The label – truth or fiction?

A small group of us, all involved in wine in one way or another, recently got to chatting about wine labels, their accuracy of information and where they should fit into a list, be it a wine list or a general list of wines by variety/style.

Just to get the legalities out of the way, a wine that is labelled varietally, eg chenin blanc or shiraz, indicates that at least 85% of the wine in the bottle is of that variety; this is true on both the local and international markets. It’s unlikely in the normal course of things that the other 15% or whatever amount up to that, will be specified.

And, of course, unless the wine is declared to come from a single vineyard, it might come from different Wines of Origin (this has to be reflected in the WO on the label; locally each one may be listed, but internationally only one is acceptable, so rather than mess about with the cost of different labels for the local and international markets, the one which satisfies the international market is used) or even different vineyards within a single Wine of Origin, whether it’s 100% of the variety on the label or contains up to 15% of something else.

sadie-columellaThe point of going into this detail is that the wine label should reflect the winemaker’s intention for what’s in the bottle. Take, for instance, the Mullineux’s Syrah WO Swartland. The term ‘syrah’ rather than ‘shiraz’ indicates a more traditional, European style rather than that associated generally with Australia. WO Swartland has connotations of warmth of flavour though not necessarily high alcohol. So far so good, but one has to go to the website to discover the Mullineux’s further goals with this wine: ‘Our aim with our Syrah is to give true and complete expression to the Shale & Schist and Granite terroirs in which the vines grow.’ Information given on the website; a pity it isn’t reflected on the label.

Still, their label, which should obviously be listed under Syrah/Shiraz (or vice versa), reveals is a more than Eben Sadie’s Palladius and Columella, where their Swartland origin remains the sole information given. To delve further as to which variety/ies goes/go into these wines requires asking the wine merchant who stocks the wine – ‘stocks’ perhaps not quite the right word, as much is on allocation so flies out even before coming in – or dropping the Sadies themselves a line. But with this pair it is more the style that matters than the make-up. Still, both fit most comfortably under White or Red Blends (or Shiraz-based Blends) respectively. There is vintage variation – how boring and incurious a winemaker would be not to reflect the vintage in his/her wine – but there’s also ongoing evolution in each. For those who don’t know, chenin plays an important role in Palladius and syrah in Columella.

At the other side of the label information story is a wine such as La Motte Syrah-Viognier 2014 (R230 ex-cellar), that’s 95% syrah with just 5% viognier, but as the label would suggest that 5% is a very important component towards the style. It may be modelled on the wines of the Côte Rôtie in the Northern Rhône (where many producers are actually discontinuing with the use of viognier) but the different origins are influential in the final wine. Just over half the syrah comes from cool climate Elim, with Walker Bay and a little Franschhoek fruit making up the balance. All the viognier comes from home WO, Franschhoek and some of these grapes are included with each picking of the syrah from whichever vineyard.

The label is no affectation (as I sometimes find the SMVs, SMGs or GSMs, which look good on the label and that’s about all!), the viognier really does lift the expressive aromatics, fresh spice, herbs with a suggestion of blossom. Full of flavour, the structure with its tiny, fresh tannins, does indicate the wine will benefit from ageing. We did all agree this would fit in to Red blends or Shiraz-blends on a list.

la-motte-pierneef-syrah-viognier-2014At the same time as Tim James and I tasted this wine, we also tried La Motte’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (which includes a not immediately obvious 11% cabernet franc – I must try it again! – and costs a good value R115 ex-cellar). Very much in the classic mode, more vinous than fruity, I subsequently drank it over six or seven evenings; it was still going strong as the last drop was drained from my glass. A wine that very much belongs under Cabernet Sauvignon and not just because of the label.

The next big thing

If there’s anything that irritates me about South African wine, it’s when people, whether local or foreigners, announce; ‘….. is going to be the next big thing’ (You fill the gap, there’s plenty of choice). It sounds good, it sounds exciting but it’s used rather too frequently and hastily. The only word I can think of which couldn’t fill that gap sufficiently often is ‘Quality’ but that’s another matter.

Nowadays, cinsaut often crops up in this sort of conversation. As Tim James reminds in his Wines of the New South Africa, cinsaut is a variety with a long association at the Cape, being ‘grown here since the middle of the nineteenth century’ and, at one time was ‘South Africa’s most planted variety, occupying nearly a third of the vineyard and used for everything from brandy, through rosé, to sweet, dry, and fortified red wines.’

Three shades of cinsaut
Three shades of cinsaut

As the 1980s progressed so cinsaut began to be uprooted in favour of the growing popularity of the classic varieties. Today there are 1863 ha or just under 2% of the area under vine, with nearly 179 ha in the highly-valued ‘old’ or over 35 years old category.
But the wheel is turning as the curiosity of the new generation leads them to explore the old, neglected varieties, including cinsaut, grenache, clairette blanche, bourboulenc and palomino, as well as those more recently introduced to our vineyards, such as touriga nacional, roussanne, marsanne and albarino. Take note of the word ‘explore’, perhaps the best way of describing what many winemakers are doing currently.

As Tim James wrote on about palomino as a varietal wine: ‘I do hope Sout van die Aarde isn’t going to be one of Adi’s (Badenhorst) once offs – it’s too attractive and interesting to abandon.’ Before going on to admit ‘It’s not a great grape …’
But it’s not just a question of the variety’s status in the hierarchy but the winemaker’s own involvement, which takes me back to cinsaut.

During the recent WOSA Sommelier Cup, Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens organised a #TalkingCinsaut event with a panel made up of local cinsaut producers, Eben Sadie (Ouwingerds Pofadder) and Ryan Mostert (Silwervis), the three international judges for the Somm Cup (Ronan Sayburn MS, James Tidwell MS and Will Predhomme, winner of the cup in 2013) and David Clarke representing Sommeliers Association of South Africa. An invited audience was encouraged to participate and ask questions; nine cinsauts were tasted, including a 1974 from what was then Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and Le Riche cabernet/cinsaut blend.

Three more shades of cinsaut - SFW 1974 far right
Three more shades of cinsaut – SFW 1974 far right

They were, to coin a phrase, nine shades of cinsaut, each offering a different attribute of the grape but all reflecting in one way or another the small, if growing trend for lighter, fresher wines (one, which Tidwell confirms is also happening in the US). But more than that, most reflected the winemaker’s enthusiasm to accurately reflect and make the best wine possible from the vineyard he/she takes the fruit. Ryan Mostert stirringly declared he wants to ‘make cinsaut for the rest of my life’; this desire certainly rubs off on his wine.

For others, the talk around cinsaut merely offers an opportunity to follow a trend; maybe their fruit would do better justice to a blend – think of Duncan Savage’s Follow the Line, where cinsaut enhances the delicacy of its grenache and syrah partners.

The understanding but even more the enthusiasm of the winemaker has so much to do with the wine’s quality and success – whether it’s a single variety, blend or even a style. Tidwell backs me up in that view.

Someone who has shown the way as far as dedication, knowledge and enthusiasm are concerned is Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira, whose journey in search of the perfect bubble continues after 26 years. Now, it’s his only focus given the Beck stable has sold off all their still wine labels and valuable vineyards around Firgrove.

Graham Beck Cuvée Clive in flute (l) and Lehmann Jamesse glass
Graham Beck Cuvée Clive in flute (l) and Lehmann Jamesse glass

Actually, that’s not absolutely correct; it’s not only how to create the perfect bubble but how to show it, and the array of flavours within it, off at its best. Enter the world of glassware. I’ve long been aware the difference a glass can make to a wine but from the recent experience of tasting the Graham Beck Brut NV, Blanc de Blancs 2012 and Cuvée Clive 2009 first from the traditional flute, then, respectively from Riedel Ouverture Champagne Glass, Riedel Veritas Champagne glass and Lehmann Jamesse Prestige Grand Champagne glass, made it abundantly clear the flute is a non-starter. Each of the Riedel and the Jamesse glasses turned its wine into a fresher, more complex swan.

For any who want proof, tasting from these glasses is possible at the Beck cellar door in Robertson. If your pocket runs deep, they’re also available for sale. The wines are certainly worth the best, but if you do baulk at the prices, a decent white wine glass will do.
So what matters more is the winemaker’s long-term dedication and enthusiasm, rather than the possibly more short-term, ‘….. is going to be the next big thing’.

I’m a big Roald Dahl fan; this quote seems an appropriate conclusion: ‘I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed ahead, embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good.’

What is a sommelier?

I guess for many South Africans, sommelier is a word they’d have difficulty pronouncing let alone pinning down to a specific meaning.

Indeed, in one sense what it means depends on where you look. Chambers Dictionary sommelier-cup-banneroffers ‘a butler’ or ‘wine waiter’, while The Court of Master Sommeliers ( gives a wealth of detail, variously: a Master Sommelier (the highest qualification) is a professional beverage manager able to control an efficient, profitable beverage service. When choosing wines and other drinks, customers know they can follow your advice with confidence. A Master Sommelier is also a wine expert, a qualified taster who can pass on knowledge to colleagues. He or she is committed to the very highest standards of service and quality customer care and to help others achieve the same levels of excellence. Importantly, too a Master Sommelier is a salesman; under his or her guidance, wine service improves and helps to raise standards of food service throughout the hospitality industry. And so on.

An MS might be the pinnacle of qualifications, but the steps there – Introductory Sommelier Certificate, Certified Sommelier, Advanced Sommelier – also embrace such objectives.

As a very young, evolving body, the Sommeliers Association of South Africa (, founded in 2010, identified education as a key priority from the start. Two sommelier training courses of an eventual three have been developed and run with the third due to be held in 2017. In conjunction with these courses, SASA applied for and was accepted for observation membership with the International Sommelier Association, meaning their courses will be internationally accredited and the standards set recognised. A small step but an encouraging one in the right direction.

But what I particularly like about SASA is their vision as declared on their website: ‘The Sommeliers Association of South Africa is dedicated to the discipline, art and love of Wine and Spirits. The aim of the association is to ensure that South Africa has it’s (sic) own professional board who shares the joy and energy of wines and spirits.’

‘Love’, ‘joy’; ah, at last, how encouraging to read those two words. After watching the three finalists going through their paces at the Wines of South Africa Sommelier Cup last week, I wouldn’t have automatically associated ‘love’ and ‘joy’ with their performance, though to be fair they were under intense pressure and, to be fair again, the image of the sommelier has changed for the better over the past 10 to 15 years. In various parts of the world, I’ve come across some very supercilious sommeliers, rather keener to show off their skills and knowledge than interact with me as a wine loving customer. Today, all the way up the scale and even at Michelin star restaurants, there’s a more relaxed approach and helpful interaction between sommeliers and customers. Today, one gets the feeling they actually want one to enjoy the wine (and the evening, or lunch).

Eight finalists in WOSA Sommelier Cup 2016
Eight finalists in WOSA Sommelier Cup 2016

If I have one, perhaps carping comment of Germany’s Marc Almert, the individual winner of the Sommelier Cup, it is that he could have been a little less intense. He’s frighteningly confident, efficient and knowledgeable, still only 25 with the Certified Sommelier Certificate already under his belt and a bright future ahead. He’s currently employed by Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten and responsible for the wine programme of a dozen outlets including the two star Michelin restaurant Haerlin. His accomplishments are undeniably worthy of such positions.

Very few local restaurants, even when they compile their own wine list or it’s done for them by an independent (rather than one of the big companies, who throw in the all the extras), have the space or finances to create a library of vintages. Good service, let alone sufficient knowledge of wine and pairing it with food has long way to go, despite the ongoing efforts of SASA.

We don’t need Master Sommeliers, at least not as the immediate goal; we’ve got excellent self-taught sommeliers (however one wants to interpret the term), at many of South Africa’s top restaurants: Tinashe Nyamudoka at The Test Kitchen, one of the San Pellegrino’s World Top 50 Restaurants; Tongai Joseph Dhafana from La Colombe, regularly top restaurant in South Africa and Gregory Mutambe at The 12 Apostles another in the top ranks. It so happens all these gentlemen are from Zimbabwe, but ladies and locals are also finding a home in the hospitality industry and joining SASA.

The point was made at the Sommelier Cup that Marc Almert might be the individual winner but that but South African wine is the overall winner; there was a total of 280 entries from the eight countries or regions where the event was held; in other words South African wine now has a further 280 ambassadors working in the hospitality industry.
By including just one of the sommeliers from the top local restaurants mentioned above, it could have had a similar ripple effect as those 280 new ambassadors for South African wine. Something to think about for next time.

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L to R: Joe Yang (Macau), Ronan Sayburn MS (j), Jokaim Hansi Blackadder SASA (j), Higgo Jacobs SASA (j), Neil Grant SASA (MC), David Clarke SASA (j), Will Predhomme (Canada) (j), James Tidwell MS (USA) (j), Nathan Morrell (Canada), Marc Almert (Germany)
L to R: Joe Yang (Macau), Ronan Sayburn MS (j), Jokaim Hansi Blackadder SASA (j), Higgo Jacobs SASA (j), Neil Grant SASA (MC), David Clarke SASA (j), Will Predhomme (Canada) (j), James Tidwell MS (USA) (j), Nathan Morrell (Canada), Marc Almert (Germany)

The WOSA Sommelier Cup is held every three years, with the marketing body focusing on specific areas or countries from which sommeliers are invited to enter. This year, Kenya, where Geoffrey Kariuki was the first ever semi-finalist from Africa; Netherlands (Marijn Smit); Sweden (Erik Grödahl); Erik Simonics (UK); Cheron Cowan (USA), the first lady semi-finalist, as well as the three finalists: Joe Yang (Macau); Nathan Morrell (Canada) and Marc Almert (Germany).
Three international judges – Ronan Sayburn MS (UK), James Tidwell MS (USA) and Will Predhomme (Canada, the winner of the previous Sommelier Cup) – were joined by local SASA members Higgo Jacobs, SASA chair; David Clarke and Joakim Hansi Blackadder.

Where to from here?

It would be difficult, for even the most inattentive member of social media, to miss the tremendous enthusiasm for the latest South African assault on the UK wine trade.

intrepid-tastingIt started with the Intrepid show organised by Wines of South Africa; the event, attended by 138 producers, drew many positive comments along lines similar to those written by Peter Dean, Drinks Editor of The Buyer, who commented: ‘South African winemaking right now seems to be like a sports team that is playing together with passion, energy and innovation, and is more than a sum of its parts.’ (NB Springboks!) ‘They’re also making some bloody good wine.

Chris Wilson, Dean’s colleague at The Buyer echoed such views: ‘.. the quality of wines on show was very high and there was real energy in the room.’ Wilson particularly singled out ‘off beat’ white varieties not usually associated with South Africa, but which he described as belters: Diemersdal Grüner Veltliner 2016, Spioenkop Riesling 2013, Eagles’ Nest Viognier 2015 and the new Age of Grace Viognier 2015 from Lismore.

Lesson one: we need to realise we can do, and very well, varieties other than the more commonly found sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and chardonnay. As Tim Atkin MW, who probably knows more about South African wines than many locals, mentioned in his Keynote Speech at this year’s Nederburg Auction: ‘The small number of widely distributed grapes is a reflection of history, but it’s also an indictment of the conservatism of the wine industry.’

We’ve moved on from random plantings; thoughts are today focused on a drier, warmer climate, what does or will grow best in my patch of soil or that of the wine grower I have an arrangement with and, probably most important, along with the above, what variety excites me. These are all pointers not only to diversification but more wines of distinction that will command better prices. Of course, there’s also a level which includes, what the market wants but that would be likely to focus more on the commercial end.

It might be pleasing to know we’re considered a country offering value for money in our wines but we should be receiving higher prices and our wines should still be considered as offering value.

Here’s how Will Lyons, wine correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, views the value issue: ‘I was recently asked which wine region offers the best bang for your buck. My questioner wasn’t talking about branded, commoditized wine …. But the fine-wine sector. I didn’t hesitate: the one country that consistently offers outstanding value is South Africa.’

Prices, especially in the restaurant trade, have been rising, somewhere about 9% if memory serves correctly, but somehow even that doesn’t correlate with the amount of enthusiasm shown for our wines and winemakers whenever a group hits, especially the UK. It wasn’t confined to the Intrepid show. A few days’ later, Roger and Sue Jones, who’ve become such good friends of and ambassadors for South Africa, hosted an equally enthusiastically-received event at their Michelin-star restaurant, The Harrow. Thereafter, many winemakers took to travelling the country with their importers; the up-beat mood continued.

In summary, we have quality, interesting wines offering sometimes ridiculous value and a group of wine producers making sure South Africa is getting embedded in journalists’ and wine buyers’ brains.

The problem is that this group represents but a tiny proportion of the number of producers out there; according to SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Statistics) around 566, comprising the former co-ops, producing wholesalers and private wine cellars. Among them you’ll find wines of similar quality and excitement that have enthralled the Brits and other Europeans recently.

So why isn’t this greater spread of our fine wines better appreciated. I go back to Tim Atkin’s observation about the conservatism of the wine industry. Are we too restrained, corporate in our approach, over-obsessed with awards and medals for instance, branding the wines but forgetting to include the people behind them.

It’s not just the quality, individuality of the wines that are the reasons for our growing success, these are backed by the enthusiasm and individuality of the winemakers, owners and all involved with each producer.

More  could see our success expand much further.

A new start

Life, as I’m sure everyone appreciates, isn’t lived in a straight line; sure, day succeeds day, but within that steady progression there are troughs and peaks, sometimes random, sometimes occurring almost simultaneously.

These last few weeks has resembled a yoyo of such troughs, starting with the death of my husband, made more traumatic as it happened at the busiest end of Platter tastings, which themselves led into two days of extreme concentration over the five star tasting (more about that anon) and, perhaps the inevitable inability of my immune system to cope, with the result I went down with what my doctor described as the worst case of shingles he’d seen this year. Reading up on Google, it seems I have a further three weeks or so for the rash to disappear and perhaps longer for the soreness. Ugh, believe me, it’s not a virus you want to know.

But there has been a peak and what a memorable one.

Paul and Caroline, my step-children as well as Paul’s wife, Marilyn, came from their groot-constantia-shiraz-1974different parts of the world for the funeral and to help me in the first stage of clearing up (never wish for a hoarder partner!). We felt it fitting to have a special meal the evening after the funeral, so I cooked a loin of lamb, roast potatoes and homegrown peas and delved into the cellar where I knew exactly which wine to choose to accompany them.

Groot Constantia Shiraz 1974 was sublime; as I lifted the cork, still very much in one piece, the gentle fragrance wafted, full of comforting sweet fruit. Without any sense of showiness, it endured, in the flavours too which maintained amazing freshness in their evident maturity. Even by the end of the evening, there was no tiring; in its own placid, calm way, this shiraz kept evoking so many happy memories.

The 1970s was the era of queuing once a month on a Wednesday morning at Groot Constantia for the permitted one case. Supply was limited; in 1976 total production was 10 000 cases, demand high and it was boom time for red wines, so the queue was inevitably long. Nonetheless, we secured our case of Shiraz most years in the 1970s (bottles of 71, 75 and 76 still in their sleeves attest to that). It became our Christmas wine, a valued bottle being opened with our festive meal. Vintage 1974 had other significance; it was the year we married and, of course, the greatest vintage of the decade.

I wonder whether any 2015s will still be singing quite so sweetly on their 42nd anniversary? It is a vintage that has so far the whisper of ‘vintage of the decade’ about it and with the increasing approach by winemakers of ‘less is more’, longevity is likely. I was lucky enough to chair the chenin blanc panel for the Platter 5* tasting (as well as the pinotage and a few other, small categories). We must’ve tasted in the order of 54 chenins, all scoring 4.5* (or between 90 and 94/100), with a good many nominated as 5* (95 and over). This method of including all 4.5* wines was first adopted last year; although it adds to the tasting load, it does help to iron out degrees of generosity or tightfistedness displayed by the tasters.
The Loire might be chenin’s original home and producer of brilliant and long-lived wines, but surely South Africa is owed a huge debt for bringing the grape’s glorious versatility and quality to wider attention.

There was barely a wine of those 54 which didn’t deserve to be there; showing restraint wasn’t easy but our eventual bunch of 5* all deserve their starry status. Usefully, too, we pretty much agreed. In a new move this year, after reading out our scores and discussion, we were given the ‘at home’ taster’s score (the taster who had rated the whole range, sighted); not his or her name, as the whole 5* exercise is blind, just the rating. This was of help in case we’d given the wine a 90/100, as opposed to the original taster’s 95/100, or vice versa. I think this development again illustrates Platter is not a competition, but a guide, compiled with as much fairness and objectivity as it humanly possible.

Expect the results to be announced towards the end of October.


I’ve been drinking (after tasting) quite a lot of cinsaut (cinsault, if you prefer), recently and thoroughly enjoying the experience. It’s very much the variety du jour, at least among cutting-edge winemakers; twenty-one are listed as producing varietal wines in the latest Platter, with an increasing number of others who include it in blends.

Cinsaut vines in Southern France
Cinsaut vines in Southern France

This all represents a revival rather than introduction to the variety, which, as Tim James notes in his excellent Wines of the New South Africa Tradition and Revolution: ‘Cinsaut is of great historical significance in the Cape. It has been grown here since the middle of the nineteenth century…’ At one stage it occupied the majority of the Cape’s area under vine, until overtaken by chenin blanc, consequently becoming a workhorse and filling any role producers deemed necessary.

Leaving aside (never, but please understand the context) Reg Nicholson and Etienne le Riche’s wonderful Rustenberg Dry Reds (a mix of co-fermented two-thirds cabernet, one-third cinsaut) of the 70s and 80s, cinsaut probably began its return to proper attention at the same time the Swartland was being re-discovered in the late 1990s.

Cinsaut grapesAccording to 2015 figures, cinsaut in the Swartland accounts for 174 hectares, by no means the most-densely covered area, that credit belongs to Paarl where you can find 387 ha. One can imagine most of that going into those innocuous blends, as surely must most grown the other side of the Du Toitskloof mountains. Cinsaut isn’t just a black grape either, there’s a blanc version; a very few hectares squeeze into the Swartland, Paarl and, I’ve been told, Wellington, though that’s not reflected on SAWIS’s records.

Other less likely areas cinsaut can be spotted are Upper Hemel en Aarde, Elim, Tygerberg, Groenekloof and Franschhoek.

But as with other varieties, the main aim is to spot old vines, 35 years and older, of which, Rosa Kruger’s invaluable website informs there are close on 179 ha, spread mainly across Swartland, Paarl and Stellenbosch. Small as it is, that represents one of the most populous of varieties over 35 years.

Enough of figures, what should make cinsaut desirable and you crave it for your next purchase? Forget any example that’s been treated like a cabernet with a dense wall of tannin and layers of new oak; cinsaut needs as gentle, understanding a hand as pinot noir; it’s about subtlety, freshness and finesse. The fruit – wild strawberries, spice, sometimes with a dusting of earth – at best can offer up enchanting fragrance when paid carefully attention; cinsaut doesn’t give instant gratification – at worst be a jammy mess. I hope that explains why an overdose of new oak is just plain wrong and picking too ripe as well.

Chateau Musar from the Lebanon is one of the world's best known wines which includes cinsaut.
Chateau Musar from the Lebanon is one of the world’s best known wines which includes cinsaut.

Then how should a good cinsaut feel? Tap dance rather than pinot’s glide? It’s that fresh acidity, finely-honed structure and moderate alcohol, around 12-13%, that suggests such analogy.

I know of people who would find such a wine wimpish, their preference being for bigger, richer, oakier. A pity as a top-quality cinsaut with real fruit concentration can offer so much more dimension and satisfaction, holding its own with fare our current wintry conditions call for.

Sadly, due to lack of discipline, my experience with ageing cinsaut needs some work. The problem is all the nicest cinsauts I’ve had recently are so enjoyable and fit the bill on so many occasions and with so many foods that ageing any remains a future goal.

Cinsaut currently offers remarkably good value; Eben Sadie’s latest Pofadder will sell ex-cellar for R1364.99 for a case of six. There, you’re paying for the farmer, his workers and Eben’s expertise, not that of the new oak barrel producer, which is as it should be.
While I subscribe to the view that scarcity breeds desirability but doesn’t always deliver quality, in cinsaut’s case the limited quantity made by the majority of those 21 producers belies that view.

Now is as good a time as any to try cinsaut, alone or in a blend: it produces wonderfully different, authentic wines.

Grow or buy in?

Grape growers and the sustainability of their livelihood is currently a topic much discussed. Grape prices, especially for older, lower yielding vines, are just not keeping pace with the costs of keeping them alive, let alone in good shape. Sadly, there are many reports of such vines being uprooted either for higher yielders or other crops altogether.

Sad sight of old vines uprooted because the farmer could get better money from another crop. Photo credit Rosa Kruger
Sad sight of old vines uprooted because the farmer could get better money from another crop. Photo credit Rosa Kruger

Yet think of top producers such as Alheit, Sadie – Eben as well as David and Nadia – Mullineux, Peter-Allan Finlayson and many more: where do they source their grapes? If not all, then mostly from grape growers. For today’s young guns, owning vineyards is not only beyond their means, but not part of their journey. They prefer to find a vineyard in a propitious site, growing their variety of choice and negotiate with the farmer about looking after the vines and buying the crop.

This is so different from even 40 years ago, when there were few independent producers, the market and the vineyard, being dominated by Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery, Distillers and, of course, the majority co-operatives who provided them with grapes or wine. Producers such as Delheim, Simonsig, Kanonkop and Backsberg, to name a few, had to grow all the grapes they wanted to turn into wine (some of them also supplied the big boys) and to keep their customers happy, it was necessary to offer a wide palette of styles and varieties. I well remember the late Frans Malan, patriach of Simonsig, always being the first to try some new variety. This led to lengthy and unfocused wine ranges; today vineyard owners are more aware of the need to match variety to site.

Both owning and buying in have their pluses and minuses; who better to pass on his experience with both than Duncan Savage, who recently left Cape Point Vineyards after thirteen and a half years as this extremely successful producer’s winemaker. Since 2011, under his own Savage label, he’s already garnering similar success. The difference is that Cape Point Vineyards’ wines are from home-grown vines, established in an era when matching variety to site had become relevant, while Savage wines are bought in from various growers.

Two of Duncan Savage's own label wines
Two of Duncan Savage’s own label wines

Savage agrees with my above observation that with home grown fruit; ‘.. all too often the one stop shop approach is adopted with the whole spectrum of varieties planted,’ acknowledging on the other hand; ‘that one should be growing what’s best for the estate.’ But of more importance, he notes ‘At CPV we were able to build a brand by focusing on varieties suited to Noordhoek.’ If that has been a great help in leveraging CPV to its position today, consider little setbacks such as factors which limit yields. ‘In 2015 we were 30% down due to fires; a similar drop in yield in 2016 was due to extreme wind. If it’s a bad year for the area, there’s not much that can be done; look at hail in Burgundy for example.
None of this denies the benefits, as Savage sees them: ‘One can really get to know a place; through trial and error you get to know the subtleties of each block, the soils, just the smell and feel of the place. Having complete control of the farming process enables consistency of style and quality. For visitors there is also the invaluable experience of tasting the wines in the terroir they were grown in.’ As a lucky soul who has travelled, I can relate so well to that ultimate sentence. It gives one a whole new perspective on the wine.

‘Buying fruit is an adventure,’ Savage admits, recalling the many amazing places and incredible South Africans he’s come across over the past six years. ‘I have certain soils I like that are maritime or altitude and try to stick to these, but there’s also the possibility of finding parcels not even on my radar.’ As with so many other winemakers, Savage lauds the help of Rosa Kruger, a friend and erstwhile colleague at CPV, who he says; ‘Acts as a soundboard when buying fruit.’

The downsides to buying in fruit are pretty obvious: losing out to other producers or the vines being uprooted. ‘Farmers need to survive; we need to make it worth their while,’ Savage maintains. This was particularly true in a challenging year like 2016, when yields were ridiculously low and fruit was scarce.

The relationship with the farmer is of ultimate importance. Savage’s approach is to ‘..get involved in the farming if the relationship is right, but it’s also important to respect the person who understands the land better than the winemaker.’ Beyond that, just sitting down, chatting to the guy, having a drink; all help to build a relationship in Savage’s view.
Finally, looking into your crystal ball, Duncan, in future, will the trend be to buy in grapes or own vineyards?

‘Vines are becoming scarce, let’s hope this trend doesn’t continue. Owning vineyards means security and consistency in terms of style. That said, we never know what is going to happen politically. I can’t afford to buy a farm, thus have no choice. I love the adventure of travelling around the winelands, its epic! I think more people, if they don’t own, will be tying up blocks on a lease basis. Even if I did own, I would still buy from growers in different areas. The long and short is that the good old blocks are going to become scarce, producers will need to start investing in vineyards.’

Inspiration for this article originated from a piece in Decanter, which claims winemakers and merchants are often asked by consumers whether the grapes are estate-grown or bought in; purchased grapes apparently producing ‘almost a visible shudder in some tasters.’

Savage reckons, the question is of greater concern for the producer, most consumers have no idea.

I also tossed the question to some local wine merchants. Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens’s view is; ‘Customers are interested in the attitude and intention of the winemaker and of the quality in the bottle, not with who owns the grapes, whether the wine’s from an estate or not.’ For his colleague, James Pietersen, ‘The less knowledgeable are generally not too concerned where the wine comes from; they’d assume a label such as Fleur du Cap comes from a farm. They’d be interested rather than put off to learn the real story behind such labels.’

Both Caroline Rillema of Caroline’s Fine Wines and Mike Bampfield Duggan of Wine Concepts admit such a question from a customer is rare. ‘Our shoppers’ only concern is whether what is stated on the bottle is correct,’ Bampfield Duggan adds.

It’s all food for thought.

Is it good? Is it bad?

It’s harvest time; excitement in the winelands mounts as the first grapes are picked and carted off to cellars, their juice soon to be transformed into wine.

Harvest time

How is this year’s crop going to turn out? Is it larger, smaller, better or worse than usual? What were the run-up months like? Was winter generous with the cold and wet, allowing the vines to go into full dormancy and re-filling the dams and ground water? Did spring behave; no mean winds stripping the vines of their flowers, or humidity causing mildew problems?

These are major conditions which may affect the vintage in South Africa; the negative ones may be detrimental, but nothing like as devastating as Europe and France especially has experienced this year: frost, hail, floods, then more hail with Burgundy in particular being hard hit.

While vintages certainly differ here, we have to look beyond weather conditions and our climate for reasons of success or failure. The scatterball approach taken to planting before producers woke up to the importance of viticulture – varieties, their preferences in soil type, aspect, altitude, training and pruning methods and, of course, the deadly leafroll virus (among other vine diseases), all have a bearing on the outcome.

Ask yourself why so many Swartland producers are successful – because they have chosen to make wines from varieties, such as shiraz, which are at home there and perform well. Many imagine shiraz is the area’s most planted variety; wrong, it’s cabernet. Yet where are the great Swartland cabernets?

It is only just over 20 years since the quota system was dropped and we’re still playing catch up, albeit with greater awareness and attention to what is planted where, with new sites being tested, and how the vines are looked after; one major problem is a vine doesn’t mature overnight.

Taking all of the above into consideration, to pronounce on the overall quality of a vintage when it’s barely off the vines or even a year later can come back to bite one.

I remember how some producers were so enthusiastic about 2005 (in a drought cycle), something I struggled to agree with. Nevertheless, it gained a good reputation. This wasn’t upheld 10 years down the line, when the wines (mostly red with a couple of whites) looked heavy and flat. In contrast, 2006, which wasn’t a ‘rated’ year, has produced some worthy 10 year olds.

Coming to more recent vintages, 2014, where one is beginning to see some of the major wines on the market, is offering a very mixed picture, especially for the later-ripening varieties. Early winter rains certainly affected ripeness in virused cabernet, resulting in wines with unpleasantly harsh, minty stress character from unripe tannins. By the same token, from well-managed vineyards, even if not entirely virus-free, there are ripe 2014 reds. Mveme Raats de Compostella. Delaire Graff Botmaskop, Eikendal Classique, Creation Cabernet Sauvignon Petit Verdot and Diemersdal Private Collection, to name but a handful – all of which achieved top rankings in the recent Riscura Red Hot Awards.

Work in the vineyards is one thing; a sensitive approach in the cellar is another. Over-extraction is a recurrent problem; those who made the above wines read the vintage well, going easy on extraction. Even so, what I’ve observed so far is that even with well-judged tannin, there isn’t always the flesh to allow for extended ageing. These are my thoughts rather than a final judgement.

Such a call is further off still with 2015, a year hailed as great by the majority, though there are words of caution from those who believe an early harvest doesn’t necessarily produce great wines.

Rather than any qualitative thoughts, some of the more serious 2015 whites now being released intrigue me. Take a few Elgin sauvignon blancs I’ve tried recently; they’ve surprised by being much bigger and richer than I anticipated, especially from this cool climate region known for its quaffable sauvignons with juicy, fruity acids; but they’re so well balanced and much more pleasurable to drink than the lower alcohol 2014s.

Pronouncing on the quality of a vintage too early is like stepping into a minefield. I’ll save myself from being blown up now over 2015; rather ask me what I think around 2019.

Bordeaux-style blends – really the best?

Some 26 years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Pontallier, then Technical Director of Bordeaux First Growth, Chateau Margaux (he very sadly died, far too young, a few weeks ago). At the time, he consulted to Plaisir de Merle, the Distell property on the Paarl side of the Simonsberg.
Ch Margaux

I often turn to this interview, as so much of what Pontallier said then is still apposite today. It’s useful to repeat two of the many important points he made as an introduction to my thoughts on where we stand those 26 years down the line.

On the role of the main Bordeaux red varieties. ‘We produce these varieties under our own specific conditions – they’re not just cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc. Wine is not just the result of a variety. It is a type of grape grown under very specific conditions.’ ‘.. [A]s far as blends are concerned it’s important to understand that blending is a philosophy more than a recipe.’

Bordeaux and its red wines, especially those which fall under the 1855 classification, are seen as the most prestigious wines in the world; without such influence, would the annual en primeur campaign still be a thing?

Its prestige has seen this blend replicated worldwide, generally as the pinnacle of a producer’s range. In this role, it has to be impressive, stand out, which in South Africa’s case (and others) means more of everything – ripe fruit (resulting in higher alcohols as new, virus-free vines comes on stream), extraction of colour and tannins, all embellished with lashings of new, small oak barrels.

Pontallier on oak: ‘Using small, new oak for just any kind of wine is a bad idea. .. We barrel-age wines not to give them oaky flavours, but to allow them to go through the necessary changes in order to acquire the potential to be bottled-aged for many more years. That’s THE reason for the small barrel.’

Naturally, these wines came with a suitably impressive price tag too, just to emphasise how special they were – for a brief moment in time. So many didn’t last more than a couple of years, let alone Pontallier’s ‘many more years’, as they lacked the specifics – variety, conditions, vinification – for such purpose.

The passing of time, maturing of new, clean vine material but, mostly, the better understanding by more mature winemakers are being realised in wines, from the major Bordeaux varieties, which demonstrate that less is in fact more. There are provisos, but let me share the good news first.

I have rarely tasted through a lineup of Bordeaux-style blends where a display of natural distinction, a sense of belonging, is more evident than in the 13 wines which climbed to the top of the points ladder (90 and over) on this year’s Riscura Red Hot Awards. Less was definitely more: less over-ripeness, less over-extraction and less over-oaking.

None was under 14% alcohol but there was a sense of balance, with sufficient freshness to offset the ripe fruit. In Chairman of the panel, Christian Eedes’ report, he does say that achieving power with freshness remains an issue, one aggravated by sumptuous fruit and soft tannins which allow for consumers’ preferred earlier, easier drinking. But on the whole, the wines they’ve singled out (and some others which didn’t quite hit the 90 point mark) have the hallmarks of a structure designed to age. Other panel members were Eedes’ regular judging partners, Roland Peens and James Pietersen, both of Wine Cellar.
Few wines were aged in 100% new oak and, although it was rarely declared, my guess is not all were 225 litre barriques; winemakers are appreciating that larger and oak into its 2nd, 3rd and even 4th fill can provide excellent results.

Better too is the understanding of harvesting times. Cabernet, as a generally late ripener, can suffer from both early winter rains and prolonged heatwaves, especially in virused vines, when sufficient ripeness isn’t achieved. But as the list below shows, vintages spanned 2010 to 2014; neither 2011 nor 2014 are regarded as good cabernet years in particular.

Dombeya Fenix 2011 scored 91 points on Riscura Red Hot Awards. Photo courtesy of Hennie Coetzee
Dombeya Fenix 2011 scored 91 points on Riscura Red Hot Awards.
Photo courtesy of Hennie Coetzee

I’d particularly applaud Ernie Els Signature 2013, Hartenberg The Mackenzie 2012 for their achievements in the ‘less is more’ realm and single out Diemersdal Private Collection 2014, Dombeya Fenix 2013, Mvemve Raats Compostella 2014 and Vriesenhof Kallista 2010 as my favourites.

To the provisos. These 13 wines, and others among the 59 entries (I’d have lifted a few over the 90-point level) are but the tip of the iceberg; leaving aside some big names that presumably didn’t enter, there are a scary number which have some catching up to do.

Then, there are still too many virused vines out there, with a good probability many varieties are not being grown ‘under (the) very specific conditions’ Pontallier specifies they need to give of their best; and it’s still not possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
Sows’ ears were sadly in evidence at a tasting Tim James and I undertook last week of red wines, mainly composed of the Bordeaux varieties and sold under Ultra Liquors Secret Cellar label. Read his report here. Of the dozen reds, eight were from 2014, a couple non-vintage and nine were from or based on Bordeaux varieties. The mint, sweet and sour finish and general thinness associated with stressed vines was clearly in evidence in the Bordeaux-style 14s. Not wines I’d want to drink at any price, even the good value R35+- the Secret Cellar range can offer.

A final, wise word from Pontallier on the opinion that top quality, flagship reds have to be made from Bordeaux varieties. ‘Nonsense. ..At the end of the day, what makes the best wine? .. I think the philosophy of the blend is trying to find varieties which are complementary, not just because it’s the thing to do.’

A thought that deserves consideration as much today as it did then.

Groot Constantia Gouverneurs Reserve Red 2013
Ernie Els Signature 2013
Mveme Raats MR de Compostella 2014
Delaire Graff Botmaskop 2014
Hartenberg The Mackenzie 2012
Spier Creative Block 5 2013
Vriesenhof Kallista 2010
Dombeya Fenix 2011
Eikendal Classique 2014
Uva Mira O.T.V. 2014
Creation Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Petit Verdot 2014
Diemersdal Private Collection 2014
Rustenberg John X Merriman 2013

• Paul Pontallier’s quotes taken from my interview with him and published in The Wine of the Month Club Newsletter No 50

Catching up

Please do not mistake a break for a holiday. What I’ve enjoyed the past two weeks has been a break from writing; instead I’ve undertaken major domestic chores interspersed with several wine events (more below). It was also, sadly, necessary to stare at my PC screen rather too often. Now that’s hardly a holiday.

Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show
As a longtime judge on this show until 2013 and even a stand-in on the chenin panel this year, I can confirm that prior to the start of judging, Show Chairman, Michael Fridjhon exhorts the judges to look for elegance and understatement. Whilst we were always mindful of this brief, it wasn’t easy to pass over some of the more demonstrative entries. But this year the team appear to have really looked for less showy wines,  if the Trophy line up is an example of the other medal winners.

I tasted these Trophy winners at the Masterclass, as the public tasting where the other gold and silver medalists were on offer, clashed with another event.

Franschhoek Vineyards Semillon 2014, a pure, restrained wine from a 75-year old vineyard; the now famous Secret Cellar Chenin Blanc No 235 2015, with presence and depth, plus some ageing potential;  Zonnebloem Shiraz Mourvèdre Viognier 2014, elegantly ripe; Gabrielskloof The Blend 2013 (a second label of this property), understated and tasty;  Vrede en Lust Artisan Cabernet Franc 2014 expressive, not overly ‘leafy’ and Brampton Pinotage 2014  ‘juicy and quaffable’, were my summaries.

While I appreciate their modest bearing  (and most offer ridiculous value), the two trophy winners one might more readily associate with this accolade are Rustenberg Five Soldiers Chardonnay 2013 and Delaire Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2013. Both are grand, classic wines, neither vulgar or showy,  comfortable in their own skin and with excellent ageing potential.

Pitching wines at just the right level is never easy and with new varieties coming on stream or re-discovery of those already in our vineyards, winemakers need to completely re-focus their approach. Cinsaut requires a different philosophy from cabernet, etc.

David and Nadia Sadie launch
If an object lesson were needed in pitching wines at the right level, David and Nadia Sadie

Labels on the new David and Nadia Semillon and Pinotage depict the cartography of the Swartland.
Labels on the new David and Nadia Semillon and Pinotage depict the cartography of the Swartland.

illustrate it with breathtaking style in their new vintages, including two new wines. These are a semillon 2015 from a vineyard dating from 1965 and employing skin contact, and a pinotage from 25 year old vines perched on the highest point of the Paardebosch farm, on the Paardeberg. The latter throws a whole new light on pinotage, one which so much reflects its source. Convincing without being flashy, it has spice and a savoury profile rather than the sweetness often associated with the grape, grainy yet fruit-filled ripe tannins and an almost wild vibrancy that makes one nod in acknowledgement that it could originate only from the Paardeberg.

Of regulars in the range, the David Chenin Blanc 2015 shows the strength of both the variety and the vintage; so far, the hype about 2015 has not been overstated. From six vineyards, this is a chenin of purity with a fine line of tension and tangy length. Anchored by enriching lees, it promises a glorious future. My favourite red, David Grenache 2015 is intriguingly different from his 2014, enjoying well-tuned muscle with a silky feel plus greater depth of the wild strawberry and spice mix that’s so bright and vibrant in the older wine.

In truth, there’s no poor wine in the David and Nadia range; the only downside is limited quantity. The good news there is the pair want to start a 100 000 bottle range selling for under R100; bring it on!

Thorne and Daughters launch
Paper Kite 2015 labelThe bad news is that quantities are even more limited here, Rocking Horse 2015 being the most generous with an 11 000 bottle production. Tin Soldier 2015 runs to just 1200 bottles and Paper Kite 2015 1700 bottles. That paucity is a double-edge sword; as difficult as they are to come by, fight for every last bottle you can find, they are that good. I believe a large part of John Seccombe’s success is that he first has an idea in his head of the style of wine, then goes looking for a suitable vineyard, rather than the other way around.

Rocking Horse 2015 is much the same composition as 2014 but with roussanne rather than chenin leading. It’s much tighter than the older wine, has good energy and vinosity. Give it time.

Some white wines with skin contact tend to be less fruity, more austere and an acquired taste – in their early stages. But I wager Tin Soldier, a semillon blanc/semillon gris blend from Swartland and Franschhoek vineyards, will reward a few years and be worth the wait. A bit of lemony scent, saline acid and savoury conclusion might not sound so attractive now, but while austere, it’s not mean; there’s substance waiting to emerge. I love the wine.

As I do Paper Kite; well it is from the oldest semillon vineyard in Franschhoek, basket pressed and fermented/aged in old oak for nine months. Suave, with mouthcoating silky viscosity and a bright line of acid which adds to its overall refinement. As with so many old vine wines, there is effortless concentration. I confidentially predict majestic maturity here.

Vondeling Babiana vertical
As with verticals generally, tasting every vintage from 2005 to 2015 was a great experience. How many realise Babiana is one of the earliest of the Cape’s now highly-regarded white blends? My guess is few.

Vondeling Babiana 2014The first three vintages were made by Callie Louw (now at Porseleinberg), with the 07 blended and all subsequent vintages vinified by the extremely capable Matthew Copeland. Chenin from a 30-year plus vineyard known as the Graveyard Block has always formed the backbone, in one year only dipping below 50% of the blend. Since 07, its regular partners, in varying proportions, have been chardonnay, grenache blanc and viognier. Perhaps it’s a Vondeling thing (the blend is made at the crusher), but even at double figures, viognier is never blowsy. Amazing too are the bright, still palish colours right back to the first vintage.

The greatest point of interest for me, seeing that 2012 and 2015 were my wines of the evening, has been the introduction of skin contact. Not to the extent of lending an austerity as in the Seccombe’s Tin Soldier, but here bracing, framing the fruit, adding too a freshness and spice. Residual sugar in the 12 sits at 4.3 g/l (subsequent years are 3 g/l and under), yet thanks to that grip and freshness, it tastes much drier than earlier years at the same level. The aromatics too are more marked as they are in 2015, a vintage with so much potential and ridiculously priced at R118.

Skin contact on white wines is still at an early, trial and error stage; coarseness can be a problem, but used with understanding and competence, I believe it’ll take our already excellent wines to a new level, not reached elsewhere.