Evolution of a blend

As I’ve written before, one of the most informative and potentially enjoyable tastings is a vertical of a particular wine. As only 22 years have passed since South African wine has seriously been accepted back in the international market, with all the demands that incurs, producers are only now getting to grips with their winemaking thanks to greater understanding and confidence. Help in this regard also derives from the many young vines now reaching a level of adulthood.

I have been fortunate to have tasted most of the Vilafonté wines – Series C and Series M – from a young age, thanks to verticals held by Phil Freese and Zelma Long, the brand’s co-owners with Mike Ratcliffe. These eventually became too much of a task from many points of view.

Such past experiences did, however, make the prospect of tasting all ten vintages of Series M from 2003 to the newly-released 2013 (there was no 2008) a mouthwatering one.
Sadly, neither Freese nor Long were present at the tasting held earlier this week at their Bosman’s Crossing winery; they visit twice a year from the US, usually July and November, but winemaker since May 2010, Martin Smith and Ratcliffe admirably held the fort, giving the assembled guests insights into the philosophy behind the blend and vintages along the way.

Setting up for Series M vertical in the Vilafonté cellar
Setting up for Series M vertical in the Vilafonté cellar

Series M has always been described by Long as ‘another wine’ rather than ‘a second label’. Whereas Series C is dictated by cabernet, the M (actually, MM) has been guided by merlot and malbec with nowadays just cabernet sauvignon offering background support. A drop or two of cabernet franc was included in most years until 2009, when it was dropped from this blend.

The oaking regime too has changed; for the first three vintages (2003-2005), new oak was used to the tune of 30%; since then the figure has dropped to around 20%, depending on vintage.

It was only when I reached wine #10, the latest and just released 2013, that the jigsaw of this label’s evolution finally fell into place. Much hinges on the merlot/malbec, malbec/merlot interaction as well as a better understanding of the winemaking approach to achieve the best, most harmonious result.

Both 2003 and 2004 now reflect ripe, sturdy profiles, the latter with a hint of telltale animal notes. Personally, I’d be inclined to drink up soon.

Despite being a hot, dry vintage, 2005 seems fresher than the previous pair with well-integrated tannins, slightly less so the oak. Whilst I wouldn’t wait to open this, a further year or two wouldn’t harm.

Such is the freshness, juicy grape tannins and persistent succulence, that we were pretty well all surprised to hear 2006 logs in at 15.5% alc. Balance is all, though at that level, a glass will go a long way. Yet again this vintage is showing much better than the more highly-touted 2005.

From then on age is on the side of the wines, mainly because of balance. It’s interesting to try and pick out whether malbec or merlot lead the pack via their fruit: blue (berries) or mulberries for malbec, bright or dark red mainly plums for merlot.

Starting with 2007, the merlot/malbec contribution continues to rise; 33%/30% in that year with 22% cab sauvignon, 5% cab franc providing black fruit tones. As is the general profile, this is a big wine, but tempered tannins and balanced freshness make it less of a challenge.

By the time one of the decade’s best regarded vintages, 2009, comes around, it’s clear the team have confidence in the MM combination and which works best in each vintage: here 46% malbec, 32% merlot, 21% cabernet sauvignon and, for the last time 1% cabernet franc. The blue fruits are there but so is greater refinement, a seamless flow with finer grained tannins. Smith revealed it was also a smaller harvest with just 21 barrels making up Series M.

Red fruits – fleshy, red plums – make a reappearance in 2010 in a lively 49% merlot, 30% malbec, 21% cabernet blend. A perfect combination in a vintage which in several instances has produced hard, unyielding wines. Here the tannins (grape) are juicy, with less evidence of oak.

My notes ended with ‘Poised. Elegant.’ There’s been some discussion by my colleague, Christian Eedes about elegance and how it presents itself differently to different people. For me balance is most important, with complexity and an homogenous feel. Homogeneity in young wines doesn’t mean the tannins can’t benefit from age, the flavours from greater intricacy. One just gets the impression homogenous wines will mature at an even pace, no component falling off at any stage to disturb greater excitement with age.

At this stage, 2011, Smith’s first vintage, is less homogenous, more grunty, chewy, with its highest malbec component to date, 51%, evident in the depth of its blue fruits. Smith confided he very much likes this vintage with its greater oomph!

The two youngest wines follow the MM continuum: 2012 – 48% merlot, 35% malbec and 17% cabernet – concluded with a sweet note of ripe fruit I hadn’t noted in previous wines. It’s regarded as another excellent vintage, so I’d be in no hurry to open: 2013, which sells for R450/bottle and for me the best in the lineup, again switches malbec 45% and merlot 34%, the balance cab. Restrained aromas, a sleek, polished feel, drier finish and noticeably less oak.

There is great and beneficial evolution over these ten years; I’m sure ten years hence the younger wines will give immense pleasure and satisfaction – and look forward to noting the proof!

This tasting was a treat and great learning curve.

The Vilafonté vineyards, between the Simonsberg & Paarl, as they looked in 2005
The Vilafonté vineyards, between the Simonsberg & Paarl, as they looked in 2005

This will be my last post for a couple of weeks, as I’m taking a break prior to the tart of the annual mountain known as Platter tastings.

Pleasures & disappointments

One of the greatest pleasures is coming across a wine that, without being ambitious, gives pleasure in its interest and honesty, with a great price being the cherry on the top.

Sadly, this marvel isn’t often to be found; Tim James and I, who taste together the various wines kindly submitted by producers, often leave such afternoons uninspired.

So we became quite excited last Friday, when our small line up produced a handful worthy of admiration and smiles.

If there’s any category that can far too often be riddled with sameness, it’s sauvignon blanc. A yeast favoured by many produces similar flavours in so many examples; flavours that in trying to outdo the next, make them virtually impossible to go with food. Enter the spotlight Waterkloof Circumstance Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (R100), fermented on its own yeasts for a more subtle accent to the fruit, and spending time on the lees for extra breadth in the mouth without losing purity in its ripe fruit. There’s a flinty vibrancy providing just enough edginess and tension, which will set off whatever seafood or fish dish takes your fancy. Waterkloof is now certified biodynamic; whether this means much or little, a recent tasting with owner, Paul Boutinot and winemaker, Nadia Barnard, shows there’s every reason to buy the wines, which are crafted with honesty and understanding and getting more distinctive every vintage.

At the other end of the reaction chain, chenin blanc is providing a seemingly unending crescendo of excitement.

The name Badenhorst and Swartland are tied by an umbilical cord, except here we’re talking about Adi’s dad, Andre, who with long-time Irish friend, Edwin Doran, own Doran Vineyards in Voor Paardeberg. Martin Lamprecht was installed as winemaker in 2012.

Now, concentrate a minute: Doran Vineyards Chenin Blanc 2013 (yes, 3 years old) costs just R75 and is worth every cent. The yellow gold, green-flecked colour glows brilliantly – how much more tempting could it be? Generous ripe but pure baked apples and pear tones have gained an attractive mellowness with age, a herbal note introducing a different dimension to the concentrated flavours – as one might expected from the area. Creamily textured from older oak fermentation and lees-ageing, but with sound firm form, there’s pleasure a-plenty now and for a few more years. The price is ridiculous for the quality and with all the attention being focused on farmers being paid a price that’ll warrant them keeping the vineyards, I hope this one doesn’t disappear.

Le Sueur Chenin BlancEnsuring Swartland doesn’t imagine it has sole rights to classy chenin, Louis Le Sueur van der Riet, whose daytime job is winemaker at De Krans, has laid down the challenge with his Calitzdorp fruit-sourced Le Sueur Chenin Blanc 2015. Its minimal interference route to the bottle starts with natural ferment in older barrels and ends with bottling unfined and unfiltered. Fynbos overtones make a pleasing contrast to the ripe pineapple aromas. Flavours saturate the mouth encouraged by gentle yet lively natural acid; succulence is the lasting memory. A medium-bodied, elegant chenin that is well-priced at R120 (but you have to drive to De Krans to buy it!).



Now, I’m sorry Gabrielskloof and Peter-Allan Finlayson, but I think the name Rosebud sends all the wrong messages about your seriously delicious (and seriously approached) dry rosé. I suspect the unsuspecting who lift it off the shelf anticipate something sweet and mundane. They’ll be disappointed, I’m not. This shiraz, viognier blend (55/45) is dry with spicy verve and with just 12.5% alcohol, perfectly tuned for lunch, sundowners and tuna (I mention that simply as we’re having it for supper, but other foods will go just as well). No, R70 isn’t too high an asking price, so just forget the Rosebud.

Gabrielskloof Rosebud with its appealing pearly pink glow.
Gabrielskloof Rosebud with its appealing pearly pink glow.

There’s got to be a red and there is. Back to Doran Vineyards and their Shiraz 2013, which comes from Voor-Paardeberg. For me it fulfils what I call a country red; robust, brimming with fynbos, spicy vivacity, mouthfilling savoury flavours, with grainy, juicy tannins and roundly dry. I see the oaking is in 500 litre French oak, a modicum new, so no challenge to the fruit. An honest wine at a more than honest price of R79. I don’t know what Adi thinks of his Dad’s wines, but at this quality and price, he better watch out!

The disappointments? Briefly. I look back at the partnership of Francois Naude and Marc Wiehe at L’Avenir with great memories of what they achieved. Under their watch, chenin blanc and pinotage started the roll these two varieties are now on. When Naude retired and Wiehe sold, Tinus Els carried on the good work in the cellar with Michel Laroche as owner. With Laroche’s other brands, it is now under the ownership of the global group, AdVini.

From what we tasted in the Single Block Chenin Blanc 2015 (R216) and Single Block Pinotage 2014 (R319), things have slipped. Oaking especially, is more obvious than in the past but both seem to have lost the distinctive personality each had. I hope this is a temporary slip.

Sameness vs somewhereness

It was depressing to hear from colleagues involved with the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show that this year’s international judges (maybe not all of them, I didn’t hear mention of specific names) commented that while our wines are getting better, they remain ‘international’ in character; in other words there’s little sense of South Africanness. While I can understand that remark in relation to our red wines, it apparently covered whites as well: so much for our highly-touted white blends!

What grounds could there be for such an all-encompassing and somewhat damning remark?

A timeous nota bene: of course, there are many highly-regarded producers who enter no competitions but there are equally many excellent ones who do.

Red wines have and in many cases still do suffer from being harvested at the wrong time: too soon and the full flavour spectrum hasn’t developed, nor have tannins ripened sufficiently. Such a wine is one-dimensional, short and with abrupt tannins. At the other end of the ripeness scale, overripe fruit muddies the flavours in an anonymous pool, often further wrecked by an alcoholic glow.

Then there is the question of oak, a component much better used these days, though there are still examples of gross overuse. The bigger problem now, as I see it is not the amount of new oak, but the wrong oak, where oak and fruit flavours just clash. It might be the wrong source, toasting or cooper but whichever, it’s just as important as age and size of barrel in allowing the fruit’s true character to evolve.

Whites? Well we know how boringly similar many sauvignon blancs can be; the few who are putting effort – semillon, skin, barrel and natural ferment – into creating something more interesting, even a reflection of their ‘somewhereness’, give clear evidence this is not a one-track pony. Employing the same cultured yeasts introduces a pervasive sameness whether the grape is sauvignon, chenin, chardonnay et al. Pity the poor taster who’s supposed to identify them.

If anything disturbs the positive vibe around our white blends, it could be viognier. A tricky customer at the best of times, it takes very little to be a tall poppy. Actually, it’s not often the quantity but quality of this grape in the blend; pick too ripe and even 2% or 3% can impart those heady honeysuckle/apricot scents and a textural oiliness, swamping its blend partners.

That’s a small selection of offenders who could contribute to the ‘sameness’ noted by the international contingent; there’s one more I doubt is often considered – the varieties themselves.

It’s a sobering thought that just four varieties – chenin blanc, colombard, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz – account for 52% of the +-99 500 ha under vine, and that doesn’t include sultana. These are SAWIS’s figures up to end November 2014; the latest for 2015 should be out shortly. One only has to look at the general index in Platter to see how this translates into labels (not for colombard, which is probably used mostly for distilling). They play important roles in blends as well: think of the Swartland-inspired, chenin-led white blends, Bordeaux-style and Rhône-style red blends. Again, these are numerous; just where is the sense of adventure?

Alright, try Calitzdorp and the Boplaas Nels (their cousins too at De Krans and others in this area recognised for its Port-style fortified dessert wines) who, for some years, have been experimenting with table wine blends based on Portuguese varieties such as tinta barocca, tinta francesca and touriga nacional, these backed in Gamka Family Reserve by some shiraz. The occasional Ring of Rocks mixes touriga francesca and tinta barocca. Fruit is sourced from Stellenbosch and Wellington as well as Calitzdorp, but the blends fuse well and with individuality.

Nel family (l) to (r): Jeanne, Margaux, Carel & Rozanne with silverware, something they regularly receive.
Nel family (l) to (r): Jeanne, Margaux, Carel & Rozanne with silverware, something they regularly receive.

The Nels en famille – Carel (cellarmaster), his wife, Jeanne with daughters Rozanne (marketing), Margaux (winemaker) and son Daniel – came to Cape Town last week to give us a taste of some wines on their extensive list, with the focus on the Portuguese connection.

Boplaas GamkaThe idea was to taste the red blend, Gamka (the name of the local river, meaning lion) alongside two Portuguese wines; initially these were to be the Prats & Symington Chryseia and Post Scriptum but due to their non-arrival, Quinta do Castro Vinha da Ponte and Old Vines Reserva both 2012s, were substituted.

Gamka 2012 is a big, sturdily structured wine, needing ageing and hearty winter fare; its present charm derives from touriga nacional’s distinctive spice and violet floral fragrance. The 2013, a four-way blend, is more complex and harmoniously approachable but can still benefit from around a further two or three years. Both have well-absorbed a year in new French oak, not something that the Castro Vinha da Ponte can claim. I found this supercharged with new oak, noticeably American, though French was the major partner during its 20 months’ sojourn. From a 90-year old, field blend vineyard, it commands a high price and ratings, but the oak spoilt it for me. The Reserva was altogether more agreeable with brighter fruit, complexity and integrated tannins.

What this comparison did afford was how the Boplaas team are on the right tracks to creating a blend of individuality and distinction, perhaps best epitomised in Carel Nel’s CWG Daniels Legacy 2013, in effect a barrel selection of Gamka. How much better would the already classy regular wine have been with their inclusion? It’s time the CWG stopped this practice.

Sweetness to end: Boplaas Ouma Cloete Straw Wine 2015 from Muscat de Frontignan and, a little, subtle, viognier and/or Boplaas The 1932 Block Hanepoot 2015 accompanied by apricots sautéed in straw wine with caramelised brioche and creamed goats’ cheese, proved an irresistible finale (to this infrequent-dessert eater!) to a fascinating tasting and lunch where chef, Stefan Marais’s intuitive flair really brought out the best in his dishes and Boplaas wines.

More South Africanness, more adventure – your Monday motto, winemakers!

Too hot? Too cold?

I was reminded this week of the story of Goldilocks and the three bears; some of the detail eludes me, but the essence was she tried each bear’s bowl of porridge. One was too hot, the next too cold and finally, the third was the perfect temperature, so she gobbled it up (much to the bear’s dismay when the family returned home).

It was the temperature of wine rather than porridge I was contemplating, specifically an impressive lineup of 71 chenin blancs entered on this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Thanks to a little serendipity, I was asked to step in as a judge on the first day, when official international judge, Eric Goettelmann had flight connection problems.

Chenin Panel Chairman, Christian Eedes, briefing the judges
Chenin Panel Chairman, Christian Eedes, briefing the judges

Impressive applies both to the number of chenins as well as the wines themselves. I well remember in the show’s early days, chenins were judged with other white wines, there being insufficient to warrant their own class. What a sea-change there! An even bigger change is evident in quality. It was difficult not to give a medal and we ended up with more golds in a class that the show has ever seen, plus a slew of silvers.




Back to the temperature issue. Our 71 chenins were poured in three flights, two of 25 finishing with one of 21. As is customary, each judge tasted the wines in a different order: from the start forward, from the last back, from the middle forward and from the middle back. In this way, each wine receives the same level of palate freshness/fatigue. Also of relative temperature. As the wines are served well chilled, those first to hit the palate are the coldest, which in this day and age of chenin can easily hide the layers found in the more complex examples. In fact, I often found myself changing my score on returning to earlier wines. Retasting and discussion are two huge benefits of this show.

The lineup illustrated chenin in many forms; from the familiar youthful, unwooded fruity wines through to those naturally fermented in barrel, aged on lees, but still with purity of chenin fruit, some with an added suggestion of botrytis. I can’t think of one in the old heavily oaked, oily style – thank goodness; indeed, many were extremely subtle in their complexity. They are killed by being served too cold as much as the richer styles.

This observation goes for many of today’s white wines where a combination of vinification and ageing processes have been used. Something for both winelovers and sommeliers to consider when serving.

Or even too old?
The treat for Old Mutual Trophy Wine judges, and thankfully still for a retiree such as myself, is to be invited to the Old Wine Tasting now some six, seven or eight years old (no one can quite remember exactly how many) held the afternoon prior to the main event.
Although the majority are reds over 25 years old (the minimum age), a few whites (minimum 15 years old) are also included.

White wines on the Old Wine Tasting. Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc is on far left.
White wines on the Old Wine Tasting. Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc is on far left.

First poured this year was a Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc 1999, given to Michael Fridjhon by Andre van Rensburg with a hand dated label, so we’re unsure whether it was commercially available. No matter, if any wine proved the bona fides of mature sauvignon, this was it. Its fabulous bright lemony green infused hue announced something special. The age that had developed peas and asparagus had not dimmed the vibrant richness and real fruit weight. My ‘lovely mature sauvignon’ reflects that this was not any old white!

Chenin blanc too had its turn, again made by Andre van Rensburg when he was at Stellenzicht. His 1996 is a fine, elegant wine again catching the eye with a brilliant lemon/gold colour flecked with green. As I mentioned in an earlier piece, colour isn’t often noted, but an attractive one starts the relationship with the glass of wine on a positive note. Wet wool (yes, a pleasant smell!), honeyed aromas, viscosity, a fine line of acid led to a gently lingering dry finish. The wine’s precision clearly defines its chenin origins.

Should either of these wines have been entered as Museum entries on the show, I have no doubt they would have garnered gold medals, a trophy too.

Some of the oldest reds on the Old Wine Tasting. My best Zonnebloem Cabernet 1965 is second right.
Some of the oldest reds on the Old Wine Tasting. My best Zonnebloem Cabernet 1965 is second right.

As for the reds, Tim James (who, like me, has attended this event since whenever it was first held) and I agreed afterwards that perhaps as a group they didn’t quite live up to past years – maybe because we’ve become so used to these older wines holding up so well.
Again the real oldies from the 1960s and 70s showed better than youngsters from the 80s, but generalisations are not to be made about wines of this age, each bottle offers its own experience – good, bad or brilliant.

If there was a point of difference, it lay in the three wines poured from half bottles – 375ml: Chateau Libertas 1967, Nederburg Select Cabernet Sauvignon 1970 and what proved to be my red wine of the tasting, Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1965. One might have expected these to be far more developed than wines from 750ml bottles; not a bit of it.

The Zonnebloem enjoyed a strong ruby core with bright garnet rim. Being pre the Wine of Origin system, the amount of cabernet in it is debatable, but it’s full of character, walnut and dark fruit well defined by its freshness and concentration. A truly amazing 51 year old.

Were it not for systems such as Coravin and others, I’d suggest a campaign for the return of the half bottle. Would the wines reach such a gracious age? We’ll have to leave that to those who attend the Old Wine Tasting in 2067.

But how does feel?

If you think about it, the term ‘wine tasting’ is rather limiting, after all the experience is much more than taste – or it should be. I often wonder how many bother to actually look at a wine and try to glean some information from its colour or smell beyond fruits, vegetation or oak detected on the nose.

The diagnosis goes pretty much via the same flavour route once the wine’s in the mouth; rarely is texture – what impression it has on the tongue, lips and cheeks – given the attention it deserves.

Some wines are fruity juicy with a bouncy liveliness, leaving the mouth feeling zingy and fresh. High alcohol wines, especially when the alcohol is out of balance, can feel heavy and lifeless with a residual alcoholic glow. And so it goes.

In recent years, new classes of wine have been developed and met with the success that has led to formal recognition. Last August, amendments to regulations of the Liquor Products Act added six new classes, including Skin-macerated white, Extended Barrel-aged white/gris, Méthode Ancestrale and Sun wine. I’ve already written about Méthode Ancestrale and skin-macerated whites but last week I experienced my first skin-macerated sauvignon blanc, not the usual grape selected for this style; what made the experience even more interesting was trying it alongside other, very different sauvignons from the same producer.

Diemersdal Wild Horseshoe label
Diemersdal Wild Horseshoe label

Thys Louw is one of the brightest stars in the sauvignon blanc galaxy, and one of the most productive; at the launch of his latest Diemersdal take on the variety, we worked out he’s currently responsible for 10 wines from this grape!

Working up to the Wild Horseshoe 2015, we started with the regular Sauvignon Blanc 2016, which carries its pure, ripe flavours with poise but no aggression; one of those wines which just feels comfortable and right if without great dimension. Those extra layers of texture and complexity but still with the focus on fruit, comes with the Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2015 which also reflects all that’s great about the vintage. Next step up the ladder of richness and viscosity arrives with top of the range M M Louw Sauvignon Blanc; there’s a sense of ripeness rather than fruit in 2015 (and still an oaky note which will assimilate with time) but also a keen and driving line of acid which culminates in a mouth-tinglingly clean, up-beat finish.

The original horseshoes, which inspired the wine label; this design was made and framed  by Thys Louw's wife
The original horseshoes, which inspired the wine label; this design was made and framed by Thys Louw’s wife

Now, clear your mind – and palate – of what’s gone before; Wild Horseshoe 2015 (named for all the horseshoes found on Diemersdal) provides a completely different experience. It was inspired by a trip to New Zealand, where Louw found so many skin-fermented sauvignons in that sauvignon-crazy country. Many wouldn’t even guess the variety after natural fermentation on the skins over four days, followed by 11 months in oak barrels; a vinification that hardly follows the usual sauvignon route. Having expected fireworks after the unusual vinification, Louw admits it ‘Did very little for six months and I was ready to give up on it.’ Thank goodness he didn’t.

Forget fruit as you know it in sauvignon here, this wine is all about texture with a chalky, grainy feel, good presence but not over-heavy and a light grip in its dry finish. This is a style that demands food to show at its best; the pork belly served at lunch set it off perfectly. It’ll be fascinating to see how it develops with age.

I can’t think of a better exercise to learn about texture than taste the above Diemersdal sauvignons side by side (and maybe throw in the 8 Rows as well for a tighter, more flinty experience).

Coincidentally, a few days’ later, a couple of reds presented an equally informative textural difference: the newly-released 2012 Estate wine and Lourens River Valley from Morgenster are completely different from each other, much more so than in previous vintages.

The blends themselves should give an idea how much: Lourens River Valley is 71% cabernet franc, 24% merlot with 5% cabernet sauvignon; Morgenster blends 72% merlot, 16% petit verdot and 12% cabernet sauvignon. The former’s franc flourishes its spicy, leafy fragrance but the leaf is more spring green than ripe autumnal gold, leaving the wine dissonant, the fruit dropping abruptly, exposing a bit of an alcohol afterglow. To me it feels unharmoniously edgy but it is controversial; my colleague, Christian Eedes agrees with me, while Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens doesn’t. Let’s see what effect a few years’ ageing achieves.

On the other hand, Eedes and I much preferred Morgenster, reckoning it has a much better future; Peens disagreed! Can this be the best Morgenster to date? I think so; it’s a complete wine, sophisticated in its subtle, complex flavours, plush yet perfectly reined in body and the sort of tannins that allow for current enjoyment but indicate the worth of ageing. This is merlot at its best and given all the right backing, aromatic lift and freshness from petit verdot. Morgenster 2012 feels expansive and grand – but do feel free to disagree and side with Peens!

Ken Forrester Dirty Little SecretSadly, I didn’t find Ken Forrester’s new baby, Dirty Little Secret (I wonder who would want to pay R950 for a wine with that name?) felt as grand. It’s chenin, of course, (Forrester’s passion with this grape easily matches Louw’s with sauvignon blanc!), from a Piekernierskloof bushvine vineyard planted in 1965. It went through the whole ‘natural’ process (which means different things to different people) plus two weeks as whole bunches prior to wild ferment in old 400 litre French oak and malo-lactic; this latter has brought about a soft buttery texture and an accented sweetness from just 4 grams of residual sugar.

If the texture at present doesn’t appeal – and who knows what’ll happen in future (it is from 2015, though labelled ‘One’, so is backed by that excellent vintage) – the concentration of old-vine chenin shines through with radiance. I’m hoping it all comes together with time.

Soil vs site Part 2

For complexity and confusion it would be hard to beat the map of Burgundy; some vineyards are impossibly tiny, most have several owners tending a few rows each. Being able to identify origin, then the individual producer from that same origin takes years of experience and a bottomless bank balance. It is thanks to dedicated tasting by Cistercian monks who tended the vines centuries ago, and when those bottomless bank balances weren’t necessary, that the Burgundian map is so well defined.

We in South Africa have many years to go before we get anywhere near such detailed vineyard demarcations. It’s a task further complicated by winemakers’ musical chairs (do viticulturists, if the producer has a person dedicated to this important role, show similar itinerant tendencies?); it takes many years to understand the minutiae of detail of a vineyard, its reaction to the soil in which it’s grown and the space around and above it.

That acknowledged, certain sites were identified as producing wines of distinctive character way before the 2003 Single Vineyard legislation; it was no surprise that producers crafting wines from these adopted this new, smallest WO once it was written into the laws.

The regulations they had to comply with in order for their wine to carry the Single Vineyard WO read: ‘The term “single vineyard wine” may only be used in respect of wine produced from grapes derived from a production unit which is registered with the production of single vineyard wine in mind. Such a production unit must consist of a single variety and the area may not exceed 6 hectares.’ Not particularly onerous demands.

Remhoogte HoneybunchI asked two winemakers whose single vineyard wines I’d tasted for Platter about the background to these vineyards, why they’d decided to go this route and their thoughts on the legislation. Chris Boustred is winemaker on his family’s farm, Remhoogte, while Alex Starey is in charge of the cellar at Keermont .

Remhoogte Honeybunch Chenin Blanc vineyard was planted in 1987, so will celebrate its 30th year in 2017; it was registered as a Single Vineyard in 2007. Boustred reveals it’s a two hectare block on the same soil type and aspect with a 20 metre gain in altitude over the block but with a constant gradient.

The first bottling of Honeybunch was 2010, after Boustred had identified a particular texture to the wine, ‘Unlike anything I have tasted on other chenins.’ One unusual feature, maybe unique in South Africa, of this particular wine is that the grapes are harvested from the morning side only; fruit from the other side is channeled into the farm’s excellent-value Chenin Blanc. Honeybunch vinification includes a natural ferment in French oak, around 20% new, followed by nearly a year on the lees.

Keermont Steepside SyrahThe Keermont single vineyards of Steepside and Topside, both planted to syrah, are much younger; Steepside was planted on the Helderberg in 2005, Topside, a year later, on Stellenbosch Mountain slopes. The former is a 1.3ha separate section of a 5ha block, with ‘fairly uniform soil, mostly north-facing aspect and 300m altitude,’ Starey outlines. ‘Soil on Topside’s 1.74ha varies from partially to well broken-down sandstone; the aspect is mostly west and altitude rises between 350 to 400m.’

Both wines were introduced under the Single Vineyard label with 2012: ‘The block produced its best wine thus far, so we decided to bottle a couple of our favourite barrels separately,’ Starey explains. Prior to 2012, the grapes went into Keermont Syrah, still the destination for the majority of the fruit. Somewhat predictably, Starey believes the wines’ distinction derives from the terroir.

Well, that will have to be proved down the line, via a vertical, as it will with Remhoogte’s Honeybunch. There is no doubt the Keermont pair are individuals.

I also asked Boustred and Starey for their thoughts on criteria for single vineyard status and whether a six hectare maximum is too big. Neither think so, but Boustred qualifies this with ‘Provided aspect, slope gradient and soil type are the same.’ He does think conditions for registration should include being ‘awarded by a board and motivated by winemaker or viticulturist.’ Starey’s thoughts focus on; ‘One undisturbed block of uniform age and which is handled by the same vineyard manager.’

So, is the Single Vineyard WO something that will advance the quality image of South African wine, or just another marketing play; yet another piece of information that will confuse the consumer?

For Boustred; ‘Single vineyards may add value by saving older vineyards that may be lost in blends.’ White Starey considers; ‘Good single vineyard wines serve as benchmarks for something that works well somewhere.’ Both believe these single vineyard wines are likely to appeal to the involved consumer, who loves wine.

For the past 43 years, South Africa has led the non-traditional, ‘New World’ in demarcating origin; I read these days about New Zealand just starting to get to grips with such mapping. What a waste it would be to use the Single Vineyard WO as a marketing tool only. As I wrote in Part 1, ‘What is the point of registering a single vineyard if the wine has no distinguishing characteristics, if it’s just a name on a label?’

I think it’s incumbent on the producer to have at least a few years’ experience of how a vineyard performs before venturing into Single Vineyard WO status, especially when soils, aspect and altitude vary, and I am with Gordy Newton Johnson in believing that the demarcation committee should have added a few more strictures to the legislation. I’d like to think this would be reviewed when the Wine of Origin regulations are again discussed.

Soil vs site Part 1

The Single Vineyard Wine of Origin was promulgated as recently as 2003, thus overtaking Estates as the smallest Wine of Origin. It might sound crazy but prior to that, as SAWIS puts it: ‘The word ‘vineyard’ may only be used in general descriptive terms and may not create the impression that the wine concerned comes from a specific vineyard or vineyards. (What were they smoking?) (Tim James’ Dissertation submitted for his Cape Wine Masters Diploma explains why the ‘Estates’ clung on to their smallest Wine of Origin status.)

Today, there are around 1100 sites registered as single vineyards, though only a fraction of that number produce wine under such status.

As with other Wines of Origin, the demarcation committee, headed by Duimpie Bayly investigated and drew up the required rules and regulations; included among these was a maximum size of six hectares. Bayly explains this thus: ‘When the first single vineyard appellation began there were a few applicants whose vineyards exceeded the initial 5 hectare standard … but less than 6. Those applicants requested that they be accommodated. As all vineyard blocks are registered with SAWIS it was evident that over 80% of the blocks were 6 hectare or less, hence the 6 hectare maximum.’

It struck me at the time that the maximum of six hectares but even smaller areas delimited as single vineyards could well be made up of not one but many of our heterogeneous soils. As soil is regarded an important influence on terroir, I wondered whether the wine from a single vineyard composed of more than one soil type could have a less distinctive character than that from one or more vineyards composed of a single soil type.

Here lies the crux of WO Single Vineyard, What is the point of registering a single vineyard if the wine has no distinguishing characteristics, if it’s just a name on a label?

Mullineux Schist SyrahMy curiosity was further piqued when tasting the Mullineux’s Iron, Schist, Granite and Quartz wines – each highlighting the importance of the soil on which the vines are grown rather than site. Each of these wines does indeed have its own distinctive characteristics.
I realised it was unlikely my ponderings would deliver a definitive answer, but considered a discussion among a few knowledgeable wine people could lead to some interesting opinions on the subject.

Chris and Andrea Mullineux were my first port of call, but before revealing their thoughts, I was interested to read what Gordon Newton Johnson had to say about registration of vineyards. ‘I think soil type is very much valid towards the whole terroir debate and I find it very surprising that it is nowhere mentioned in SAWIS application forms when registering a new vineyard for production or even a single vineyard itself.’ He expounds: ‘A suggested soil type should at least give an indication to the style of wine expected from a single vineyard. It should also be the basis for defining the vineyard site.’

As a Swartland producer, Chris Mullineux debates whether there is such a difference in soil over as small an area of even the largest single vineyard: ‘.. the Paardeberg is mostly deep decomposed granite (with some slate bedrock lower down); Kasteelberg is mostly schist bedrock underneath a layer of varying thickness of topsoil of eroded material from the mountain above ..’ and so on, leaving Mullineux to conclude; ‘So, there is relative uniformity within an area the size of most vineyards.’ That said the Schist Syrah is from a single vineyard on their Roundstone farm, the rest mainly blends from similar soils. Mullineux suggests they may bottle more single sites in future, but wants to establish a track record for consistency before doing so. For the record, he details that their vineyard aspects vary greatly and altitudes run between 200 and 450 metres.


Jordan vineyards, Stellenbosch
Jordan vineyards, Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch claims a quite different situation, as Gary Jordan explains: ‘While Stellenbosch vineyards may be predominantly on 570-600 million year old, coarse porphyritic granite, the differences over metres or hundreds of metres is what makes viticulture both challenging and exciting.’ The goal of uniform ripening leads Jordan to separate as much as possible vineyard blocks based on different soil types derived from differing bedrock geology.

There is one block covering seven hectares composed of exactly the same soil and slope direction, but due to height differences, this has been divided into three separate vineyards. ‘This,’ Jordan explains, ‘results in a natural lowering of the air temperature for every 100 metres rise above sea level; in addition other geographical influences such as greater exposure to wind play a further role.’
NewtonJohnsonPNOver to Gordon Newton Johnson in the Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley, who speculates; ‘Producing a wine of distinct character and quality from a vineyard six hectares or more is likely improbable, but not impossible.’ After pointing out that Corton in Burgundy is 95ha, Newton Johnson relates; ‘We make three different cuvées from a 1.1ha vineyard, largely due to different slope gradients and the movement of water in the soil.’ Even in that small area, he knows parts are unlikely to even produce quality required for the top tier, so will be channelled into a lower one.

These three producers work in their own specific area; I turned to Rosa Kruger for a broader perspective. She opened with, ‘The question has many answers,’ which rather confirmed my suspicion that there would be no definitive answer. Kruger emphasised that her following views are borne out by her experience of different sites; ‘I have no academic background.’

‘Proximity to the ocean and altitude dominate the effects of everything else – soil, aspect, clone, rootstock, canopy structure, radiation, day length … or anything else,’ she expounds. ‘The further you go inland and the hotter the climate, the more the soil type dominates.’ By example, Kruger maintains; ‘I think Kaaimansgat chardonnay will reflect Kaaimansgat even if it was planted on schist, clay, sand or granite; it’s altitude that dictates style. On the other hand, in the Swartland wines from schist or granite soil will reflect that soil (which validates the approach in the Mullineux’s Terroir range – AL) with aspect also an influencing factor.’

It is helpful to conclude Part one of this discussion with the views of my helpful respondents as to what they consider directs the distinctive character in a specific site or single vineyard. The Mullineux’s sum up terroir as; ‘The sum of different factors in and around the vineyard with certain factors more influential in some regions than others. The soil has a massive role to play in the warm Swartland; in California, fog off the Pacific is, in many parts, more influential than the soil. Both still produce terroir wines because they express their relationship with the climate.’

For Gary Jordan: ‘One has the greatest sense of place when one can identify subtle characteristics consistently in the wines produced from a single site, despite the winemaker’s influence or even the climatic conditions pertaining in a particular growing season.’

Gordon Newton Johnson reflects on the role of the winemaker/grower: ‘Whatever site/terroir characteristics we see in the bottle are nonetheless seen through the lens of this person. They make the decisions to select the vineyard site, train it in a certain way, affect its exposure to light, manage yields, extract flavour and so forth.’ He tentatively suggests the answer to the true expression of a site lies partly how it was done in Burgundy many hundreds of years ago, by tasting. ‘Perhaps single vineyard wines should be approved by, and I hate to say this, a panel of tasters from and experienced in the soils, conditions and styles produced in the area.’

Rosa Kruger follows Newton Johnson’s train of thought with a little more detail: ‘Soil is one factor, others such as altitude, aspect, drainage, steepness of slope, radiation, as well as farming method – organic, biodynamic or conventional – irrigation, way of pruning all influence the outcome.’

Part Two will consider the views of two winemakers who produce well-reputed single vineyard wines and my summary.

Our MCCs – needing a better image & price

One can’t help but feel for our specialist Méthode Cap Classique producers. The local bubbly market is so crowded and, I’m afraid, there are more than a few Johnny-come-latelys, all of which diverts focus away from the dedicated few, who are making wines as good and even better than others outside of Champagne.
Nyetimber & othersIt’s easy to forget how good until the opportunity arises of tasting some international bubblies made in the same way; an opportunity which came my way earlier this week.
Roger Jones, Michelin-star chef at The Harrow in the UK, had kindly given me a bottle of Nyetimber Tillington Single Vineyard 2009; I suggested sharing it with Paul Gerber, winemaker at MCC specialist, Le Lude and Pieter Ferreira (no credentials necessary!); an offer that was snapped up.

Nathalie Stanley, assistant to Gerber, Ann Ferreira, PR for Le Lude and Debi van Flymen who runs Wine Cellar in Jo’burg* joined us and brought along another English bubbly, Coates & Seely Brut Reserve, a pair of Italian wines – Astoria Valdobbiadene Prosecco 2012 DOCG and Bellavista Brut Rosé 2008 – with Champagne represented by Perrier Jouet Brut NV and, as it sadly turned out, a corked Ayala Cuvée Perle 2001.

Our palates were tuned by the 70/30 chardonnay/pinot noir Le Lude Prestige Cuvée in magnum (chilled) and, for comparison in 750ml (we suggested the comparison, so this was off the rack and unchilled). Due for release later this year, these were degorged as we sat down, so as brut as they come. The comparison was telling. I love the linear tension in the magnum and, with longer on the lees, could drink it without any dosage (this will be added after trials to determine the sweet spot). The bottle was more rounded, richer (the oak fermented portion here more evident), its brioche notes more evolved.
The purity and lack of oxidative characters lend wines like Le Lude so much more of interest and it is this route Gerber and Ferreira would like to see local producers follow.
The maiden vintage of Nyetimber Tillington Single Vineyard 2009, a 79% pinot noir/21% chardonnay blend from their Sussex greensand vineyards (they also have vines on Hampshire chalk) enjoys the same purity, a creamy weight and mousse with citrusy lift. The dosage, composed of the same wine, at 10 g/l was felt by Gerber and Ferreira, to be a little on the high side, hiding full expression of the wine. That aside, it has evidently benefited from time: bottled in October 2010, it was disgorged in August 2013. More remarkable is that this was from three year old vines.

A visit to the farm three years ago, when I tasted through the range with winemaker, Cherie Spriggs, confirmed the high quality all round of Nyetimber bubblies. One point Spriggs made is that Nyetimber is dedicated to giving longer time on the lees than many producers, but they also believe in time on the cork before release. This was demonstrated by the current releases we tasted that June 2013; Blanc de Blancs 2007 and Rosé 2009. I was also very impressed with the Demi-Sec from 100% chardonnay and apparently, then, the first in England. Even with a dosage of 45 g/l, it seemed more rich than sweet with delicious baked apple flavours.

The Coates and Seely, a dour, earthy, short wine, couldn’t have been more different, either from Nyetimber or from the same label’s Blanc de Blancs, which came second to Beck’s Cuvée Clive on the English/Welsh vs South African Méthode Cap Classique taste off back in January. Roger Jones has told me subsequent releases are more similar to the Blanc de Blancs in quality.

English sparkling wine’s image is such that it’s not unusual for UK producers to receive between £25 and £50 a bottle, whereas Ferreira says our MCCs struggle to go above £15.

I see less written about Franciacorta, Italy’s major area for bubblies made in the traditional method from traditional Champagne grapes. Yet even when I visited back in 1989, several of the producers modelled their marketing on Champagne and its glamourous image. The Bellavista Rosé certainly reflects the fine quality from this area bordering Lake Garda in northern Italy. It’s a pretty beige/pink hue with biscuity, rich red fruit bouquet and a vigour that gives expression to layers of flavour and length. Elegant, classy and in the £44 range. Don’t bother looking for details on the website, it’s just a lot of PR puffery. Elsewhere one finds it’s a 68/32 chardonnay/pinot noir blend, the chardonnay spending in small white oak and the wine aged for five years prior to release.

Prosecco currently receives much more written attention and is hugely popular but it’s no replacement for wines made in the traditional method. The point here is that van Flymen observes they sell for £18 at the high end with an average price of £10. Pretty much in the same range as our more complex MCCs.

Ultimately, Perrier Jouet Grand Brut took the cake – er, brioche – exemplifying everything that Champagne strives for and can be about (but isn’t always): elegant, harmonious with subtle brioche, a creamy mousse and perfectly balanced dosage – a classic.

I’m delighted Graham Beck are going to phase out all wines in their range other than the bubblies; this will allow growth in this category to match demand and the necessary time on lees/cork to enhance quality.

A better image and prices for our MCCs need support not only from dedicated players and members of the MCC Association, such as Beck, Le Lude, Simonsig and Villiera but all producers of MCC.

Le Lude Brut NV & GlassA final word about the wonderful Le Lude tasting area and restaurant. A building site when I saw it last May, it’s now transformed into a relaxing space of green and white, a setting worthy to enjoy Nicolene Barrow’s perfectly prepared and delicious dishes.


  • I have subsequently learned that Debi left Wine Cellar learlier this year and now has her own distribution company, DvF Wine Distributors and a Wine Events company, GrapeSlave. Apologies for the error.


There’s an impossibility of criteria when deciding on a list of South Africa’s top 20 wine producers. I’m sure each of the 25 wine writers, commentators, retailers and sommeliers invited by my colleague, Tim James to undertake this task for his website, Grape, did employ a variety of yardsticks to arrive at their list. Yardsticks might even have differed between those for the Top 5, which we were requested to rank and the other 15, which needed only alphabetical order.

For myself, I start with quality, but quality across the whole range, not just the flagship. That’s one reason none of the volume producers would get a look in from me. KWV Mentors, Nederburg Ingenuity, DGB Bellingham Bernard Series: these are all quality wines, but they represent a tiny proportion of the whole range. Most of the rest is commercial – good, but still commercial and, therefore, precludes the producer as a whole from being worthy of consideration for the Top 20.

Then it’s no good having a one-vintage wonder, a track record needs to be established. This is not a stage maintained once one is at the top of the ladder, it’s also a reflection of improvement every year as that ladder is climbed.

Alright, these are two fairly easily measurable qualities, even though each judge will apply them to different producers. Much then depends on each judge’s familiarity with the wines.

Because there are way more than 20 producers who fulfil both those demands and more than 700 producers in the Cape, this is where other indeterminate factors come into play. Perceptions might seem irrelevant, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who takes them into account.

What do I mean by perception? Visibility of the producer, how it stands out from the crowd and whether it is viewed in a positive light.

Sadie Family Old Vineyard range
Sadie Family Old Vineyard range

My list goes as follows:
1.Sadie Family
3 Mullineux
4 Kanonkop

Cape Point Vineyards
David & Nadia Sadie
Delaire Graff
Eagles Nest
Newton Johnson
Paul Cluver

Of those that made it, Badenhorst, Crystallum, Klein Constantia and Savage were on my Reserve list, as were Lismore, Raats and Sijnn.

So, why these and not others? Vergelegen had to be in my top five because I believe the wines are among the country’s best, they’re consistent and distinctive. Perception is possibly its downfall. When Andre van Rensburg has something to say, we all know about it, otherwise, apart from a few surges, Vergelegen is pretty quiet on social media, of late, in the awards’ medals too and little seems to be written about the wines.

Much the same situation applies to Eagles’ Nest, though they do seem to regularly pick up awards locally and internationally, but there’s little public relations on the local market. Haskell and Eikendal both make really good wines, but, Eikendal especially, has no image in the media stratosphere. In fact, if I hadn’t tasted their wines for Platter for the past two years, they wouldn’t be in my list either. Waterford enters no competitions, and, like Eagles’ Nest interacts very little with the media, which doesn’t help their awareness, but I’ve always liked their classic style and consistency. It’s quite possible we hear little of these producers as they sell out without making a song and dance of their existence.
The dropping of Thelema is the one that really puzzles me. I’ve been a loyal customer since the start and remained a fan, buying the cabernet virtually every year and other wines from both farms less regularly.
Thelema CabIf the non-appearance of Thelema is a surprise, think of other, highly visible producers who haven’t made it: inter many alia Steenberg, Beaumont, Ernie Els, Rust en Vrede, Ken Forrester, Morgenster, Fairview, Villiera, Glen Carlou, Graham Beck, De Toren, Neil Ellis, Rustenberg, Vilafonte, Warwick, Saronsberg, Rijks. I’m sure many if not most of them got a vote or two but the results just go to show how easy it is to make a list like this one year and be dropped two or four years’ later.

I don’t imagine Grape’s Top 20 2018 will be any easier to compile or less controversial.

Stellenbosch vs Franschhoek

Boekenhoutskloof hit the path of fame running from the start; I guess many, if asked, would say the first wine was that legend of a syrah, the 1997. Its place in history is cemented not only by its extraordinary authentic expression of syrah but that the vineyard supplying the fruit was grubbed up after that vintage to make way for an industrial park – for heaven’s sake!

In fact, the first wine from this renowned stable was a 1996 cabernet (I still have a bottle) from a Franschhoek vineyard; it still supplies the fruit today though in recent years a little cabernet franc has been blended in. This cabernet along with a 97 semillon were the first two wines rated in the farm’s inaugural Platter entry (earning a bunch of grapes each, when that, thankfully short-lived, practice pertained). The famous syrah received a mention in the intro, before receiving a five-star rating two years later; the first of many for this label.

The cabernet has been no slouch either, cellarmaster and co-owner of Boekenhoutskloof, Marc Kent, confirming no fewer than nine Platter five-star ratings have been awarded since that maiden ’96.

Consistency has been a hallmark, not only of quality, but the range itself. The original threesome – cabernet, syrah and semillon – have been joined by a Noble Late Harvest and, since Kent became a member of the Cape Winemakers’ Guild, an occasional Syrah Reserve. (Although The Chocolate Block is listed under Boekenhoutskloof in Platter, the label suggests it’s more of a stand-alone brand, though under the Boekenhoutskloof umbrella.)

Boekenhoutskloof Stellenbosch Cabernet 2014










The announcement then of a new wine under the famous label with its ‘seven Cape chairs’ is likely to cause a stir. Even more so when it’s a cabernet from Stellenbosch. This development arose after the Boekenhoutskloof team acquired the historic Helderberg Winery (formerly Co-operative, founded in 1906) in 2009.

The innate association Stellenbosch has with cabernet, the Helderberg being one of the prime slopes, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the search was soon on to produce a Stellenbosch Boekenhoutskloof cabernet; ‘Our duty was clear,’ says Kent, declaring that ‘the Helderberg is to Stellenbosch what the Médoc is to Bordeaux.’

What did surprise me when I first glanced at the familiar label was the vintage: 2014. Not the easiest of years, nor the kindest to late-ripening cabernet. Sandwiched between drenching spring downpours and winter-like March rainfall, harvest took place under fairly mild conditions with just a couple of heat spikes.

Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet 2007A comparison was necessary – and what better excuse to open an older bottle of Boekenhoutskloof cab. I chose 2007, another difficult year; the lead up to and towards the end of harvest also wet and cool but with a longer, extreme heatwave. Patience was all for cabernet producers unused to conditions more akin to Europe towards the end of the season. Those who had it were well-rewarded, including Kent; 2007 records one of Boekenhoutskloof’s nine cabernet five-star ratings.

And what a magnificent wine it is; in a word, striking and seemingly still youthful with plenty of guts for many more years. Two years in new French oak (Sylvain and Saury are the preferred coopers) has only added classy dimension to the ripe cassis fragrance, also fleshing out the flavours within the precise, firm frame. Truly impressive.

The youngster, which includes a splash of cabernet franc, faltered a little at first; Helderberg cab is known to be a more elegant style, coming from the cooler end of the area, closer to the ocean. Given a while, there came a gentle red-berried perfume, clearly from cabernet, oak much less apparent, though it has spent time in barriques from the same coopers as the Franschhoek model. Similarly, that first evening, shyness overcame nearly all but a tense withdrawnness, just a glimmer of sweet fruit.

As I do with all serious wines (R420 a bottle from Wine Cellar is its most evident claim to seriousness), the bottles were stoppered after a glass with supper and returned to the cellar for further contemplation the following evening.

The 07 continued on song at perfect pitch; its Stellenbosch cousin had settled a bit, giving a clearer picture of its dainty, sweet fruit but in a noticeably light-weight style. Thank goodness, Kent & Co haven’t tried to wring everything out of it; there is balance which should achieve harmony in the short to medium term. I somehow feel, even then, that it will remain a pleasant rather than fully satisfying drink

I was left wishing perhaps the team had waited until 2015, which surely would have delivered more worthy a wine from that sterling vintage. Oh well, it’ll be something to look forward to next year.

Boekenhoutskloof Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 – Alc 13.9%, rs 2.5, TA 5.8 g/l