More or less

There is no doubt, South African wine has enjoyed a remarkable 2018, with much positive publicity.

A note of annoyance, for me at any rate, arising from many of those positive reviews, has been the frequent qualification; ‘South African wines offer great value’. We need more of the ’great’, less of the ‘value’; can’t the wines be simply ‘great’?

On that score, while year on year export volume figures for the period December 2017 to November 2018 has declined, value has risen just over 9% (SAWIS).

There can be no resting on laurels as 2019 is on the doorstep. What I would hope to see more of are quieter wines, wines that whisper rather than brag and bluster but at the same time display distinction and ageworthy structure. This request ties in with the trend for earlier picking and the resulting greater natural freshness. This is still a work in progress; for some, the wines are becoming too light. Craig and Carla Hawkins’ Testalonga range has, for me, come of age in respect of lightness with freshness and depth of flavour.

Sijnn’s new (l) & old (r) label

Is it easier to craft wines of distinction when your vines and cellar are located in a remote area, away from the heart of the winelands? It’s tempting to imagine this is the case, especially when the journey takes one down a long, rough dirt road. Imagination is hardly required for the Sijnn wines; it’s amazing to remember David and Rita Trafford almost accidentally found and purchase this piece of land in Malgas some 19 years ago. Although at one stage there were some varietal wines, the range is now mainly made up of blends, with chenin-based Sijnn White and shiraz-based Sijnn red setting the tone of this fynbos-strewn, stony area. Both are wines with calm authority, everything in balance with the rest, delivered with a lightness of touch yet depth of flavour.

Tim James and I recently tasted the 2017 white (R280), where chenin’s partners viognier and roussanne combine in a rich yet elegant, fresh wine. Two vintages of the red – 2015 (R350) and 2011 (R250) nicely illustrate both ageing potential, development as well as overall thumbprint of the vineyards. An intermingling of wild herbs and fragrant wild flowers in the younger wine, (the first made by Carla Haasbroek which also inaugurated the new cellar on the farm) evolves into dried herbs, spice and small, thick-skinned woodland berries in 2011. Both include touriga nacional, trincadeira, mourvèdre and cabernet as well as syrah, Perfect demonstration of wholly satisfying wines that whisper. New labels featuring the stony soils and the winery reflect a coming of age of the vines and what the Traffords term ‘the end of the beginning’. Pricing is equitable with quality, which I don’t see doing anything but improving.

Other wines of similar individuality, employing several of the same varieties and increasing quality are the Blanc (R200) and Silhouette (R242) from Olifantsberg, with its dramatic vineyards on the slopes of Brandwacht mountain between Worcester and Ceres. There is more of a sense of sunny climes in them than in the Sijnn range but they are equally honest and true to their growing environment. More wines of this style and calibre, please.

What’s also pleasing about Sijnn and Olifantsberg is their use of regular bottles; there’s no extravagance in shape or weight. I prefer to be impressed by the wine in the bottle rather than by the bottle (the label is another matter). It’s irritating to see producers continue to use these ultra-heavy bottles, which deposit a large carbon footprint.

Heavy bottles and a little heavy-handed with extraction were detractions for both Tim and I with the new Welgegund Cinsault 2017 (R340) and Grenache Noir 2017 (R340). From a vineyard planted in 1974, the cinsault carries the Old Vine Project Heritage Seal; the intensity of old vines is evident in the wine’s rich texture and concentrated flavours and rather tough, over-extracted tannins – it’s unlike many of the lighter style cinsauts, so will need ageing to discover whether these will harmonise. Somewhat angular tannins, plus a sweet note, didn’t attract us to the Grenache; again, time may bring a semblance of harmony. So, not just for this Welgegund pair, but fewer heavy bottles and less over-extraction, please.

Chenin blanc. Is any year nowadays not the year of chenin blanc? Still new ones join the growing army, and terribly good so many of them are. Wade Metzer hit the ground running with his Montane Chenin Blanc 2017 (R300). From bush vines planted on the foothills of the Helderberg in 1964, Metzer took a stand-back approach, leaving the grapes to express themselves as much as possible. Flavour rather than fruit, ripe fleshy feel with enlivening pebbly vibrancy and a finishing, pithy grip (from a little skin contact) produces a chenin worthy of both its Platter 5* award and Tim Atkin’s 95 rating. Metzer’s Maritime Chenin Blanc 2017 (R250), from a 1981 vineyard close to False Bay, captures more immediately recognisable chenin fruit in a brisk, light-of-touch style.

For new chenins to make a mark in 2019, more distinction than ever is needed.

If we’re awash with chenins, a few new varieties are making a welcome appearance. Watch out for Springfield’s first albarino 2018 to be launched in February. Sharing a love of seafood with the Newton Johnsons, who were the first to launch an albarino, the Bruwers developed a vineyard with some NJ cuttings. A pre-release taste of this tangy, flavoursome dry white shows promise and should benefit from a bit more time to settle. Definitely more new varieties needed, planted in suitable spots, with climate change and especially water in mind.

Leading on from that, a more environmentally-friendly attitude is needed throughout the wine chain. Fewer heavy bottles, as mentioned above, packaged in less polystyrene – rather, no polystyrene. Packaging is part of IPW (Integrated Production of Wine) but I believe more stringent adherence than ever is required.

At the customer end of the spectrum, more restaurant wine lists need older vintages; without the space to age young wines, wineries should keep back a library of vintages to sell to these restaurants. The delights of a mature wine are something every winelover should experience at least once, preferably many times.

My New Year’s resolution is to write many more frequently next year; I have a few ideas bubbling, so watch this space. Happy and fruitful 2019 to all.

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