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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Food and wine or wine and food? Which better reflects Franschhoek today? I was keen for an answer before delving into the story behind Lokaia Wines with their creators, Craig McNaught (also winemaker on his family farm, Stony Brook) and Clayton Reabow (whose day job is winemaker at Môreson). Both are long-established and passionately pro-Franschhoek wine people. ‘Wine first, food second,’ is Clayton’s unequivocal answer; ‘The advent of the wine tram (which takes visitors to various wineries along the old railway line) has established Franschhoek’s wine credentials.’
To give this claim context, a total of 42 varieties are grown in Wine of Origin Franschhoek’s 1214.68ha with cabernet, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, shiraz, merlot and semillon leading the pack, followed by chenin blanc and cabernet franc. Semillon and chardonnay are likely the varieties most associated with the area.
It was these two and cabernet sauvignon that were singled out for a new classification system, rather pretentiously named Appellation Grand Prestige, some eight years ago. Craig and Clayton were two of four winemakers behind this, the others were Wynand Grobler, then at Rickety Bridge, and the now sadly, late Rob Armstrong of Haut Espoir. Their purpose was to promote the valley’s key varieties and improving its winegrowing image as a whole. For various reasons, the system lasted only a year or two, but Craig and Clayton’s resolve didn’t diminish: Lokaia wines is their personal project to continue where AGP left off, albeit with a different approach.
Chatting to the pair over lunch and tasting their wines, I can see this is a yin and yang partnership; Craig the practical ‘get on with it’ persona, Clayton, the creative more dreamy romantic. Their personalities might differ, though their easy interaction shows a clear understanding of each other, but their goal with the wines is the same. ‘Our departure point is to be atypical, don’t think you’ll be drinking regular wines,’ they tell me, but hasten to add that the low-intervention, no-malo approach is not what is vaguely termed ‘natural’.
Included in that departure point is early picking, for freshness and lower alcohol but also purity. Texture over overt fruit is another focus, oh and no oak, but to the wines.
Each comes from a single vineyard in specific parts of Franschhoek, which the two deem could be possible sub-regions, perhaps a goal in the future.
Pound of Flesh Semillon 2020, made in the Stony Brook cellar, comes from a dryland vineyard planted in 1996 in the Bo-hoek, a semillon stronghold, and home to La Colline and Landau du Val. The name reflects the pair’s frustration at how much semillon leaves Franschhoek. Early picked, cooled, crushed and spontaneously fermented with high turbidity and four months lees ageing for texture, this semillon is like a chrysalis on first opening, shyly whispering its light lemony purity with a grainy texture establishing its presence. As the afternoon wore on, so the wine unfolded, its breadth confirming the future rewards of ageing, which a low pH allows.
The valley floor has been identified for chardonnay. Môreson’s vineyard planted in 1998 contributed four rows to The Sandman Chardonnay 2020. Vinification, at Môreson, was far from conventional; after destemming and crushing, the stems were dried, placed at the bottom of a 500 litre clay amphora, filled with the juice and skins then punched down during fermentation until dry, when it was topped with olive oil to protect from oxidation during two months’ skin contact. The free-run, unfined wine was then bottled. It has real energy, partly from vibrant acidity but also a fine, tongue-hugging grainy grip which sends the lemon, leesy flavours racing across the palate. The sun-exposed skins bring an extra tactile dimension. This is a wine that excites all the senses, prompting much thought at the same time.
Apart from reflecting the alluvial valley floor source, the name will be known to those familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Sandman, or Ole Lukøje (pronounced Ole Lokaia), reflecting the spirit of sleep and dreams. It also inspired the project name.
Most remarkable wine of the trio for me is Call of the Void Cabernet Franc, from a single vineyard on Dutoitskop Peak. I was intrigued why they opted for franc rather than the cabernet sauvignon included in AGP. ‘It’s easier to achieve better quality at 11% alcohol with franc than sauvignon,’ Craig explains. Quality with perfect ripeness they have achieved in a wine that takes ones breath away with its perfume of curry-leaf spice, redcurrants and its crunchy, mouthwateringly-crystalline texture.
Winemaking here was shared; Clayton harvested a few days earlier and with lower potential alcohol than Craig, whose grapes came in at a potential 15% abv and were fermented on the skins for just six days. This was then mixed with Clayton’s wine, still on the skins, in an amphora and left for four months, the unstabilised, free-run juice being bottled immediately after drawing it off the skins. A giant leap into – well, they weren’t sure what, but it worked – how it worked!
The labels are evocative of the wines. Call of the Void is by Slovenian artist, Michal Dunaj, who gave Craig and Clayton permission to use it when they told him it was perfect for this wine. The other two were designed by creative artist, Jenny Glazier. Further details on Lokaia’s excellent website.
Such was their apprehension about how the wines would be received, were they even successful, they eschewed a big song and dance launch for a remote one from Chintsa on the Wild Coast. There’s little conventional about this enterprise and all the better for it. Proof lies in the plaudits the wines are already receiving in several international markets.
Much fine-tuning has gone into the 2021 wines; I fully anticipate even more excitement than the maiden trio. The scaling back of alcohol without loss of flavour, attention to texture and freshness are seen by an increasing number of winemakers as the way forward. Undoubtedly, Lokaia will enhance Franschhoek’s wine image; it will also gain further prestige for South Africa.
Above all, rosé is admired for its looks but over the past few years it has graduated from a come-hither pink of easy enjoyment to a drink requiring greater attention. These wines have progressed from sundowner sipping to warranting the spotlight position on the dinner table. Dry rosés now outnumber their off-dry/semi-sweet counterparts in Platter and possibly worldwide.
How serious can a rosé be? None have yet cracked a place on the Platter five star tasting, let alone that ultimate ceiling itself, but with winemakers’ more serious intent and improvements, that’s no longer a pipe-dream. Cautiously, oak has been introduced, adding a note of structure and ageability. On the matter of age, rosé, like sauvignon blanc, used to be rushed onto the market to satisfy wine lovers’ desire to enjoy them as young and fresh as possible. Today’s drier, firmer styles benefit from time to settle and a later release; some are held back by a year or even longer.
Rosé isn’t something I drink very often but three potentially interesting (gift) bottles in the cellar offered an excellent opportunity to explore the genre further.
Inspiration for La Motte’s Vin de Joie (wine of joy) came from CEO Hein Koegelenberg’s visit to Prowein 2019 in Hamburg, where he tasted Provence rosés and was struck by their elegance. The team had been mulling the idea of producing a La Motte rosé for some time; the Provence style and the fact that the particular wine Hein admired was made close to La Motte d’Aigues, from which Franschhoek’s La Motte is believed to have been named, sealed his decision. A bottle carried home was poured for winemaker, Edmund Terblanche and the cellar team’s inspiration.
Joie is a blend of Southern French varieties grenache, mourvèdre, syrah with grapes drawn from across the winelands including Franschhoek. South Africa’s Blushing Bride fynbos inspired the wine’s glinting pale pink, as well as the sculpture on the label.
A lot of detail for a wine which entices with its understated elegance and gentle freshness. An insinuating fragrance of herbs and soft summer berries is echoed in the expansive yet restrained flavours and their lingering, savoury retreat. At its best chilled and over the coming year.
La Motte Vin de Joie 2021 R99 ex cellar
Pink Valley is unique in South Africa as the only farm specialising in rosé with a cellar dedicated to this one wine. Located next to Taaibosch on the Helderberg, both properties are owned by father and daughter Pascal and Lorraine Oddo under their company Oddo Vins & Domaines. Their roots are in Provence, where they make rosé but have wine ventures in other countries. The possibility of making a classic rosé in the Cape brought them here in 2018 on the recommendation of a friend.
The maiden vintage of Pink Valley Rosé 2019 was released in 2020. Deceptively pale, to the point of resembling a white wine in the glass, winemaker Schalk-Willem Joubert describes the official colour as onion skin, a tinge achieve by holding the juice at 2C in stainless steel for five weeks prior to fermentation. One sniff assures red grapes are involved, in fact Southern French varieties grenache, shiraz and cinsaut with a little Italian influence from sangiovese. Aromatically, it has greater intensity than Joie de Vie, the spicy, melon fragrance delivered with winning charm.
Then comes a surprise: the wine has weight and viscosity to match the bright, sustained fruit, this texture achieved from five months on its fine lees, with stirring. Two years on, the wine remains fleet-footed with an abundance of freshness and flavour, enhanced by 12% alcohol. Pink Valley restaurant’s tapas and light dishes are this rosé’s perfect partners.
Pink Valley Rosé R150 ex cellar
Normandie Est 1693, one of the original French Huguenot-settled farms, is perhaps not as well-known as the above properties. Three major wines are produced from its roughly 30 ha of vines stretching from the Huguenot Road to the foothills of Groot Drakenstein mountains: Eisen & Viljoen (named for the owners, Mark and Karen Eisen and winemaker, Johan Viljoen), Anno 1693 are both Bordeaux-style blends, while karen. is a rosé with a difference.
Described on the website as ‘a sophisticated, dry, fruit-driven, aged rosé wine .. made from a single icon block of Merlot’, karen. is harvested with; ‘A very high concentration of red and black berry flavours,’ comments Johan Viljoen. Whole bunch pressing, a slow fermentation until the wine is totally dry, then 18 months’ rest in bottle is the wine’s journey before release. Johan’s rationale being to make the wine available ‘only when it’s settled and ready to drink.’
The 2016, selling when I visited Johan at Normandie Est 1693 in November 2020, has the deepest colour of the three, a bright coppery blush. It does indeed have the dark and red berry character Johan seeks, the flavours richly spread across the palate and well-sustained through the wine’s rounded dry conclusion. It’s very much like a red wine in a white wine body with a lifted, balancing acidity. The most versatile with food of the trio and quite able to take a further year’s ageing. Different and delicious. It will benefit from less chilling than the other two.
karen. R200 from the website (2018 currently available)
Pricing may raise some eyebrows, but bear in mind, these are rosés designed from the vineyard onwards, not the result of bleeding off grapes destined for red wine. According to the US website Drizly, the average unit price for rosé has grown by six percent year-on-year, indicating consumers acceptance of higher quality wines.
After even a short time with Jean Smit, I gain the impression this intense young man has a neat and tidy mind. An impression firmly embedded by the time I leave his Damascene cellar after an engaging and informative morning.
Let’s back-track a bit. Jean has an impressive CV of winemaking, internationally in California, Marlborough and with Stéphane Ogier in the Rhône’s Côte Rôtie. Local wine lovers will remember his decade in the Boekenhoutskloof cellar, where syrah, semillon and cabernet were practised and excellently executed; it would have been surprising had he not transferred them to Damascene, where his own interpretation could be realised.
David Curl, former owner of Chateau Gaby in Bordeaux, first approached Jean with regard to the Moya Meaker wines, which come from his Elgin farm Habibi; their conversations soon led to the development of a bigger partnership and Damascene. The new cellar was built two years ago on Habibi, this extensive, mainly apple-growing farm. At present there’s only a Moya Meaker pinot noir; in a few years, this will be joined by a chardonnay, once the new plantings of both varieties, totalling 10 ha and due this and next year, bear fruit.
Blending is a big story for Jean, ‘It produces a more complete wine,’ he reasons; it’s something he’s had to undertake by candlelight at home during load shedding, such is his dedication! The focus is on vineyards but not as single entities, rather reflecting specific characters, which, when blended tell a bigger story of the region they come from. The regional Wine of Origin is the only designation on the label; ‘it’s easier for the consumer to understand.’ He views vineyard names as too confusing. Similarly with old vines, which feature in several of the wines. Although he appreciates their quality, he is not fixated on them, nor will seek the Heritage vineyard seal; ‘Young vines can also produce great fruit,’ he asserts.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. The cellar is brilliant in its simple design and functionality. ‘A result of years of making lists of what not to do,’ Jean admits, acknowledging the design is his, while architect, Michelle Heideman brought the designs to life. Small things like ensuring a three ton pressing fits into one of the 1000 litre conical fermenters, another fermenter holds 2.5 tons of whole bunch. Jean’s philosophy includes natural ferments, gentle treatment of reds especially so as not to over-extract, which is satisfied through the set plates in the fermenters allowing him to work with submerged caps, over which, in most cases, the juice is pumped without disturbing the skins. If it seems nothing is left to chance, it was down to serendipity that the two trees in front of the cellar line up exactly with the entrance!
My photo of the cellar was obviously taken when there was no harvest activity, but Jean assured me that’s how it looks at the end of every day in harvest; ‘Not a pipe or any other piece of equipment to be seen.’ Surely unique in the winelands!
Attention to detail is a constant. Long term contracts with grape growers are in place on 30 blocks, another 10 are receiving consideration. If, for any reason one doesn’t work out, it will make way for another.
The annual intake of grapes from these blocks exceeds requirements, allowing for strict selection of the best blending components and experimentation with techniques such as different fermentation temperatures and amount of stems.
The wine that doesn’t make the cut, still of an equally high standard, is sold off, ‘Some ending up in well-known brands,’ though I couldn’t get Jean to reveal which. There’s a reluctance to develop a second label, which Jean views as a distraction from the other wines.
Rigorous selection results in limited volume, which accounts for the rapid ‘sold out’ signs. Volume is slowly increasing, ‘As we grow into the style,’ Jean elaborates. This year’s 2020 release of 21 000 bottles is set to grow to 30 000 in 2021.
To the wines, which are uniformly excellent, made and blended with great skill and understanding, as I already knew (I have bought Damascene since the first vintage, 2018). Consistency of quality is Jean’s main aim, though vintage and blending will see the wines differ. The three Bottelary hilltop, old-vine sites in Chenin Blanc WO Stellenbosch that I sampled as components from the 1000 litre foudres – shale slopes above Sonop, with its intense minerality; granitic soil at the top of Mooiplaas, providing floral charm and a little grip from skin ferment and Houmoed’s Greywacke soils, a source of concentration – blend into a wine with tension, concentration and depth of texture, the flavours of stone fruit, florals and lingering bite of ginger spice. A wine that is much more than the sum of its parts. Blending determines how much of each is included to create the desired style.
My favourites? The WO Franschhoek Semillon, of course with its beckoning lemon balm aromas, mysterious waxy, textured silk feel, freshness and slight salinity to end. A little more open than 2019 at the same stage but deserving of the time semillon needs to fully blossom.
The new WO Swartland Syrah, majorly from schist with granite and a little koffieklip. Its rich, purple ruby robe yielding to the seductive meaty, fynbos notes signalling the grapes’ schist origin; the well-marshalled firm backbone, granite’s contribution, finishing bright, bloody and with grainy tannins. Jean admit it was ‘The most difficult, as the bar is set so high.’
WO Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon was perhaps the greatest surprise. Its scintillating freshness from the high-lying Polkadraai Hills, sea end of Helderberg and close to the top of Bottelary Hills. With its expressive cassis, cranberry and oak spice aromas, breadth of sweet fruit and confident tannin grip, it meets Jean’s goal of a classic style, the freshness and vigour taking it to another level.
For greater knowledge of Damascene and the wines, I make a very rare recommendation to look at the newly-launched website; it’s one of the best I’ve seen.
Does ‘growing into the style’ include a little more soul in the wines and a more relaxed winemaker? I’d like to think so as Damascene is set to make an important mark on the South African wine scene.
Stellenbosch cabernet – what could be more synonymous! There’s a lot of it too; 2508.98ha to be precise*, the majority, 1515.43ha planted across this mountains-and-valleys region under the general Stellenbosch WO, the balance across the eight Wards, where greater singularity of expression is considered possible.
Given the association of cabernet with Stellenbosch and the amount grown there, it’s important Stellenbosch cabernet doesn’t become a generic brand. This is where the Wards need to take a lead by focusing on cabernets reflective of where they are grown.
The approximate order of the Wards’ arc from west to east, starting close to the sea, working inland and back towards the sea, is: Polkadraai Hills, Vlottenburg, Devon Valley, Bottelary, Papegaaiberg, Simonsberg, Banghoek and Jonkershoek Valley. The Helderberg would satisfyingly complete the picture, but there’s too much in-fighting and politics over boundaries. Don’t hold your breath for that one being demarcated any time soon! (Seems I’ve been too pessimistic about this happening. I understand a Helderberg-Stellenbosch Ward was applied for last year but, as yet, hasn’t been finally approved. The application and boundary map maybe viewed http://www.sawis.co.za/winelaw/download/87_New_demarcations.pdf)
Polkadraai Hills is closest to the ocean, having unfettered views of False Bay and benefitting from the cool breezes blowing off it in summer. Anticipate cabernets of freshness and vibrancy. The lower slopes of the Simonsberg are further inland and warmer. These cabernets are usually richer, muscular and firmly structured.
Thanks to Saxenburg Wine Farm and Delheim Wines, who had sent me their Private Collection Cabernet Sauvignon and Grand Reserve respectively, both from the excellent 2017 vintage, I was able to put my thoughts on characteristics of the Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch to the test. Both were made by previous winemakers: Edwin Grace at Saxenburg where Dirk van Zyl is currently cellarmaster and Reg Holder at Delheim, where Roelof Lotriet is now cellarmaster.
I’ve listed the viticulture and vinification details for each wine at the end.
As usual, I enjoyed these two over two or three days, an approach which allows the wines to open up and gives an idea of future potential.
Freshness and vibrancy are indeed attractions in the Saxenburg, oaking unobtrusive, so the sweet fruit of the just-ripe red berry type takes centre stage, becoming softer and silkier on Days 2 and 3; it did fall short on the concentration and depth I hoped for and for this reason, I feel it will be best enjoyed by around 2024/25. That said, it’s still a very pleasant cabernet.
Grand Reserve does live up to what that name implies and to my idea of cabernet from the Simonsberg. Dark-fruited and impeccably tailored with tight-knit tannins, both acidity and oaking are background enhancements. The anticipated muscular richness grew over the time I enjoyed it but there was always the suggestion of more to come. Such poise and balance will see lovely maturity in a future which I’d guess could be 2025-2030.
By coincidence, at Kaapzicht’s recent presentation of their new Family Range, Danie Steytler told us about The Stellenbosch Cabernet Project 2021. The purpose of this is to try and discern the individual characteristics of cabernet in Stellenbosch’s different sub-regions.
The format involves six producers each from a different region (not all official Wards) in Stellenbosch selecting a block of cabernet on their farm and giving each of the other five producers 500 kgs of grapes from that block; all relevant technical details of each block is recorded. The six winemakers then make each of these six wines in the same way and age them in similar oak barrels before filling 30 bottles of each wine, which will permit a six-monthly evaluation.
I understand from Danie the first evaluation is due sometime in November. As each sub-region is repeated six times, Danie and his colleagues believe this is a meaningful experiment which should help reveal more about the specific characteristics of each region. It should be fascinating to follow the results of each evaluation.
I believe this is a valuable and important exercise which will take us beyond ‘Stellenbosch is cabernet’ to, hopefully, giving some answers to ‘but what is Stellenbosch cabernet?’
*(SAWIS figures for 2020)
Saxenburg Private Collection Cabernet Sauvignon
Single, trellised vineyard planted in 2000
Soil: decomposed granite with some koffieklip.
Slope: west-facing, 150 metres above sea level.
Extended maceration; ageing in oak, 40% new, for 12 months.
There are winemakers who court the media and there are winemakers who don’t – but are still noticed, their wines’ excellence acknowledged.
Blackwater Wines’ Francois Haasbroek fits in the latter category. This prompted my opening question, ‘So, what’s your strategy?’, as we sat under the oaks at De Meye, where he currently makes his own wines as well as theirs.
It elicited a spluttering laugh; ‘I’m driven by my personal preference of living life. I enjoy flexibility, being able to read books every day; picking up Daniël (his son) from school and so on.’
He believes ‘if I increased my prices ‘to the R350 level, it might stroke my ego, but then my life would be spent doing PR, looking for more importers.’ Then the crunch statement: ‘I make wine because I enjoy it.’ His enjoyment is reflected in the wines, but pragmatism is also required. He has a new, actually former, cellar for harvest 2022, one that he’s financially involved in, ‘it required a new strategy for the cost,’ he explains.
Since 2020, he’s made the Jan Harmsgat wines for this Bonnievale Country Guest Lodge and Restaurant’s wine portfolio; he has now added Naked Wines. A chance tweet (if Francois doesn’t court the media, he’s very active on social media, from which one learns much – @blackwaterwine on Twitter, shot_of_time on Instagram) about some prime sauvignon blanc grapes looking for a home just before harvest 2021, was seen by Naked Wines, drew interest and a firm order from them. Next year he’s developing a new brand, Rock View, for them. ‘A technical shift’ is how he describes the approach.*Breaking news: that sauvignon blanc he made under the Rock View label has just been awarded 95 points and a rave review from the IWSC judges, including three MWs.
Another facet to this dynamic winemaker, as his Twitter followers will have learned, is that he started and completed a two-year MBA, ‘Just to do it’, he shrugs at my ‘Why?’ He does admit it was a hugely stressful, 100% demand on his time and especially on his wife and family. It’s business strategy rather than business itself which attracts him and now the ongoing research and writing articles. Reading, of course, too; check out his book deliveries on Twitter, which should confirm his admission that he never stops learning. He quite likes the idea of strategy consulting aimed at the wine industry. I think this could be a case of watch this space.
Around this point, bottles of wine, a Coravin and Zalto glasses are brought out. (Stupidly, I forgot to take a photo until just before I left, when everything bar a few bottles remained – those Zaltos themselves incline one favourably towards the wine.)
Sitting outside on a beautiful, spring day, tasting through his range with the winemaker is a privileged and informative experience, much more so than tasting the wines at home, as is the norm for Platter and which I did some two or three years ago for Blackwater Wine. (Both practical and subjective reasons brought Platter tastings with winemakers to an end.)
As we taste, Francois mentions some of those who’ve influenced his wine journey. Neil Ellis, an important mentor, gave him much advice, including; ‘don’t call yourself a winemaker unless you have worked ten years on a vineyard.’ It was at a tasting with Chateau Margaux’s Paul Pontallier in 2006 that Francois’s thinking about red wine making underwent a fundamental change. The 2005 white and red were poured, the former at 16% alcohol with no comments on imbalance, and red which did not taste so young and unformed. Paul’s message here was a wine which is balanced, integrated and tastes good when young will age. A lesson Francois applies when deciding on bottling; ‘If I can now drink this wine, that’s when I’ll take it to bottle.’
What impressed about every one of the 13 wines Francois poured is their luminosity, a clarity that doesn’t preclude complexity. We spoke about ‘noise’, extraneous matter which confuses and detracts from the focus of discussion or wine. Blackwater wines carry no extraneous noise, excess extraction or oak, and are the more captivating for that.
Notes on a few wines only since they generally follow my above description. Chenin makes a frequent appearance, and is Underdog 2021’s sole variety. I comment it’s now misnamed, as chenin has risen way above underdog status. It comes from a single vineyard planted in 1987, so qualifies for Old Vine status. There’s some consternation about whether a wine that sells for R85 would demean the OV concept; neither Francois nor I believe so. Old Vine chenin with a value price tag should more widely spread appreciation for these old vines beyond the higher priced examples which few can afford.
Thanks to the conversation rapidly veering from one subject to another, I failed to ask why the name Chaos Theory, though I suspect 2017’s 60% chenin, 30% clairette blanche and 10% palomino blend with some skin contact and old-oak fermentation, has something to do with a branch of mathematics where small adjustments can lead to much greater consequences. Whatever adjustments were required here have resulted in highly positive consequences. An oxidative hint, layers of savoury flavour, a nudge of pithy grip, all bound under the spotlight of freshness. My kind of wine.
As is Pleasure Garden, no need for further sell with that name, one of the earliest iterations of ‘re-discovered’ palomino, from 91-year-old vines down Ashton way. Texture is the focus, drawn from skin contact and fermentation in concrete egg.
It was interesting to hear Francois is dropping pinot from 2020, ‘too much competition for top grapes and, frankly it doesn’t sit easily in my range.’ I nod in agreement.
The other reds certainly do. For all who enjoy ‘lighter, tighter, brighter’, Francois’s reds hold all that appeal. Although he gave that description to his red-fruited Omerta (carignan), it applies equally to berry-spiced Zeitgeist cinsaut, fragrant and dense Daniël Grenache, meaty, mushroomy and supple Cultellus shiraz (‘17 Platter 5*, ’18 fragrant but still sheathed in youthful tannin),and the new 2020 Sophie (his daughter born that year) cabernet franc and cinsaut, a pairing just made to be together; the epitome of Francois’s reds.
Fragrance in each is an immediate attraction, the flavours endlessly expanding, (think of water when a stone has been thrown into it), the tannins, trim and fresh – these wines are so alive, claiming one’s attention on many levels apart from their pleasure.
Don’t wait for others to tell you, go and pay court to Blackwater wines for yourself; there should be no regrets.
In Tim Atkin’s 2021 Special Report on South Africa, one of the most quoted or referred to views he airs relates to South Africa’s progress: ‘What it (South Africa) has achieved, not just since 1994 but in the nine years that I have been writing this report is truly remarkable. No other wine industry has made such strides, no other wine industry possesses such energy or excitement.’
Everyone has their own starting point for our break-out vintage (mine is 1997, and the first Boekenhoutskloof Syrah), but whichever year marks the change for you, it is relatively recent, recent enough for many pieces of the multi-layered jigsaw yet to be fitted into place. That shouldn’t and doesn’t stop the excitement.
The recent launch of Chris & Andrea Mullineux’s latest vintages of their single vineyard, soil-focused syrahs and chenins, together with a vertical of the syrahs, was most instructive, illustrating how far and in what ways they have come since the first 2010 vintage and, frankly, why 20-years hence these wines will likely generate even more excitement.
It was in 2008 and again 2009 that the Mullineux’s noticed the particular character each vineyard/soil displayed in their syrah; a particular character they felt warranted individual bottlings. So it was in 2010 the Soil range was born. Why syrah and would any other variety rooted in the Swartland respond in the same way? I asked. Andrea had no hesitation in confirming ‘Syrah is a chameleon of terroir,’ in other words it easily reflects the soil on which it grows. And her view is; ‘Soil must always be the strongest character, not just the vintage.’ The soils in question are Paardeberg granite, Kasteelberg (Roundstone home farm) schist and Malmesbury hills, Iron.
Their approach in the vineyards is to farm organically and, depending on the needs of each, cover crops with carbon or nitrogen will be planted. Specific rows within each site have been determined for the Soil syrahs, the balance directed into the regular syrah.
Vinification sees crushed whole bunches fermented in 500kg batches with hand punch downs in 500 litre barrels, extended four to six weeks’ maceration on the skins, and a year in barrel with a second year in foudre.
Both viticulture and winemaking are open to refinements per se and according to vintage, thus adding a further layer to the quality dial.
Their observations have been well-rewarded; the ten vintages of Granite & Schist so clearly illustrate (Iron isn’t made every year) the consistency of terroir, vintage variation providing extra interest.
As Chris and Andrea suggest, granite is more linear, schist has more flesh and density. Or the Hermitage and Côte Rôtie of the Swartland.
A few stand-outs from the tasting: for me, Schist performed better in difficult vintages eg 2013, which was preceded by a cool, wet winter and heat spike which required a rush to harvest. Schist is lovely, deeply aromatic, densely fleshed and bearing fine, ripe tannins. No Granite was made that year. Schist is also the better of the pair in disease-ridden 2014, well-balanced if lacking great depth.
Both 2015 (the ‘dream’ vintage) and 2017, the second drought year, produced excellent wines. The 2015s are still tight; time may see Granite the better wine. The Mullineux’s were better prepared with viticulture and winemaking in 2017 than 2016, though, thanks to their use of the cover crop as mulch, which helped prevent stress in the vines, the latter vintage is remarkably good. Both wines are concentrated, structured and will take time to harmonise and relax.
In 2017, the second drought year, the wines responded splendidly to the Mullineux’s better understanding of dealing with this phenomenon. Granite is taut, linear with an expansive tail; Schist, broad, fleshy texture, dense and with integrated tannins. By 2018, they were on top of dealing with another drought vintage; the wines are perfectly ripe, fresh, individual and have a lovely depth of flavour.
Better rains were experienced in the lead up to 2019, the latest release, though the drought wasn’t entirely gone. Nevertheless, the vines had adapted and were what Chris and Andrea delightedly called ‘happy vines.’ The wines are equally happy and have reached what Andrea calls an equilibrium. Granite, with its dense grape tannins and expressive spice. Schist’s red earth character, flesh and well-integrated fine tannin. Iron is perfectly matched intense bright red fruit, structure, freshness and general taut feel.
The 2020 chenins are the best the Mullineux’s have made. From 400 metres on Paardeberg, Granite has understated purity, silky texture and charm. Schist, from home-farm, Roundstone is a structured, grippy wine, with savoury, stony flavours, while Iron is lean with marked acidity but also deep flavour in its energetic body. Such an expressive trio with assured ageing potential.
There are yet more pieces to be slotted into this jigsaw, ones that will surely propel further excitement in these and other quality-focused producers’ wines. One that is obvious now, lies with Chris and Andrea themselves. How they have developed as people and in their wine journey; they wouldn’t have got as far as they have without developing within themselves.
It is all these progressive steps that lead me to feeling confident Tim Atkin will have good reason to repeat the quote I open with in another nine or 27 years’ time.
As Ian Naude was wrapping up his Zoom tasting yesterday evening, he exclaimed; ‘I wish I could make a wine with just the vineyard name on the bottle and no mention of Naudé.’
Whether or not the four wines below do represent their terroir, Ian’s hand has been instrumental in guiding them to their distinction and exceptional quality. ‘Guiding’ by knowing what not to do rather than do, for he does very little. In summary, his wines have structure, balance and freshness; tasting these four youngsters, one can’t help but have confidence that waiting for maturity will be more than worthwhile.
Old Vine Langpad Colombard 2021
There’s a growing fascination with this variety, admittedly among a small number of winemakers. Traditionally a distilling grape responsible with chenin for South Africa’s highly-regarded brandies, now these adventurers want to show colombard can also shine as a table wine. Or, as Ian puts it; ‘What I want to make is something new and interesting but also old.’
On a trip to Vredendal, he asked around for ‘what’s exciting that no one has yet found?’ The answer to his question led him to the colombard vineyard planted in 1983 on 100% sand about 35kms from the coast. It received the traditional flood irrigation of the area and no doubt also bore the typical huge yields. Now many bunches are dropped.
Langpad (long road and true of the 400 odd kilometres from Vredendal to Stellenbosch – I think that’s how Ian explained the name and by which many ask for the wine rather than colombard.) is whole bunch pressed, naturally fermented and, most important, left as long as possible on the lees; the end result is startlingly good. There’s a wildness of flavour I associate with colombard accentuated by its natural, vivid acidity. But it’s the lees richness that brings it to life, adding class and quality at only 11.5% alcohol. It begs: age me, I’ll surprise you in ten years and many more. Ian says it’s his South African answer to assyrtiko, his wish is that in ten years’ time colombard will be as highly regarded as chenin and in as many different styles.
On a vote, Langpad was the favourite wine of the evening for most of the roughly 32 attendees.
Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2020
From a single vineyard in Agter-Paardeberg planted in 1971, Ian wanted to create a chenin with lightness and minerality; ‘I find many Swartland chenins too heavy with too much oak.’ This is one achievement but it also has old vine concentration and the area’s sunny tones. Similar vinification to Langpad, lengthy lees ageing a pivotal action, here with batonage ‘to extract all the flavour’. Another deserving of time, delicious as it is now.
Old Vine Cinsault 2016
Ian recalls he was fortunate to find this beautiful old vine cinsault vineyard, planted in 1978, on a farm just outside Darling. He has firm ideas about what a ‘proper South African cinsault’ (his words) should taste like: Turkish Delight and rose petals. Whether it’s auto-suggestion or a feature of the vineyard, I do find both in this wine. Ian reckons they are just starting to develop as the cinsault reaches its fifth year.
Vinification depends on vintage, the challenge being to balance whole bunch and destemmed grapes with addition of stalks. ‘One has to understand the area, vineyard and story; the job of the winemaker is to respect the wine farmer and the workers with honest winemaking.’ As with the other wines, fermentation is spontaneous, soft pump overs occur once or twice daily with a further two weeks on the skins, before the wine is pressed off into older French oak barriques, where it stays for 12 – 15 months.
The sensation of light texture and freshness is augmented by the relatively low 12% alcohol, but also aided by lack of heavy extraction, something not in Ian’s makeup. There’s intensity and richness of flavour a plenty, including a dash of spice to add to Ian’s exotica, all lingering long after the last sip. My friend and celebrated lady old-vine whisperer, Rosa Kruger, is quoted as saying ‘I think this is the best cinsault I have tasted.’ I’m not sure I wouldn’t agree with her.
Usefully, Ian suggests don’t serve this too warm, advising to serve around 15C, it’ll continue open up as it warms. Oh, and hope to be around in 20 years’ time as it’s sure to age that long. Sadly, 2021 is the last year Ian will make this particular Old Vine cinsault; ‘After eight years (I hope I’m right-AL) it’s time for a change,’ Ian reckons.
Ian’s objective with fruit from this Agter-Paardeberg vineyard ‘is to create a lighter, classic style, more typical of what you’d expect in an old world Grenache.’
He’s had only two tries so far, the first in 2014 and now 2019; during the four year gap he wasn’t able to secure the fruit. Interestingly, he shares the block with six other winemakers. ‘I’m the first to harvest, it’s another 10 days before the next person picks.’ As with the cinsault, the grapes are chilled overnight to 10C and undergo a similar vinification.
Someone made the point that wine colour does not relate to taste. That’s true of this Grenache; its pale, limpid ruby contrasted by the concentration of juicy red fruits with their racy acidity and firm tug of tannin.
Think 2029 for a grand, grown up grenache.
Natural freshness, concentration of fruit and acidity and always totally dry, these wines are of a family. It was a great pleasure to experience them and learn more of Ian’s philosophy.
When I thought of a title for this piece, I couldn’t get further than Wines of, without a third-word cliché. Now it strikes me that imagination would fit the bill. Imagining the style the vineyard would naturally produce and having the imagination to let that happen in the cellar. Ian does both.