Ask international winelovers to name one wine region in South Africa and (provided identification of both Africa and South Africa is possible) the most likely answer will be Stellenbosch.
This, the second oldest wine producing area after Constantia, has a long-established reputation for producing high-quality wines, with its most-planted variety, cabernet sauvignon lending the region a classic, traditional air.
This is not to say there’s a lack of innovation, either with less common varieties or individual styles, but Stellenbosch has built its name on a limited number of mainly classic varieties and especially generous, full-bodied reds with cabernet the jewel in the crown.
One might not be surprised if the good producers of the area became a little lulled into complacency. If they were, the introduction last year of the Cabernet Collective, among other initiatives, certainly stirred them to life.
But there are game changes of another type. Mick and Jeanine Craven, as well as Lukas van Loggerenberg, are both creating ranges (under their eponymous surnames) which reveal Stellenbosch from a totally different perspective.
They are both relative newcomers; the Cravens’ first commercial bottling was a pinot noir in 2013, while Lukas van Loggerenberg has just completed his fourth vintage. Their shared philosophy is freshness achieved via earlier picking with lower alcohols a beneficial result. Older oak also plays an important role. Their goal starts, as with all good wines, in the vineyards. Good relationships with the farmers (neither owns vines) ensure farming is equally positive for both farmer and producer. But grape security can be tenuous; there’s no guarantee a farmer will remain nor one taking over will uphold their similar sustainable standards; a situation which unfortunately led to the Craven Clairette Blanche being discontinued after 2018.
It was this vintage of their respective ranges Mick and Jeanine, followed by Lukas, introduced to media and trade this week. These were two impressive line-ups; there wasn’t a wine I wouldn’t want to drink from either quality or distinction points of view and every year has shown improvements; ‘All due to the work we’ve put in to creating healthy, balanced vines.’
Summarising the vintage as ‘seeing the brunt of the drought and you know there’s a drought when you want rain in harvest’, Mick admitted not all was negative; the key was being in the vineyards, keeping an eye on the vines and soils. Picking early was imperative; although the vines took a beating, the grapes showed well once they were in barrel. Lukas offered much the same message: ‘Think on your feet, don’t follow a recipe and get out into the vineyards.’
One or two personal favourites include:
Craven Clairette Blanche 2018, sadly the last and the best they’ve made. An authentic yet accessible example of (a partially) skin-fermented white. Crisply dry, it’s a statement of what the variety can achieve. Approx. retail R195. For the same price, the Pinot Gris’s smoky pink hue and aromatic wild strawberries become more red-wine like with its light tannin grip. There was some discussion about where it should fit on a wine list – ‘definitely not a white wine’. Elegant, fresh and supple, The Firs Syrah (R265) from Devon Valley is full of fragrant red fruit, lilies and charm.
Charm and seduction fit Lukas van Loggerenberg’s Trust Your Gut Chenin Blanc (R370). Paardeberg as well as Stellenbosch contribute fruit to the swathe of sunny, yellow peach, pear and pineapple aromatic and flavour generosity. For those who prefer chenin in a more linear, tighter mode, you’ll have to be quick to get Kamaraderie (R405); 2018 yielded a meagre 880 bottles. Graft (R370) is 100% syrah (2017 included cinsaut) is a hedonistic mix of white spice, fennel and dark berries with fine, powdery tannins mothering the supple flesh.
And so to cabernet sauvignon. ‘If you’re from Stellenbosch, you need to make it,’ declared Mick Craven. ‘We like drinking it, so we decided to have some fun and experiment.’ Unorthodox according to Stellenbosch norms, the fruit was whole-bunch fermented, pressed before fermentation had finished which ended with 12.5% alcohol, ripe, dry grape tannins, fine vinosity and pure yet unshowy cab cassis and blackberries. What reaction from Stellenbosch? I enquired. ‘Some interesting facial expressions when I poured it at Cape Wine,’ Mick quipped; ‘and shock at the whole bunch, but many liked it.’ Apart from whole bunch, here’s a retro, authentic cabernet. Ageing? Yes, I guess it will, but nothing wrong with drinking it now. Working with an engaged farmer, the Cravens have picked ripe fruit even from these partially virused vines.
From cabernet sauvignon to cabernet franc and Lukas van Loggerenberg’s Breton (R370), the variety’s Loire name also Lukas’s inspiration. If 2018 has a little more textural breadth than 2017, there’s the freshness, purity and finesse that was rewarded in the older vintage’s Platter five stars. So what did Stellenbosch make of that? A broad grin crosses Lukas’s face. ‘I can’t count the number of winemakers who wanted to know more about picking early! ’ If he’s finished by beginning of February, most others harvest towards the end of the month. Like the Cravens’ cab, Breton will age while being delicious now.
Both the Cravens with their cabernet sauvignon and van Loggerenberg with his cabernet franc are small but important game changers. Whether more in Stellenbosch follow their ideas remains to be seen. I hope consumer support for the wines offers sufficient encouragement.