Smoke and mirrors

One of the many joys of the Cape is that the winelands are all within a day’s reach of Cape Town. An easy 20 minute drive down the M3 will get you to the beautiful vineyards and wines of the Constantia valley; double that time and you’ll be in the oak-lined streets of Stellenbosch, around which there are enough wineries to satisfy the most ardent wine taster. Even a drive north up the N7 towards Vredendal, or east, along the famous R62, to Calitzdorp and its many excellent Port-style fortified wines, will take little longer than four hours – trips that can be done in a day, though visitors are likely to want to stay overnight at least.

Those who have traversed these winelands will recognise that despite their relative proximity, the scenery, topography, altitude and temperatures, sometimes within just a few kilometres, are diverse. In a country such as Australia, where the wine regions are far more spread out – Margaret River on the West Coast and the Hunter Valley a few thousand kilometres away on the East Coast – such diversity would generally be easier to get a grasp of.

The benefit of proximity also brings its own challenges, especially when the eight-or-so most-planted varieties are found across the winelands and wineries produce an all-sorts range without any one variety a feature in all. It makes regional focus extremely difficult, marketing that region even more so.

Gradually, a few key regions are identifying a single variety or style on which they can hang their marketing hat and, if it’s not paying dividends now, it surely will, especially when producers pull together.

Looking down Hemel en Aarde valley from La Vierge towards the sea
Looking down Hemel en Aarde valley from La Vierge towards the sea

Take, for instance, the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, where the three Wards – Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (yes, be careful how you use lower and upper case here, else the ‘V’s will be on your back!), Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge – have made their name with pinot noir, not just through marketing, but more importantly the quality of the wine.

Thanks to our flexible regulations, other varieties are also grown and made there; chardonnay, of course, sauvignon blanc, pinotage and cabernet sauvignon among a host of others, but it is pinot with which the valley is now indelibly associated.

Their annual and extremely popular Pinot Noir Celebration, two days of local and international pinot hedonism for around 150 pinotphiles, has done much to create awareness of the valley itself and the quality coming out of it.

Hemel en Aarde's pioneer pinot noir. The late Tim Hamilton Russell recognised the valley's suitability for pinot and chardonnay, purchasing the farm in the id-1970s.
Hemel en Aarde’s pioneer pinot noir. The late Tim Hamilton Russell recognised the valley’s suitability for pinot and chardonnay, purchasing the farm in the id-1970s.

There are many who wonder why they bothered to divide this small area into three Wards (they fall under the Walker Bay District, but who knows anything about that?). Apart from politics, I’m one who does believe each has a potential distinction from the others, something that should be pursued, if mainly for the geeks; nothing wrong with the less-involved consumer keeping to ‘think Hemel-en-Aarde, think pinot noir’, or the even more straightforward, ‘South African pinot noir’.

Rumour has it that Elgin, whose chardonnays I’ve been known to rave on about, are considering something similar for their flagship variety. I hope such rumour is true, for it is this white variety, iterated by many wineries, that pinpoints their cool climate.

Constantia and Durbanville, which share sea vistas and breezes, have sauvignon blanc as their calling card. A few years ago, Constantia introduced Constantia Fresh, then a wonderful summer showcase for their wines held in the gardens of beautiful Buitenverwachting. It’s still held there, but attention is now distracted by wines from all over on show too.

Constantia valley with False Bay in background
Constantia valley with False Bay in background

In warmer areas, the Swartland has syrah, its various cohorts and had the Swartland Revolution, their showcase now no doubt evolving into something else to keep the momentum going. More temperate Stellenbosch, as populous an area as it is and with seven Wards, enjoys acclaim with cabernet sauvignon, of which it boasts the majority of the country’s best examples.

As is evident from these few examples, a theme is emerging. Variety, style, quality but also specific climatic conditions, topography which give each of these areas their distinction need to be promoted and experienced. For instance, rain is not unknown in both Hemel-en-Aarde and Elgin during summer in a strong south-easterly wind. The same wind blowing over Constantia and Durbanville will merely cool down the vines while the sun still shines.

It will take time and a sustained marketing effort for winelovers, local or international, to come to appreciate why pinot shines in Hemel-en-Aarde, cabernet in Stellenbosch and that while vintage conditions might be good for one, it might prove more difficult for the other. (This doesn’t take into account any varieties new to Cape vineyards which might perform even better than those mentioned here.)

Such determination should, however, be made after rather than during the harvest, as is happening this year, admittedly with its extreme weather conditions, ‘the hottest and driest for 150 years’, I’ve been told. South African vintages themselves are not a one-trick pony, neither are they the same within all the regions.

Regional enlightenment would also ensure winelovers breathe easy that smoke from a fire in Stellenbosch won’t affect that Hemel-en-Aarde pinot.

Simonsberg fire 2016. Photo courtesy of wine.co.za
Simonsberg fire 2016. Photo courtesy of wine.co.za

A tale of three wines

It takes little more than a glance at the ratings summary in the back of Platter to see sauvignon blanc is still by far the most popular white variety.

Thanks to better viticultural practices, quality of the wines has notably improved in recent years. Improvements too derive from the inclusion in many of a dab of semillon, sometimes oaked, the purpose being to add more dimension without dimming the grape’s natural vibrancy and bright flavours.

Conversely, some semillons include a dab of sauvignon for the purpose of giving this often low-acid grape a bit of zing and longevity. The last attribute is the variety’s trump card.
If only a handful of producers make a varietal semillon, the wines are generally of high quality; medals and Platter five star ratings are quite common, but it remains a niche wine for enthusiasts (like myself).

I was interested then, in a post on winemag.co.za by my colleague, Christian Eedes, where the Downes’ brothers of Shannon Vineyards gave him a blind tasting of semillons with the idea of learning whether more should be made in the Cape. Afterwards, Eedes queried; ‘Why bother to make it on its own? In order to make a better Sauv-Sem blend further down the line was James Downes’ frank reply.’

As the Shannon Vineyards Sanctuary Peak Sauvignon Blanc has for a few years already included a small portion of oaked semillon, I’m not sure whether Downes’ refers to this wine or a completely new blend.

Apart from the branding, is it such a big jump from a varietal sauvignon blanc blended with some semillon, to those marketed as blends, many as flagships.

Bdx white trioBWhat better excuse to do a little practical research; a bit of a rummage through the cellar produced a trio of blends from these varieties, all 2013s and all highly regarded:
Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh, Tokara Director’s Reserve and Vergelegen GVB.

Does their make up incline each towards one variety or the other, does this change over time and do they become distinctive from their majority grape produced as a varietal wine were the questions I hoped to answer.

My strategy was to taste each wine over three days, starting with a blind assessment both to try and identify each and make objective notes. Alright, so I know the wines well anyway, but I was happy to discover I know each tasted blind as well! (There was no cheating; my husband poured them, I saw only the glasses!)

Day one, sauvignon is clearly evident on both the Isliedh and Tokara; red apples and citrus, herbal, spicy with a little granadilla respectively. The high acid and low pH lead to intensity and, in Isliedh’s case a still edgy assertiveness. Tokara is the more integrated and elegant of the pair, with oak, very subtle on Isliedh, a positive enhancement. Their vibrancy currently hides evidence of semillon, but despite their taut frames, these are dense, concentrated wines. After a sip or two and as they warmed, the alcohol left a little heat in the mouth. Tokara should immediately please sauvignon lovers.

Initially, Vergelegen had most evident oak, though by no means out of balance with semillon’s ripe, rich tones. It’s richer, more rounded and vinous than the others but still has a sound acid backbone. Strangely, given alcohols are pretty similar, the GVB doesn’t have the others’ slight finishing heat.

Day two and tasting in the same order as Day one. Isliedh’s green and red apples are more overt with cool climate fragrance and vibrancy. There’s better integration, semillon showing some ripe orange citrus and providing more breadth on the finish, but overall still unevolved. For sauvignon lovers’ this would be a good day to enjoy Isliedh.

‘Class!’ is my emphatic reaction to Tokara. In the past 24 hours, herbs, spice and granadilla plus that lovely oak, has increased its personality. It’s still quite austere, but semillon adds weight and savoury persistence. Still one for sauvignon drinkers.

Vergelegen’s broader, more languid aromas now reveal a subtle note of blackcurrant, honey and beeswax. Overall, it remains vinous with good savoury length.

Things are happening to Isliedh by Day 3. Semillon is announced via engaging lemon, honey and a twist of naartje; there’s also a richer texture, the acid retreating, though still doing its required job. The day for semillon fanciers to enjoy.

Tokara hasn’t changed much, but we drank it with a dish of naartje-peel infused lentils, soy, stir fried cabbage, carrots tossed in orange zest & juice, all topped with pork strips. One of my strange made up dishes, but wine and food just clicked!

Vergelegen too is pretty stationery, but, as explained above, semillon is slow to evolve. The wine’s positive is its harmony, so it too could be enjoyed now, especially by semillon fanciers.

This is by no means a definitive argument for how and how long these wines will develop (a day equals no particular number of years but each should improve at least for 10 years), all anyway have a good track record as blends; Vergelegen since 2001, Isliedh (2005) and Tokara (2006). The latter two started life as barrel-fermented sauvignons.

Over those three days, I think my questions have been answered, ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and in most cases (covering myself here, but they are flagships so should become more complex) ‘yes’.
As a matter of interest Duncan Savage has made a varietal semillon, but no longer does. Andre van Rensburg still does when the vintage obliges and, to the best of my knowledge, Miles Mossop never has.

If I’ve answered whether it’s a jump from a varietal sauvignon blanc including some semillon to the pairing marketed as blends, only time will tell whether Shannon Vineyards’ future pairing is better for Downes’ experiments with varietal semillons.

Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2013
82% sauvignon blanc 18% semillon
95% barrel (50% new), 5% amphora, mix inoculated/spontaneous
10 months on gross lees with regular mixing
14% alc, 2 RS, 6.8 TA, 3.3 pH

Tokara Director’s Reserve 2013
71% sauvignon blanc 29% semillon
Barrel fermented 400 lt sauvignon 225 lt semillon 27% new, inoculated
9 months on lees with regular stirring
13.63% alc, 2.5 RS, 6.1 TA, 3.25 pH

Vergelegen GVB 2013
62% semillon 38% Schaapenberg sauvignon blanc
Barrel fermented 500 lt sauvignon, 25% new 225 lt semillon 50% new
10 months on lees
13.98% alc, 3.2 RS, 6.5 TA, 3.15 pH

Tri-nations with a difference

The recent extreme heat in the Cape has called for much more white wine (rather than red but possibly not beer!) to be opened. Our usual drinking pattern of a glass of white before supper and red with the meal has changed as we’ve stuck with white for the whole evening. Somehow, the thought of a full-bodied red, even one of those light reds I wrote about last time, has lacked appeal. Looking at it from another point of view, drinking such reds in hot, sticky weather wouldn’t do them any favour.

I wasn’t that surprised then that the pair of shirazes and cabernets offered for comparison in last week’s Tri-nations left me feeling somewhat disappointed.

This event features far more than just wine; it’s an evening of food, conceived and realised by a Michelin-star chef, and designed to accompany two wines, one from South Africa, the other, this year, from New Zealand, with the twist of guests voting for their preferred partnership.

Vineyard MD, Roy Davies, introducing Roger Jones
Vineyard MD, Roy Davies, introducing Roger Jones

Roger and Sue Jones are owners of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn in England; he is the Michelin-star chef and keen winelover. The Harrow’s cellar is impressively filled with emphasis on Australia, New Zealand and now South Africa.

Staying at The Vineyard in Newlands on their first visit to South Africa, the Jones’s together with the hotel’s MD and Food and Beverage team came up with the above idea, the first Tri-nations being held in 2015. The response from the public was enthusiastic with around 80 guests attending. South Africa nearly made a clean sweep, winning 5 – 1. The result was repeated when the same dinner was held at The Harrow in July last year.

Pause a moment to consider the logistics of feeding 80 people without lengthy delays, let alone pouring wine into 1000 Riedel glasses, each tagged with variety and number (1 or 2) and then tallying up the tags, handed in by guests, and announcing the result before moving onto the next course. Respect to all involved then that it has run so smoothly both years.

Last Friday, South Africa was paired with New Zealand, a contest most considered would be much closer. As indeed it was, ending in a tie.

Below is a list of the wines and scores (not every guest voted on each wine!), as well as the menu. Wines are selected by Jones in conjunction with The Vineyard and New Zealand producers.

Shane Louw, chef at The Vineyard
Shane Louw, chef at The Vineyard

A nice spin-off from this collaboration is that Jones invited The Vineyard’s chef, Shane Louw,  to work at The Harrow for two weeks last year; he also spent time in the kitchens of two Michelin-star London restaurant The Square. The Vineyard and its guests are the beneficiaries of this experience.

A few of my thoughts on some of the wines.

The Nautilus NV Brut was new to me. It’s a classic, refined 70/30 pinot/chardonnay blend aged three years on the lees with gentle nutty aromas, fine creamy mousse, complexity and length. Absolutely delicious and perfect with the macaroons.

New Zealand sauvignon blanc is often divisive; I’m not a fan of the ‘sweaty’ style, which the Greywacke is, despite a spontaneous ferment, which for me usually results in less overt fruit. Once passed the aromas, there’s lush fruit and balance but it’s too overt for the salmon. Frankly, I don’t know what food this sauvignon style would best complement.

Cape Point Vineyards’ less overt profile, semillon-augmented richness and varietal vigour was the sort of partner that craved second helpings!

Neudorf rightly enjoys a distinguished reputation both in New Zealand and internationally but both chardonnays proved white wine can go with red meat, the cep cream and mousse forging a clever link. A difficult choice, made more on personal style preference than quality.

Felton Road Cornish Point (l), Crystallum Cuvee Cinema (r)
Felton Road Cornish Point (l), Crystallum Cuvee Cinema (r)

The same applied to the pinots, though for those in a hurry to vote, the Crystallum had more ready charm. Left a while, Felton Cornish Point blossomed with dark cherry fragrance and crushed velvet texture. Both illustrate that Burgundy might be an original but it’s not the only place where characterful, quality pinot will grow. These were also the only reds which didn’t suffer to some degree from the very warm conditions; only Craggy Range Sophia’s elegance and vibrancy showed anywhere near as well as I know this range is renowned for.

Come July, this menu and wines will be repeated at The Harrow and, I believe, at sometime in New Zealand too. If a tie was the fairest result here, I’m not so sure of similar results these other events. But the evening isn’t about winning, more about comradery and delicious food.

Menu
Squid ink macaroon with caviar and namibian soft shell crab

Stellenrust Clement de Lure MCC NV – 36
Nautilus NV Brut – 44

Citrus cured norwegian salmon, fennel with seaweed aioli and radish

Cape Point Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2013 – 43
Greywacke Wild Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2013 – 39

Carpaccio of springbok, chicken liver mousse, cep cream, english truffle and soda bread wafer

Glen Carlou Quartz Stone Chardonnay 2014 – 30
Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay 2013 – 55

Warm crayfish salad and carrot butter dressing

Crystallum Cuvée Cinema Pinot Noir 2014 – 52
Felton Road Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2014 – 30

Karoo lamb loin with hummus, couscous and edamame beans, smoked tomatoes, pea croquette and mint jus

Oldenburg Shiraz 2012 – 62
Trinity Hill Syrah 2013 – 17

Classic welsh rarebit cigar with cep dust

Waterford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – 37
Craggy Range Sophia 2013 – 43

Dessert - panna cotta berry crumble, blueberry parfait, raspberry opera cake, blackberry sorbet, gooseberry and white chocolate mousse
Dessert – panna cotta berry crumble, blueberry parfait, raspberry opera cake, blackberry sorbet, gooseberry and white chocolate mousse

When neither red nor white will do

As anyone who has been in South Africa over December knows, the heat has been extreme. In the Cape, until very recently, there has been no Cape Doctor (the south-easter) to alleviate the heavy, enervating conditions, while up north, in and around Gauteng, it’s been plain scorching. For many, even regular wine drinkers, beer will have been the beverage of choice of refreshment.

With the change in climate, or at least continuation of El Nino for maybe a year or two, wine producers will need to learn how meet this growing challenge (that’s both more extreme heat and beer being chosen over wine).

It would be easy to retort ‘what’s wrong with our youthful, refreshing white wines’, but that’s pretty limiting; there are plenty who prefer red anyway. The trend to lighter reds – lower in alcohol, extraction and/or oaking – is a welcome one, but they won’t always hit the mark.

Let’s skip what is generally known as rosé; simple, fruity pinks, which have their place and fans. I think I discern a category emerging between lighter reds and rosé. Of the few who are making these wines – some call them lighter reds, others rosé – all have features in common: all are dry and each has a dimension which lifts the wine into a category of its own.

Sijnn SaigneeSijnn Saignee is one of my favourites. Producer, David Trafford, says it’s deliberately harvested and made as a light red, hence the name ‘saignee’ or ‘bled’ rather than rosé. 2013 is a savoury blend of mourvèdre, shiraz and tinta amarella. Mainly de-stemmed, the gently crushed grapes are left on the skins for a day or two before the juice undergoes a spontaneous ferment in barrel, where the wine remains for around nine months. It is lightly fined but bottled unfiltered. The oak is important in giving the wine more volume without disturbing its vibrancy. Its R165 price tag is substantial, but red-wine lovers won’t feel short-changed in value or taste.

Fable Belle FlowerFable Mountain Vineyards Belle Flower 2014 (R140), the maiden vintage, is much more rosé in appearance, but don’t be deceived, it has dimension way beyond its appearance. A blend of Swartland grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, it was fermented and aged on its lees for a year in a concrete egg. I’ve noted with other wines vinified in these eggs that they have a heightened sense of texture, in this case pleasantly grainy, an feature that is complementary to its low 12% alcohol and youthful verve.

The most recent wine in this genre I’ve tried is Fledge & Co’s Touriga Nacional Vin Gris 2015. Fledge & Co, aka partners Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel (also winemaker at her family’s farm, Boplaas), are making a name for themselves with their characterful wines.

This vin gris is part of their experimental range, ‘Made each year, so far, as a means to try out new techniques, grapes and to push the boundaries a little bit more.’ Coetzee explains, adding: ‘The packaging is ultra minimal, using recycled glass & craft paper – as that’s what the aim is of the wines, ‘minimalist enjoyment’.’

The label (pictured and attached round the neck with a rubber band) tells the whole story – nothing more to be added, except the great value R70 price and the less great news that it’s very limited and available from Vino Pronto in Cape Town (www.vinopronto.co.za) or chance your luck with Fledge & Co themselves.

Fledge touriga gris label1

Fledge touriga gris label2

Yellowtail and tuna, both having ‘meaty’, firm flesh, made really good partners with these wines, but I have no doubt that the Sijnn and Fledge & Co would not be over-shadowed by veal or lamb, even mildly spiced wors. Belle Flower would probably be happier with poultry or pork.

This is a category that can beneficially grow this year, especially if it’s as hot and dry as 2015.

The importance of origin

I took the opportunity over the recent holiday season to do an impressive amount of much-needed tidying up, mainly in my office, which now looks fairly habitable again. Going through one of many boxes, I re-discovered our family tree, a complicated (to me) genealogy of one family spread over several branches and dating back to one, John Forsett, born about 1465. We are now on generation 18 or 19 with Forsett changing to Fawssett around the 17th century.

There is something very pleasing in knowing one comes from such a long lineage and where the many roots were set down. That original John Forsett was ‘Of Billesby, Country Lincoln and came out of Northumberland.’ I’m from further south, but my roots are firmly Anglo-Saxon.

I feel the same about vines. Thanks to the painstaking work of Robinson, Harding and Vouillmoz in their heavyweight Wine Grapes, we now know the family tree of so many well-known varieties and also in many cases their origin.

Vines, like us humans, are happy wanderers and will put down roots even in some of the most unlikely places. But they also need to be planted in the right spots to be fit for the end purpose.

When the Wine of Origin system was drawn up in the early 1970’s, boundaries were demarcated mainly along political lines, though factors, such as topography and a sense of community was employed for the Wards. Within those, there was no restriction (other than what was both available and fashionable and, of course, the quota system) as to what went into the ground. Winemakers’ excitement at the arrival of, for instance, sauvignon blanc and merlot, led to a rash of plantings without taking into consideration where conditions would suit them best.

Today, there is a far more scientific approach to site selection, based on knowledge and, since the demise of the quota system, the opportunity to seek out new sites which imbue their own distinction on the wine. Viticulture is at last being acknowledged for the important determinant to the end result – the wine – that it is.

Not by all though. Recently, I have read that it doesn’t matter where the grapes come from, branding is of prime importance for consumers – or words to that effect. Now I grant that some wines are built on consistency of style rather than expression of individual site, but even for stylistic consistency, the producer needs to know that the grapes going into that wine will enable this end goal. Perhaps the best-known and one of the most expensive wines of that ilk is Penfolds Grange; this is how the website describes its origin: ‘Usually a multi-district blend, South Australia. Significant Shiraz contributions from the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and Magill Estate; Cabernet Sauvignon from the Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Padthaway and Robe’. Although shiraz-based, in some vintages a small percentage of cabernet is included.

Although Grange is a brand, each source of fruit that goes into it is carefully chosen to produce a wine worthy of the label and the price. Consumers are just as discerning at the other end of the price scale: Virginia, Graca, Tassies, if any veer too much off the familiar path (as Tassies did when a red-wine shortage required some Argentinian wine to be included in the blend), consumers’ voices will be heard loud and clear.

Where the grapes come from most certainly does matter.

At the other end of the individuality scale and compared with traditional winelands of France, for instance, we are very much in the early stages of determining the best sites producing distinctive, quality wine. Some producers are exploring the possibilities via their own vineyards – Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc, Keermont Steepside Syrah and Riverside Chenin Blanc and, of course, Eben Sadie’s Old Vines Series.

The village and vineyards of Franschhoek in forefront, as seen from the top of Franschhoek Pass
The village and vineyards of Franschhoek in forefront, as seen from the top of Franschhoek Pass

As valuable as the work of all these individuals is, I was particularly excited two years’ ago, when a small group of Franschhoek young guns decided to work together to pinpoint the best sites from three historically best performing varieties in the Franschhoek Wine of Origin. The varieties concerned being semillon, chardonnay and cabernet.

Their starting point was a tasting covering a wide range of ages of each of these, the point being to determine characteristics common to each. There was general delight that, age notwithstanding, much commonality was discerned within each variety.
Next step was a blind competition, to select the best 10 across these varietal categories and which would carry the Appellation Grande Prestige designation. Regulations demanded currently available vintages, minimum stock and, of course, the wines had to carry WO Franschhoek.

I really liked the focus of this and the ten winners were all of really good quality, as well as reflective of the characteristics discerned in that initial tasting.

It was with great disappointment I learned that, due to pressure from other Franschhoek producers, this year’s competition had been opened to any style or variety, provided the wines fulfil the other criteria applied in the previous competition. Thank goodness they’ve held fast on WO Franschhoek!

To my thinking, this new move deflects from the original focus; here we have just another competition. Some varieties do not have a long association with Franschhoek; success this year might well not be repeated next or even the following year. Consistent performance was the point of selecting that trio of semillon, chardonnay and cabernet; there’s a far better chance of examples of each receiving the AGP designation as one of the 10 best entered. Indeed, it’s gratifying to see all three among this year’s winners; the same three wines and their producers were also in last year’s Ten best: QED!

Would it not have made much more sense to create another class for the other varieties and styles, on which they have to perform consistently over five or seven years before upgrading to the senior class and the possibility of AGP status, along with the above trio?

As it is, the event has lost the distinction for which it strives. Time for a re-think, Franschhoek young guns?

Winners of 2015 AGP Franschhoek Top Ten

Black Elephant Brut MCC NV
Môreson Mercator Chardonnay 2013
Franschhoek Cellars Semillon 2012
La Chaumière Pinot Noir 2013
La Bri Affinity (Bordeaux-style blend) 2013
Holden Manz Cabernet Franc 2013
Stonybrook Ghost Gum Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Lynx SMV 2013
Môreson Chardonnay Straw Wine 2013
Maison Straw Wine 2012

Musings on 2016

Balance in writing is as important as in wine. So, having recalled memorable bits of this year, time to muse a little on 2016.

If there’s a glaring gap in the chain from grape to table, it’s in the service sector. There is an ever increasing number of top-quality wines, brim with personality and spanning an ever wider range of styles. Involved consumers are seeking out these wines with enthusiasm. Between the two lie the restaurants, hotels, guest houses – anywhere in the hospitality industry where wine is served; it is here where our wines and customers are too often let down.

In his talk at the Ex Animo Address, sommelier Neil Grant spoke about how education is the key. ‘Knowledge,’ he said, ‘is the most important skill in selling.’ Apparently a survey in America revealed an increase in sales per square foot from US$84 to US$142 when a knowledgeable wine steward is employed. Part of our problem is that the demographic of waiters in South Africa has changed with more coming from the lower income bracket who have less education and experience.

First intake of Sommeliers Foundation course
First intake of Sommeliers Foundation course

This is where the South African Sommeliers Association (SASA) will be playing an important role in 2016; in fact, they’ve already started with a basic sommelier course developed by experienced members of their board. According to Board member, Joakim Blackadder, who was instrumental in drawing up the course; ‘For various reasons, including a growing appreciation of the sommelier’s contribution to a restaurant’s success and tighter visa requirements for foreigners wishing to work in South Africa’s hospitality industry, the demand for suitably qualified sommeliers has increased sharply over the past few years.’ The three-day course covers both practical as well as managerial aspects with successful candidates given the title ‘SASA Sommelier’.

Founded five years ago, SASA, under its enthusiastic leadership, will become an increasingly positive, influential body and, hopefully, help to bridge that service gap. ‘We need to have a society driven by service,’ urged Grant, emphasising, ‘we need to change the mentality of mediocracy.’

He also spelt out that the chain should have no weak links. ‘The wineries also have a role to play; they need to tell a story for the restaurateur to pass on to the customer.’

Stories and, sadly, too much mediocracy mingled in a recent line up of newish releases tasted by Tim James and me. Tim’s already commented on a few of the wines here; comments with which I agree.

We were also sadly disappointed with the latest Krone Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2015 (notable for its new Helix cork closure), less notable for its rather soft, ripe flavours and sweetish finish; so different from the more sprightly, drier and appealing maiden vintage – the best of its type then. Rather spend your R59.99 elsewhere. Rather spend just R50 on the Robertson Winery Lightly Sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé: fruitily sweet with a light petillance, offering no disappointments for any who enjoy that style.
Jordan Black Magic Merlot13For the stories and quality enjoyment, one can always rely on the Jordans. There is no magic, just meticulous viticulture and cellar know-how which has produced their latest release, Black Magic Merlot 2013. It’s so wrong to say the Cape can’t produce merlot, let alone good merlot; success depends on site and understanding the grape. This has the taste and texture of dark blue-black plums, ones that remain slightly crunchy as you bite into their juicy flesh; unlike the plums, the wine has a savoury, roundly firm finish. It’s delicious.

The black magic referred to is black tourmaline-rich granite soil. Less prosaic is the tradition which says rub black tourmaline for luck and happiness. ‘Today, African shamans still include black tourmaline in rituals as protection against negative spells or curses.’ I don’t think the Jordans need to chant any spells as their story suggests; their merlot is a winner and well-priced at R132 ex farm.

Jordan vineyards overlooking False Bay
Jordan vineyards overlooking False Bay

Alright, if I could cast a spell for 2016, it would be over wineries directing them to offer vineyard tours. One cellar tour is pretty much like another, maybe a concrete egg here or a large, oval foudre there; vineyards on the other hand give a direct feel of the soil, slope, aspect and temperature – higher lower down, cooler higher up. Such a visit provides a clearer understanding of the wine that grows there, as I experienced on my visits to Olifantsberg and Lismore this year.

In summary, I hope 2016 will see more education – for consumers as well as sommeliers/wine stewards; more attention on producing honest, quality wine across price and style, each with its own story and tours and launches in the Cape’s beautiful vineyards.

May the rest of 2015 treat you well, whatever you celebrate and 2016 deliver good health, boundless energy and great wines.

I’ll be back sometime in January 2016.

2015 – memorable events & wines

A memorable start to 2015 came with the harvest, the earliest in living memory for many. Winter was cold and wet, followed by a perfect growing and ripening season and dry harvest period, leaving the fruit healthy with great analyses. The downside for winemakers was cutting short their holidays due to the early harvest (compensation was it was all over well before Easter). The severe March fires, especially along the Cape peninsula, had all the wine farm personnel on edge worrying about damage to properties and smoke damage on grapes still hanging. Some severe selection will be required for wines affected.

Still the general feeling about 2015 is upbeat; time will tell. I think we often make too hasty definitive assessments of a vintage – I’m as guilty as any. This year I’ve dipped into a few of my 2009 reds and found myself underwhelmed; okay, it was a limited sample and maybe they’re going through ‘a phase’ but I was expecting more fireworks. And let me remind you that 2009 was described by so many winemakers as ‘a dream vintage’. I’ve been more impressed with some 2010 reds (though there are plenty of ‘dogs’, unripe with high alcohol – my worst combination) and 2012s. So don’t expect any definitive word on 2015 for two or three years.

Cape Wine 2015 collageThree years is also the time until the next Cape Wine. A bi-annual event until 2010, when it was put on hold due to the soccer world cup, being held again in 2012. So much happened in that four year break; new producers, new regions, new wine styles and a big leap forward in quality, that Cape Wine 2012 enjoyed a terrific vibe and enthusiasm, especially from international visitors. The good decision was then taken to hold the show every three years; Cape Wine 2015, like its predecessor, had a terrific buzz and vibe. It was a memorable showcase for South African wine, full of fun and innovation. The only trouble was there was too much to see and do in the three days. A tip for those taking stands: if you want people to visit you, make sure they know you’re attending and your stand number.

Innovation of a different sort was behind the first Ex Animo Address, the brainchild of David and Jeanette Clarke, owners of that wine company. If no one was quite sure beforehand what it was about, how many and who would attend, I’m pretty sure the 150-odd interested people who did pitch will be back for the 2016 Address (surely it’ll become an annual event).

Chris Alheit who spoke about grape prices at Ex Animo Address
Chris Alheit who spoke about grape prices at Ex Animo Address

The three topics chosen for discussion were: Grape Prices in South Africa, presented by Chris Alheit; Lessons the Hospitality Industry in South Africa needs to Learn presented by South African Sommeliers Association Chair, Neil Grant and Less is More; Wine & Consumer Drinking Behaviour, presented by Publik’s David Cope. For those of us more attuned to the drinking than the growing end of wine, Alheit’s talk proved the most interesting.

He started by defining the problem grape growers face, six in total, possibly the main three are: 1) Low yielding and/or old vineyards are not financially sustainable for grape growers. Low yields – good for winemaker – bad for farmer = problem. 2) Farmers shouldn’t have to subsidise unprofitable vineyards just because they make nice wine, and they shouldn’t have to over-crop to make some money. 3) Old and/or low yielding vineyards are often more of a burden than a blessing for the farmer. They can’t run their business on Parker points or Platter stars.

Alheit then outlined why these vineyards matter: they often produce the best quality/distinctive wines, a great USP for the Cape and positive for brand South Africa’s identity.

The crunch comes with the costs of production broken down into cash expenditure and provision for renewal. From Vinpro figures, Alheit illustrated how low yields increase the cost in Stellenbosch, Paarl and Malmesbury. The break-even cost at 8 tons/ha increases exponentially once yields drop. Taking Stellenbosch as an example, expenditure and renewal per hectare is R45 932; break-even at 8 tons/ha is R5741.50 but once the yield is 3 tons/ha that figure rises to R15 310.

Alheit queried why a farmer would plant (or keep) an unprofitable vineyard when a fruit like apples return around R400 000/hectare and citrus twice that. Reminding us (as if it were necessary) that you can’t plant old vineyards, he gave a few possible solutions. ‘There needs to be a cultural shift,’ he urged; ‘placing greater value on high quality, especially from those low yielding, older vines and charging accordingly; taking the holistic view of what these vineyards can mean for brand South Africa as well as the individual’s brand and understanding that the farmer should be making as good a margin on his grapes as the producer does on his wine.’ He also pulled no punches, adding; ‘Those who can pay more – and there are dozens of successful wine producers – should pay more. Having old vineyards on your property should be seen as a blessing, not a burden.’ Finally, he recommended paying per hectare rather than per ton.

Producers like Alheit and Eben Sadie have no problem selling their wines and doubtless pay their growers handsomely. Not so everyone. But there’s no excuse not to pay a proper price for grapes; quality in the bottle and smart marketing will be required for the winemaker to make his or her own margin.

A fascinating, sometimes eye-opening evening.

Memorable wines
No ranking, no ratings, just South African wines enjoyed during 2015 that, thanks to their personality, have remained in my memory.

Bartinney Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – Classic traditional & ageworthy cab
Craven Clairette Blanche 2014 – Yes, it has a slight haze, also wild fynbos, herby aromas. Fleshy but firm and bone dry.
David Grenache 2014 – Charming aromatic breadth, fresh, full ripe flavour and dry.
Fledge & Co Red Blend 2012 – Port varieties with a distinctive, different fruit profile. A style that I hope will gain traction in future.
Jordan Inspector Peringuey Chenin Blanc 2014 – A very different style for the Jordans which grabbed my imagination with its firm texture and unusual spice.
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2011 – Full of verve, pure yet unshowy muscat flavours. A new & welcome direction for this icon.
Landau du Val Semillon 2009 – So elegant, evolving with deliciously complex flavour and satiny texture.
Lismore Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2014 – Nuanced and complex, gently grainy texture braced by balanced tension. Great ageing potential and versatile food partner.
Patatsfontein steen labelPatatsfontein Chenin Blanc 2014 – Earthy natural ferment notes on this Montagu fruit; linear with gentle grip on a savoury tail.
Paul Cluver Seven Flags Chardonnay 2014 – Epitome of Elgin chardonnay; vibrant, citrusy, taut, begs to be aged.
Savage Follow the Line 2013 – Paler colour, lower alcohol does not mean less flavour or depth in this light-textured cinsaut, grenache, syrah blend. So deliciously digestible.
Thorne & Daughters Rocking Horse 2014 – Chenin, semillon gris and roussanne gaining richness from lees contact, tannic grip from skin contact and overall energy, a winning combination in this fascinating blend.

2015 – reflections

My luck has seen 2015 pour forth its share of wonderful wines and stimulating events, together far too much to cover in one piece, so here I re-savour the wines.
Scrolling through my notes, three major themes emerge: old wines, bubbles and international wines, with a certain amount of overlapping.

Old wines

Nederburg 5 decades bottles
Old wines were included in the five decades of Nederburg Cabernet presented earlier this week by ex-Nederburg winemaker (now chief winemaker at Distell) , Razvan Macici; he gave us a snapshot from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 2010s. It’s not possible to give an opinion beyond each bottle opened of the oldest three; by that age, even when kept under identical conditions, bottles can differ substantially, the cork playing no small part. The ’66 (+-11% alc) confirmed the ageability a) of cabernet and b) of wines from that era. Alright, it looked murky and brown, but that tender scented sweetness, so typical of old Nederburg, was there. The fruit faded like Alice in Wonderland’s cat, just a shadow of a smile remaining by the time I finished the glass. Although pre-certification, Macici told us then winemaker, Gunter Brozel assured him his cabernets were made from cabernet.

My best of the line up was 75, maintaining the charming Nederburg profile, but with more complexity, flesh and structure. (A 76 poured at the Old Wine Tasting mentioned below was equally graceful and Nederburgish.) Both older wines were matured in 6000 litre oak vats, so oak dominance was not an issue now, if it had ever been.

Via 1987 (12% alc.) and 1997 (13% alc and made by Newald Marais), we reached what’s now labelled Nederburg 11 Centuries Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010, the current release, followed by 2012 (the latter, a Double Gold on Veritas, due for release in 2017). Quite simply, these are a new style Nederburg, reflecting the general move to ripe fruited, denser, bigger wines with the noticeable addition of new small oak. A million miles away from those 60s and 70s cabs. They’re very good, with all components in place to harmonise with time – 10, especially needing it and, I think, with longer legs than the already seductively drinkable 12 – but do they have an unmistakeable Nederburg thumbprint, like those earlier ones? Not in my opinion. Will they survive the long-haul like those earlier ones? Not in my opinion, redundant as I won’t be around in 50 years’ time.

I’m privileged to be invited every year to the old wine tasting held prior to the Trophy Wine Show. Here, whites are at least 15 years old, reds 25 years. For the few of us there, including the international judges, the occasion never fails to produce remarkable wines – a trio of 1965s, two of them cabernets – Alto and Zonnebloem plus Chateau Libertas – were the stand outs of the 32 wines this year.

Thanks to the cache of old wines Michael Fridjhon tracks down and buys, there were sufficient wines to later present to a group of young guns. An event much appreciated and will no doubt inform in some way their winemaking in future.

One might be justifiably less surprised at fortified wines reaching a grand old age with all facilities intact, as happened with the KWV Port styles from the 50s and 60s and even older Muscadels, the oldest 1930, I tasted thanks to Johann Krige at Kanonkop. One of my handful of ‘tastings of the year’.

Bubblies
From aged fortifieds to aged sparkling wines, Méthode Cap Classiques. The benchmark set this year was the maiden Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 1991, opened at their 25th anniversary. Two versions, one six years on lees, 19 on cork (toasty development, the bubble lazy but persistent); the other, 25 on lees, degorged the day before tasting (more vigorous, creamy and long).

On the Champagne front, Billecart Salmon Blanc de Blancs NV, (available locally +-R960), deliciously illustrates how pure chardonnay bubbles evolve; creamy in texture with subtle nutty flavours.

The Beck duo gave me a point of reference for old bubblies from our cellar I’ve enjoyed thisBoschendal old bubbly year. The various bottles of Villiera, Boschendal, Simonsig and others, some dating back to the early 90s, have surprised in their still excellent pressure and purity of flavour, if lack of complexity.

We’ve since come a long way with this most technical of styles: gone are those very aldehydic, bready wines, today the best are subtle and elegant. The development of special cuvées now gives us MCCs with proper ageing on the lees and cork. A route the Barrows’ Le Lude, under the skillful and practised hands of Paul Gerber, is following. Their first NV Brut and Rosé were launched recently to rightful acclaim. Greater wines are in store.

English sparkling wine is carving an impressive name for itself, often out-performing Champagne. It’ll be interesting and a good benchmarking exercise to see how our MCCs do against an England and Wales sparkling wine 11, organised by UK Michelin star chef, Roger Jones and to be held at The Vineyard Hotel during the England cricket team’s visit here in January. As one of the judges, it’s an event I much look forward to and will certainly write up.

International wines
One of my best tastings of 2015 was Kevin Grant’s ‘What’s the fuss about?’, a line up of Burgundies he presented the great value Hemel en Aarde Pinot Celebration. He led us through six Premier Crus pinots from Chassagne Montrachet to Gevrey Chambertin. Burgundy tastings can be mixed, but this was excellent overall with Henri DeLagrange Clos Des Chênes Volnay my standout wine.

Two splendid riesling events were thanks to Dr Loosen and Balthasar Ress (new to me; wonderfully delicate wines) Loosen’s Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Spatlese 1998 and Ress’s Rüdesheim Berg Rottland Riesling Auslese 2009 would make anyone a riesling addict, whether or not you understand the complications of German legislation, and the names.
Californian wine has changed a lot in recent years, not least where the vines grow. Cooler areas, such as Sonoma Coast are attracting attention . I was fortunate to attend a tasting hosted by Charles Banks, owner of Mulderbosch and Fable here but with wineries in California and New Zealand.

Pax Mahle, who’d presented his wines at the Swartland Revolution, showed his own Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah 2013. Cool climate plus whole bunch ferment result in an intensely perfumed wine, full of punch: lovely!
Maycamus cabThe treat of the tasting was a mini-vertical of classic Napa (Mount Veeder) cabernet, Maycamus, culminating in the 1974, a wonderfully complex, restrained wine, the antithesis of what most imagine Napa cab to be. Thankfully, Banks and his winemaker, Andy Erickson, have no intention of changing the style.

There is so much competition around the wine world, there’ll be no letting up for South African producers in 2016.

Smart packaging, very smart wine.  Steenberg Lady R is one of the new-wave, long-aged, prestige cuvees.
Smart packaging, very smart wine. Steenberg Lady R is one of the new-wave, long-aged, prestige cuvees.

The great garden

It is better to travel hopefully than arrive. Well now, I know this idiom shouldn’t be taken literally, but my arrival at Lismore was just as rewarding as the lengthy, hot yet enchantingly scenic drive to get there.

From my home to the tiny spot of shade on Sam O’Keefe’s driveway is 153 kilometres; in the early stages along the N2 there’s all the hustling traffic of mainly cars and taxis but once over Sir Lowry’s Pass it’s more heavy trucks, fewer taxis and, further still, past the turn off to Hermanus, just very much less traffic altogether.

The scenery too noticeably changes: a progression from the huddle of informal settlements, shopping malls and distant towns to the orchards and vineyards of Elgin to the plunge from the top of Houw Hoek pass and the sweep of wheatfields below. Wheatfields which are now brown and stubbly but there’s still grace in the way they embrace the contours of the gentle as well as steeper slopes. The road to Greyton I’m now following, after leaving the N2, itself weaves around the contours, as if describing a giant slalom.

As the fashionable village of Greyton and the Riviersonderend mountains draw closer, the hypnotic gentleness yields to the drama of these granite peaks, running like an impenetrable barrier parallel with the eponymous river towards the eponymous town to the south east.

‘Turn right at the third stop street by the Greyton Superette.’ O’Keefe’s instructions lead me on to a dirt road – thank goodness one of the better of its type – which 10 kilometres and a left turn towards the mountains later, brings me to Lismore. My journey had been without rush, so I could savour all the scenery afforded me. I hope the photo taken at the bottom of the last stretch to the farm will illustrate the general remoteness.

Samantha O'Keefe's home is just visible on top of the mid-distant hill.
Samantha O’Keefe’s home is just visible on top of the mid-distant hill.

So why did American O’Keefe and her then husband, also American, buy here? ‘We could only afford an old dairy farm in Greyton, not a wine farm in Stellenbosch.’ An entirely logical answer, but not only is the farm remote, there wasn’t another vine in sight. But one look at the soils – shale with a clay base, so poor and water-retentive – reveals a wine growing gem.

Lismore ShaleLismore lies within the summer rainfall region, the annual average being around 1300mm but drought conditions also occur, creating problems for these dryland vineyards, however water-retentive their soils. Summers can be very hot, up to 35C is not unusual, but days are followed by a dramatic night time dip, sometimes close to single figures, allowing the fruit to regain its pure, cool-climate flavours.

In such an untested area, how did O’Keefe decide which varieties to plant? Climate and soils obviously played a role, but I prefer her honest market-oriented answers. ‘Sauvignon blanc because that was what everyone was planting then as it had (still has) wide consumer acceptance. Chardonnay because I’m from California. Shiraz and viognier because everyone else was going for Bordeaux varieties. I had the idea of blending a little viognier with shiraz, as in the Côte Rôtie then; now more producers are bottling 100% syrah. That’s why I’ve got only .8ha of viognier; it was intended as a blending partner. I never envisaged its popularity as a varietal wine.’

Lismore's south facing chardonnay and syrah vineyards
Lismore’s south facing chardonnay and syrah vineyards

On her first and recent visit to the Rhône, O’Keefe met her Condrieu hero, Georges Vernay, recognised as the man who rescued the appellation from near-extinction and who she describes as ‘wedded to viognier’. He nodded approvingly at her wine; while both agreed it’s not Condrieu, Vernay recognised it as something special and individual. Lismore fans will be glad to hear more plantings are planned; not just of viognier, as the plan is to increase the current 65 ton harvest to 100 tons.

Yes, the viognier is special; special in its subtlety yet purity of fruit – spice, orange citrus and finally its characteristic ripe apricot. Contrast is found in the textural density and a pleasantly bitter, pithy conclusion. Like all Lismore wines, it’s hailed by sommeliers as a fantastic style to match with food; Asian in this case.

Chardonnay, (the only 2013, the rest 2014s) too captures this cool climate purity with its more lime and lemon pith than flesh, spice too. Focused and fluent, with just enough weight from its evolution in well-used 225 and 300 litre barrels, O’Keefe confirms curries make a wonderful partner.

But both, in my opinion, are surpassed in individuality and completeness by the Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc (oxidised juice, fermented/aged in 300 litre very old barrels without S02 until bottling after 11 months). There’s more nuance and complexity in the wine’s chalky, citrus, red apple tones; the texture, gently grainy and braced by wonderfully balanced tension, offers a perfect contrast to those pure flavours. This is the wine to watch as it ages.

Syrah is the sole red, in 2014 fermented with 40% whole bunches, which provides a more punchy, spicy, energetic wine with nice juicy tannins but a little too noticeable heat on the tail.

All these wines are fermented and aged in oak barrels of different sizes, simply because O’Keefe doesn’t have any stainless steel. She doesn’t even have a cellar. Space is now rented in, believe it or not, Olifantsberg, a heck of a long way from Lismore. Thankfully, she does have the use of a cottage there, where she stays over harvest.

Originally she used the cellar constructed under her home (which she and her ex also built), but it became too small to hold the harvest. Once the new planned plantings come into bearing, she’ll re-think erecting a simple cellar on Lismore. The name is an old one, dating from 1830 and meaning ‘great garden’.

Sam O'Keefe with Leo (Boerbul/Great Dane) one of her canine companions
Sam O’Keefe with Leo (Boerbul/Great Dane) one of her canine companions

Samantha O’Keefe has the handsome, strong features to match her own mental strength; her 12 years on Lismore haven’t been easy and, to an extent, it still isn’t. She has two young sons to look after, as well as making and selling her wine. Every cent counts. Thanks to her philosophy of ‘allowing the fruit to tell its own story’, the wines which do this so eloquently and her own gregarious nature, she is deservedly successful. This without entering shows or Platter (we have extensive off-record discussion about this and much else!). She does feel now that she’s reached the end of a phase where being alone here has been an interesting story; now she would like to see others come to the area and plant vines. She hints there is a cattle farmer neighbour serious about establishing vineyards; she will be pleased if he does.

Her sons return from school and I leave for a rather quicker drive home, this time reflecting yet again on the excitement that continues to bubble through the South African wine industry, in no small part due to O’Keefe and Lismore.

Birds, buck & baboons do their best to eat all Lismore's fruit. Sam O'Keefe is driven to trying any method to chase them away, including human hair in a bag.
Birds, buck & baboons do their best to eat all Lismore’s fruit. Sam O’Keefe is driven to trying any method to chase them away, including human hair in a bag.

SAA Shield – 20 years on

Twenty years ago today, the South African wine industry was on the brink of a rude wake-up call. It duly arrived the following day when South African wines received a 78 to 21 point thrashing by the Aussies at the first and only SAA Shield.

Michael Fridjhon, with John Platter, Lynne Sherriff MW and James Halliday (‘doyen of Australian wine writers’), conceived the idea during a trip to Chile early in 1995. Fridjhon has chronicled the background story in detail here, but I asked him and John Platter about the timing, whether they felt the goal was met and of most interest, do they believe today’s youngsters would have done as well regardless.

Timewise, Fridjhon responded; ‘We were just emerging from isolation, demand for South African wine was massive and no one seemed to be paying attention to the concerns I had been expressing (I think John Platter was also on record cautioning the industry about international expectations) about how far we had slipped behind in the 10 years since formal sanctions. There was no point in trying any sooner and later would only have exacerbated the problems.’

Both Fridjhon and Platter confirm the goal to give the industry a wake-up call was met. Platter added: ‘Competition is healthy; this one did an enormous amount of good and, of course, eventually led to the tri- now six-nations annual event.’

Would our young guns be the toast of the international market regardless of the Shield? Fridjhon again: ‘ In the main, yes. They have the talent and international vision. But it might have taken longer: their mentors and role models were fast-tracked because of the Shield. It was the cellar rats of that era who brought the transformative power to the industry.’ Platter feels it was too long ago to contribute to what’s going on today, but says the youngsters may be aware of this event.

I asked a few young and slightly older winemakers whether they’d heard of the Shield; some had vague recognition, others none. These winemakers are free from the baggage carried by the young and slightly older in 1995. I’ve been told that once the results, predicted by both Fridjhon and Platter, were made public, several of the industry’s senior players were incandescent with rage. Not at any lack in their wines, a lack they didn’t believe existed, but that the show was held at all and that it would harm exports.

The upshot of this furore was that: ‘SAA succumbed to dinosaur-like views from KWV and other conservative elements in the wine industry and held back from affirming its sponsorship (of similar events against Chilean and Argentinian wines).’ To quote Dr John Seiler, an American political scientist, who lived in South Africa until his death. How things have changed since then. Sure, there are still people who prefer not to enter competitions or the Platter guide, but there’s much more open-mindedness today.

Associate judges: (l-r) Oz Clarke, Tony Mossop, yours truly, Jeremy Oliver, Vanya Cullen, Jabulani Ntshangane, Max Allen
Associate judges: (l-r) Oz Clarke, Tony Mossop, yours truly, Jeremy Oliver, Vanya Cullen, Jabulani Ntshangane, Max Allen

I played a small role in the Shield. Fridjhon had kindly invited me to be one of the Associate Judges; the Aussies brought along their own too, as well as divers media. Held in the old BMW building in the V&A Waterfront, official and Associate judges tasted in separate rooms; we had infinitely more fun, not least because Oz Clarke was our Chairman!

But we were serious too: we might be Associates whose ratings don’t count, but we were as professional as the pros next door when tasting. It was a great learning curve. As it was tasting with the Aussies, always known for being smart and uncompromising, which they were about some of our wines.

South African wines did win three classes, all white, but these successes were overshadowed by the wine that came third (yes!) in the Shiraz class: Stellenzicht Syrah 1994. It caused a storm not only because it was precocious but because it had beaten the ultimate Aussie flagship, Grange, a 1990. Even the class winner and second, Henschke Hill of Grace 1991 and Mount Langi Ghiran “Langi” Shiraz 1993, received less attention than André van Rensburg’s amazing Syrah (the first allowed to be so named). Afterwards, van Rensburg being van Rensburg had plenty to say about the event and SA wines in general, advising those who couldn’t keep up with international quality should grow vegetables instead (I summarise)!

Rather label-damaged but indisputably Grange-beater, Stellenzicht Syrah 1994
Rather label-damaged but indisputably Grange-beater, Stellenzicht Syrah 1994

I subsequently bought six bottles of that wine and to commemorate this 20th anniversary, invited colleagues Christian Eedes, Tim James and Aussie, David Clarke to taste my last bottle – blind, of course, and without any indication of what they were tasting except that ‘it’s a wine of historical significance.’ While each guessed its South African origin and were close with vintage, none managed variety, which surprised me a little. There’s still suggestions of red fruit and spice in its tertiary complexity. It’s a big wine, but beautifully balanced and very much alive. A revelation in its day, this bottle at least would have performed well in a line-up of current shirazes/syrahs.

Van Rensburg recalls: ‘I picked at 25 degrees balling which was horrific to me and the alc was around 14,4% – therefore 14% on the label which I designed! 10% Merlot was added for fruit complexity and the wine was aged 10 months in 225 l barrels and a further 8 months in 2500/5000 l wooden tanks – about 3 years old at the time.’

Van Rensburg went on to Vergelegen in 1998, since producing a range of wines recognised as among South Africa’s best.

Twenty years ago, Richard Kelley, now a Master of Wine, was gaining experience in the Cape to help pass that demanding exam. I remember his comment after the Shield: ‘South African wine is going through a revolution; it takes a long time to turn around a dinosaur but once complete, South African wine will go through the much more exciting phase of evolution.’

Twenty years on, in 2015, that evolution, full of the promised excitement, is taking place.