Spotlight on site

An ever-shrinking pie is being cut into smaller and smaller segements. That’s the broad picture of South Africa’s area under vine and the number of producers making wine from those vines.

Figures just released show a decrease of 7601 ha since 2007, leaving an official 2017 total of 94 545 ha under wine vines; many believe the true figure is much lower.

Lack of profitability and drought are among reasons for this steady decline. Not all is doom and gloom; new vineyards are being planted, today with much more attention being paid to new areas and sites in the search for wines of distinction and a sense of place.

Stephanie Wiid, Johan Kruger and Arco Laarman are all names that are, in Wiid’s case, or were, in the others, associated with well-known producers: Fairview, Sterhuis and Glen Carlou respectively. Both Kruger and Laarman have started labels under their own names, while Wiid, in partnership with friends, has the Thistle and Weed brand. All focus on site and producing wines with a sense of place.

Wiid makes her Duwweltjie Chenin Blanc from a block of heritage bush vines planted in 1956. Named after the Duwweltjies or Devil’s thorns that grow in the vineyard and stick to the soles of one’s shoes, the wine itself is far more friendly and delightful – but then it is a 2017. Full of natural vibrancy and fresh, crunchy red apple flavours with the promise of more floral and wild herb complexity in store; the patient will be rewarded. For a wine of this quality, R185 isn’t exorbitant these days.

Both Kruger and Laarman have worked extensively with chardonnay; their love of the variety is now encouraging them to explore way beyond their original boundaries of Stellenbosch and Paarl respectively.

The family behind Kruger Family Wines.

Piekernierskloof is not a spot I’d associate with chardonnay; indeed, it yields a quite unusual wine, especially Kruger Family Wines Sans Chêne 2017 (R125) (unoaked but the term also means ‘no chains’, appropriate for this solo-flyer). A riot of spice, fynbos with a suggestion of eucalyptus aren’t traditional chardonnay descriptors, though it is well-structured and really dry. I think it’ll be a love it or hate it wine. The oaked version, from the same Klipkop vineyard (R275) has some of the unoaked version’s character but more typicity thanks to (well-judged) oak and a creamy texture. Perhaps a more acceptably distinctive style.

With Walker Bay Chardonnay 2017 (R225) we’re back in very familiar chardonnay territory; gentle lemony, nutty notes lifted by fresh, natural acid and supportive oaking, none new. An elegant wine, my pick of the chardonnays described here.

Should you wonder why Kruger chose to spend much time in his bakkie travelling between Piekenierskloof and Walker Bay (he also makes a smart pinot noir called Pearly Gates from Upper Hemel en Aarde (R175)), one reason is that they’re linked by granite soils. This offers an opportunity to learn how the same soils in different regions creates diverse wines.

Striking packaging on Arco Laarman new wines; each line represents facet of viti/viniculture culminating in Focal Point of wine’s distinction

Laarman’s Focal Point Chardonnay 2017 (R305) comes from further along the South coast, Vermaaklikheid to be tongue-twistingly precise (near Riversdale). I admit the new oak vanillins ring too loudly for me, but it also enjoys good vigour and underlying creaminess, so maybe time will forge greater harmony with the bright, citrusy fruit.

Cinsaut (cinsault in Laarman’s case) is another fashionable addition in each winemaker’s range; Kruger’s Old Vines 2017 from Piekernierskloof (R175), Laarman’s Focal Point 2017 from Bottelary Hills (R210). They share some whole bunch, spontaneous fermentation and ageing in French oak, but Laarman’s edges it as the more subtle and elegant. There’s much discussion on the profit of ageing cinsaut; frankly, these two are enjoyable now, perfect for warm weather, white fish and lightly spiced dishes.

On the subject of food, what to pair with sauvignon blanc is often a challenge, at least those examples with showy fruit and hint of residual sweetness, which is what most sauvignon drinkers expect.

Winemaker, Matt Day explaining details of his Metis Sauvignon Blanc

That’s not the goal of Matt Day, winemaker at highly-regarded sauvignon producer, Klein Constantia. A working visit to Sancerre’s Pascal Jolivet in 2012 inspired Day’s Metis. It was here he learned the importance of soil in the expression of place.

The Metis joint venture between KC and Jolivet began the following vintage, the fruit sourced from one of the highest blocks on decomposed granite; further blocks have been added since.

The winemaking approach is totally different from the sauvignon norm: oxidised juice, natural ferment, a year on lees in 500 litre neutral French oak and a little sulphur added prior to bottling. Pascal’s son, Clement, who was here to share the experience of a vertical of the first four vintages of Metis, advised ‘The best way to work with sauvignon blanc is to forget it’s sauvignon.’ Suggesting it can be much more interesting than just sauvage flavours.

Line up of Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, New Zealand & Klein Constantia Metis tasting

After re-tuning our palates with two Jolivet wines, an edgy Sancerre 2016 and broader Pouilly-Fumé 2014, Didier Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly 2014 and completely atypical New Zealand sauvignon from Greywacke, we were ready for Metis 2013 – 2016.

The youngest and current release, suggests time is a requirement of this more structured, high acid style; 2013 confirms such recommendation. Still youthful, it showed outstanding evolution after an hour in the glass. Fruit? Yes, but delivered more with a sense of ripeness than overt tropical or green tones. Alcohol? Yes, there’s that too; over 14% in the youngest two, but never a niggling intrusion, mainly thanks to the wine being bone dry.

As this description might suggest, Metis is no aperitif wine, but has many possibilities as a food partner. So far, and it’s early days yet, Metis’ distinction by a similarity of style derived from site.

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Sending a clear message

As winelovers know, the South African wine scene is a bewildering, crowded place. Scan the supermarket shelves or even those of small independent retailers and I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least half a dozen unfamiliar labels. If the competition for established producers is a challenge, imagine what’s it’s like for a newcomer; to be heard above the noise demands not only quality wines but focused, clear marketing and being out there. This applies as much to groups flying under a particular banner, as it does to individual producers.

Some get it right.

The Swartland Independents  start with a clear message in their name – Swartland wines made by independent producers. The Swartland Revolution, now replaced by the Swartland Heritage Festival, introduced winelovers to their wines and those of an international guest over a fun weekend of wine and food. Beyond the group, each member works hard to maintain and increase the value of the Swartland brand, whether via social media, tastings, wine dinners and shoe leather, both locally and abroad. Of course, it helps that many are regarded as among South Africa’s best winemakers producing some of its most desirable wines. Even if there is another generation of Young Guns now, the Swartland Independents are no naval gazers but always looking to be one step ahead of the game. The group isn’t all about fun and games (and wine), there are rules and regulations for membership too which lend credibility; these are set out under Values on their website, one it’s refreshing to see kept up to date.

The Old Vine Project  also projects a clear message, starting with the name. As I wrote after the recent launch of the Certified Heritage Certification Seal: ‘a wine from a vineyard a minimum of 35 years old, made by a member of OVP may carry the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal with the planting date.’ The process throughout is authenticated by the relevant authorities. Certified Heritage Vineyards plaques spread the message to visitors at members’ cellar doors.

Tastings of old vine wines both abroad and locally have received generous praise as has the project itself. Like the Swartland Independents, OVP members number some of the Cape’s most well-regarded and high-profile winemakers; a list may be found on the informative, easily-navigated website, a source worth using.

Less easy to get to grips with at first glance is Cape Vintner Classification, which recently presented the first wines gaining this accreditation. The concept has had an unusually long gestation, its initial intentions being announced some five years ago. The intervening silence led some to wonder whether it would ever get off the ground, especially as there were rumours of disagreements between members with some dropping out.

One needs to turn to the website’s Home page for some enlightenment on the name:
‘The Cape Vintner Classification (CVC) is an independent body committed to the accreditation, governance, representation and promotion of distinctive regional site specific Cape wines.’

Quite a mouthful.

‘Discover’, as the site suggests, leads to the group’s Vision as outlined under eight categories, followed by a potted history since 1659 (I’m not sure of the relevance of Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification to CVC) and finally CVC’s founders, all senior statesmen in the industry. And so it goes on through detailed criteria for membership and the Four Cornerstones as well as tiers of accreditation. As far as I can tell, this mass of information has remained unchanged since that 2013 launch.

More’s the pity now CVC is up and running. From chatting to Don Tooth, MD of Vergelegen, a member and host to the first tasting, I understand that the very important Estate requirement has been dropped; ‘As we wish to bring in younger members’. (The point being today’s youngsters lease rather than own vineyards or have their own farms.)
Whew, I wonder. CVC is clearly, heavy on bureaucracy and very much Establishment oriented in membership (There’s no actual list of members, just flags on a map, which, when highlighted, indicate the producer’s name). It’s difficult to imagine free-ranging youngsters, more attuned to groups like the Swartland Independents and Old Vine Project, becoming members of CVC.

To the nub and the wines. Around 50 made it through the qualification blind tasting which requires five vintages of the same wine to be assessed for consistency and quality. Michael Fridjhon, Cathy van Zyl MW and Neil Ellis are those I know were on the panel; maybe there were others – there was no official confirmation. There will be wines in a producer’s range which don’t carry the seal and those that do the first time, may not when the wines are next evaluated in five years’ time. What is the consumer to make of all this? I can’t help but think CVC could also stand for Consumer Very Confused.

On a more positive note, there are some cracker wines. A conversation-stopping Vergelegen Schaapenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2017, is probably the best ever; Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 is all one could want from a restrained, classic style cab, while Delaire Graff’s Botmaskop 2015 is a fine, beautifully-crafted Bordeaux-style blend. I also particularly liked the fresh, more pinot-like Neethlingshof The Owl Post Pinotage 2015. Shiraz proved the only disappointing category.

Finally, a suggestion for CVC. Under the heading Communication Strategies, it is stressed; ‘communication with trade and press both local and international should be clear and effective’.  Such goal will require the website be brought up to date and they would do well to engage the services of a professional PR firm to clarify for media and consumer CVC’s currently complicated message.

New CVC seal attached to accredited wines

Hope rewarded

Is it important that our wines express vintage variation? Do the majority of winemakers encourage this?

There is still a commonly held belief that given the Cape’s generally temperate climate, vintage variation is limited and good wines can be made every year.

Of course there will be some good wines every year (that’s true of every wine producing country) and consistency is to be applauded, but consistency should be a reflection of quality rather than the forcing of wine into a style that the vintage doesn’t deliver. The result will likely not be very enjoyable but also lack authenticity.

Sebastian Beaumont holding the fresh & wonderful Chenin Blanc 2011

This was an issue raised by winemaker, Sebastian Beaumont at the recent vertical of Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc, Beaumont Family Wines’ star white. ‘It is what it is,’ he commented as 2013 was poured (the vertical covered 2010 to the newly-released 2017). The weather event making a tall poppy of the wine was 50mm of rain over five days in February, just what botrytis spores ordered. The regular spontaneous fermentation stopped with 8 grams/litre of residual sugar, the highest ever (>2 g/l is more usual), and a suggestion of honeyed botrytis.

Beaumont admits there were doubts about releasing this very different Hope under that label; ‘Will customers understand this vintage variation?’ As a Hope enthusiast, I wouldn’t have wanted the farm not to release 2013; yes, it’s sweeter, more luscious than other years but well balanced and should gain in interest over at least the next three to five years. Beaumont also produced a Demi-Sec chenin that year.

Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2010 – 2017.
The label change made in 2014

The story of Hope Marguerite begins in 1974 and 1978, when the two chenin blanc vineyards providing the fruit were planted as bush vines. They’ve since been lifted onto a low trellis. A prototype Hope under Chenin Blanc Barrel Reserve was made in 1996 by Niels Verburg; the first Hope Marguerite followed in 1997, the name honouring that of Sebastian Beaumont’s much-loved paternal grandmother, ‘an elegant lady’, much like her wine.

An unfussy vinification takes place in barrel, mainly around 13 years old with up to 25% new, depending on vintage; during its year in oak, the lees are stirred every two to three weeks with S02 added, as is acid when necessary but at the pre-ferment stage.

Elegance is a constant; alcohols, generally around 12.5%, Beaumont’s ideal, occasionally step up to 13.5%. But it’s more fruit evolution than alcohol which makes some vintages, notably drier ones, seem bigger: 2010 and 2012 fall into that category, although the latter has a lighter, more vivacious feel than the nose suggests.

Without doubt, the star of the older vintages is 2011. On arrival, we were served the unwooded Chenin Blanc 2011; still singing, it enjoys a wet wool (nicer than it sounds!), ripe red apple complexity lifted by crunchy, fruity acidity. Hope is more complex with a steely backbone and tasty, savoury length; still youthful. It seems a pity to drink it even now, as much more is promised in future.

It is extraordinary that South African chenin, grown in a much warmer climate than that of the Loire, has the ability to age, if not as long as its French counterpart, at least longer than one would think possible. Seven years is nothing for the 2011. I’ve found an 09 in the cellar; it will be interesting to see that as a 10-year-old.

Most vintages of Hope are serious, contemplative wines, very ready to show off their best with Asian food – and doubtless, other dishes – but Sebastian Beaumont had chosen South China Dim Sum Bar as a venue; this compact space has its priorities right, putting food first, fancy décor nowhere. As laid-back as Beaumont.  I hadn’t been too enamoured of Hope 2010; from a hot, dry vintage, it has developed, ripe flavours, the acid a little sharpish. Matched with prawn dumpling in broth, it took on a whole new life. Vintages exhibiting spice – 2015 and the more exotic 2016 – couldn’t be better served than with the range of Dim Sum at this popular restaurant.

Beaumont describes 2014 as a ‘wallflower vintage’; understated is perhaps a kinder description, as it reflects many of the positives associated with Hope but in more of a sip-and-chat style than demanding one’s undivided attention.

My enthusiasm for 2017 whites is again boosted by this latest Hope Marguerite release. Intensity, concentration and tension are the key elements; challenging at present, everything points to a magnificent maturity.

The creative genes that run through the Beaumont family across many endeavours fits perfectly with winemaker, Sebastian’s comment, ‘it is what it is’, an expression of the vintage; I can’t imagine him trying to make a wine that adheres to style only.

What happy coincidence Hope Marguerite celebrates its 20th vintage with a great wine, one not shying from a sense of site nor vintage variation.

New from old

The journey culminating in the official launch of The Old Vine Project Certified Heritage Certification Seal began some 18 years ago, when viticulture consultant, Rosa Kruger noticed many old vineyards in major wine producing countries through which she was travelling. Seeing them made her wonder, ‘but where are South Africa’s old vines?’

At the time, she was working for Johann Rupert at his Franschhoek winery, L’Ormarins. Thanks to his encouragement, together with help from the farm’s managers and Johan Viljoen then of Vinpro, a search for old vineyards (minimum of 35 years) across the Cape began; Kruger’s determination and enthusiasm for the project is as infectious now as it was then.

The quest had its own hurdles; not all farmers were keen to come forward with information and SAWIS, which held the list of registered vineyards and planting dates, was initially reluctant to release what was considered confidential information. When they did give Kruger access in 2014, it was on the understanding that she get the farmers’ permission before making details public.

Kruger had already started a wonderful website iamold, where details of each vineyard was published. A website that needed updating every year, as more vineyards came of ‘old’ age; it was also but a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Money for the foundation of a formal and secure project was required. By now, important international voices, including that of Jancis Robinson, started to taste and talk about the wines; it helped that many were made by already-acknowledged top producers in the Cape.

Certified Heritage Vineyard back label with detailed information

Quality of these old vine wines doesn’t come without challenges. Many of the farmers delivered their fruit to co-ops or to volume wholesalers, the old vine grapes being crushed into the fermentation tank along with others. Now they are being asked to farm for extreme quality: pruning, suckering, leaf plucking, green harvesting all require a change of mindset, as well as appropriate recompense to both the farmer and his workers. It costs around R45000/R50000 per year to farm a hectare and yields can be as low as 1.5/2 tons a hectare. Consider these figures when looking at the price of the wines.

Johann Rupert again stepped in to help pull together all the strings by sponsoring the now officially-named Old Vine Project. Ex-WOSA Communications Manager, André Morgenthal co-ordinates the OVP and, with SAWIS, drew up the new Certified Heritage Vineyard Seal, which carries the planting date. The first was awarded to Christa van Chevalliere’s Nuwedam Chenin Blanc 2016. Membership of OVP stands at 30 (details on www.oldvineproject.co.za), Chris and Andrea Mullineux leading the way with Mullineux Wines the first to sign up. There are more high-profile names yet to join.

While recognition via the seal lends formality to the project, it is yet another piece of information the consumer needs to get to grips with. Establishing consumer perception of old vine wines is already underway, a venture between the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, Winetech and University of Stellenbosch. Hopefully, this will also gauge consumers’ willingness to pay more for these wines, based on what it costs to produce them.

Given Kruger’s love of old vines and the effort she puts into training the vineyard workers in tending these special vineyards, it is no surprise they too receive official recognition from the OVP. Specialised pruning courses for OVP members’ vineyard workers are being sponsored by pruning shears manufacturer, Felco.

A move which I’m particularly happy about, is that Vititec has started massal selection on significant old blocks; this material will be cleaned up and propagated. I think it is Prof Alain Deloire who speaks of the memory of old vines which lends unique character; hopefully the same is transferred to their offspring.

Plaque OVP members can display at their cellars. Boekenhoutskloof the first to acquire one.

As ever, wine is a journey rather than a destination; this is just a start for the OVP. Two aspects particularly appeal to me; first, the concept is basically a simple one for the consumer to understand – a wine from a vineyard a minimum of 35 years old, made by a member of OVP may carry the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal with the planting date. The process is authenticated from start to finish; here, for once, is a welcome example of the wine industry working together.

The tasting at the launch was an embarrassment of riches; 17 producers participated, between them there was hardly a wine that didn’t impress. Among an unforgettable few: Reyneke Natural Chenin Blanc 2016, Hogan Chenin Blanc 2016, Metzer Maritime Chenin Blanc 2016, David & Nadia Semillon 2016, Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2015, Cape of Good Hope Laing Semillon 2015, Mullineux Old Vines White 2017, Naude Cinsaut 2016, Meerendal Pinotage 2015 and Cecilia Wines Pinotage 2016.

If there’s one aspect that would cause the OVP to fail, it’s lack of quality; on members’ current showing, that’s highly unlikely.

Beyond the price tag

A few nights prior to the launch of the latest Leeu Passant wines, I had a strange dream; by accident, the Mullineux range was poured instead. Like most dreams, it can have lasted only a few seconds and was a flash happening rather than an episodic story.

It also proved somewhat déja vu; on arrival at the actual Leeu Passant launch, a ‘preview’ glass of Mullineux Old Vine White 2017 was poured! Often, these ‘welcoming’ wines are sipped without much attention, as guests greet each other. Not on this occasion; this thrilling, chenin-based wine was given undivided attention by those around me. It’s tightly knit, spirited, flavourful beyond the varietal mix and just begs ageing; the best, if completely different from my (and Andrea’s) previous favourite, 2014. As I’ve already suggested, 2017 is a vintage to look out for, even if it is so far mainly white wines.

But on to Leeu Passant. The project was launched last year with three wines, two chardonnays and a Dry Red from 2015; its genesis was viticulturist, Rosa Kruger introducing old vineyards to the Mullineux’s and their business partner, Analjit Singh urging the pair to make something from these old vines. The wines are made in the Franschhoek cellar, so from this year, totally separate from the Mullineux’s Swartland wines now vinified on their Roundstone property. The name and packaging also paints a clear line between Leeu Passant and the Mullineux brand, although their signatures are on the label.

Leeu Passant Dry Red Wine 2016 – opened the day and 3 days before the launch

In the meantime, the Elandskloof Chardonnay has been dropped, leaving a two-wine range. Chris and Andrea Mullineux explained they wanted to focus on the Stellenbosch Chardonnay, finding this ‘doesn’t have to be forced into its style, which the Elandskloof did.’ From the high slopes, at the cooler, False Bay end of the Helderberg, there’s a bright, natural freshness and sustained, dry finish to balance ripe citrus flavours and oak. In other words generally warmer Stellenbosch in cooler mood.

 

 

First taste was from a just-opened bottle; later we had the opportunity to try bottles opened the day before and three days earlier. More evident richness on the last suggests plenty of potential and interest to come over – perhaps a conservative – eight years.

My entirely subjective view of Leeu Passant Dry Red Wine 2016 is that I without doubt prefer it to the maiden 2015, but then I am something of a grape tannin junkie. That shouldn’t be taken as any reflection on 2015’s quality, it’s a masterfully balanced wine reflective of a fine vintage. Varieties and vineyards are the same: 37-year old, bush-vine Stellenbosch cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc from high on the Helderberg with very important third partner in cinsaut from South Africa’s oldest registered red wine vineyard in Wellington and second oldest in Franschhoek. Don’t underestimate cinsauts’ tannic contribution; tasted whilst still in the varietal stage last year was quite a mouth-puckering experience. But the vintage, as the drought began to take effect, has a major effect on the wine’s compact structure, a determined grip shielding the concentration of sweet fruit; very different from 15’s richer texture, caressing tannins that I noted last year.

South Africa’s oldest registered red wine vineyard, cinsaut planted 1900

As with the chardonnay, there were a further two bottles opened a day and three days’ earlier to taste, with very little difference in the red’s case. It’s a long-termer; a good one to invest in for children turning 21 in 2037; whenever, it will be magnificent.

The unambiguous name, Dry Red Wine, reflects the cabernet, cinsaut blends of the 1970s, something the Mullineux’s had in mind when they planned their own Dry Red, describing it as ‘a deconstruction and reconstruction’. For me, there are shades of those early blends in 2016, more so than 2015.

To give stylistic context to the Leeu Passant pair, they were poured alongside two well-regarded chardonnays (Au Bon Climat 2015, Santa Barbara; Henschke 2015 Croft, Adelaide Hills) and reds with cabernet (Tenuta San Guido 2012 Sassicaia, Bolgheri; Domaine de Trévallon 2014 Alpilles Rouge). If stylistic context was the intention, one could understand their inspiration; it was also evident they didn’t need to stand back for any of these quality international producers.

There’s been some discussion about pricing of these wines, specifically in the UK (ex-cellar the Chardonnay is R650, Dry Red R975, incidentally neither the most expensive in their respective category) where they’re going for £80 or thereabouts.

Pricing seems to be South Africa’s Achilles heel: we’re either too cheap, good value or raise eyebrows. As I see it, it’s the first two levels which cause the main problem for the third, the gap between them emphasising the disparity of the high end. What consumers will pay for a bottle of wine has as much to do with the producer’s reputation and track record as the consumer’s level of interest in wine and the price itself.

It’s 10 years since Chris and Andrea made their first wines under the Mullineux label, during which time they’ve become one of South Africa’s most trusted producers with an enviable track record. This plus consistent visibility in the market, several accolades – Platter’s Winery of the Year, Andrea’s Wine Enthusiast Winemaker of the Year – also generate confidence when the price tag is high. In the case of both seriously good Leeu Passant wines, I see no need for raised eyebrows.

Saving vineyards; telling stories

Where to start? Not so long ago. Just 2013 for Mick and Jeanine Craven, 2016 for Lukas and Roxanne van Loggerenberg; those years mark the maiden vintages of Craven Wines and van Loggerenberg Wines respectively.

In these few years, both couples have made their mark, through their individual winemaking philosophies and skill in realising such individuality in their wines. They have much else in common: neither own vineyards, rather forging relationships with the farmers; visitors won’t find packets of yeast, enzymes or new oak in either cellar – less is more being the general approach. Even so, Mick Craven noted early on that 2017 ‘was the laziest winemaking year in history’. Another great year, so soon after the hype of 2015?

That’s what the Craven’s suggest; Lukas van Loggerenberg, who focuses on capturing the difference in vintages, also commented that 2016 and 2017 ‘were like black and white’. Skill apart, the 13 wines, all 2017s, presented by these two producers at the launch, show it’s an excellent vintage. I can’t think when – or if – I’ve ever enjoyed so much every single wine in a winemaker’s range, or two, in this case.

Mick and Jeanine Craven with their range of wines

Of course, each has an individual style. Acid is crucial for the Cravens; their Stellenbosch vineyards, all single blocks but unregistered, are picked earlier than most to retain as much natural acid as possible. Time on the lees provides girth and balance. Alcohol levels, 12%-12.5%, are low in today’s terms but, quite frankly these wines have more vinosity and flavour than many bigger Stellenbosch wines; they are also bone dry. The area is no one-trick pony.

I’ve been fascinated by the clairette blanche since the first 2014. Determined to see what they could make of this humble and disappearing variety, the Craven’s experiments with blending skin- and tank-fermented portions have resulted in a particularly concentrated 50/50 partnership this year. A partnership with tannin grip, a variety of textures and vinosity, all a brilliant answer for a grape not well-endowed with obvious fruit.

Mainstream consumers would rightly think pinot gris (or probably pinot grigio) is also a boringly neutral, white wine. They’d also be rightly confused to see the glimmering ruby, smell and taste the redcurrant and fragrant florals of the Craven’s version. The answer lies in (this case, nine days on) the skins, as it does with most grapes. It’s more red than rosé thanks to flavour and breadth, but with the refreshment of a white. A must for those who diss the variety.

If only wine politics wouldn’t interfere, the Cravens believe Faure, where their cinsaut, pinot noir and one syrah come from, would make a cohesive Ward. Close to False Bay, the wines show fruit purity with depth and freshness. I hope pinot lovers are open-minded about where good South African pinot comes from; this is a charming example, all gentle waves of dark cherries and savoury undergrowth, balanced by the grape’s natural freshness.

If it were necessary to illustrate the cooling effects of False Bay in the wines, then compare the Craven’s still embryonic Faure Syrah with its bright, red fruit character to their Firs Syrah from Devon Valley, with its expressive dark spice and breadth of texture. My money’s on the Faure in a few years.

Lukas van Loggerenberg (Roxanne elsewhere) with his range of wines

I’m loathe to write about a wine that isn’t available here, but that’s a good excuse to badger local retailers to book Van Loggerenberg Break a Leg Blanc de Noir 2018; 2017 was snapped up in the UK by The Harrow’s Roger Jones. From a 32 year old block of Paarl cinsaut, the blush hue belies the wine’s expressive fruit, depth derived from natural fermentation in old oak and eight months’ lees enrichment. Just 12% alcohol completes a thoroughly attractive, refreshing drink.

The vineyard used to supply a co-op, the farmer receiving precious little in return; now, after van Loggerenberg’s viticultural directions, to farmer’s astonishment but much better recompense, the vineyard is saved with van Loggerenberg able to take more fruit in future. He also includes 40% of this vineyard in the red Geronimo Cinsaut, a complexity of spice, herbs and red fruits well highlighted by both flesh and structure.

I have wondered before, with the multitude of classy chenin blancs, whether it is still possible to stand out from the crowd. I shouldn’t have: Kameraderie Chenin Blanc from a 57-year-old Paarl vineyard, is outstanding. Precision, abundance of concentrated ripe flavours, tweek of viscosity, uplifting freshness, lingeringly memorable. I have a feeling 2017 will be an exceptional chenin vintage generally.

Breton, the old name for cabernet franc in the Loire, should give an idea of what to expect from this wine. Van Loggerenberg’s inspiration came from a 1988 he drank in the area; ‘I was sold’ he remembers. I’m sold on his. Earlier picked (from two Stellenbosch vineyards) than many of the fuller, still excellent, cab francs, Breton has vigour, fragrance (spice, wild herbs), flesh and a freshness balanced by fine tannins, and harmonised by 10 months in barrel. It might jolt those who know only the other style, but they should become converts in no time.

There isn’t one wine from Craven and van Loggerenberg I wouldn’t want to buy (I haven’t mentioned them all); the labels would be an initial temptation. The Craven’s colour, wrap-around labels depict their vineyards and surrounding vegetation; the van Loggerenberg’s are a collage, each item reflecting something of the name: Kameraderie – sharing moments with friends, cameraderie between farmers, workers and the vines; South African heritage is also mirrored. Both producers’ labels deserve a close look; needless to say, their wines do too.

A journey into wine

The journey for Tim and Vaughan Pearson to producing their own wine began, as all good wine journeys should, with a passion for the fermented juice of the grape. After holidays in South Africa in the 1990s, Tim and Vaughan returned in 2005 for their 25th wedding anniversary, but also to explore for land suitable to start a vineyard. This eventually led them to the Hemel en Aarde valley, which seemed the perfect place.

Back in the UK, Tim searched the internet; it wasn’t long before he found land for sale a few kilometres beyond the valley on the road to Caledon. Soil analysis proved the vine-growing potential, contact was made with the sellers and on return to South Africa in 2006, Tim and Vaughan bought 12 hectares overlooked by Shaws Mountain to the north and Teslaarsdal range to the south.

The vineyards and Frantoio olive trees for olive oil, took shape over the next four years.
Four varieties only were planted: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah; the range too has been kept to a neat quintet – chardonnay coming in both unoaked and oaked versions – though I do see a Syrah Rosé is destined to join them in 2018.
A test harvest planned for 2010 prompted the appointment of Riana van der Merwe as winemaker, a role she continues to hold, growing in knowledge and confidence with the vineyards themselves.

Until 2017, the wines were vinified at Iona then Almenkerk; 2018 is the first in their own cellar, a re-furbished nearby warehouse the Pearsons were offered as it was unused.
My initial interest in Seven Springs Vineyards arose from an article by Professor Damien Wilson, wine marketing and business specialist, about the Pearson’s marketing focus on social media; they were among the early ones to use this method.

As that test harvest was coming in, so they launched their website (www.7springs.co.za), the Seven Springs Vineyard Facebook site and Twitter handle @7springsWine. The use of these social media outlets has been ongoing and regular, covering much else of the Pearson’s life, apart from Seven Springs. Partly because of this, it doesn’t come across as hard sell, rather creates awareness, especially as Tim and Vaughan spend a relatively short time here each year. Much of this is taken up with visits to hotels and restaurants, introducing their wines at tastings or dinners.

Original Seven Springs label (left) and current one where vintage is on back label

Screwcaps have been used from day one; now the same bottle throughout the range but one change they have made is to the labels, where the vintage is on the back. ‘This has a twofold advantage,’ notes Vaughan Pearson; ‘first, we can use the same front label every year, also people become less focused on vintage, more on the variety and our name.’ As the current release sauvignon blanc is 2015, when the obsession for many winelovers is still the youngest vintage possible, this diminishes the chance of immediate rejection by a potential customer.

They would be silly to reject it too; it’s a splendid sauvignon still full of vitality at its core but now with an elegance in its riper tropical, figgy flavours, though more vinous than fruity.

The Pearsons kindly gave me a sample of each of their wines, as well as maiden vintages of Oaked Chardonnay 2011 and Syrah 2010. Tim James tasted them with me.

If the older chardonnay is anything to go by, the pair of 2015s should benefit from further ageing, their creaminess trimmed of some puppy fat. Chardonnay is such a large, competitive field today.

Pinot Noir remains niche, so is even more exposed when mis-treated. This is definitely not the case with Seven Springs Pinot Noir 2014; a ripe enough mix of cherries and spice, supple texture, finished with rounded savouriness, it offers most enjoyable drinking now and value: R145 ex-cellar. A great effort, given the lighter vintage for pinots in this area.

The several evenings I spent sipping the Syrah 2014 (R152) would encourage keeping the wine a few more years, when it should pull together to great benefit. Fruit was the main sensation when first opened, encouraged no doubt by the thankfully subtle oaking. Denser in texture than the pinot, the wine evolved with the same agreeable flow. Oak was more evident in the maiden 2010 but, of course, the vines were mere babes.

Progress since I last tasted in wines, especially in the sauvignon and two reds, is most encouraging.

May the journey for the Pearson’s, Riana van der Merwe and Seven Springs Vineyard continue as positively as it has to date.

Success

We all love a success story. But what is success? For a wine producer, surely being profitable; that would account for a meagre handful. As for grape growers, according to Vinpro, just over a third of the approximately 3000 farm at a financially sustainable level.

Winelovers might have other ideas about what constitutes success. Their top 10 list of Successful Producers might look quite different from winewriters’ list of Top Producers; the former possibly influenced by visibility, the latter, wine quality. Both lists would be pretty subjective.

So what is success and how to achieve it? My view (subjective, of course) is that a plan, a philosophy and personality are crucial elements. The plan comes before anything else; even with adjustments along the way, a well thought-through plan should always lead forward rather than sideways or backwards.

Glenelly winemaker, Luke O’Cuinneagain (l) & Arthur de Lencquesaing, Marketing Manager

A philosophy about style of wine can lead to consistency and regular customers to whom it appeals. It starts in the vineyard, continues through to the bottle and beyond to the wine’s maturation potential. A recent tasting with Glenelly’s winemaker, Luke O’Cuinneagain provided a good example of a philosophy both well-defined and adhered to, one that produces an ageworthy wine reflective of both site and vintage. It’s a philosophy shared by owner, Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, previously owner of Bordeaux Classed Growth, Ch Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. She chose to invest in South Africa’s winelands because of the several South African red blends awarded the Pichon Lalande trophy on the IWSC and which enlightened her to the potential here.

 

 

O’Cuinneagain has benefitted from working with the vineyards, planted on virgin soils, from the start in 2003; every year brings a better understanding of these still young vines.

Vineyard map with 2018 cabernet grapes

A mini-vertical of the cabernet-based Lady May was illustrative: 2008 (remarkable for a challenging year and still very much alive, also available from the farm for R950); 2009 (R1200 ex-cellar), a ‘crowd pleaser’, says the winemaker, who admits he prefers the tauter 2008; 2010 and newly-released 2012 well reflecting their respective vintages, the common factor in all being a truly dry finish with ripe grape tannins, unusual in Stellenbosch reds. A tasting of 2017 components promises a vintage of great depth – cabernet with fine, integrated tannins; cabernet franc, taut and linear and assertive petit verdot for perfume and freshness. Despite a later-release date than many, Lady May deserves further maturation.

Being French, the plan also included a restaurant; ‘We found the ideal fit in Christophe de Hosse,’ says a delighted Arthur de Lencquesaing, Madame’s grandson and Marketing Manager of Glenelly. Dehosse, Chef Patron of The Vine Bistro (and Joostenberg Bistro fame), and his unfussy, flavoursome dishes, are indeed the ideal fit.

Madame de Lencquesaing tells the story of her glass collection.

Madame’s extraordinary glass collection is open to the public; definitely worth the proverbial ‘detour’. Madame herself is extraordinary; one of her secrets to her long 90-years plus, is to ‘wake up every day with the idea of doing something creative.’

The Glenelly plan has no discordant edges; each component is of a standard and compatible with the others. The wines’ consistency should encourage loyal customers, the estate’s other attractions, many returning visitors.

 

 

 

 

The Cluver family have also attuned their plan to their setting. De Rust, their farm on a sweeping Elgin hillside, is somewhat further from Cape Town than Glenelly; their attractions for visitors, other than wine, include an MTB trail and summer concerts in the amphitheatre; both are proven hits.

The wines in the early years (from 1991) were made at Nederburg, where Andries Burger, the Cluvers’ son-in-law, then worked; so he has known the vineyards for nearly 30 years. Cluver Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are probably the farm’s (Seven) flag bearers (!), Burger keeping well informed drinking top Burgundies and visiting there. Thankfully, he loves riesling too; in fact Cluver is the single largest producer of riesling in South Africa. The variety’s evolution and its growth in this cool climate area hold exciting promise. Sales to enthusiasts are proving the worth of dedication and financial input from the family.

Paul Cluver Jnr talking about riesling on De Rust

Half of the new 2017 Riesling (both Close and Dry Encounter discontinued) was fermented in 2500 litre foudres, an expensive barrel whose oval shape increases suspension of the yeast and adds to textural richness without diminishing riesling’s desirable and natural tension. Geeky stuff, but believe me this 2017 will delight, tasting drier rather than sweeter but with arresting tension. It’s excellent value for R100 ex cellar. A few years’ ageing will do no harm.

The same vintage has produced the first Noble Late Harvest for three years (‘the others weren’t up to scratch,’ admits Paul Cluver Jnr, confirming their philosophy of quality), also from riesling, but apparently locals see it as a dessert wine, only international customers find the variety important. Either way, a delicacy worthy of a vintage to remember.

 

 

Glenelly Estate and Paul Cluver Estate Wines – both successful? I’d say so.

Tastes & textures

Tripe. My dear Mark loved it; he would always choose tripe when we ate out and it was on the menu. I’m afraid it was the one thing I wouldn’t cook for him. I was tempted to try his Trippa alla Romana when we were in Rome (every Italian city seems to have its own version) because it looked so good. The tomato and other flavours in the small tripe-less spoon I did try, were wonderful.

It’s not an offal thing with me; I’ll eat calves’ liver, kidneys (in steak & kidney pie, less so on their own) and sweetbreads, but tripe I can’t stomach – or rather palate. It either feels slippery or like a rubber mat with suction pads. It’s the tactile side of tripe that’s a turn off.

Texture is what our wines, white wines especially, have lacked. When stainless steel tanks and cold fermentation, plus the help of specific yeasts, replaced the tired, oxidised whites of the mid-20th century, the result was vibrant, fruity whites, ready to refresh almost as soon as they were bottled.

Over the past ten years things have changed: texture as well as flavour has become more important. This has been achieved as much with the vinification vessel, its shape and material, as the method. The latest to gain interest are amphorae, originally two-handled clay jugs used in Greek and Roman times for storing and transporting wine and oil; so the wheel turns full circle.

Walking through modern cellars can be a bit of a time-warp: stainless steel tanks, side by side with concrete eggs; oak barrels, amphorae and even glass demi-johns tucked in between.

The popularity of fermenting white varieties on their skins (and the winemakers’ competence) has grown in tandem with these vessels. Among the diverse expressions, one of the most refined I’ve tasted recently is the Grande Provence Amphora 2016, selling for a considerable R650 ex-cellar though it’s not the most expensive around. (Smaller wallets can expect enjoyment from the more traditionally-fermented Grande Provence Chenin Blanc 2017 for R90)

The Amphora 2016 was made by ex-ex-Cellarmaster, Karl Lambour from the farm’s then 33 year old chenin blanc vineyard with a dab of musky muscat. Two 400 litre clay amphorae made by master-craftsmen in Italy were used to spontaneously ferment and age the wine for seven months on skins. They can’t be cheap, but it was good to hear new Grande Provence winemaker, Hagen Viljoen, confirm chenin blanc is a major focus of attention.

The porosity of the clay allows the wine to ‘breathe’, providing harmony, finesse and loads of charm in its expression of chenin; those skins add extra dimension of fine-grained density.

Now, if only tripe had that texture!

Progress

So, in the blink of an eye, we’re 10 years on from 2008, a vintage I doubt anyone thinks of as a classic in South Africa. Reading through a brief report I wrote, there was much disease pressure due to the cool, wet conditions and humidity. Viticulturists were kept on their toes and sorting tables never stopped shaking. Lower quantities is about all that resembles vintage 2018, a year, which I hazard with its unrelenting drought, will be more about winemakers than viticulturists. Nature is having the upper hand this year.

Winding back ten years, I had to search hard to find any 2008s in the cellar; I always have the urge to try a ten-year-old local wine early in the year. I could turn up only two wines, both white: Thelma Rhine Riesling and Vergelegen GVB.

It’s quite a coincidence that one should be riesling, as it was in a Call for Comments from the Wine & Spirit Board, dated 26th March 2008 that the long-debated issue of the naming of riesling finally reached a head. Producers of real riesling had long fought a battle against Cape riesling, which was no such thing but a lowlier grape from south west France, known as crouchen. The proposal recommended to the Minister of Agriculture, was from the 2010 vintage:
a) Cape Riesling may still be shown as Crouchen, but not as Riesling; and
b) Weisser Riesling/Rhine Riesling may be indicated as Riesling.

And so it came to pass. (SAWIS still refers to Weisser Riesling in their list of vines in the regions).

Platter 2009 listed just 16 rieslings; that number has doubled in the latest 2018 and more are on the way. Chris and Suzaan Alheit will be harvesting their first from Ceres this year. Some have taken the dry route, others pursued a sweeter, zesty but lower alcohol style; there are also a few botrytis-laced Noble Late Harvests. There is a much greater sense of purpose and style about today’s rieslings, which implies no disrespect to Gyles Webb, who’s always made a serious wine.

This screwcap bottle had remained bright and full of zest, though the first evening those evolved petrolly flavours were pronounced. Strangely and over the next few days, they disappeared, leaving fresher, more appealing lime tones, lingering on the dry tail. If not vastly complex, the back label told no lies.

Sadly, my only other 2008, Vergelegen GVB, was oxidised; as I had just one bottle, there’s no telling whether others are better. Sauvignon blanc/semillon blends found a natural home in the Cape’s cooler areas with André van Rensburg’s Vergelegen 2001 leading the pack (though Charles Back made a brief foray into the style first in the 1980s). The best mature into classics. Pity about that 2008. Undoubtedly, progress has been made in fine-tuning but little in broadening consumer appreciation for these and white blends generally.

A quick note about 2008 reds: I remember buying Eagles Nest Shiraz (a variety that did better than other reds) and the maiden Newton Johnson Domaine Pinot Noir; that was probably it. Both have long been opened and enjoyed, no doubt a good thing.

Needless to say, exports increased between 2008 and 2017 (by about 36 600 000 litres) but, more importantly, so did South African wine’s image. While we already had Sadie Family Wines and Lismore, with Adi Badenhorst just taking off solo, the explosion of international media coverage and enthusiasm for our wines began its momentum at Cape Wine 2012, reaching further heights at the following event in 2015 by which time the young guns – the Alheits, Peter-Allan Finlayson, David & Nadia Sadie, more joining each year – had taken off.

The old vine story was the next to excite attention. Maybe greater varietal diversity, varieties and viticulture better suited to a changing climate, will be the next thing.

Ntsiki Biyela with her Aslina wines

Ah, diversity; would that there was more within the industry. It puzzles me that there are so few black senior winemakers across the South African winelands, yet there are many excellent sommeliers/wine waiters at top restaurants, both Zimbabwean and South African. South African, Ntsiki Biyela with her own Aslina label is nearly a lone, albeit top-class, black winemaker voice. Carmen Stevens too has her own label, but I would guess is probably better known in the UK as part of the Naked Wines team.

 

 

As I wrote the above, an email dropped into my inbox from José Conde, co-owner/Cellarmaster at Stark-Conde Wines. This advised Rudger van Wyk, Assistant Winemaker for past two years has been appointed winemaker. Van Wyk is both a Stellenbosch University graduate in Oenology and formerly part of the Cape Winemakers’ Guild Protégé Programme. Knowing the winery and the people involved with it, this is a meaningful appointment.

May we be celebrating many more across the board by 2028; that’ll be even better progress.

José Conde, Cellarmaster at Stark Conde with newly-appointed Winemaker, Rudger van Wyk