Stellenbosch cabernet – what could be more synonymous! There’s a lot of it too; 2508.98ha to be precise*, the majority, 1515.43ha planted across this mountains-and-valleys region under the general Stellenbosch WO, the balance across the eight Wards, where greater singularity of expression is considered possible.
Given the association of cabernet with Stellenbosch and the amount grown there, it’s important Stellenbosch cabernet doesn’t become a generic brand. This is where the Wards need to take a lead by focusing on cabernets reflective of where they are grown.
The approximate order of the Wards’ arc from west to east, starting close to the sea, working inland and back towards the sea, is: Polkadraai Hills, Vlottenburg, Devon Valley, Bottelary, Papegaaiberg, Simonsberg, Banghoek and Jonkershoek Valley. The Helderberg would satisfyingly complete the picture, but there’s too much in-fighting and politics over boundaries. Don’t hold your breath for that one being demarcated any time soon! (Seems I’ve been too pessimistic about this happening. I understand a Helderberg-Stellenbosch Ward was applied for last year but, as yet, hasn’t been finally approved. The application and boundary map maybe viewed http://www.sawis.co.za/winelaw/download/87_New_demarcations.pdf)
Polkadraai Hills is closest to the ocean, having unfettered views of False Bay and benefitting from the cool breezes blowing off it in summer. Anticipate cabernets of freshness and vibrancy. The lower slopes of the Simonsberg are further inland and warmer. These cabernets are usually richer, muscular and firmly structured.
Thanks to Saxenburg Wine Farm and Delheim Wines, who had sent me their Private Collection Cabernet Sauvignon and Grand Reserve respectively, both from the excellent 2017 vintage, I was able to put my thoughts on characteristics of the Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch to the test. Both were made by previous winemakers: Edwin Grace at Saxenburg where Dirk van Zyl is currently cellarmaster and Reg Holder at Delheim, where Roelof Lotriet is now cellarmaster.
I’ve listed the viticulture and vinification details for each wine at the end.
As usual, I enjoyed these two over two or three days, an approach which allows the wines to open up and gives an idea of future potential.
Freshness and vibrancy are indeed attractions in the Saxenburg, oaking unobtrusive, so the sweet fruit of the just-ripe red berry type takes centre stage, becoming softer and silkier on Days 2 and 3; it did fall short on the concentration and depth I hoped for and for this reason, I feel it will be best enjoyed by around 2024/25. That said, it’s still a very pleasant cabernet.
Grand Reserve does live up to what that name implies and to my idea of cabernet from the Simonsberg. Dark-fruited and impeccably tailored with tight-knit tannins, both acidity and oaking are background enhancements. The anticipated muscular richness grew over the time I enjoyed it but there was always the suggestion of more to come. Such poise and balance will see lovely maturity in a future which I’d guess could be 2025-2030.
By coincidence, at Kaapzicht’s recent presentation of their new Family Range, Danie Steytler told us about The Stellenbosch Cabernet Project 2021. The purpose of this is to try and discern the individual characteristics of cabernet in Stellenbosch’s different sub-regions.
The format involves six producers each from a different region (not all official Wards) in Stellenbosch selecting a block of cabernet on their farm and giving each of the other five producers 500 kgs of grapes from that block; all relevant technical details of each block is recorded. The six winemakers then make each of these six wines in the same way and age them in similar oak barrels before filling 30 bottles of each wine, which will permit a six-monthly evaluation.
I understand from Danie the first evaluation is due sometime in November. As each sub-region is repeated six times, Danie and his colleagues believe this is a meaningful experiment which should help reveal more about the specific characteristics of each region. It should be fascinating to follow the results of each evaluation.
I believe this is a valuable and important exercise which will take us beyond ‘Stellenbosch is cabernet’ to, hopefully, giving some answers to ‘but what is Stellenbosch cabernet?’
*(SAWIS figures for 2020)
Saxenburg Private Collection Cabernet Sauvignon
Single, trellised vineyard planted in 2000
Soil: decomposed granite with some koffieklip.
Slope: west-facing, 150 metres above sea level.
Extended maceration; ageing in oak, 40% new, for 12 months.
Analysis 14.23% alcohol, TA 6.2 g/l, pH 3.73, RS 2.3 g/l
R265 ex cellar
Delheim Grand Reserve
90% cabernet 8% merlot 2% cabernet franc
Multiple vineyards on Vera Cruz
Trellising: cabernet sauvignon – bush vines, merlot and
cabernet franc – VSP .
Soil: Oakleaf profile, mainly decomposed granite
Slope: South-west facing, 220m – 280m above sea level
Fermentation in open top fermenters and stainless steel tanks; ageing in 300L French oak barrels for 18 months. The finest barrels selected for the blend.
Analysis: 14 % alcohol, TA 6 g/l, pH 3.48, RS 2.2 g/l