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.
Three 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).
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.
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 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.