Beyond the price tag

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saving vineyards; telling stories

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

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

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

Mick and Jeanine Craven with their range of wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A journey into wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

Vineyard map with 2018 cabernet grapes

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

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

Madame de Lencquesaing tells the story of her glass collection.

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

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





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

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

Paul Cluver Jnr talking about riesling on De Rust

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

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



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

Tastes & textures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, if only tripe had that texture!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ntsiki Biyela with her Aslina wines

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



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

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

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

Vines & wines

Time can play tricks; it didn’t seem so long since I last saw Johan ‘Stompie’ Meyer and Jurgen Gouws, but at the recent comprehensive tasting of their wines – JH Meyer Signature Wines/Mother Rock and Gouws’s Intellego – I sensed a coming of age of both.

They’re hardly old, still in their early 30s and there’s already another generation nipping at their heels, but they’re clearly focused and every vintage shows improvements. Despite Meyer’s love of chardonnay and pinot noir, the two are attracted to the edgier side of wine, chasing minimal interference, lower alcohols, freshness, skin-contact whites and so on with the Swartland their palette (except for that Burgundian duo, but read on). Their audience might be small but it’s appreciative and growing.

Jurgen Gouws demonstrating some point with his hands.

I remember meeting the more reserved Gouws in 2010 (like his wines, Gouws’ has gained in confidence), when he was working with Craig Hawkins at Lammershoek; Hawkins was already experimenting with skin-fermented whites. Further inspiration from Tom Lubbe at The Observatory followed. Gouws’ established his Intellego label in 2009; it now numbers seven wines; three individual Swartland chenins – the skin-contact Elementis my favourite; Pink Moustache, described as a light red, rather than rosé, a pair of syrahs (one labelled Kolbroek) and the syrah-based Kedungu.

Many winelovers are cautious about skin-fermented whites, being more used to tannin in reds, but there’s no shortage of chenin fragrance and fruit in Elementis. If there’s uncertainty over grippy whites, lower alcohol reds also challenge today’s norm, though 11-12% was very much the norm for those of us who remember pre-mid 1990’s reds. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying Gouws’s reds (unless new oak and sweetness are your taste), which capture flavour, ripeness of texture with freshness and are appetisingly dry. Pure (forget new oak intrusions) but not simple. The labels on his wines are a delight too.

The far more ebullient Johan ‘Stompie’ Meyer also uses his hands to make a point.

I came across the more ebullient Meyer at Meerhof in 2012, as he started making Mount Abora wines. His range is larger than Gouws’s and seemingly unstoppable; 15, under both the JH Meyer Signature and Mother Rock labels, tasted at this event. Don’t imagine he’s stopping here; on a recently purchased a 30 hectare, high-lying property in Piketberg, originally planted to citrus and fynbos, the planned 10ha of vineyard will include pinot noir. Yes, he wants to be the first to produce a pinot from the Swartland!

His eponymous chardonnay (two) and pinot noir (four) are approached without exaggeration, to express their diverse origins; my pick are the Palmiet Elgin Chardonnay 2016 and defiantly wild Outeniqua Cradock Peak Pinot 2016, with its attractive fynbos and spice.

Intellego, JH Meyer & Mother Rock labels

We pick up with the more ‘natural’ side (‘It starts in the vineyard, not the cellar’, rightly insists Meyer) in Mother Rock range. From the approving murmurs around me, the white 2016, a juicily delicious blend headed by chenin, could have been the wine of the tasting. With prices bound to rise, R135 is good value. Another plus of lower alcohol, fresher reds is their compatibility with summer heat; the mouthwatering, fruitily fresh Mother Rock Grenache 2016 (+-R182) perfectly fits that bill but there’s much more to explore in Meyer’s range – if you’re quick.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn exports account for 85-90% of Gouws and Meyer’s sales; the local market for wines that push the envelope is limited. In fact, the pair are extremely lucky to be part of the Ex Animo portfolio; David and Jeannette Clarke energetically run an extremely professional business, making sure the media and trade are kept up to date with information and tastings, something these small producers would be hard pressed to achieve at any meaningful level. Ex Animo clearly highlights the need for an equally efficient organisation to represent producers big and small on the local market also acting as a link within the wider industry; a companion body to WOSA internationally. It’s a view voiced many times, one unfortunately landing on deaf ears.

On this topic, there has been much recent discussion between wine commentators about Vinpro, the body representing around 3000 grape growers and producers, which ‘strives (suitable term) to ensure their commercial sustainability’ and much else besides. Among the most important of the services Vinpro offers is that of viticultural consultancy. ‘Great wine starts in the vineyard,’ is by now a common opening remark by a winemaker at a tasting. Yet too many of our vineyards remain beset by the scourge of leafroll virus (those lovely red, autumn leaves, right?) which hinders ripening of the fruit and shortens the life of the vine. (It is no small ask to eradicate virused vines; read the programme run by viticultural consultant, Jaco Engelbrecht) Leafroll isn’t the only threatening disease and drought or no, water is an issue of concern; all make grape growing an increasingly difficult sustainable occupation; no wonder the area under vine decreases annually.

The scope of Vinpro’s interests was evident at their recent Information Day; presentations covered everything from business environment, state of the wine industry, wine’s place in society come 2030, as well the vineyard. Frankly, for anyone who keeps up with the news, whether on radio, TV or social media, much was not new. But the point is Vinpro is spread too wide; there needs to be a greater focus and more resources directed at the vineyards and primary grape growers. There can be no wine industry without them.

Thank goodness, the younger generation, whether winemakers like Gouws and Meyer, or growers, are today giving much needed attention to their vines; wine is no longer the first step to quality.

Can we afford to have less than optimally performing vines, when water, land and economic sustainability are at a premium? I think not.


For the past few years, early January has offered two occasions on which South African wines feature alongside their international counterparts. Both are partnerships between Michelin-star chef, Roger Jones of The Harrow in the UK and The Vineyard Hotel, headed by GM Roy Davies with his Food & Beverage team.

What is dubbed the Trinations dinner features pairs of wines (one South African, one foreign – to date, Australian, New Zealand and The World) served blind with complementary dishes (six or seven) prepared by Jones, guests themselves voting for their preferred wine. The event’s (and mostly South Africa’s!) success has seen Jones repeating it at his own restaurant and in New Zealand. Last year, California joined the party, the dinner being held at The Vineyard near Newbury, a hotel which boasts one of the most comprehensive lists of Californian wines. If the Californians thought they would walk it, they were sadly wrong; South Africa comprehensively trounced them. Equally sadly, South Africans weren’t given the chance of discovering what they thought of Californian wines; a change of mind saw California as a group pulling from this year’s Cape Town leg at the last minute (just one producer represented). Shame on you, California: a fun evening with top-class dishes, just six or seven wines and a small group of a hundred or so guests – is losing really going to dent your reputation? Methinks it’s just your ego that’s dented. But wouldn’t losing be less damaging than pulling out – late too, leaving a Rest of the World hurriedly taking your place.

There were some intriguing pairings and comparisons in that RoW line up; stylistically, the most marked contrast lay between the white blends. Biblia Chora Ovilos 2016 blends traditional Greek variety, assyrtiko with semillon. Offering bright fruit purity and a rich silkiness, it’s a wine easy to enjoy. A little assyrtiko has been introduced here in the hope it’ll perform well and counteract climate change; it’ll be one to watch. The Greek wine proved the guests’ favourite by a difference of just 10 votes, a narrower margin than I guessed, against Thorne and Daughters Tin Soldier 2016; this semillon gris/semillon blanc partnership is skin-fermented, the focus being on structure and texture rather than fruit. For most South African palates it’s still a strange and not necessarily enjoyable style, even with food, an indispensable partner.

Challenge of white blends: Greece left, SA right

Sizzling freshness and generous fruit were also what I imagined would see the local Paul Cluver Close Encounter 2016 Riesling easily home over the less demonstrative (for now) Schaal Sommerberg Grand Cru 2016 from Alsace. I was correct but not about the ‘easily’; a mere 8 votes separating the two wines. Schaal is well-known for his South African wines; his Alsace Grand Crus are equally thoughtfully interpreted, though need time to blossom.
If I remain a little confused by the narrowness of these two wins (South African did go on to win overall 4 – 2), what remains a constant is South Africans’ love of fruit.

Mitolo Angela Shiraz from Australia got my vote, of course!

Elgin is a largely untapped source of really good riesling, whether bone dry, fruitily thrilling or sweetly spiced with botrytis. If the variety is unlikely to ever become a major player in Elgin, at least it adds a counterpoint to chardonnay in the region.

Méthode Cap Classique is also an important vehicle for chardonnay; many of our best MCCs are dominated by or made exclusively from chardonnay, as the international line up of bubblies at that other occasion illustrated. Silverthorn Green Man, Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2013, Villiera Brut Nature Chardonnay, Colmant Blanc de Blancs and Charles Fox Blanc de Blancs 2013 all have a freshness and tension providing a greater sense of driness, at whatever stage of development each has reached. Blended with pinot but no dosage, the Graham Beck Brut Zero 2012 shows a little more roundness but is also satisfyingly dry.
Does pinot get too ripe and when dosage is added, make some of the blends and many Rosés overly sweet and simplistic?

The most sought-after wines of the tasting, unsurprisingly, were the Prestige Cuvées, where Steenberg Lady R 2012 (a deserved Platter 5*), Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2012 and Charles Fox Cipher RM 2012 (what a classy wine! Such a delightful surprise after the disappointing, for me, maiden 2011) held their own against Arras 2005 (Australia), Janz 2005 (New Zealand) and one of the best English sparkling wines I’ve yet tried, Dermot Sugrue’s Dr Brendan O’Regan, which should be pretty smart for its £150 price tag! After the past two years of tasting English bubblies on this event and not being that impressed, the small contingent this year (Blanc de Blancs from Hattingley 2011 and Gusbourne 2013 – available at Wine Cellar) provided a more positive perspective. Krug 1996 was a rich, different and incomparable bubble game, just delicious!

South African MCCs can and do compare with traditionally made bubblies from the rest of the world, but our image fails through lack of consistency, something specialists such as Graham Beck, Silverthorn, Le Lude et al are busy remedying.

Looking forward

While my esteemed colleagues have produced lists of their favourite wines from 2017, I decided to express a few thoughts about what I look forward to in 2018. In any event, my list would repeat much of theirs.

Looking forward can be merely reflecting on what might or might not happen in the future; it can also suggest a sense of excited anticipation of the future. Let’s see how much of each follows.

Foremost in the minds of most people is the drought, more widespread than just Cape Town and the winelands, though some areas do have water and recently, I’ve seen vineyards in great condition. But I’ve also seen photos of dryland bush vines really struggling; those in the Swartland and up the West Coast are among the worst hit. Harvest 2018 looks to be small and mixed.

Struggling vines but what about the soil in which they grow? For anyone who has wider interest than what’s in the bottle, I’d enthusiastically suggest a regular read of Jaco Engelbrecht’s blog, Visual Viticulture; it’s informative yet accessible in style with great photos and videos – he’s very into drones!

In his latest post, he writes about soil health (mulching is a big thing in my garden this summer) followed by planting varieties that can better handle our dry summers and extreme heat. I hope such plantings will expand the varietal mix.

It’s clear chenin blanc’s turf is becoming increasingly competitive; good to very good chenins are the norm these days; pricing too is competitive, so to make a mark, the wine has to be distinctive (which doesn’t mean loud or showy) and be backed by a story. R240 is an ambitious price for a first chenin, especially when you’re known for reds, shiraz in particular. It’s also not irrelevant Wade Metzer spent two years in Switzerland before returning for the 2016 vintage, so somewhat out of mind among local consumers. His Metzer Family Wines Chenin Blanc is from old bush vines (planted in 1964), and barrel-fermented – all very à la mode. It’s zippily fresh with varietal interest that’ll benefit from the calming of age – but is it sufficiently distinctive? Does it have enough of a story? at R240 ex-cellar, it has a lot of competition.

Chenin has reached a level, both locally and internationally, few could have imagined some 18-20 years ago; is there a satiation point? Hopefully not, but part of wine’s attraction lies in its variety as well as varietal variety.

Grenache blanc, viognier, roussanne, marsanne, riesling, semillon and albarino (alright, just one on the market so far, but a hit for the Newton Johnsons) are showing potential in the right sites/hands, they too should be pursued; as should be much-abused sauvignon blanc, definitely more than a one-trick pony.

Add to the mix, skin-contact white and gris wines, on the increase and improving (inter alia Testalonga, Intellego and Craven Wines). As ideal food wines, I see an opportunity for more, especially with South Africa Sommeliers Association doing great work training sommeliers and wine waiters, who’ll be able to explain these very different wines to diners. They look to be a trend in the UK according to Fiona Beckett’s Guardian article report on a boom in natural wines on wine lists.

Red wines? Mastering the slimmer, fresher style weighing in at 12%-ish alcohol, which used to be the norm, while achieving ripeness remains a work in progress; a good number of winelovers still prefer the bigger, showier and sweeter (oak generally has been toned down) wines, but even these when balanced can be distinctive and deliver deliciousness. Both Tim and I thought along these lines about Bloemcool Tinto Fino Tempranillo 2014 (a bit of tautology, both are the same grape, depending which region of Spain you’re in); it’s big, 14.5% alc, but with an appealing natural freshness found in best Spanish versions. Just 470 bottles, matured in two very well assimilated new French oak barrels, were made, accounting in part for the price – R450.

Bloemcool Fact Sheet is printed on handmade paper impregnated with cauliflower (Bloemcool) seeds; plant it & see them grow!

Made by Stephanie Wiid, winemaker at Fairview, Bloemcool label was introduced for experimental wines; the name refers to Bloemkoolfontein, the original name of Fairview and dating from late 1600s. Is it worth the price? It’s expensive in terms of older Spanish wines available, but if this example is the sort of quality and point of difference we can achieve here, it should encourage more plantings. Over the border in Portugal, tempranillo becomes tinta roriz, so is usually known by this name in our fortified Port styles and dry red blends based on Port varieties, the latter another improving style.

Price and populism. With a smaller harvest, doubtless increased taxes and wages, wine prices are going to come under pressure. Few can afford to drink R100+ wines every evening, but why should more affordable wines not have character, structure and be proper wine like their more expensive counterparts (well, some of them)? (I refrain from saying cheap, believing the farmer for his/her grapes and the worker for his/her labours should be fairly paid.) For example, Côtes du Rhône provide a delicious, value alternative because Côte Rôtie, Hermitage or Cornas are too expensive for every day.

Wine Cellar’s list reveals the sort of affordable, properly made wines there should be more of: Adi Badenhorst’s Secateurs Red R95, Joostenberg Family Red Blend R90, Leeuwenkuil Shiraz R52 and Reyneke Organic Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 R75. Populism in wine does as little for winelovers as it appears to for electorates.

South African wine has been on an incredible roll in 2017; I’m looking forward to no letting off the pace in 2018.

Old or young?

One of the most discussed subjects in the South African wine world this year has been around old vines, the recently established Old Vine Project providing major impetus. While there are a handful of vineyards over 100 years old, membership qualification is just 35, i.e. vines planted in 1983 can join the club next year. (Amazing to think that was when I became professionally involved with wine!).

There’s a buzz too around the wines made from these old vines; a tasting in London earlier this year generated an enormous amount of positive publicity for South African wine. Although the best old vine wines reveal an easy grace in their concentration, it doesn’t mean to say all old vines produce great wine; the OVP team themselves suggest much of the 2000-plus hectares over 35 probably can’t.

From old vines and the wines made from them to old wines; vintages generally from the 1950s to 1980s continue to cause ripples of excitement and, when properly stored, can command decent prices on the secondary market. Well-vetted older wines are now available not only on select tastings but to the general public via Wine Cellar; maybe there are other retailers too. Again, they’re mainly from the 1980s onwards, fewer dating back to 1960s and 1970s.

The natural progression leads to old wineries, though the term old is relative. There are many well-known wine farms which have been in existence and producing wine longer than Jordan and Waterford – Delheim, Groot Constantia and Simonsig come to mind – but these two, celebrating their 25th vintage and 20th founding anniversary, represent the early starters in what was to soon become a boom, with roughly 50 to 60 newcomers entering the market every year. Each has packed so much into their 25 and 20 respective years, they do seem to have been around much longer.

Gary & Kathy Jordan celebrating 25 vintages of Jordan wines

Jordan was purchased by Ted and Sheelagh Jordan in 1982, selling grapes to other wineries until son, Gary with his wife, Kathy returned from a study/work stay in California, to produce the maiden vintage under the Jordan label in 1993.

Jordan as it was when purchased by Ted & Sheelagh Jordan

Accompanied by old photos of the farm, themselves and some of their long-time employees (thankfully, they decided against any of media and friends who’ve attended the annual harvest days!), the Jordans led the 25 year celebration with an informative and insightful presentation of what has been packed into those years.

Confidence in their ability to succeed and remaining true to the Jordan style have seen the winery, wines and sales increase. This doesn’t mean they’ve not moved with the times; for instance, all the wines now have names, not just plucked out of the air, but relating to some event on the farm – Long Fuse Cabernet – or person associated with South African wine – Inspector Péringuey Chenin Blanc. New challenges have also been embraced with enthusiasm and success, among them: High Timber, co-owned with charismatic Bloemfontein lass, Neleen Strauss; Nine Yards Travel, celebrating the whole of Africa and, most recently the purchase of Mousehall in Sussex, where the Jordans will produce English fizz and gin. Social upliftment is as important as new challenges; the dop system (payment in wine) was stopped as soon as they moved on the farm. All those workers moved out; many of the current staff have been on Jordan for most of if not all the 25 years.

Courtyard with familiar fountain on Waterford labels

Waterford, the 120 hectare hillside farm on the Helderberg, was founded by the Ord family with partner and Cellarmaster, Kevin Arnold, leading off with 1998 vintage. Six years to make the winery profitable was the requirement which initiated the Kevin Arnold Shiraz, then from bought in grapes, now part of the Waterford portfolio; this is joined by entry level Pecan Stream range, the Library Collection, a range of once-off experimental wines and headed by the sextet of Waterford Estate wines grown and made on the farm; cabernet sauvignon and the red blend, The Jem, the flagships. The cabernet has always been my favourite of the varietal wines, classic in its savouriness and understatement. All are now under the confident guidance of winemaker, Mark le Roux, who joined Waterford as Assistant Winemaker in 2009.

Waterford winemaker, Mark le Roux in grenache vineyard

The Jem is an interesting project, its goal an important one for South African wine. This red blend was designed to reflect the nature of the Helderberg; beyond the usual cabernets sauvignon and franc, petit verdot and merlot, shiraz, barbera, grenache, malbec, mourvèdre, sangiovese and tempranillo were planted. It took seven years of experiments to arrive at the maiden, 2004, released with a price tag of around R600. The price has now risen to R1100 but importantly, so has quantity while maintaining quality; there are 16 000 bottles of the Platter 5* 2012. Further increases will take it to 25 000 bottles with as many as 75 000 bottles possible. This steady growth on all counts from a producer with a track record is what will drive a broader and better image for South Africa.

Waterford has also been instrumental in driving the importance of wine tourism, the Cellar Door Experience in particular. For their excellence in this offering, they’ve received several awards.

The Jem, Waterford’s flagship red blend

In terms of the number of new producers on the South African scene over the past 20 to 25 years, Jordan and Waterford might seem like the old hands. In fact, they are still pretty young, but through their well-thought through planning and aim for quality in all they do, both have achieved an amazing amount in those relatively short years.

Vines are the same, requiring quality vine material, careful planning and attention to enable 35 year olds seem but at the start of their journey.


We’ve come a long way but there’s still a helluva long way to go.