Vintage 2021

Early showings of vintage 2021 are extremely promising. This is the news from two top producers who are always early out of the blocks with their wines. The first suggestion of 2021’s excellence was in November 2021, when Craig Hawkins presented his recently bottled Testalonga range at Wine Cellar. He noted; ‘2021 is an awesome vintage, after good winter rains. The wines have density and prominent acidity.’ So it proved throughout the numerous and diverse range, which impressed all of us there.

Mick and Jeanine Craven

Earlier this week, Mick and Jeanine Craven presented their small six-wine 2021 range at Wine Cellar. It was the first they made in their new cellar, a utilitarian space part of a group of new buildings next to Stellenbosch Vineyards. If Mick describes the vintage and harvest as exciting, smooth with few heat spikes, little rot or disease and delivering exceptional red wines, there were some concerns and issues to grapple with as far as the actual winemaking.

The Cravens allow a natural ferment, ie no inoculation; this was no problem at their previous cellar, Mulderbosch, where Mick worked. Here, there was plenty of ambient yeast; in their new cellar, there was no yeast of any kind; would the first grapes of 2021, pinot gris, struggle to ferment? Not at all, the grapes’ indigenous yeasts immediately got to work.

Since their first harvest, the Cravens have followed their philosophy of early harvesting for lower alcohols without sacrificing ripeness, and retaining natural acidity. Oak, when used, is larger, 500 litre, and older. Their wines are typically full of energy, freshness and dry, a theme they are now able to pursue to a greater degree in their own cellar. Much oak is now giving way to concrete (getting enough of the desired containers was one of last year’s struggles); from 2022, chardonnay, chenin and the two lighter reds, pinot gris and cinsaut will be 100% concrete fermented and aged. Mick explains how concrete creates much tighter and fresher wines, precisely what they’re looking for.

I’ve followed the Craven’s progress since their first vintage in 2013 – so 2022 was their 10th – and so enjoy these lighter wines. Many think of lighter as less of everything, not only alcohol. But back in the 1970s and ‘80s, 11.5-12.5% alcohol was the norm. Neither those older wines nor today’s at a similar alcohol level lack anything in substance and are more digestible than the heavy, less lively wines with their evident oak accompaniment. Some of those are well made and balanced but even a glass at 15% alcohol is tiring, either from the wine’s sweetness or glow of alcohol.

The beauty that is Craven Pinot Gris

What immediately stands out for me throughout these 2021s is their aromatic expression, pure yet not one-dimensional. Cinsaut is possibly the most charming with its heady, but not at all blowsy, dark red fruit perfume. The cabernet’s aromas are vibrant, an explosion of blackcurrants and blackberries but, yet again, not overdone or out of place with the rest of the wine. Such bright winter melon, wild herb aromas in the chenin, plus a distinct salty tail, make this stand out in this crowded category.

Ripe generosity of flavour is invariably underpinned by bright acidity, lending energy and persistence, particularly in the chardonnay (the best to date), pinot gris, cinsaut and syrah; ripe grape tannins in the latter three introducing grip with freshness.

Ageing any of the range shouldn’t be a worry thanks to balance and structure but should be of most benefit to syrah and cabernet. But, there’s not one of these wines I wouldn’t enjoy now. Sadly, not much of the pinot gris and cinsaut (+-R230 each) are available and some speed will help secure chardonnay and chenin (R230 each), syrah and cabernet (R300).

Craven 2021 range with their delightful, descriptive labels

New vintages of course present their own set of challenges and 2022 hasn’t been without them but with familiarity with their new cellar, now kitted out as they wish for their style of wine, the Cravens and those who enjoy their wines, have much to look forward to.

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