David was born, has been their motivation from the start; their current focus is on old vine chenin, ‘showing the beauty and honesty of the vineyards and soils.’
I clearly remember David bringing his early wines for tasting to my home or my colleague, Tim James’s, who then lived down the road. The philosophy hasn’t changed, though his confidence has grown, as was apparent when he introduced their latest 2018 wines last week. The wines too have changed, following the positive trend from bigger and bolder to more restrained and fresher.
A better understanding of their vineyards encouraged them in 2014 to keep separate a few barrels from each vineyard: Skaliekop (1985 vineyard on shale) and Hoë-Steen (1968 red iron, clay-rich vineyard west of Malmesbury) receive regular recognition from Platter with 5* ratings and high scores from Tim Atkin. In 2018 these have been joined by Plat’bos (‘small, low bushes’, planted early 1980s on 100% granite, next to Skaliekop) on the Sadie’s Paardebosch farm. It also contributes to the main chenin label and Aristagos blend.
The question was raised whether the market can absorb all these chenins, especially as prices between R200 and R300 are now commonplace. David’s response reflected his belief in a collaboration like the Swartland Independent Producers, ‘which aim to farm, make and market wines from the Swartland as an appellation, a collective and collaborative team effort in creating awareness around the Swartland and therefore also the Cape.’
A great goal, but one that can be met only when the wines do display the necessary distinction, which this trio does: being good isn’t good enough.
Skaliekop floral and tropical peach aromas, concentrated flavours and tangy acid.
Hoë-Steen complex juicy ripe flavours, infused with tension, incisive, long finish
Plat’bos arresting, steely and linear; more structure than fruit for now, but all three will benefit from age.
With a lower yield anyway due to the drought, 2018 has produced a measly 1200 – 2000 bottles for each of these chenins. That said, there will be much more reward from buying all three to discover their individuality.
For the unlucky or empty of wallet, the regular chenin, also from old vine blocks, offers great quality with affordability..
As does the rest of the range, where the Grenache with its elegant power, fine structure and fruit, was my stand-out red.
The journeys these and the other guns, of whatever age, are undertaking cannot fail to inspire and excite. We live in an ever-golden age of South African wine.
Are we too reverential of pinot noir? It’s easy to think of reasons why this might be. First, Burgundy; how limited are the top wines even in a year when the weather is kind, much less so when those wicked spring frosts do their own wrecking effort. Regardless, the top wines fetch stratospheric prices and many think of Burgundy as beginning and ending in the Côte d’Or. Then, it’s often said that pinot is unforgiving, there’s nothing worse than a poor example.
There are probably other reasons, but with proper pinot so hard to come by and, in many cases, beyond the average winelover’s wallet, it’s no wonder it is placed on a pedestal.
Locally, there’s also a tendency to have a somewhat narrow view with regard to styles but as the number of producers grows, each with his/her own interpretation of pinot, winelovers need to shed their myopsy. From a rough calculation in Platter 2009, I counted +- 48 producers, some making more than one pinot. Compare with 2019, where I gave up counting, but entries in the index take up over a whole column. There will be yet more this year; I see Thelema are upping the stakes in Elgin by releasing their first Sutherland Pinot Noir Reserve, a 2016 selling for R395 ex-cellar. I’ve not tasted it, but this range is becoming more impressive every year, so a wine to take note of.
I have tasted and drunk quite a few pinots of late. From Stellenbosch, a relatively quick sip of the latest Meerlust 2018, which, like its predecessor is more firmly structured than most local pinots. Behind the tannin there’s plenty of dark red fruit, encouraging sign for the benefits of ageing. There’s been a bit of discussion about Stellenbosch and pinot and whether it’s pinot country at all, at least for table wines. Much is successfully channeled into MCCs. While I admit there are some well-made and enjoyable Stellenbosch pinots, I’ve yet to have one with the thrill factor of those from other areas.
Those ‘other areas’ are where the rest of my recent pinot experiences have come from. A pair from Hemel en Aarde: the Kruger Family Wines Pearly Gates 2018 WO Upper Hemel en Aarde and Saurwein OM Pinot Noir 2018 from Hemel en Aarde Ridge. The appeal in both of these is clarity with complexity as well as the natural freshness that’s so much part of pinot and those two higher Hemel en Aarde Wards.
Jessica Saurwein’s OM is a new wine, which she describes as ‘a lighter style’. She was drawn to the area from her student days; her dream now is to own a vineyard there one day. In the meantime, fruit has been purchased from one of the properties on the Ridge and treated as hands-off as possible, ‘To learn about the site.’ Saurwein notes the name, OM ‘symbolises the concept of universal creation and is also synonymous with peace.’ These tie in well with dealing with a three-month-old baby during harvest and finding a sense of peace in the vineyard.
The wine, on the other hand, is full of life within its compact, fine frame, which, with the fruit purity account for that lightness of touch. But lightness doesn’t mean lack of staying power. After five days, this pinot was still singing. The same can be reported about NOM Pinot Noir 2018 from the 700 metres high-lying Kaaimansgat vineyard. Still elegant with tremendous natural freshness, it has greater dark fruit density than its partner. Saurwein explains the name NOM or nombulelo means gratitude in Xhosa, while Nomkhubulwane is a forgotten African goddess of agriculture.
It would be understandable that all three of these pinots might seem slight as well as lighter than the reds most are used to. Understandable, but wrong; there is great depth to them all, which time will reveal.
It’s hardly necessary to point out the many other excellent Hemel en Aarde pinots covering a spectrum of styles from the three Wards.
Our pinots are there to enjoy, so drink and enjoy them, rather than criticise them for what they’re not or put them on a pedestal.