Old vine project

The end might not seem like a logical place to start, but the nine wines presented at the culmination of the recent Old Vine Project seminar spoke to what the whole morning’s discussion was about.

Old Vine Project seal

In order, these were: L’Ormarins Ou Bosstok Chenin Blanc 2020; Cape of Good Hope van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc 2017 and Laing Groendruif 2020;

Bellingham the Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2021; Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2019 and 2009; AA Badenhorst Family Wines Keller Steen 2021, Klipkop Steen 2021 and Raaigras Grenache Noir 2021.

Each has a sense of effortlessness, being comfortable within its own identity and a compelling one too.

The winemakers, Mark van Buren, Richard Duckitt, Gottfried Mocke and Adi Badenhorst with Hanneke Kruger respectively, play no small role; they respect the fruit from these old vines, letting the wine express itself without unnecessary adornments. Winelovers are not buying just an old vine wine but an individual.

This tasting closed the circle on the many topics presented and discussed during the morning to the 120 attendees present; a full house. The mix of farmers, winemakers, marketing folk, retailers and a few media confirmed the broad interest in old vines and the work being done by André Morgenthal, Rosa Kruger with their team.

There’s Interest too from members of the OVP, which started with eight in 2017, increasing to 130 today. The area under vines over 35 years, the qualifying age for old vines, has also increased to just over 4000ha (the total area under vine around 92 000ha), though it might come as a surprise to many that Stellenbosch rather than Swartland boasts the greatest area of old vines – 958ha vs 778ha.

Rosa was her usual forceful self when discussing climate change, how to manage and prune old vines, do’s and don’ts of vineyard design when planting new vines ‘to grow old’. As it should, water is pivotal. The wonderful tools, such as Cape Farm Mapper, now available to help farmers plan their farms to best advantage. The selection of specific vines from old vines, multiplying and eventually making them available for planting,

The work being done at the UCT Business School by Jonathan Steyn and others gave valuable insight to how old vine wines are viewed in the market. The words Old Vine on the front label suggests a discount wine, on the back label it adds a premium. The seal itself is an attribute which adds to price of the wine, according to area of origin.

Bellingham’s The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc has carved its own reputation in the category with many awards, both local and international since the maiden 2002 when named The Maverick. Andrew Harris, Marketing Manager of DGB, producer of Bellingham and Old Road Wine Company, confirms the seal ‘helps to get the ear of the gatekeeper’, in retail, tavern etc but is aware of the need for ongoing leverage of the value of the Old Vine seal.  Certainly, the Old Road wines deserve to be better known and appreciated.

Old Vine Project seal

Which brings me to Francois Rautenbach, General Manager of Singita’s Premier Wine Direct and someone who sells important quantities of premium South African wines to the group’s wealthy and high-profile guests. The point he made after scrolling over 20 websites of wineries who have Old Vine wines in their range, is that not one had anything about the project or how it benefits these wines. After the other detailed presentations covering such a wide spectrum of issues associated with the OVP, this was a gap that shouldn’t have caused much research.

Would such a section dedicated to the OVP leave the other, non-Old Vine wines in the range seen as lesser quality, as someone suggested. Lesser because the vines aren’t old, or lesser in quality? There are many high-quality and frequently awarded wines from vines under 35 years. A well-designed website, with an explanation of the OVP and details of the OV wines alongside the others should leave no suggestion of lesser quality; Ian Naudé’s site is an excellent example.

Until Francois’s presentation, the vital piece missing from this seminar was the consumer, without them all this effort would be without meaning.

Growing together Part 2

Would it be a surprise to learn there are 92 grape varieties permitted for the production of wine? These 2021 figures do not include assyrtiko, made by Gary & Kathy Jordan this year, and may be more by now.

The possibilities for field blends are extensive and local, innovative winemakers are making the most of them.

Still thinking of Larry Jacobs as a local (!), I received an excited note from this founder of Mulderbosch and now, long crafting classy wines at Hahndorf Hill in the Adelaide Hills; he told me of the first field blend, Brother Nature, he and partner, Marc, are releasing later this year. The interplanted mix of gruner veltliner, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, savagnin, pinot blanc, chenin blanc, welsch riesling, riesling, harslevelu with a little gewürztraminer, muscat blanc and muscadel is unoaked ‘to emphasise what that patch of dirt represents in the bottle.’ Like others, Larry hopes ripening will eventually harmonise; for the first vintage his imagined ideal saw earlier varieties harvested ripe, the others when ‘potentially making different contributions.’

Brookdale’s field blend vineyard

The field blend movement isn’t contained to whites.  Brookdale’s Field Blend Twenty, a red partner to the white, should be released sometime during the coming year.

Going a step further, encouraged by viticulturist, Jaco Engelbrecht, The Blacksmith owner/winemaker Tremayne Smith, is producing one white and two red field blends. Harvesting in all is decided by taste and balance. Winemaking is kept simple with whole bunch pressing, ferment and aging in older, neutral French oak.

A 1977-established Voor Paardeberg bush-vine block, compromises around 10 to 13 varieties, mainly chenin, semillon, crouchen blanc and palomino. Labelled as The Blacksmith These Old Bones, it’s simply described as Dry White Wine. Tremayne and Jaco surmise the farmer thought ‘waste not, want not’, inter-planting these vines left over from other projects.

Both red blocks also hail from Voor Paardeberg and were custom-planted in 2017 and 2019 respectively.

Tremayne chose carignan, cinsault and grenache, planted as bush vines ‘for a Mediterranean style red’. Old oak and olive trees and granite boulders share space with the vines, planted in different sections but each variety occasionally merges with others in The Vine Garden block. Destemmed whole bunch fermentation, around 14 days on skins is followed by nearly  a year in large French oak. Named Third Sight, with Dry Red Wine on the back label, there’s no reference to field blend.

In the third and youngest vineyard the bush vines are head trained, except for syrah, which is grown en echelas, or one vine to one pole. Carignan, grenache noir, durif, mourvèdre and zinfandel complete the varietal sextet. Huge granite boulders dominate the centre of the block, hence The Rock Garden. A first vintage Rosé Méthode Ancestrale has yet to be named.

Tremayne is hoping: ‘to capture the essence of both vintage and terroir, rather than blending across regions.’

Alan Cook’s baker’s dozen field blend on his Riebeek’s River Road property was established in 2017 with the hope of making ‘something resembling a Chateauneuf du Pape in a Swartland style’. His Aspoestertjie Red is mainly grenache with small amounts of cinsault, mourvèdre, shiraz & a sprinkle of Alicante bouchet, bastardo, counoise, carignan, tinta amarela, tempranillo, touriga nacional, souzao. Concrete tank ferment, with small amount of stems, is followed by ageing in large Stockinger foudres.

Field blends come from cooler climates too. Wanderlust suggests a desire to break away from the everyday and undertake an exciting, new challenge. It pretty well sums up Craig and Anne Wessels Wanderlust label, which annually features something new in style or variety.  

The story behind Wanderlust 2020 is unique. The Bosman clone garden was established in 2006 on a 22ha block of the family farm in the Upper Hemel en Aarde, the same Ward as Restless River. Today, after consolidation and focus on varieties preferring cooler climes, there still remain 37 varieties, with many clones; all are grouped together in rows.

‘I could not ignore this vineyard, knowing that some was going to be pulled out the following year; this was my one opportunity to make a field blend from a selection of these grapes.’ Later this year, Craig Wessels’ determination will see Restless River Wanderlust 2020 (the name yet to be revealed) released and unique for several reasons.

The tricky decision of when to harvest due to varying ripening times was solved in a practical way by Craig: he decided on a day that would suit him in the cellar, then pick everything that seemed to be close to similar ripeness. That’s how Wanderlust 2020 came to be harvested on 6th March, a blend of cinsault, malbec, petit verdot cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, ruby cabernet, alicante bouchet, barbera, sangiovese and, one white, roussanne.

Co-fermentation with spontaneous yeast in an open-top oak vat, four weeks on skins, then basket pressed into older small and larger oak for 18 months was followed by six months in tank, before bottling.

To briefly complete the circle; Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel have a Stellenbosch red Field Blend under The Fledge & Co brand; Neil & Warren Ellis do a field blend in conjunction with Alex Volkwyn.

What can field blends offer, apart from ‘something new’? It’s been suggested they spread the risk, any problems in a single varietal vineyard leaves all your eggs in one basket. Climate change is always front of mind; the sizable mix in some of the above vineyards, albeit selected on the area’s natural aptitude for certain varieties, could offer help in finding those that could perform even better under heat and drought conditions.

David Trafford has some cogent thoughts on reasons why field blends might not be such a good idea, but those will have to wait for another time and, maybe the further research and study this topic deserves.

There will be discussion as to what constitutes a true field blend, but it’s early days and vine lay-out may change over time. I, for one, would be against any legislation for the Field Blend certification. Get consumers excited about them first and foremost, bearing in mind varietal wine is still king.

Growing together

Vineyards have existed since the times of the Pharaohs, between 3000 and 5000 years ago and even before then; vineyards as blocks of land but unlike today, tomb paintings show the vines growing in troughs and trained in arbours. Much detail was recorded of vine growing and wine making and, according to Hugh Johnson ‘By … 1550BC …. The labelling of wine jars was almost as precise as, say, California labelling today – with the exception of the grape variety.’ (Johnson’s book was published in 1989).

Today, thanks to DNA, identification of grape varieties and their parentage has reached levels undreamt as recent as 160 years ago, when phylloxera started wreaking havoc in European vineyards. It has been suggested to me that prior to this devastating louse, vineyards were far more varietaly mixed with marcottage, or layering, one method of adding new vines. Views from those with extensive knowledge on French vineyards also suggest  that post-phylloxera, when rootstocks began to be used, not all varieties reacted well to them, hence vineyards became more ordered, a process formalised by the AOC rules in the 1930s.

Fortunately, phylloxera didn’t wipe out all these randomly vine-populated vineyards; there are many worldwide producing memorable wines. Portugal’s Quinta do Crasto Maria Teresa in the Douro is a celebrated, nearly five hectare, one hundred-year plus old block of terraces. More fascinating, it is planted to over 50 varieties, mainly red, a few white and, at least one, yet to be identified. Such arrangement was not unusual, as the grapes were originally destined for Port.

Not all these old field-blend vineyards were randomly established, some were created with forethought as to how the varieties would produce a balanced wine. Ridge Pagani Vineyard in California was planted over 100 years ago with complementary varieties: mainly zinfandel, which ripens at higher sugar levels; alicante and petite sirah, ripening at lower levels plus a little carignan and whites for acidity.

But what of terroir in these multi-varietal vineyards? Domaine Deiss in Alsace tells a fascinating story of their Altenberg de Bergheim Grand Cru blend. In 1990 they established the first, modern Alsace vineyard totally planted and mixed without order of the area’s 13 grape varieties; these are harvested and pressed together and vinified without inputs. ‘Little by little, this model of winegrowing is imposing itself in our eyes as the means to allow the terroir to dominate the grape varieties and to impose its taste and tactile architecture in a sovereign way.’   

If expression of terroir offers contemplation, so does ripeness; how to judge when to harvest with varieties ripening at different times. Alsace’s Agathe Bursin has apparently noted varieties planted in field blends often ripen together as opposed to when planted separately; such symbiosis is not something that happens overnight.

These few of many international examples pave the way to explore the growing interest here in field blends.

There is no official designation of a field blend, though both Stark-Condé and the new Brookdale add the descriptor on their labels. Purists maintain the varieties should be inter-planted rather than kept separate within the block but harvested and vinified together. Stark-Condé take this latter approach, winemaker Rudger van Wyk contending it allows for better control.

These are relatively young enterprises. Eben Sadie’s Ouwingerds ‘T Voetpad  (chenin blanc, semillon blanc/gris, palomino and muscat d’Alexandrie) and Skerpioen (chenin blanc and palomino) are two of South Africa’s long-time and highly-regarded field blends dating back to the early 20th century.

Consulting winemaker, Duncan Savage with Brookdale winemaker, Kiara Scott

What’s the attraction of field blends today? I asked Jaco Engelbrecht, viticulture consultant to Brookdale Estate at the launch. ‘It’s something different and fun,’ he jokingly offers, adding, more seriously, the opportunity offered when starting the property from scratch and owner, Tim Rudd bought into the idea. There are two field blend vineyards, one of 16 different white varieties covering 2.3ha, the other of 20 different red varieties of 2.8ha. In neither is the varietal make-up disclosed, though it’s clear, at least after tasting the white wine, that varieties compatible with the warmer Paarl area have been selected, ‘but no viognier’, Jaco grins.

The question of when to harvest was an issue winemaker, Kiara Scott and consultant, Duncan Savage had to tackle on a trial and error basis the first year. In future, decisions will be made easier through experience and, perhaps, the vines ripening closer together.

Trial and error have produced a charming first wine, Brookdale Sixteen 2021. It conveys a sense of style – effortless in its textural breadth, flavours (rather than fruit) of grapes relishing warmer climes without losing their innate freshness. I like the idea there’s no varietal disclosure, as this makes one focus on the wine as a whole. Unfortunately, the first vintage has already sold out; only one barrel was made but Kiara assures there’s considerably more of this year’s wine.

One other benefit, which must be back of mind for the Brookdale team and anyone who establishes a multi-varietal vineyard, is climate change. At least some of the many varieties act as a hedge against this. Then one never underestimates the entrepreneurial spirit of today’s winemakers; field blends are another innovation to keep the buzz of excitement in South Africa front of mind.

Other South African producers and their field blends will be discussed in a follow-up piece.

Rocking with Thorne & Daughters

 It is quite a while since I tasted through John Seccombe’s Thorne & Daughters’ range; yesterday’s opportunity to catch up with what now totals eight wines, was very welcome.

John Seccombe with new Menagerie Chardonnay

Again, we’re in 2021 territory, apart from a new wine, 2020 Menagerie Chardonnay, a Piekenierskloof and Ceres Plateau WO. First, my overall impression is that the wines have become more refined since John’s maiden 2013 vintage (can he already have completed 10 harvests?) and the first two wines, Rocking Horse and Tin Soldier.

Before I enthuse about these, the chardonnay is the first John has made since Zoetrope. He admits it’s difficult to find top quality chardonnay; his determination has paid rewards. Koelfontein in the Warm Bokkeveld is one source. Chardonnay from the Conradie’s farm sticks in my memory as the wine made by Eben Sadie when he was at the then Romansrivier Co-op in the 1990s, a wine that alerted John Platter to his talents. His talents but also the quality of the fruit, which John describes as linear, more mineral and is harvested three weeks earlier than Tierhoek in Piekenierskloof, the other source of Menagerie Chardonnay, with a softer, more spicy profile.

As with the rest of his wines, this chardonnay is naturally fermented and aged in older oak only (there’s one new exception, see below). The butterscotch aromatic and textural note with contrasting linearity and notably acidity still need to achieve full integration; this should be achieved over the next year. The attractive label owes much to John’s artistic wife, Tasha.

The original pair are still important members of the range. The roussanne-fronted (with semillon) Rocking Horse is rightly regarded in the top tier of Cape white blends. Chardonnay, chenin and clairette blanche drawn from across the winelands, forge a most compelling unison; ’21 is balanced, ripe but not heavy, has texture with a light feel and freshness at its core. It will delight as always.

Tin Soldier is likely unique in that it comes from a 100% gris vineyard, the vines carefully selected from Franziska Wickens’ mixed semillon vineyard on the Paardeberg, which itself produces Paper Kite. The seven to 10 days’ skin contact on Tin Soldier yields a bright honey orange hue, a ruby grapefruit, pomegranate fragrance and not so much tannin but textured squeeze, its savoury length ensuring an authentic yet unintimidating orange wine. I find this and Paper Kite have gained the most refinement over the years.

The original 2015 Paper Kite fruit came from the late Basil Landau’s farm; various factors meant the following year it was no longer available and this is when John, thanks to a producer who couldn’t take his allocation, tied up with Franziska Wickens and her mixed Paardeberg semillon vineyard. In ’21 Paper Kite there is only 5% semillon gris and, a first for John, a portion of new oak (all his other wines see older oak only), just 40% and 600 litre barrels, where, over its three-month sojourn, a whisper of oak spice complements semillon’s more usual lemony lanolin features; these accompany a flowing fluidity and upbeat, finishing zest.

Both these semillons are distinctly different, choice is down to personal preference; their balance and refinement ensure enjoyable drinking now, but should gain interest over three or four years.

John Seccombe with his distributor, David Clarke of Ex Animo,

I’m fairly new to both Cat’s Cradle Old vine Chenin off Swartland granite and Snakes & Ladders Sauvignon Blanc from Citrusdal Mountain. The chenin has that typical old vine concentrated aromatic generosity, think ripe red apples, with a taut energy. This will definitely benefit from a year or few.

Can there be a tamed sauvignon? If so, this is it. Snakes has energy but wrapped in a waxy, diffuse veil, which cuts through the often overly sauvage nature of the variety. On the other hand, the aromatic herbs do lend a slightly wild touch.

Copper Port Pinot Noir is trendy in its alcoholic lightness, John admits it was difficult to get sugar ripeness with none of the grapes – from Elgin, Overberg and Hemel en Aarde – coming in over 13.1% potential alcohol. Some whole bunch ferment and extended 35-40 days on skins develops a light-bodied, elegantly firm wine, with aromatic dark fruit and full flavours.

Wanderer’s Heart Cape Red illustrates how well we do Côtes du Rhône style blends. John threw out cinsaut from the original blend; syrah (almost 50% in ’21, all whole bunch ferment), grenache, mourvèdre and a barrel of carignan create an aromatic, delicious, velvety textured wine, both ripe and firm.

The difficulty is which to buy, but how delightful to be able to recommend each and every wine in this distinctive range.

Scions of Sinai

Bredell and the Helderberg are as synonymous a wine family and area as they come. Bernhard Bredell represents the seventh generation of wine farmers in the area; many grapes come from his late grandfather’s vineyards, also from cousin, Peter Bredell on Rusthof close by on the Helderberg.

Bernhard Bredell

Wishing this particular area on the Helderberg receives better recognition than the usual reference to Firgrove or Faure, Bernhard introduced Sinai hill, a granite rise at the lower part of the Helderberg and close to False Bay, into his brand name. Scion has a dual meaning, both relevant; one being the top and bearing part of the vine grafted on to the rootstock; the other a descendant, which ties into his story. One he related at a tasting to launch his latest releases earlier this week.

Production might remain small, his crush is around 35 tons, limited by cellar space, but each of the wines is worth hunting down, such is their individual character, precision and unmanipulated feel. The latest releases are all from 2021, which again is showing wonderful balance and purity.

Much of the fruit comes from the granite soils around the Sinai hill, but Voor Paardeberg supplied grenache and roussanne to go with Helderberg 1972-planted chenin bush vines are equally blended in the new Rocinante. An overnight on skins for the destemmed grapes, spontaneous fermentation (as in the entire range) and ageing in 400 litre older oak results in this aromatically rich and broad blend with its earthy, waxy tones and multi-layered texture. Underlying acid and freshening grip ensure there’s no sense of heaviness. Very, very moreish! Not at all what the name suggests, as fans of Don Quixote will attest. Sadly, there’s very, very little. Sadly, very, very little.

Bernhard is now giving a lot of focus to single vineyards, as in his Gramadoelas Grenache Blanc, Granietsteen Chenin Blanc, Heldervallei Cinsaut, Feniks Pinotage and Swanesang Syrah.

Gramadoelas Grenache Blanc comes from a schist vineyard near Meiringspoort in the Klein Karoo. It’s full of energy, tension and zesty lime, fresh hay features, complemented by just 11.5% alcohol.

Bernhard puts great store by having a hand in the farming, which he does with the Meiringspoort and Voor Paardeberg vineyards.

Scions of Sinai range

Planted on the Helderberg in 1978, Granietsteen Chenin Blanc is fermented in large concrete eggs and aged a further nine months on lees. Aromatically quite introvert to begin with, a sprightly, lightish body is then revealed, powering through to the briskly dry,, tuck-of-tannin tail. Texture is the main story with flavour rather than overt fruit.

One wine that needs and will benefit from time is Heldervallei Cinsaut. Think tannin, compact core and a saline edge for extra puckering. Yet Bernhard treated the juice with kid gloves. Some whole bunches were placed on top of destemmed berries and submerged over the two-week fermentation; a daily run over of juice kept things healthy and moving.  A gentle squeeze through a basket press and a spell in old 400 litre oak produces this punchy wine. Time promises to release the full spiced blueberry concentration. It is very good but I’m sure most will prefer Feniks Pinotage, a name which reflects his cousin’s threat to chop out the 46-year-old vines every year; thankfully, Bernhard ensures this doesn’t happen. Bright and eye-catching purple ruby, an entrancing pinot-like perfume, sweet fruit and freshness (some carbonic maceration helps) with pinotage announced in the clip of edgy tannins, Feniks pretty much says ‘drink me now’.

Swanesang Syrah commemorates the last vineyard Bernhard’s grandfather planted in the late 1990s, just .7ha of close-planted (treinspoor = train track) bush vines, producing an aromatic, pure, fresh syrah with red fruit, black pepper and fine, gentle grip. Cooler-climate syrah lovers, this is for you.

There is always a time to enjoy what I call a country-style red, one that’s unpretentious and unrestrained in its fruit and freshness. Nomadis Cinsaut-Pinotage well fits that description. The fruit is brightened thanks to half the cinsaut undergoing some carbonic maceration, concentration deriving from these old vines, planted at the bottom of Sinai hill in mid-1970s.

Vintage 2021

Early showings of vintage 2021 are extremely promising. This is the news from two top producers who are always early out of the blocks with their wines. The first suggestion of 2021’s excellence was in November 2021, when Craig Hawkins presented his recently bottled Testalonga range at Wine Cellar. He noted; ‘2021 is an awesome vintage, after good winter rains. The wines have density and prominent acidity.’ So it proved throughout the numerous and diverse range, which impressed all of us there.

Mick and Jeanine Craven

Earlier this week, Mick and Jeanine Craven presented their small six-wine 2021 range at Wine Cellar. It was the first they made in their new cellar, a utilitarian space part of a group of new buildings next to Stellenbosch Vineyards. If Mick describes the vintage and harvest as exciting, smooth with few heat spikes, little rot or disease and delivering exceptional red wines, there were some concerns and issues to grapple with as far as the actual winemaking.

The Cravens allow a natural ferment, ie no inoculation; this was no problem at their previous cellar, Mulderbosch, where Mick worked. Here, there was plenty of ambient yeast; in their new cellar, there was no yeast of any kind; would the first grapes of 2021, pinot gris, struggle to ferment? Not at all, the grapes’ indigenous yeasts immediately got to work.

Since their first harvest, the Cravens have followed their philosophy of early harvesting for lower alcohols without sacrificing ripeness, and retaining natural acidity. Oak, when used, is larger, 500 litre, and older. Their wines are typically full of energy, freshness and dry, a theme they are now able to pursue to a greater degree in their own cellar. Much oak is now giving way to concrete (getting enough of the desired containers was one of last year’s struggles); from 2022, chardonnay, chenin and the two lighter reds, pinot gris and cinsaut will be 100% concrete fermented and aged. Mick explains how concrete creates much tighter and fresher wines, precisely what they’re looking for.

I’ve followed the Craven’s progress since their first vintage in 2013 – so 2022 was their 10th – and so enjoy these lighter wines. Many think of lighter as less of everything, not only alcohol. But back in the 1970s and ‘80s, 11.5-12.5% alcohol was the norm. Neither those older wines nor today’s at a similar alcohol level lack anything in substance and are more digestible than the heavy, less lively wines with their evident oak accompaniment. Some of those are well made and balanced but even a glass at 15% alcohol is tiring, either from the wine’s sweetness or glow of alcohol.

The beauty that is Craven Pinot Gris

What immediately stands out for me throughout these 2021s is their aromatic expression, pure yet not one-dimensional. Cinsaut is possibly the most charming with its heady, but not at all blowsy, dark red fruit perfume. The cabernet’s aromas are vibrant, an explosion of blackcurrants and blackberries but, yet again, not overdone or out of place with the rest of the wine. Such bright winter melon, wild herb aromas in the chenin, plus a distinct salty tail, make this stand out in this crowded category.

Ripe generosity of flavour is invariably underpinned by bright acidity, lending energy and persistence, particularly in the chardonnay (the best to date), pinot gris, cinsaut and syrah; ripe grape tannins in the latter three introducing grip with freshness.

Ageing any of the range shouldn’t be a worry thanks to balance and structure but should be of most benefit to syrah and cabernet. But, there’s not one of these wines I wouldn’t enjoy now. Sadly, not much of the pinot gris and cinsaut (+-R230 each) are available and some speed will help secure chardonnay and chenin (R230 each), syrah and cabernet (R300).

Craven 2021 range with their delightful, descriptive labels

New vintages of course present their own set of challenges and 2022 hasn’t been without them but with familiarity with their new cellar, now kitted out as they wish for their style of wine, the Cravens and those who enjoy their wines, have much to look forward to.

Older better

 As someone whose years are mounting up, I find there’s little time to waste. Carpe diem is never more front of mind. Seizing my cheekiness, I asked Winemag editor, Christian Eedes whether I may join their panel for the annual 10-year-old review, to which he kindly agreed. Last Tuesday, Christian, Wine Cellar CEO, James Pietersen, Roland Peens and myself sat down to taste through the 65 diverse 2012s entered.

Christian Eedes, James Pietersen & Roland Peens (left to right) discussing the flight of wines

 It’s an important category; as our wines improve, so they should also stand the test of time. As I’m in the fortunate position of having a cellar with a controlled temperature, I have no fear of keeping wine for several years, most for around eight to ten years, some longer. If that is typical for me, I wondered how relevant this tasting could be for others; in a Twitter poll, I asked how often people drink ten-year-old wines: regularly, once or twice a year or never. Answers from the 120 respondents confirmed this type of tasting certainly could be of relevance; for 108 (almost equally divided), drinking ten year old wines is either a regular or once or twice a year occurrence; only 12 said they never drink these older wines.

What are those 108 (and others) likely to make of 2012s now? If those 65 entries are not going to paint a complete picture, numbers were compensated by a spread of varieties and styles. As results are being announced only next week, specifics will have to wait but, more generally, bubblies, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, blends, both white and red, individual Bordeaux varieties, pinot, pinotage, sweet and fortified were in the line-up.

Generally the wines were in good shape, the caveat being that an unacceptable number of second bottles (11) were required due to TCA (cork) problems; none of us could remember so many in a tasting in a long time. Otherwise, as we have come to expect, the wines had aged rather than matured.

Something I hadn’t anticipated was to find in a few wines a trend we’re increasingly aware of today; freshness, less extraction, lighter texture and less obvious oak. It struck me and, having mentioned it to Christian, him too that 2012 could be regarded as a transitional vintage, tentative at this stage, but gathering momentum down the next ten years.

As a vintage, 2012 had been preceded by a dry, cold winter, followed by a cool, fairly wet spring, suggesting a later harvest, but heat spikes in January and February hastened ripening. Cool nights ensured good freshness, purity of flavour and fully ripe fruit at lower sugar levels. At the time, aromatic whites and shiraz looked the quality players.

Jacqueline Lahoud of Winemag recording scores

Generalities are fine, specifics are better and, as with most of the wine world, the clever route is to follow the producer. As the results next week will hopefully show.

When he said I was welcome to join the tasting, Christian asked if I had any 2012 that I’d like to bring along. Of the list I gave him, he suggested Kanonkop Paul Sauer, which was duly inserted among the Bordeaux varieties and blends. I was delighted to subsequently learn I gave it my highest score of the tasting (94); my colleagues were, sadly, less impressed. It is still amazingly youthful and has the balance to age for many more years.

Isn’t it strange how we value age in wines yet youth in people? One reason for my cheeky request to join Winemag’s 10-year-tasting was to introduce some age to the panel, still in their 40s or early 50s. If it is true young people are influenced by their youthful peers, why shouldn’t older folks look to experienced people of their age for guidance. There’s been much debate around ageism recently, what people should or should not do when they reach a certain age that was perfectly fine when they were younger. Perhaps it’s different with wine tasting. Fortunately, I have no loss of smell or taste, which is said to happen around 70 and as Platter still employs me (I’m not the oldest taster!) my ability must be up to scratch. But I believe the positives of age need to be kept in mind as much with people as with wine.

Nomoya

Labels sell wines. When buying wine without any knowledge of the area or country, a label’s visual impact can attract as well as inform.  Of course, neither guarantees the wine itself will reflect what has attracted one in the first place.

I didn’t see Nomoya wines on a retail shelf, but on Facebook, where Michela Sfiligoi, co-owner/winemaker happily announced their arrival. The label’s energy and simplicity was compelling. Not long after commenting on that Michela offered me the range for tasting.

A bit of a backstory is necessary, as many will associate Michaela with Ayama wines from the Slent Farm on the slopes of the Paardeberg. So from where comes this new label and how is she associated with it?

I understand your confusion, Michela admits, I’ll try to briefly clarify. Attilio Dalpiaz and I were co-owners and founder of Ayama. In 2003, we had come to South Africa for a holiday, fell in love with the country and decided to stay here. The following year we found the Slent farm, which we purchased with Italian investors. There followed 17 happy years, building the brand, renovating buildings, taking care of old vineyard, planting new ones and new varieties, including vermentino, which we introduced to South Africa, taking care of the living community on the farm and so on. It was an amazing journey, which naturally came to an end as we fulfilled our commitments to the investors and taking Slent to being a well-known producer internationally.

Michaela continues, ‘Our dreams were bigger than what we’d now be able to achieve at Slent.’ This saw Michaela, as winemaker and market manager, agronomist Attilio and young viticulturist, Talia Engelbrecht founding Nomoya in 2021. Their goals are to help farmers who are protecting old vines and those who are also willing to plant new varieties with a focus on Italian varieties to create awareness on those that are lesser known and make wines from them at an affordable price.

Their entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t end there. Besides establishing Nomoya as a wine producer, they also offer viticulture consultancy with a Wine Lounge in Paarl in the planning stage; here Italian, French and New World wine will be available for tasting and sales as well as a wide range of South African wines.

There are seven wines in the current Nomoya range, headed by Vermentino 2021, the only one sealed with a cork and wax, the rest are closed with a screwcap, a clear indication of the hierarchy as far as image goes.

I’ve never had a problem with screwcaps as a closure from a visual aspect, but on premium wines, I do wonder why the classier caps where the thread isn’t visible aren’t used; those with the outside thread do have a cheaper image.

The vermentino is further distinguished by its R240 price tag, the only wine exceeding R200. Tim James, who tasted the wines with me, agreed that is not unreasonable, given its quality. It was tank fermented on an ‘exotic mosaic yeast’, post fermentation, half of the wine was aged in barrel for seven months prior to bottling.

The result is a firm wine, supple and weighty, the earthy, light spice and Turkish delight flavours (that exotic yeast?) are understated and really interesting.  Comfortably balanced and dry, this will make a different, delicious partner to seafood. The variety’s home is Italian island of Sardinia and it’s also grown along the mainland Ligurian coastal area. I’ve also recently read that the variety is gaining favour in Australia, where it is appreciated for its resistance to heat. Something we should also bear in mind.

There are currently just under 10 hectares of vermentino in the Cape and four producers, including Nomoya.

Chenin faces a wealth of competition, there are so many on a par quality-wise that price is often a deciding factor. The Old Vine Chenin Blanc from Swartland bush vines planted in 1982 is worthy of its R170 price tag. It was wild-fermented, mainly in barrel, then aged in tank until bottling. Its attractions are a subtle garland of spring flowers, green apples, citrus and spice woven into a balance of textural richness with freshness.

The other, tank-fermented chenin at R120 is good but there are many similar out there. Initially, we found this a bit reductive and with a whiff of sulphur, these blew off after 24 hours. Same story with the grenache blanc (R150), though with its perceived residual sweetness, we liked it less.

If chenin has competition, so do both grenache blanc and noir; Nomoya’s noir version has appealing spicy, red berry aromas but needs time to settle & integrate. A short chill in the fridge helps generate a little zip missing in the wine.

The other two reds, shiraz (R180) and pinotage (R130), the latter 2019 and the only non-2021 were somewhat old school as compared with the rest of the range.

Michela and the Nomoya team have plenty of enthusiasm and plans, they will be worth watching in the future; in the meantime, that vermentino is worth trying now!

Sauvignon journey

Winemaking is a journey rather than a destination is an oft-quoted phrase. KleinConstantia Sauvignon Blanc’s journey has so far taken 40 years, during which time I’ve been privileged to witness its progress.

That time span might appear adequate to have achieved the high regard in which it is held, but I believe it would have been far harder without the continuity the estate’s three winemakers: Ross Gower, Adam Mason and current incumbent, Matt Day.

Cellars with limited turnover of winemaker, 36 years in Klein Constantia’s case, are few and far between; Kanonkop is the only one that comes to mind.

There is more than one sauvignon blanc in the Klein Constantia stable; labels such as Perdeblokke, Métis and Block 382, among others are highly regarded, but are not necessarily produced every year, whereas the Estate Sauvignon Blanc is.

View of Klein Constantia vineyards from top of the farm

Driving around the farm, as a small group of us did last week, the multitude of sauvignon sites on a wide range of altitudes, aspects and soils, bring Matt Day’s task into perspective. That’s without taking into account vintage conditions, vine age and the sauvignon harvest itself, usually a six-week affair with several pickings within even one vineyard. Separation is maintained in the cellar’s many tanks of various sizes, blending the craft eventually interlinking the components into a complex whole.

Such detailed vinification has been part of the 40-year journey; it makes the process in the earliest vintages appear a more straightforward event.

All the more reason to admire the maiden 1986 sauvignon blanc from three-year-old vines, which astounded many by winning the Champion White Table Wine on that year’s South African Young Wine Show. That it remains a memory for several who would have been too young to know or appreciate the wine in its year of birth, various bottles were poured and enjoyed at the Old Wine tasting prior to the Trophy Wine Show until around the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

Staying power remains a talking point of the variety on Klein Constantia, as the four-wine line up poured at last week’s event proved.

These represented each of the farm’s three winemakers: Ross Gower 1997, Adam Mason 2010 and Matt Day 2019 as well as the sauvignon we were there to launch, 2021.

There was no false praise for the ’97 with its deep gold colour (still under cork in those days), rich, ripe sauvignon flavours and barely a whisper of green beans. This was all understated, perfectly balanced and still so fresh. Difficult to imagine it could be bettered, until 2010 was poured.

Bottled under screwcap since 2007. 2010 illustrated the benefits of this closure especially regarding colour, here a brilliant and bright yellow shot with green lights. Taut and vigorous, with a slight waxiness from 3% semillon input, and whiff of dusty botrytis (confirmed by Adam Mason in response to a question during the tasting) rather than obviously fruity, it is still mouth-wateringly fresh. At this stage, it was the wine of the tasting for me.

Working in Sancerre with Pascal Jolivet in 2011 opened Matt’s eyes to a new style of sauvignon. Realised in Métis, his collaboration with Jolivet, his new ideas have spilled over into the estate bottling. Ripe 2019 with its brilliant colour, remains shy in fruit, but the texture is broad and weighty; acidity is a background support to this elegant vintage.

One needs to take notice of Matt’s opinion that 2021 is the best Klein Constantia sauvignon blanc to date and ’40 years in the making’. I say that, as like other cool-climate 2021 whites, it is youthfully closed, the light, grassy notes still primary. It might appear underwhelming but take a little time with the wine in your glass to release its textured layers and fine fruity acidity. The undoubted potential, still somewhere at the end of the tunnel, deserves at least two years for a clearer picture, but will easily match the longevity of those older wines we were lucky enough to taste.

Today, production of Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc is between 150 000 to 180 000 bottles annually at a retail price of R165; for a wine of this quality, that is seriously good value.

Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc labels, from oldest to most recent (right to left)

As the style of the wine has changed over the years, so have the bottles and labels, the latter quite radically as the photo of the four bottles we tasted shows: the latest a much cleaner, more modern iteration.

And so the journey continues with harvest 2022 on the horizon.

Memorable wines 2021

Every year throws up its memorable wines; they’re not always the best, some have interesting stories behind them, some might be from unusual varieties, even old wines provide great memories. Here are just a few of mine.

Who’d have thought colombard, that workhorse distilling variety, would make a memorable wine? Surprise fails to take into account Ian Naude’s magic and innovative spirit.  On a trip to Vredendal, his request for ‘something exciting that no one else has yet found,’ was answered with an old colombard vineyard, planted in 1983 on sand. It perfectly fitted his wish ‘to make something new and interesting but also old.’ Flood irrigation, so typical of the area, produced huge yields; with these severely limited,  the grapes whole-bunch pressed, naturally fermented and left on the lees for as long as possible, a wine of singular character has emerged. Wildness of flavour, vivid acidity anchored by leesy richness and a complementary 11.5% alcohol has already secured Langpad Colombard 2021 a Platter 5* rating, as well as a wine-of-the-evening vote at a Zoom tasting Ian hosted in the winter.

Langpad, by which name the wine is now referred, reflects the long journey (road) between Vredendal and Ian’s Stellenbosch cellar. It also has a long journey of life ahead.

Pinotage. What I find frustrating is the little general spontaneous excitement about a variety that is increasingly providing just that. For instance, False Bay Vineyards The Last of the First 2020 blew me away with the first sip. More reflective of its pinot parentage, it is perfumed, silky, cloaked in the finest of tannins and totally beguiling. It’s one of a growing number of fresher, lighter, more pinot-like wines. The name refers to the only remaining pinotage vineyard on Schapenberg, where the first commercial vineyards were planted in 1941; this vineyard dates from 1993. I and winemaker, Nadia Langenegger, were delighted it was category winner in Platter 2022 5* awards, ahead of many bigger, bolder examples.

Crunchy red fruit, sappy tannins, 12.5% alcohol, Danie Steytler Jnr’s Kaapzicht Skraalhans Pinotage 2020 is simply mouthwatering, not a description often used in connection with pinotage.  It’s achieved with some whole-bunch ferment, a brief three days on the skins, finally 10 months in old 500 litre casks. These two represent new-wave pinotages, deserving of enthusiasm.

Lokaia Call of the Void 2020

Young and fresh is very much a theme of mine this year; Lokaia Call of the Void Cabernet Franc 2020 is yet another. I wrote about in my last blog; its lowish alcohol but perfectly ripe fruit and joyful energy struck a chord. And not a splinter of oak in sight. Nic van Aarde’s 2020 Oldenburg Grenache, is in oak, or was when I tried it, but to no detriment of the wine’s luminosity, purity and sense of life.

What would a year be without older wines? It’s always a privilege to drink them, especially when they’re better than one could’ve hoped. I didn’t have much hope about Ruiterbosch Mountain Cuvée Rhine Riesling 1992, which Leon Coetzee had brought along to our #rieslingrising event back in May. Nearly 30 years old, could it still be alive? The wine was made by Leon’s father-in-law, Carel Nel with his father, Danie from their vineyards above Mossel Bay. Unfortunately, these were a bit before their time, a struggle with the weather being one reason the experiment folded. A pity, as the riesling was remarkable; full of life with more of cool climate spice and citrus than terpenes which often develop in older rieslings.

But that Riesling was surpassed by GS Cabernet Sauvignon 1966, a rare and sought-after wine and one of only two vintages made, the other 1968. What is wine if not for sharing with like-minded friends, which is what I did after the bottle had lain in my cellar for many years. Was it perfect? No but it was absolutely enjoyable, authentically cabernet and memorable for its age, rarity and the occasion.

I won’t be around to drink my memorable wine of the year when it reaches 55, though it’ll give much pleasure long before then. 2019 celebrates the 20th bottling of Sadie Family Wines Columella, a syrah-based blend created as an expression of the Swartland as a region. It continues to be a work in progress, but of 2019, Eben says: ‘…(it) is as harmonious as any wine can hope to be at this stage in its life (and) can easily rival the 2015 in terms of breaking new ground. We have captured dimensions with the wine we have not seen to date.’

Acknowledged by Tim Atkin in his South Africa Report 2021 with the ultimate 100 points and the highest scoring category winner of red wines in Platter 2022, Columella’s quiet, youthful perfection is cause for contemplation. Eben reckons that contemplation should last eight years before opening the first bottle. I’m not sure my patience will last that long.